By now, anyone with an interest in Tasmania's forests will be aware that a so-called 'historic peace deal' (the Tasmanian Forests Agreement) has been agreed upon by representatives of the state's timber industry and its largest environment groups (ENGOs) after two-years of often fraught negotiations. Ostensibly, the deal allows a smaller timber industry to operate free from environmental activism in return for over 500,000 hectares of new national parks.
Already the associated Tasmanian Forests Agreement 2012 Bill has been rushed through the Tasmanian Parliament's Lower House in which the Labor-Green Minority Government has the numbers. The Independents and Liberals -dominated Upper House is due to consider the TFA next week.
Virtually no-one with a forestry or timber industry background supports the Tasmanian Forests Agreement (the TFA) in their hearts, but pragmatic realism has seen several prominent industry figures lend their support to it as a way forward that may be preferable to the so-called 'forest wars' which have continued right through the negotiation process. While these industry supporters presumably view the TFA as a least worst option, their calls to 'give peace a chance' are predicated on the highly uncertain notion that the legislated agreement would provide stability for the industry when there is no guarantee and little evidence to suggest this will be case.
Indeed, the evidence points strongly the other way given that both Christine Milne and Bob Brown, the respective leader and spiritual leader of Australia's environmental movement, have both expressed disquiet with the deal because it doesn't protect enough forest. Furthermore, Brown, when pressed in a recent media interview, admitted that he aspires to all of Tasmania's public lands being ultimately contained in national parks. This, coupled with his recent appointment as a director of the ENGO, Markets for Change, which has been a key player in destroying the market reputation of Tasmanian wood products, is hardly indicative of an imminent outbreak of peace in the state's forests if the TFA passes through the Upper House.
Amongst the industry's rank and file there is disquiet about the undue haste with which the deal has been done. Indeed, the TFA legislation passed through the Lower House even before one of the signatory groups, Timber Communities Australia, had agreed to sign it.
There is also curiousity about how the position of the industry's negotiators dramatically changed almost overnight from walking away from the talks because of the intransigence of ENGO negotiators, to suddenly yielding for what appears to be little real gain to the industry.
In recent days, questions have been asked in parliament regarding speculation that industry negotiators were offered somewhere between $100 – 200 million of additional Federal Government funding to agree to sign the TFA. While this has yet to be clarified, it hints at grubby backroom deals to meet a politically expedient agenda. Previously, Federal Environment Minister, Tony Burke, has indicated that any addition monies needed to facilitate the agreement would come from other maninland environment programs suggesting that real conservation gains may well be sacrificed for political purposes.
There is also concern at what has become of so-called 'durability provisions' that were mooted as a means of ensuring that ENGOs did not recommence campaigns against the remaining industry once new national parks are ratified. The only enforcable 'durability provision' of the TFA seems to be that over 100,000 hectares of the proposed new national parks will be held-over subject to a 2-year absence of anti-logging activism before being ratified. Fair enough, but what happens then?
Even if the ENGO signatories to the TFA desist from protesting for two years as required, there are several other ENGOs that are not bound by the TFA. Some of these have already pledged to continue their protests, while disquiet amongst the 'save-the-forests' rank and file of the signatory ENGOs is unlikely to be placated forever. On this basis the notion of an enduring 'forest peace' lasting beyond two years seems quite fanciful.
Other industry insiders believe that even if the TFA does secure peace, the reduced timber resource availability and its greater fragmentation will ultimately destroy the remaining industry due to higher costs of access and log delivery which will undermine efficiencies and competitiveness. For example, the highly valuable Special Timbers sector of the industry will have its resource availability cut by at least 70% and will shift from obtaining much of its resource from close forests, to having to get almost all of its reduced entitlements from remote and barely accessible areas in far western and north western Tasmania, hundreds of kilometers further away.
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.