The ABC Four Corners episode “Lords of the Forest” cut to the heart of a national ecological tragedy unfolding in Tasmania, revealing nothing short of radical reform will save its temperate rainforests. Every time Evan Rolley, Chief Executive of Forestry Tasmania, speaks about the rationale for the Industry’s strategy it sounds so plausible, but the words fail to comfort us - why?
What the uncritical listener cannot understand is the frame of reference under which the legislation of contemporary forestry institutions was created - the values recognized are but a poor subset of broader community values. For this reason the Regional Forest Agreement and the Plantations 2020 Vision have failed Australians.
Historically the various regulatory instruments have been drafted largely with reference to administrators or industry stakeholders, who have been primarily interested in optimising their short-term interest, which has been in only one value the forest provides: hardwood timber. Since first settlement this has been the timber industry’s concern and little more than lip service has been given to other values. Those in the timber industry are victims of a backward-looking administrative process unable or unwilling to embrace community needs for the future.
On the other hand community interests are broadening to include not only timber, but also water, landscape, natural and cultural heritage that together combine in preserving the magic of a self-sustaining ecosystem providing a huge range of goods, services and experiences.
To argue about technical details, as foresters and scientists are predisposed to do, is to miss the essence of the conflict. The institutions of Forestry that include the Regional Forest Agreements can no longer meet the expectations of 21st century society. One might as well ask a blacksmith to repair our cars. The blacksmith is great repairing carriages and should be respected for his skills, but chances are he will tell us we should be using horses, because that is what he knows.
What might a new forestry policy for Tasmania look like? Firstly the colonial tradition of carving up the map from Head Offices based on scant measurable data must be given the dignified burial other crude colonial practices have been given. Agriculture in this country, no paragon of sustainability itself, has shown us absentee landlords do not take care of the land. What is needed now for genuine ecological sustainability is a regional system of forest management that can optimise many layers of values for its human communities. Forests managed down to the level of specific native forest plant communities, retaining most of the genetic and structural diversity of the original. If we are to be genuine about ecological sustainability, the needs of the forest must define the structure of human use. The idiosyncrasies of social dynamics should not. Gone are the days when we can allow one value to preclude all others.
When considering reform in forest management, is it reasonable to expect existing institutions to deliver what their culture and training has not equipped them to do? To do so will only encourage them to put their energy into the defensive strategies employed by any human group that sees their existing interest and prestige threatened. To move forward we now have to think in terms of new institutions that can deliver and protect the diverse values native forest can provide, in perpetuity.
Perhaps "bioregionally" appointed forest boards structured to harness and capitalise on local experience and values? Given state institutional intransigence, perhaps federal government persuasion for appropriate reform is the only route to preserve the national and world treasure that is the Tasmanian forest landscape. Such persuasion could be effected through terms of competition policy and state-grant conditions. For our children’s sake we must seek to ameliorate this ongoing tragedy and establish a forest use designed with localized empathy, not beaten out on the blacksmith’s anvil of fossilised bureaucracies.
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