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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.

It also heard from several tourism experts who asserted that more forested national parks is unlikely to translate into more tourism thereby debunking a key plank of the ENGO and Greens' rationale for closing the timber industry.

Tasmania's native forest timber sector could be resurrected to operate in perpetuity given a return to better economic conditions; the maintenance of some significant wood chipping capacity to deal with sawmilling waste; and some new markets for low value wood produced as a by-product of sawlog harvesting. The industry was working to achieve these outcomes, but has been largely thwarted by back-room chicanery orchestrated by the Greens.

Firstly, the Australian Government's Clean Energy legislation, developed to facilitate the introduction of a carbon tax, included a Greens-inspired clause to prevent the use of native forest waste for biomass energy generation.

This appears to have been deliberately aimed at preventing Forestry Tasmania from undertaking planned trialling of a process which could have delivered significant emissions cuts by off-setting demand for coal-fired energy with 'green' renewable energy. This seems to be a case of the Greens 'cutting off your nose to spite your face'.

Secondly, it is difficult to believe that the Greens were not party to the 11th hour decision by Gunns in early July to suddenly reject an industry-bid for the purchase of their Triabunna woodchip mill so as to sell it for 40% less to a consortium of two 'green' multi-millionaires who plan to turn the site into a tourism hub.

Given that Gunns needs the 'peace deal' to go through in order to secure compensation for relinquishing their native forest logging rights, and that the deal requires the support of the participating ENGOs representing the interests of the Greens, this was a win-win for them and created another substantial hurdle to prevent the prospect of an ongoing native timber industry.

Thirdly, it seems that backroom deals between the Greens and Labor were implicit in the signing of the Intergovernmental Agreement last month which pledged taxpayer funding to support the implementation of the 'peace deal'.

This is exemplified by the appointment of former Harvard Professor Jonathon West to oversee the verification of the conservation status of some 430,000 hectares of proposed new forested parks and reserves despite him lacking any technical qualifications in this area.

Indeed, Professor West is a former Director of the Wilderness Society, who reportedly oversaw the forest protests and misinformation campaigns of 1986/87 which largely kicked-off the era of enduring forest conflict. It seems that elements of the Intergovernmental Agreement were altered specifically due to advice he provided to Julia Gillard so as to placate Greens' concerns that it may have otherwise allowed timber harvesting to continue in some areas.

Such is the zeal with which the Federal Labor Government has embraced the notion of a 'peace deal', that it seems likely that closing Tasmania's native timber industry sits alongside a carbon price and same-sex marriage as must-have elements of the agreement hammered out by Julia Gillard to secure Greens support for her Government in the aftermath of the last Federal Election.

Meanwhile, local opposition to the 'peace deal' has hardened considerably in response to the findings of the Parliamentary inquiry, and as revelations about the conduct of the Greens have become known and as the realisation that the 'peace talks' will not actually deliver anything positive has become more widely appreciated.

Those now opposing it include former participants in the 'peace deal' process – the Forest Industries Association of Tasmania; as well as the Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association, and the Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Timber Communities Australia are formally withholding support pending clarifications, but it seems that a large slice of their membership are increasingly opposed to it.

For their part, the State Opposition have called for an election to decide the issue and their leader, Will Hodgman, symbolically tore-up a copy of the Intergovernmental Agreement at a rally in Hobart last weekend. While North West Coast Liberal Senator, Richard Colbeck, has committed to moving several motions in Federal Parliament condemning the Intergovernmental Agreement on the next day of sitting.

For the most part, these substantial developments have been ignored by mainland media coverage of the process which has neglected to explain that the 'peace deal' process has never been about delivering an enduring compromise, but forcing the timber industry to agree to disappear in return for desperately needed financial compensation.

The significance of what the mainland media has or hasn't reported is that the majority of the Greens supporter base has expectations based on flawed premises formed in ignorance of the real situation in Tasmania. These expectations are effectively shaping a future that the majority of Tasmanians don't support.

On the recent Q & A program, the likelihood of what this may ultimately mean for Tasmania was encapsulated in a tweet read out by host Tony Jones, in which it was mooted that the state was on the way to becoming "a retirement village in a national park".

The positive response to this prospect by panellists Garry Bailey, Editor of the Hobart Mercury, and Christine Milne, Deputy Leader of the Greens, was both cringe-worthy and undoubtedly troubling for those amongst Tasmania's youth who would prefer to remain in the state but have higher aspirations than low-paid careers in hospitability or aged care.

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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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