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Tasmania’s forests: pushing a Greens’ vision onto unwilling locals

By Mark Poynter - posted Monday, 29 August 2011


Mainland Australians have largely welcomed the prospect of a 'peace deal' between loggers and environmentalists to end the conflict in Tasmania's native forests.

This expectation has been fanned by mainland media coverage, which can largely be described as cheer-leading for 'a once-in-a-lifetime chance to end decades of conflict'. Which, as The Australian's Tasmanian correspondent breathlessly exclaimed in June, would be a 'truly historic deal' that deserves to be 'announced amid fanfare, backslaps, and jubilation'.

However, the recent Hobart-edition of the ABC's Q & A program, arguably for the first time, provided a snap-shot of what average Tasmanians think about the likelihood of being collateral damage in a future being shaped to appease the Greens' mainland urban support base.

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From aQ & A audience selected to match the state's prevailing political allegiances whereby 85% don't vote Green, the resounding and sustained applause which greeted a question from the floor querying the wisdom of "locking-up our forests and moving us ever closer to killing off a legitimate and sustainable forest industry", suggested that a strong majority of Tasmanians are far from supportive of ending native timber production.

Indeed, it seems that apart from a very vocal minority, most Tasmanians have instead regarded the 'peace deal' process as an opportunity to re-cast the future of a continuing native forest industry following the voluntary departure of the state's largest timber company: Gunns.

This view is undoubtedly in stark contrast to that amongst the ABC's mainland audience which has been regularly fed distorted depictions of logging as a disaster-scenario whereby Tasmania's native forests are being steadily driven to supposed extinction. Perhaps, understandably, Auntie's cosy inner urban viewers find it difficult to understand why anyone other than a 'logger' would not want to close an industry to spare ancient forests from the chainsaw.

But Tasmanians have lived with forest conflict for decades and know far more about its realities than mainland Australians who often don't even fully appreciate that logged forests regrow, or realise that a solid majority of Tasmania's forests, including most of its old growth, have for years been contained within national parks and other formal or informal reserves that will never be logged.

During the past year, Tasmanians have also ridden every bump during the so-called 'peace talks'. They have slowly come to a realisation that this process has bordered on being undemocratic because it allowed only two narrowly-focussed stakeholders – environmental activists determined to preserve all forests, and segments of a depressed forest industry motivated by critical financial imperatives – to decide the future of a publicly-owned resource which has many other community stakeholders.

After a year of difficult negotiations, most Tasmanians have also become aware that the 'peace deal' process:

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  • will not end the conflict given that ENGO-activists have already pledged to continue protesting against native forest logging unless it ends immediately;

  • fails to enunciate whether the native forest industry would have any on-going future beyond a period of transition to meet current timber supply contracts;

  • effectively trades-off the native forest timber sector for Gunns' plantations-based pulp mill that many don't want and which now seems unlikely to be built given the company's parlous financial state and an uncertain economic climate;

  • will severely damage the state by putting thousands of people out of permanent work and ending a legitimate and well managed activity that was contributing $0.8 billion per annum to a struggling local economy with a dearth of other employment options; and

  • has created a situation that could deliver $ millions in taxpayer-funded compensation to Gunns despite it largely instigating the industry crisis by suddenly withdrawing from native forests after approaches by ENGO-activists campaigning against it by targeting its shareholders, financiers, and customers.

These short-comings have been magnified by the recent completion of a far more comprehensive Tasmanian Parliamentary inquiry into the proposed industry transition out of native forests. Over a two-month period it evaluated 23 written submissions and heard 49 witnesses representing 31 entities, agencies, companies, or groups covering the full gamut of stakeholders both for and against.

The inquiry's report identified real causes for concern and recommended that 'there not be any additional reserves of native forests (created)and no transition out of native forest management and harvesting' without further consideration of the viability of transitioning the industry to plantations while maintaining its economically critical role for Tasmania and its regional communities.

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About the Author

Mark Poynter is a professional forester with 30 years experience. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Foresters of Australia and acts for it in a voluntary capcity as a media spokesperson. His book Saving Australia's Forests and its Implications was published in 2007.

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