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Tasmania’s broken ‘forests peace talks’ expose the ugly face of eco-extortion

By Mark Poynter - posted Wednesday, 7 November 2012


Last week, Tasmania’s so-called ‘forest peace talks’ broke down after two-years of negotiation between timber industry and environmental lobby representatives. Soon after this was announced, the Wilderness Society’s Lyndon Schneiders was arrogantly asserting on ABC News that: “The big sawmillers have refused to move so we have to go where its going to hurt...and where we’re going is into the domestic market place...we are going to the buyers of their products”.

Within days, online lobby group GetUp! had launched a ‘Save Tasmania’s Forests’ campaign against Harvey Norman and Bunnings. GetUp!’s campaign director and former Wilderness Society operative, Paul Oosting, reportedly justified this on “information that large sawmillers blocked a deal on the basis that reduced (timber) volumes would prevent them meeting contracts”. Clearly, the timber industry is slated to lose irrespective of whether or not it signs a ‘peace’ agreement.

A day later in Hobart, a protest against timber company Ta Ann Tasmania was manned by just 10 placard-bearers amidst insider reports that the forest protest ‘community’ are fatigued. Meanwhile, Schneiders himself followed-up with an opinion article published by the Fairfax media in which he blamed the industry for the breakdown of the ‘peace talks’. By the week’s end, timber harvesting had been halted at a coupe blockaded by environmental splinter group, Still Wild Still Threatened.

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The speed with which these protests were enacted suggests that the environmental lobby may have orchestrated the breakdown of the ‘peace talks’. If so, it would mirror tactics used for over 20-years by environmental lobbyists who have entered past processes, such as the Salamanca Agreement and the Regional Forest Agreements, espousing compromise, only to subsequently withdraw in a blaze of publicity and new protests when their demands are not met. It seems that they see the publicity flowing from protests as being far more likely to deliver their wish lists.

While the media described these new protests as signifying a resumption of Tasmania’s ‘forest wars’, they’d never really ended. During the conduct of the ‘peace talks’, various non-participatory environmental lobby groups had continued their campaigns, including the targetting of international wood products customers by ‘Markets for Change’, and an idealistic young school teacher sitting atop a Tasmanian tree using the Internet to broadcast skewed anti-forestry pespectives to the world. Several environmental groups had gone further and declared that they would continue protesting even if a ‘peace agreement’ was signed if it was to sanction some semblance of an ongoing timber industry. Clearly, zealotry and compromise are difficult bedfellows.

However, Schneiders' intemperate 'call-to-arms' and these subsequent new protests have also shone a light on the nature of the 'peace talks'. In particular, that they were conducted against a thinly-veiled backdrop of threat whereby the industry was expected to either agree to an unbalanced outcome or be destroyed by a resumption of spurious campaigns of misinformation targetting its banks, shareholders and markets - similar to what had played such a critical role in bringing them to the table in the first place. It is common knowledge that at least one industry representative was told that  'we will do to you what we did to Gunns unless you agree to our demands'.

The Gillard Government could be construed as being a party to this blackmail by dangling a $100 million carrot for Tasmania to be issued only if the timber industry agreed to capitulate to demands for huge new national parks nominated by the environmental lobby. Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke described this as a “wonderful, wonderful opportunity for Tasmania” as though a one-off $100 million payment spread over a 14-year period, could in any significant way make-up for the loss of more than half of an industry that just a few years ago was generating $700 million per annum and employing thousands.

Also, the conduct of the talks against a backdrop of ongoing anti-forestry campaigns could never give the industry any confidence that an agreed peace negotiated with those environmental groups repesented at the negotiating table would be respected by other elements of the environmental lobby, who in most cases, were outraged at being excluded from the negotiations. 

As the survival of both the federal and state minority Labor Government’s relies on largely aquiescing to the demands of their Greens political partners, the unbecoming nature of this process has been ignored and few are questioning the morality of allowing the environmental lobby to force ideological outcomes through the reputational slander of resource-use industries.

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Regardless of the broader Tasmanian forestry outcome, it is clear that the earlier success of targetting Gunns and its pulp mill project in this way has vindicated a tactic which is certain to be re-deployed in the future. Indeed, mining companies showing interest in mineral resources in north western Tasmania are already on-notice as the next target for campaigns of misinformation intended to erode the support of their bankers, shareholders and customers.

The Competition and Consumer Act 2010 (formerly the Trade Practices Act) protects companies from campaigns to incite boycotts which unfairly restrict trade. However, it gives an exemption to boycotts which ‘relate to environmental protection’ thereby denying targeted resource-use companies their normal right to complain to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).

This might be a justifiable exemption where poorly regulated primary industries are likely to substantially damage the environment. However, where this is not the case, it gives environmental activists an extraordinary carte blanche to prosecute unwarranted consumer boycotts by distorting or exaggerating the true nature of environmental threats posed by targeted companies and their products.

Opponents, for example, initially portrayed Gunns’ proposed pulp mill project as the ultimate destructer of Tasmania’s ‘old growth’ forests, which would wreck the pristine Tamar valley. In reality, the pulp mill was to be built in the Tamar valley’s industrial precinct next to existing woodchip export facilities, a nearby power station and other industrial infrastructure, and it was planned to use an initial mix of native regrowth and plantation wood while fully transitioning to be plantation-fed within five years.

As a whole, Tasmania’s native hardwood industry has similarly been attacked for years through deliberate misrepresentations of the type that are exemplified by Getup!’s current campaign.

Contrary to the convential wisdom being fostered by these campaigns, Tasmania is under no threat of losing its forests. In fact, the public state forests being managed for long-term timber supply (which was the subject of the ‘peace talks’) comprises just 23 per cent of the state’s native forest area, with the remaining 77 per cent comprised of extensive areas of national parks and conservation reserves where no timber harvesting is permitted, as well as privately-owned forests which are only partially accessible to the industry.

Similarly, on the supposed threat to Tasmania’s old growth forests, 92 per cent of the more than 1.23 million hectares of it are either already reserved or are otherwise unavailable for timber harvesting.  Within the eight per cent being managed for long term timber supply, harvesting occurs on a proportionally small scale. Forestry Tasmania’s reports show that in the decade up to 2011, just 0.74 per cent of the state’s total old growth forest area was harvested and regenerated.

Such inconvenient truths make a mockery of the environmental lobby’s routine claims of catastrophic Tasmanian forest loss. The fact that such truths remain generally unknown amongst the wider community is testament to the environmental lobby’s talent for inventing and promoting misrepresentations of reality. 

Unfortunately, it is this talent for misrepresentation that is the major flaw of the 2010 Competition and Consumer Act’s ‘environmental protection’ exemption. The exemption’s integrity and utility is utterly reliant on the environmental lobby exhibiting reasonable perspective and honesty in determining what constitutes real environmental threat. Unfortunately there is little to suggest that they can be objective with regard to activities such as native forest timber production, where opposition is largely rooted in a long-held and simplistic ideology that it should not occur, regardless of how much harvesting there is and how well it may be managed.

Whether the environmental lobby’s boycott campaigns succeed because the community actually believes the errant environmental claims that they make is somewhat uncertain. But at least with respect to banks, markets, and institutional shareholders with capacity for due diligence, there is much to suggest that the discomfort of being associated with an incessant controversy (rather than any belief in the errant claims) is the major rationale for any withdrawal of support from targetted companies.

On the other hand, company shareholders and retail customers may be more likely to believe that targetted companies are involved in ‘environmental armegeddon’ simply because those companies lack the resources to adequately defend themselves and do not receive fair coverage in mainstream media which mostly reports environmental issues from a Green-Left perspective.  

It is hardly surprising that intensive environmental activism continues despite theoften-dubious nature of their causes. The environmental lobby has itself become a big industry by trading in the highly marketable commodity of environmental protection. This enables it to generate large incomes from well-meaning, but largely unknowing donors and philanthropists.

Forests are central to this, as the former CEO of the Australian Conservation Foundation, Tricia Caswell, acknowledged in 1995: “Forest issues are the best weapon to generate membership and donations, the Green movement’s lifeblood”. Indeed, the irresistible attraction of forests to the environmental lobby is evident in continuing campaigns against timber harvesting in W.A. and Victoria despite massive national park expansions and historically low harvesting rates.

However, while forests have been the environmental industy’s most lucrative cash cow, the important forestry battles were won long ago. Accordingly, today’s campaigns focus on forests that are largely far removed from being wilderness, such as the Murray-Darling’s floodplain forests which are amongst the most degraded landscapes in Australia but are now being bestowed with national parks status; or the scientifically-undefined ‘high conservation value’ forests of Tasmania that include almost any forest regardless of type or structure, including regrowth from past logging.

In 2009, the combined expenditure of Australia’s four largest environmental groups was reportedly $70 million per annum, of which 60 per cent (or $42 million) was used for political lobbying, fundraising, membership drives and office expenses. Given the money involved, it is somewhat optimistic to expect these groups to willingly give up the hundreds of well paid careers that are now staked on finding and sensationalising the next issue regardless of how environmentally significant it may be. In many cases these are careers which involve going to work each day specifically to design and implement strategies to thwart, hobble or bring down their own nation’s resource use industries.

Ironically, the environmental lobby have for decades castigated industries for growing large and becoming greedy, powerful, corrupt and ultimately uncontrollable – think ‘big tobacco’, ‘big mining’, and more recently ‘big fishing’ by super trawlers. Now by their own logic, they must assume the same mantle – ‘big wilderness’ as they were recently dubbed in The Australian – as a rapacious corporate conglomeration constantly searching for causes or manufacturing and nurturing dubious environmental crises so as to keep the donations rolling in.

A perverse consequence of this is that grass-roots environmental groups and charities attempting to make real on-ground conservation gains are effectively starved of much-needed funds while local sensationalism overshadows genuine global issues. During the last year of the Tasmanian ‘forest peace talks’ an area twice the size of Tasmania was deforested in developing countries while our so-called environmentalists strove to achieve an outcome that would exacerbate this by encouraging import substitution for what we could sustainably produce ourselves.

Across the board of Australian natural resource use, the big questions that need to be answered are: where will it all end? And what are the consequences of allowing unelected, unaccountable, and largely scientific-illiterates to effectively determine our resource use policies? At what point does Australia realise that it can’t afford to just give up important industries at the first whiffs of confected outrage amongst a community who mostly lacks even the most basic knowledge of rural primary industries such as fishing, forestry, mining or agriculture?

Sadly though, the recent ‘super trawler’ issue demonstrated that the federal government and Environment Minister Burke in particular, are highly sensitive to environmental campaigns and seem to have an attitude that if they generate enough noise they must be appeased, regardless of whether the facts and likely consequences say otherwise. Clearly, given their reliance on Greens support to remain in power, their major concern is politics rather than science and industry.

Accordingly, it is hard to see much changing in the short term. There is simply too much at stake for the ‘big wilderness’ industry to willingly moderate its behavior. While the requisite removal of the ‘environmental protection’ exemption in the Competition and Consumer Act 2010which would force the environmental lobby to be more accountable for its behaviour, is unlikely to be considered in the current political climate. 

Arguably, the only small comfort to be drawn from Tasmania’s broken ‘forest peace’ process is that the behaviour of the environmental lobby has exposed and highlighted the problem of eco-extortion and drawn some attention to the need to address it.  

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About the Author

Mark Poynter is a professional forester with 40 years experience. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Foresters of Australia and his book, Saving Australia's Forests and its Implications, was published in 2007.

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