One day you sorry lot will wake up to the fact that “forestry” does not solely mean destroying trees and understorey for corporate profit … the results of your work are clearly visible even from outer space through the destruction left in your wake.
—anonymous contributor to the Tasmanian Times, August 2010
Clearly, some Tasmanians have little regard for the practice of forestry, judging by the savagery with which it has been regularly derided on Hobart-based current affairs blog, the Tasmanian Times. Similar views are also being increasingly held at the political level given the rise of the Greens and independents such as Tasmania’s Andrew Wilkie, who implied soon after his election that the treatment of the state’s native forests was “unethical”.
While such views elucidate a powerful disrespect, their suggestion of corruption and deliberate disdain for the environment is particularly insulting for exponents of a noble profession which was founded on the need to protect forests and husband their resources. A profession which stretches at least as far back as 1215, when the Magna Carta famously addressed King John and his “archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, barons, justices, foresters, sheriffs, stewards, servants, and to all his officials and loyal subjects”.
It has rightly been said that trees are at the very basis of life on this planet. They constitute a key component of a healthy environment, and are of pivotal importance to human and societal development. Their critical value as sources of wood was perhaps most eloquently articulated by John Evelyn in his 1664 text, Sylva, in which he said:
Since it is clear and demonstrable that all arts and artisans whatsoever must fail and cease if there were no timber and wood in a nation … I say when this shall be well considered it will appear that we had better be without gold than without timber.
Forestry has a rich and interesting history throughout the world. Writing about this history in 1985, Dr Leslie Carron described forestry as “the wise and sustained fostering, production and use by people of the many values, benefits and products of forests”. In the Australian context, this includes playing a major role in environmental conservation.
We owe much to pioneering foresters such as Lane-Poole, Jolly, Swain and Kessell for the forest cover we enjoy today. In the early 1920s, after a protracted battle, they convinced state governments of the need to permanently reserve huge tracts of forest for future generations, a victory that was achieved in the face of substantial opposition from self-interested politicians and developers intent on continuing land settlement programs in which huge areas of forest had already been lost to agriculture during the preceding fifty years.
Australia’s early, overseas-trained foresters also played major roles in drafting state legislation to protect and manage these permanently dedicated forests and in establishing schools to train local foresters. Victoria opened its School of Forestry at Creswick in 1910, while a forestry school was also established at the university in Adelaide in 1911. It was soon enlarged and shifted to Canberra in 1927, where it became the Australian Forestry School (AFS).
Contrary to today’s conventional wisdom, forestry has always been about far more than just cutting down trees. The first students attending these schools were taught geology, surveying, botany and entomology, as well as silviculture, fire protection and properties of timber. Of course, as native forests were then our primary source of timber, their curriculum included the practical management of timber harvesting and the other forest products of the time such as tannin, oil and honey.
Today, the AFS is part of the Australian National University, whereas the Victorian forestry school was run by the state’s Forests Commission for over seventy years, before being taken over by the University of Melbourne in the early 1980s. Accordingly, foresters have always been ranked amongst Australia’s most highly trained land managers.
As Australia’s stock of forestry practitioners increased in the lead-up to the Second World War, state forestry agencies were able to gradually bring an end to decades of only loosely-controlled exploitation which had dogged and degraded the most accessible forests. This also entrenched state forestry agencies in a regulatory role over the timber industry—a separation which has endured but remains unappreciated by today’s critics of the so-called “logging industry”.
From the early 1940s to the late 1960s, forestry was a highly respected activity managing timber supplies that were essential to the community, and which in turn supported industries that were valuable employers in rural Australia. This was a difficult period due to pressures created by the unrelenting political and material demand for timber during the Second World War, and the subsequent postwar rebuilding boom. It was largely a time of forced, unsustainable rates of timber production which have influenced subsequent management of native forests which were required to be Australia’s major source of wood until the mid-1990s.
From early 1970s, the community began to take a far greater interest in the environment and from this has stemmed the increasing vilification of native forest logging as a destructive force. However, fire, rather than logging, has always been an infinitely greater threat to Australia’s forests. For example, in just a couple of days, severe Victorian bushfires in 2003, 2006 and 2009 killed over 150,000 hectares of our tallest forests—wet mountain ash and alpine ash—sparking a stand replacement regeneration event. This affected area is equivalent to seventy-five years of harvesting and regeneration of these forest types at Victoria’s current logging rate.
The earliest attempts to manage forest fire were characterised by indecision about the best approach. Eventually foresters developed effective systems for managing the environmental impact of bushfire. Much occurred in the aftermath of Victoria’s disastrous 1939 “Black Friday” bushfires when the subsequent Royal Commission recognised the absurdity of attempting to exclude fire from forests, and supported the concept of using fire against itself. But it wasn’t until after the war that foresters firmly adopted controlled fuel reduction burning—rather than bushfire suppression—as the primary basis for protecting forests.
At the time this was a strategy that no other developed nation had dared to adopt. But it was rooted in a sensible recognition and acceptance of the country’s indigenous, fire-dependent flora and fauna; the long tradition of Aboriginal burning; and the continuing use of fire in other rural land uses. Gradually, integrated systems of controlled burning were widely introduced into the nation’s public forests—first in Western Australia, then extending throughout the country by the early 1960s.
Around this time, foresters faced up to the growing recognition that our native forests would be incapable of meeting the future timber needs of a burgeoning population. In 1964, the Australian Forestry Council committed to an ambitious plan to establish 1.2 million hectares of softwood (pine) plantation by 2000. The implementation of this plan was achieved largely by converting public native forest to plantation and was vigorously opposed by some at the time. However, it has ultimately put us in the fortunate position where over 75 per cent of our sawn timber requirements can now be met from outside the native forest estate. Nevertheless, native forest hardwood timbers remain preferred for durable and decorative uses.
As these softwood plantations matured from the mid-1980s and the reliance on native timbers waned, increasing areas of native forest were placed in conservation reserves. In addition, the advent of Forest Practice Codes in all states improved the attention given to environmental values by reserving streamside buffers, and retaining habitat trees and wildlife corridors within those forests scheduled for timber harvesting.
The Regional Forest Agreement process of the mid-to-late 1990s resulted in a further 3 million hectares of forest being placed into new national parks and conservation reserves around Australia. Also, from the mid-1990s, it became fashionable for state governments to seek political kudos by ending logging to expand the park and reserve estate, generally as part of pre-election commitments to woo environmentally-conscious urban voters. Much of this was a direct response to political lobbying via environmental anti-logging campaigns which have become increasingly influential since the mid-1980s.
The results of these processes have been profound. In Victoria, for example, the proportion of state-owned native forests contained in national parks and other conservation reserves has risen from just 9 per cent to over 55 per cent since the mid-1980s. It is important to note that the majority of forests outside the formal reserve system are also effectively acting as conservation reserves because most are unsuited to any economic use. Correspondingly, the proportion of Victorian state-owned forest within which timber production is both a permitted and suitable use has declined since 1986 from 31 per cent down to just 9 per cent.
Similar trends have occurred in Western Australia and New South Wales, whereas Queensland had already closed much of its native timber industry prior to the RFA process, and then in 1998 instigated a twenty-five-year phased closure of the south-eastern Queensland native timber industry as part of a transition to eucalypt plantations to be established during this period.
In Tasmania, close to 50 per cent of its total forest area resides in national parks and other conservation reserves. Another 30 per cent of its forests are on private lands where a significant amount of timber production occurs but rarely attracts attention. The state-owned public forests being managed on a renewable cycle of timber harvest and regeneration—and in which almost all anti-logging campaigns are focused—comprise just 26 per cent of the state-owned forests, and about 20 per cent of Tasmania’s total forest area. This reality is starkly at odds with the widely-held perception that Tasmania’s forests must be saved from logging.
At a national level, just 6 per cent of Australia’s native forests are now state-owned public forests being managed for multiple uses, including the production of timber—and only about half of this is actually being used for this purpose due to constraints such as topography, species suitability, and environmental management restrictions. While some timber production also occurs in privately-owned forests, it attracts little attention.
Yet the reality that only a minor portion of Australia’s forests are now used for timber production has not even slightly deterred those campaigning against it as though nothing has changed since the 1970s. Despite timber production now being so limited in extent and so highly regulated that it is acknowledged to be a negligible environmental threat, the opposition to it has grown stronger rather than diminished as would have been expected.
In just the past two years, most of the 150-year-old red gum timber industry on either side of the Murray River has been forcibly closed by the New South Wales and Victorian governments in response to environmental campaigning. Before that it was the West Australian jarrah industry—cut back by 60 per cent in 2003 and still being opposed; the New South Wales cypress pine industry cut by 80 per cent in 2005 and threatened with further cut-backs; the Victorian hardwood sawmilling industry reduced about 40 per cent since 2002 and still being opposed; while the Queensland cypress pine industry is under threat from a state government desperate to boost flagging popularity. Significant campaigns to “save” forests from logging continue in Victoria’s East Gippsland and the New South Wales south coast.
Tasmania’s native timber industry has been less affected, largely due to its economic importance to the state. However, Tasmania was slower than the mainland states to end the conversion of native forests to plantation, has yet to end the harvesting of “old-growth” forests although the vast majority are reserved, and has approved plans to build a pulp mill in the Tamar Valley. For this, it has become the epicentre of the nation’s so-called “forests conflict”—a battle which ramped up considerably after the formation of a Tasmanian Labor–Greens governing alliance following the state’s March election.
Soon after the election, talks were convened between key figures from the timber industry and the environmental movement to explore ways of resolving Tasmania’s forests conflict. This was precipitated by financial pressures impacting on the industry from the global financial crisis, but exacerbated by the sudden refusal by elements of the Japanese market to buy woodchips sourced from Tasmanian native forests.
This appears to have been the culmination of years of campaigning by international activists to “brand mail” Tasmania’s largest timber and woodchip company, Gunns Ltd, by unfairly portraying it to its Japanese customers as an environmental vandal. The fact that the export market for native forest woodchips sourced from mainland Australia has remained largely unaffected during this period lends weight to this view.
Those engaged in “brand-mailing” Gunns have typically portrayed Tasmanian timber production as something almost unrecognisable from its reality. Take the Rainforest Action Network’s Tasmanian forests campaign, in which protests were orchestrated at various Australian embassies, including in Japan and the UK in March 2006. During the campaign, RAN spokesman David Lee ranted that “everything about the situation on the ground in Tasmania defies belief for anyone who respects democracy and the rule of law”, and asserted that “Gunns is trashing a global treasure and … turning paradise into a toxic Hell on Earth in the process”. Clearly an outrageous misrepresentation given that 74 per cent of Tasmania’s state-owned forest is never to be logged.
After many months, the Tasmanian “peace talks” were seemingly going nowhere as environmentalists demanded an almost immediate end to native timber production while industry representatives were unwilling to sign their own death warrant. Then in early September at a forest industry conference in Melbourne, Greg L’Estrange, the new CEO of Gunns Ltd, delivered a keynote address which will long be remembered by students of Australian environmental history, although not always fondly.
L’Estrange announced to a hushed audience of 300 delegates that Gunns would cease its native forest operations to become a plantation-based producer. He explained that the move was primarily prompted by a realisation that the science of forestry under which the industry operates has lost out to an emotional, unscientific and populist anti-logging mantra in shaping the public conscience. This should hardly be a cause for celebration yet was soon being hypocritically lauded by many who, in relation to other causes such as climate change, are otherwise insistent that science must prevail.
Unsurprisingly, L’Estrange’s speech was widely interpreted as giving legitimacy to the long-held claim of forest activists that the native timber industry can be easily transitioned to plantations. While this is possible for Gunns because it has a softwood plantations sector as well as an extensive estate of hardwood plantations being grown for export woodchips or pulp, it is impossible for other native hardwood sawmillers simply because there are few hardwood plantations that are suitable or old enough for sawing.
What L’Estrange neglected to say in so many words was that Gunns’ move out of native forests was a self-serving business strategy to improve its image and attract a financial partner for its planned Tamar Valley pulp mill—a facility which will use only plantation-grown hardwood. Nevertheless, while L’Estrange reportedly pocketed a million-dollar bonus for engineering the company’s shift out of native forests, the move looks set to inflict huge collateral damage on the rest of the native hardwood industry in Tasmania, as well as in Victoria and Western Australia where the company is also a dominant player owning mills which process up to 40 per cent of the annual sawlog harvest.
Suddenly, with no immediately obvious processor for a large slice of the available native timber harvest, state governments in Tasmania, Western Australia and Victoria would have less of a socio-economic impediment to ending an activity that has long been fraught with political pitfalls. This coupled with the Australian Greens’ recent political ascension on the back of policies which include ending native forest timber production, made an already stressed industry very nervous.
With a sudden new momentum for ending the forests conflict, the Tasmanian “peace talks” soon reached agreement on a Statement of Principles designed to provide a framework for more detailed negotiations on the industry’s future. Although these principles are mostly broad enough to drive a truck through, they provide a clear direction that will end most Tasmanian native forest logging by “transition[ing] the commodity [non-specialty] forest industry out of public native forests into suitable plantations through a negotiated plan and timeline”. Some native timber production is likely to continue on private lands.
Clearly, it was not easy getting all parties to agree to the Statement of Principles. Indeed, it is somewhat misleading to refer to it as an “agreement” when it was forced by holding the gun of financial ruin against the head of timber contractors faced with signing something they could barely abide in order to access a federal government assistance package. In stark contrast, the environmental group representatives on the other side of the negotiating table had nothing tangible to lose.
But if the notion of a transition from forests to plantations is unpalatable to many in the hardwood sawmilling sector, Tasmania’s environmental movement is showing signs of imploding over another of the “agreed” principles which requires the creation of “a strong sustainable timber industry including the development of a range of plantation-based timber processing facilities including a pulp mill” (emphasis added).
Many of Tasmania’s most vociferous forest activists can’t abide the thought of a pulp mill at all. Others can’t abide the planned Tamar Valley pulp mill, but say they could live with one at another location as part of an agreement that “saves” native forests. For their part, Gunns have indicated that they have no intention of wasting the $200 million spent so far in gaining approval for the Tamar Valley site, and asserted that they view the Statement of Principles as supporting the building of that particular mill, not one at another site.
But this is not the only area of apparent intransigence. The industry’s demand that existing legislated wood supply commitments be met contradicts another principle dictating that high conservation value forests identified by the local environmentalists must be immediately protected, maintained and enhanced. In the recent past, Tasmanian environmental groups have identified virtually all timber production state forests outside the current parks and reserve estate as high-conservation-value forests deserving immediate protection. Clearly this would remove the capability to meet wood supply commitments which won’t fully expire for up to seventeen years.
In addition, since the release of the Statement of Principles, it has been revealed that Tasmania will need more hardwood sawlog plantations and decades for them to grow and mature before an industry transition can be facilitated. Writing on the ABC Unleashed website, Rod Keenan, a former Tasmanian forester and now Professor of Forest and Ecosystem Science at the University of Melbourne, said, “It will take 20 to 40 years (depending on site and management) for new plantations to provide higher-value products. Further research will be required to support their management and new types of processing will be required to produce higher value products.”
As it has become clearer that the agreed Statement of Principles could be consigning Tasmania to both a pulp mill and decades of ongoing native timber production during a long-term transition to plantations, elements amongst the state’s “green” demographic have been angered and become insistent that their views were not properly represented in the “peace talks”. Groups such as “Still Wild Still Threatened” and “Tasmanians Against the Pulpmill” which are openly contemplating a continuation of their former uncompromising campaigns, are proving that breathless newspaper headlines such as “Peace in age-old forest war in sight” and “CFMEU declares forests war is over” are highly premature.
Despite this, the reporting behind these headlines is—apparently at the behest of mainland forest activists—eagerly pushing for a similar process to end native forest timber production in the rest of Australia. On a recent open forum on ABC Radio National, the Wilderness Society’s Victorian Campaigns Manager, Gavan McFadzean, revealed that approaches had already been made to Victorian timber companies to gauge their interest in convening a replica of the Tasmanian “peace talks”.
This drew a stern response from the Victorian Association of Forest Industries who cautioned against transposing the Tasmanian situation to the Victorian context where far less forest is harvested each year because the industry has already been rationalised with significant cuts to the annual harvest; where there is no pulp mill proposal and very little “old growth” logging; and where any attempt to transition to plantations would be more difficult, costly and lengthy.
Australia’s key environmental groups are viewing this as an opportunity to achieve their long-held ambition to completely end timber production in the nation’s native forests, with the ultimate intention of effectively preserving them in a giant national park. If realised, this would represent a seismic shift in Australian forest policy and end the long history of multiple-use forest management.
The concept of multiple-use forestry stems from the teachings and writings of Sir William Schlich, a famous Professor of Forestry at Oxford University who had also spent time in charge of forestry in India, and was trained in the conservative German forestry tradition. In his Manual of Forestry written in 1921, Schlich defined forest values as comprising “indirect benefits” (such as landscape beauty, preservation of wildlife and regulation of water), and “produce” with an economic value (such as timber, honey, tannin and firewood). He reasoned that:
It is the duty of the forester to see that the indirect benefits of forests are realised to the fullest extent and in the most economic manner, and in the majority of cases they can be produced with economic working.
This doesn’t mean every hectare of forest being managed to achieve multiple objectives to an equal extent at all times. Instead, it is a landscape-scale concept which dictates that various values may be obtained from various sections of forest in a complementary manner that doesn’t unduly compromise the whole of other values. In this way, for example, producing a sustained yield of timber from a minor portion of a large forest may not significantly affect the biodiversity values of the whole forest, and indeed can provide an overall conservation benefit by raising funds to manage threats, such as damaging bushfires.
Australia’s early foresters embraced this concept and it has remained relevant in the management of state forests. However, it has become far less relevant overall as state forests have been progressively rebadged as national parks and other conservation reserves. According to Australia’s State of the Forests Report 2008, just 46 per cent of the state-owned forest in both Tasmania and Victoria is still state forest being managed for multiple uses.
Multiple-use state forests allow a broad range of economic (timber, gravel, honey, posts, seed, firewood), recreational (hunting, camping) and public service (personal firewood collection) activities that are either not permitted or highly restricted in Australian national parks and conservation reserves. The underlying (although perhaps unstated) philosophy of Australian park and reserve management seems to be based around avoiding disturbance to what is perceived to be a fragile environment, with the only permitted uses being controlled tourism and passive recreation such as bushwalking and camping, generally restricted to defined tracks and sites.
We have adopted the American philosophy of park management whereby the land is sacrosanct and economic use of its natural resources is an anathema. This “if-we-leave-it-alone-it-will-look-after-itself” approach can have significant implications in the Australian context given that our landscape is so prone to fire and requires active management to mitigate its most damaging potential.
This differs to Europe where natural resource use is not necessarily precluded from national parks and is often encouraged as a means to fund their management and maintenance. European forester Branislav Zoric, now working in Victoria’s Department of Primary Industries, recently reminisced about his time in Bosnia managing the 3500-hectare Kozara National Park. This entailed selective harvesting to improve forest structure and maintain health while supplying two local sawmills with 14,000 cubic metres of timber per year. This generated the funding needed for wider park management—a win-win example of multiple-use forestry in a country where government funding alone would probably be insufficient.
Although Australia may be a more affluent country, most of Australia’s forested parks or reserves are not particularly attractive for tourism or recreation, are only rarely visited, and—with the exception of the iconic national parks—are acknowledged as being chronically underfunded. As they rely almost exclusively on government budgetary appropriations that must compete with far higher social priorities—such as health, law and order, and education—this seems unlikely to change.
The prospect of removing economic activities from further large areas of forest to add them to an already under-resourced parks and reserves network, makes little sense when there is already an urgent need to examine ways of overcoming management funding shortfalls.
There is also a need to rethink the notion of trying to “preserve” Australian forests in parks and reserves as if they are museum exhibits. Australian forests are dynamic entities that have evolved to rely on periodic disturbance for their health and renewal. Without disturbance most will wither and die. An example is the “old growth” wet eucalypt forests which have become symbolic in the campaigns against logging—many are close to death and will revert to a non-eucalypt vegetation type without some natural or artificial intervention to renew them as eucalypt regrowth able to grow again into future “old growth”.
The prospect of a disturbing shift in Australian forest management philosophy precipitated by a timber company’s business decision and re-invigorated environmental lobbying, has upset the Institute of Foresters of Australia. The IFA represents the bulk of the country’s professional foresters, who have responsibility for managing much of Australia’s native forests but were not invited to play any formal role in the Tasmanian “peace talks”. IFA National President, Peter Volker, has likened this to allowing a committee of disaffected patients and drug company representatives to reform health policy without any input from peak medical professionals.
A dearth of professional forestry input thus far seems to be exemplified by the lack of any apparent consideration of what closing down the timber industry would actually mean for the capability to manage forests. That this seems not to matter raises doubts about whether foresters would be seriously consulted about forest management implications if the Tasmanian (or mainland) government were to seize the opportunity to convert further large areas (or indeed all) of current multiple-use state forest to national park.
Indeed, the Tasmanian process suggests that political sensitivity to environmental matters has created a leadership vacuum where governments would prefer to have vested interests hammer out solutions which suit them, rather than show the gumption required to lead and deliver outcomes that are in the best interests of the country. In this case, ending the native hardwood industry, either now or after a period of transition to hardwood plantations, is not in the best interests of this country or the wider global environment.
Some European forests have produced timber for 500 years over many cycles of harvest and regeneration. Producing timber in perpetuity from a small portion of our native forests is certainly an aim of Australian forestry. We have the resource and regulatory parameters in place to do so with minimal environmental impact, given that most forests will never be harvested. Unfortunately the refusal of most state governments to guarantee resource security while progressively slicing off bits for new national parks at each state election has made it difficult to maintain sustainability and is slowly destroying the timber industry bit-by-bit.
Transitioning the native hardwood industry to plantations would certainly be preferable to just ending it. However, such a transition will entail a huge expenditure on establishing and managing a replacement hardwood plantation sawlog resource and compensating companies who choose to exit the industry. There would also be a heavy financial and social cost, particularly on the mainland, as the native forest industry often exists in areas where there is little opportunity to establish replacement plantations. Some mainland “timber towns” would disappear, thereby exacerbating the decline of Australia’s rural sector, with its attendant social implications.
At the end of this expensive process we will have a resource of young, fast-grown hardwood from just the half-dozen or so species suited to plantation silviculture. They will never fully replace older, slow-grown native timbers in the marketplace—particularly the most durable and decorative species such as jarrah, red gum, ironbark and cypress pine. Invariably, produce from this replacement hardwood plantation resource will be more likely to compete for market share with softwood plantation lumber (pine), rather than being sought by consumers seeking high-quality timber for durable and decorative uses.
Such consumers are already turning to imported tropical hardwoods and non-wood substitute materials as political decisions have substantially downsized Australia’s native timber industry. The fact that this demand is likely to grow is hardly good for the environment given that a substantial volume of imported hardwood comes from illegal and unsustainable sources in developing countries where environmental controls are few and there is less commitment to regeneration; and because non-wood substitutes such as steel and concrete embody far greater carbon emissions in their manufacture compared to wood, at a time when the community is demanding climate change action.
The annual rate of deforestation in tropical countries is more than 150 times larger than the area of Australian native forest annually harvested and regenerated. Every year, 4000 orangutans are lost from the wild in Sumatra and Borneo and the species is edging close to extinction. This is exacerbated by demand for tropical timbers from affluent countries which decline to utilise their own forests. Australia fits this description well—we have the world’s fifth-highest per capita area of forest cover but produce less timber from our own forests than 90 per cent of other countries. Given that we are also amongst the world’s top five consumers of wood and paper products, it would be almost immoral for us to produce nothing from our forests, particularly given that the environmental impact of multiple-use forestry is very low.
As already alluded to, perhaps the most perverse outcome from ending Australian native timber production to ostensibly “save” forests is that it would reduce the capability to manage forests, particularly to protect them from unnaturally severe fire, which is overwhelmingly their greatest threat. Without the government and industry personnel engaged in timber production and the revenue which it generates, there will be far less imperative and capability to maintain the vast road and track network upon which fuel reduction burning and bushfire suppression relies. There will also be fewer capable and less well-equipped workforces readily available to tackle fires as they arise. The importance of continuing economic activity in forests was outlined by the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, and even contemplating turning all forests into under-managed “preserves” suggests we have learnt nothing from “Black Saturday”.
Embarking on a program to transition our native timber industry to plantations will do nothing more than divert substantial expenditure to only partially replace an existing resource that was being well managed and did not threaten wider environmental values. Indeed, ending domestic native timber production will exacerbate environmental threats both at home and abroad. Given that Australia already has a $2 billion trade deficit in forest products, the best outcome for the community would result from the same money and effort being spent on developing a hardwood sawlog plantation resource while still retaining a significant native hardwood industry.
The apparent support for the mooted direction of the Tasmanian “solution” suggests our society has lost perspective when it is willing to go to such lengths in the hope of ending a largely manufactured conflict by appeasing the minority who drive it. It is also worth questioning the real strength of community support for closing our native hardwood industry given that, while Tasmania’s “peace deal” has been extensively reported on the ABC and in several broadsheet newspapers, it never rated a mention in Australia’s most widely-read newspaper, Melbourne’s Herald Sun. From this it could be argued that most Australians either agree with the current level of timber production in native forests, don’t care, or find the issue too complex to worry about.
Nevertheless, during the recent federal election campaign, Bob Brown was fond of quoting the results of a Greens-commissioned Galaxy poll of 1100 Australians (including just twenty Tasmanians) which found that close to 80 per cent supported an end to the logging of native forests. However, affirmatively answering a carefully loaded survey question on this topic requires no actual knowledge of the pros and cons of the issue.
Similarly, Get Up has been conducting an online “Save our Native Forests” campaign in which website visitors are asked to simply add their e-mail address to a box. This signifies their support for a so-called “Australian Native Forests Charter” which calls for a “swift transition of industrial logging out of our native forests” and “establishing ‘protected areas’ for all of our high conservation value native forests’. This will eventually form a petition to be presented to the Australian government, but again, no real knowledge is required from its signatories. Even in the so-called “information age” it seems, it is easy to create a groundswell of opposition to anything based virtually on nothing.
Responsible environmentalism requires appreciation of a bigger picture of resource use and conservation. Only a few who voice opposition to native forest logging have any appreciation of the history of Australian forestry, let alone even a rudimentary knowledge of the proportional extent of forests used respectively for timber production and conservation. Almost none would know or care about the adverse consequences and implications of what they are striving for.
Largely through uncritical media publicity given to environmental activism, we have become a society in which “green” urban myths are accepted as absolute truths, while rural realities are dismissed as self-serving myths. With regard to forestry issues, it is clear that the influential city-based media is predisposed to reporting from the sensational “green” angle. Many long-standing environmental journalists have spent their careers acting as a mouth-piece for the environmental movement rather than as objective reporters.
Forestry is far from perfect—no activity that is so subject to the vagaries of nature can be planned and implemented with the precision achievable on a factory floor. However, beyond the reality that timber production involves trees being cut down, there are rational explanations for almost every criticism levelled against it. Unfortunately, these are often so complicated that they rarely find their way into a mainstream media beset by time and space constraints to a degree that favours simple answers to complex questions.
After a 200-year transition from early exploitation to tightly controlled public land management, Australia is amongst the best equipped nations to manage its forests in the manner required to effectively balance requirements for wood with the conservation of biodiversity and other environmental values.
That we still have a “forests conflict” of such prominence (particularly in mainland states where logging is proportionally a very minor activity) is somewhat irrational given our strong timber industry regulation and multi-layered land-use planning. Whilst developing countries view our system as an aspirational model for overcoming their own problems of uncontrolled forest exploitation, a small but influential segment of the Australian community finds it ideologically unacceptable despite low environmental impacts and the almost complete absence of illegal or corrupt activities.
Nevertheless, the financial and political circumstances in which Australia is currently embroiled now seem likely ultimately to end balanced, scientifically-based multiple-use forest management in Tasmania (and possibly throughout Australia) in lieu of a preservationist conservation model which is at odds with our forests’ natural reliance on periodic disturbance.
While some will undoubtedly interpret this as a victory for “people power”, it more accurately reflects a dangerous new paradigm in which environmental policy is effectively determined by misguided populism in an era of online e-democracy where simple, cool slogans screaming for instant solutions are far more influential than bland facts, detailed analysis and inconvenient consequences. The great irony is that this paradigm, spawned in the name of conservation, will often worsen environmental outcomes.
Mark Poynter has been a professional forester for thirty years. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Foresters of Australia, and published the book Saving Australia’s Forests and its Implications in September 2007.