Soon after replacing Bob Brown as leader of the Australian Greens last April, Christine Milne promised a new era of connection with rural Australians who’ve traditionally had little time for the extreme brand of environmentalism for which the Greens and their associates are best known.
For a while Milne and her party made some in-roads towards this objective via the common ground of opposition to coal seam gas developments. However, this summer’s busy fire season has arguably reinstated the Greens as enemies of the bush based on their attitudes and actions in relation to the key bushfire mitigation tool, fuel reduction burning.
Rural disquiet about the influence of the Greens and their acolytes in the environmental movement is nothing new when damaging bushfires are being analysed and discussed. The aftermath of Victoria’s 2009 ‘Black Saturday’ bushfires featured numerous recriminations, accusations, and denials about the role of ENGOs and ‘green’ politics in making the landscape more vulnerable to such a catastrophe.
This year is beginning to look somewhat similar. The severe bushfires which careered through parts of Tasmania in mid-January have been followed by major conflagrations in NSW and Victoria that have prompted feature articles in The Australian and in local print media, as well as on current affairs and academic weblogs such as, ABC Unleashed and The Conversation,in part examining fuel reduction burning from both supportive and more cautious or opposing viewpoints.
In Tasmania, even while the fire-ground was still smouldering at Dunalley, south east of Hobart, angry locals were claiming that heavy-handed bureacratic hurdles created by the state’s Labor-Greens Government had prevented fuel reduction burning for several years. Their message was unambiguous – that misplaced concern for the environment promoted by the Greens and their ENGO associates was overiding sensible forest management with dangerous and damaging consequences.
Unsurprisingly, the Tasmanian Greens disagreed. Their Leader, Nick McKimm, retorted that the Greens actually support fuel reduction burning. He went on to say that “The Greens, in all the history of our political party, have never opposed a fuel reduction burn, ever”. Furthermore, they had in fact been responsible for securing an “extra $16 million more a year for National Parks funding and much of that was for fuel reduction management”
Several days later, a carefully-worded media release from Tasmania’s Greens Senator, Peter Whish-Wilson, reiterated that the Australian Greens “have always supported the principle of selective fuel reduction burns”. He went on to acknowledge that the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service was “presently under-resourced” and called for it to be given additional Federal funding for bushfire management.
However, as is somewhat typical of the Greens, there is often more to be learnt from what they don’t say. In this case, their failure to even mention fire management in the 1.5 million hectares of Tasmanian State forests was no oversight given that they are intent on substantially relieving the managing agency, Forestry Tasmania, of most of its current responsibilities. This is integral to the Greens ‘solution’ to the broader conflict over native forest timber production that would involve a huge transfer of State forest into the national parks estate.
In a recent statement to his party’s supporters, Tasmanian Greens’ leader, McKimm, asserted that “the Greens do not believe Forestry Tasmania should have a significant role to play in fighting bushfires or managing fuel loads in the future. In their place, he advocated that the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service be expanded to manage fire within an area that would be more than three times greater than what they are currently responsible for.
Forestry Tasmania is the state’s primary public land fire management agency with its forestry personnel being responsible for two-thirds of Tasmania’s public forests and acknowledged as the experts in controlled burning and forest fire-fighting. Taking away its fire management role would have disastrous consequences for the state’s overall level of bushfire protection.
Nationally, the loss of forest fire management capability is already evident where mainland state forest policies ‘reformed’ at the behest of Greens-associated ENGO campaigns, have severely weakened native timber industries with considerable rural job losses. These have included large numbers of timber harvesting contractors whose employees and equipment was formerly integral to effective bushfire management.
In Tasmania, the damage already inflicted on bushfire management capability is stark even before the Greens’ plans for Forestry Tasmania have come to pass. Incessant Greens-inspired ENGO campaigns against forest products markets, recently exacerbated by a high Australian dollar, have combined to reduce the number of timber industry contractors by an estimated 60% since 2010. This has substantially affected Forestry Tasmania which has lost a third of its field-based personnel over the past five years, including around 60% of officers qualified to participate in incident management teams.
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.