The majestic Tasmanian blue gum, Eucalyptus globulus, is the island State's floral emblem, and – as a global staple of the plantation sector – its most successful export. Swift parrots migrate from the Australian mainland every summer specifically to feed on its profuse nectar, and Tasmanian foresters try hard to accommodate the management needs of the parrots, the blue gums and a host of other conservation issues as a complement to the already substantial reserve system. But the human inhabitants of Australia's most forested and most reserved state seem a little ambivalent about our contribution to the world's wood supplies and to nature conservation. It's enough to drive one to swearing. Put it this way, if Tasmania had official State f-and c- words they would have more than four letters: they'd be forestry and conservation.
But perhaps not for much longer. Tasmania is in the throes of a major restructuring of its forestry sector, ostensibly in the name of conservation. While the details of the actual agreement are still being brokered behind closed doors, we can expect the environmentalists and politicians to crow about how they've delivered peace in the forests and a win for the environment. If they do, their crowing may be premature. From where I stand, it looks as though we're headed for a poor conservation outcome, never mind whatever else the restructuring does or does not deliver. Is it really too much to ask that all the politicking deliver not just peace, but also a good conservation outcome?
Social scientists would deem the Tasmanian forestry issue a 'wicked problem'. In the words of University of British Columbia forest ecologist Professor Fred Bunnell, wicked problems comprise a 'class of social systems problems that are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision-makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing'. Sounds spot-on to me.
Solving wicked problems is wickedly hard. Forestry and conservation seem to fracture our society like no other contemporary issue. You only have to read the letters pages of our daily newspapers, or the on-line responses to articles such as this one, to get a sense of the range of views Tasmanians hold, and the solutions they proffer. The media like to characterise the issue as one of jobs versus trees, though it clearly runs much deeper than this.
It used to be like this in British Columbia, too, and in southeast Queensland. But over the past decade or two, in both regions, agreements have been forged among the warring factions, tempers have cooled and the newspapers have had to find other topics to fill their pages. However, the conservation outcomes have been very different.
In British Columbia, conservation and forestry have both been big winners. Rather than a massive round of forest reservation, forestry reinvented itself. A new forestry paradigm, informed by conservation biology, has led to less clearfelling, more partial harvesting, and greater levels of retention of mature forest in the harvesting area. Critically, two-way engagement with community groups is a fundamental part of this new forestry – it gives the community the information it needs to make a more rational appraisal of forestry issues, and to 'own' solutions, and it gives the industry the social licence and certification seal it needs to continue. While wood production levels and employment have fallen, the industry remains viable and people can use wood knowing that it comes from well-managed local forests. In Tasmania on a study tour recently, Fred Bunnell described to forestry professionals how the transition hasn't been easy, and how the journey continues, but he was emphatic that it's been worth all the effort.
Contrast this with the 1999 Southeast Queensland Forests Agreement (SEQFA), in which a more simplistic solution was brokered. In many ways the current Tasmanian process takes its lead from the SEQFA and involves many of the same players. Thus it's worth recording here the findings of a 2007 study of its conservation effectiveness. Led by Dr Clive McAlpine, then at the Ecology Centre at the University of Queensland, the study was published in the internationally respected peer-reviewed journal Biological Conservation. It found that 'ecological science suffered in the collision with the socio-political decision-making process'. In layman's terms, nature conservation lost out to politics. The public was duped.
Unlike in a formal Regional Forest Agreement (RFA), in the SEQFA no strategic, systematic conservation planning process was followed in selecting sites for reservation, and little allowance was made for the on-going conservation management of newly reserved areas. State production forest deemed by the environmental groups to be of special conservation importance – chiefly rainforest and wet eucalypt forest – was immediately reserved. Timber harvesting in dry eucalypt forests is being phased out over twenty-five years, with a view to eventual reservation. In the mean time, the SEQFA sanctioned an increase in the intensity of harvesting, over and above what foresters had previously accepted as ecologically sustainable, to help guarantee an interim log supply for industry. The authors of the study concluded that it may take these forests centuries to recover ecologically from this one policy decision. At the same time, private landowners have been at liberty to fill the timber supply gap, with little hoo-hah from the environmental groups despite the generally greater conservation significance of the private land-base. As to the hardwood plantation estate that was to eventually replace native forestry in the region, that has proven much harder to establish – for good, hard ecological reasons as well as social and economic ones – and may never reach its anticipated target level of productivity. Presumably the growing human populations of southeast Queensland will be sourcing more of their timber from somebody else's forests instead.
If all this sounds familiar to Tasmanians, it's because something rather similar may be in store for us. But there's a crucial difference. Tasmania already has the benefit of an RFA (in 1997) as a baseline for forest conservation – it selected close to 300,000 hectares of forest to supplement what had already been reserved in Tasmania, to form a 'comprehensive, adequate and representative' forest reserve system. Following environmentalist agitation, the RFA was then supplemented by the 2005 Tasmanian Community Forest Agreement (TCFA) – which added a further 150,000 hectares to the reserve system. Between these two agreements and previous conservation measures, some 45% of Tasmania's native forest is now reserved, including 80% of the state's old-growth forest and 97% of its high-quality wilderness. To me these statistics alone make it quite clear that the current restructuring has very little to do with nature conservation, and everything to do with the politics of environmentalism and forestry in Tasmania.
Even so, since it's ostensibly about conservation, surely we can expect it to deliver some great conservation outcomes? Well, let's take a look. While the details are uncertain, it looks as though we're going to get:
- A much-expanded system of native forest reserves, incorporating at least 500,000 additional hectares of so-called high-conservation value forest
- A phasing-out of native forestry, over two decades, on the remaining non-reserved state forests while existing log-supply contracts run their course
- A continuation of native forestry on private land, unfettered by the additional reservation imposed on state forests and perhaps reinvigorated by a developing wood-supply gap accordingly
- A sizeable short-rotation pulpwood plantation estate and associated infrastructure entrenched as a long-term feature of the Tasmanian rural landscape, along with increased settlement and economic activity in the vicinity of a new pulp-mill
- A drive to expand the longer-rotation sawlog plantation estate to eventually make up the shortfall in wood supply arising from increased reservation of native forest; this will occur in the same landscapes as, and hence will be in competition with, the short-rotation pulpwood plantation estate.
Now the interesting bit. What does all this mean for nature conservation? Well, it's far from black and white. Let's break it down into its constituent parts,ordered as in the above list: