Doomed Planet

A forest ‘peace deal’ that may be anything but

On April 30, the Tasmanian Forests Agreement (TFA) Bill — the ‘peace deal’, as it has been dubbed — was passed by Tasmania’s Parliament to a mixed reception of relief, grief and disbelief. Amendments made by the state Upper House that delay the creation of new national parks were, perhaps surprisingly, accepted by the Labor/Greens majority, with the exception of one Greens MP who voted with the Liberal Opposition.

While the Bill has emanated from incessant and widely-publicised forest conflict, the public discourse has ignored the reality that this is restricted to just the 20% of Tasmanian forests that are multiple-use State forests managed for long term timber supply.

Most who are outraged by sensational media coverage of chainsaw massacres perpetrated in Tasmania’s allegedly endangered forests, will have been unaware that prior to the ‘peace deal’ process, 80% of the state’s native forests were already reserved for conservation, unsuited for timber production, or privately-owned.

This contextual perspective suggests that the major driving force for the ‘peace deal’ – that is, to ‘lock-up’ substantially more public forest in new national parks – is more about satisfying environmental ideology than addressing genuine conservation needs.

The ‘peace deal’ process involved three years of exhaustive negotiations between representatives from Tasmania’s timber industry and its three main and allied ENGOs (environmental non-government organisations). From the start, they were conducted on an uneven playing field, where only the industry side had anything tangible at stake. With the prospect of lost livelihoods and financial ruin hinging on the outcome, industry negotiators were severely constrained in brokering compromises from ENGOs brandishing conservation ‘wish lists’ whilst threatening to destroy the industry if those demands weren’t met.  

The key elements of the ‘peace deal’ are:

  • The State forest sawlog harvest is reduced to 137,000 m3/year – a 55% reduction from the currently legislated volume. 
  • An area of 504,000 hectares of State forest (around 16% of Tasmania’s forests) is to be transferred into the national parks estate in three installments.
  • There will be immediate reservation of 88,000 hectares in new national parks plus a ‘conservation order’providing interim protection for the rest of the proposed parks. 
  • The subsequent reservation of the balance of the new parks is deferred to October 2014 and October 2015 subject to conditions outlined below. 
  • In return for these new national parks, the signatory ENGOs are to desist from protesting against Tasmania’s remaining timber industry, while working to stop other groups from ‘substantially’ protesting against the industry in the forest or the international marketplace.
  •  The signatory ENGOs are required to ‘help’ Forestry Tasmania achieve Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification for its forestry practices within 18 months.
  • If there are ‘substantial’ protests or if Forestry Tasmania fails to get FSC certification, the promised new national parks will revert to State forest available for wood production. 

The response to this outcome has been predictable amongst the forestry sector; but is more complex amongst the ENGOs, Greens and their supporters, given what they stand to gain when they never had anything to lose.

The broader forestry sector is comprised of forest scientists, forestry practitioners, and industry processers, contractors and their employees. They believe that there is nothing wrong with producing wood from a renewable resource, know the forestry practices used in Tasmania are acknowledged to be amongst the world’s best, and are already certified by the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC)-aligned Australian Forestry Standard (AFS). 

Accordingly, few in the forestry sector can philosophically endorse an outcome largely forced by orchestrated campaigns of misinformation to intimidate and blackmail markets to an extent that the timber industry, already reeling from an unfavourable business climate, has been forced to allow its critics and enemies to determine the future of its resource base. By agreeing to allow the ENGO’s to draw-up the location and extent of new national parks supposedly encompassing ‘high conservation value forests’, the industry’s negotiators sanctioned an eco-activists’ nirvana.

Understandably, these proposed new national parks heavily reflect emotive conservation ‘wish lists’, whilst forest management imperatives, such as fire, and the concerns of other affected community stakeholders have been ignored. These new reserves also lack scientific validation, given that there is still no agreed scientific definition of what constitutes ‘high conservation value forest’. Indeed, the inclusion of significant regrowth from past timber harvesting in these proposed new reserves is testament to decades of effective state forest management.

Whilst some scientific analysis was undertaken as part of the ‘peace deal’ process, it has been variously described as patchy, flawed, superficial, and incomplete, in keeping with short timelines overseen by a politically-appointed group dominated by former ENGO entities and associates. In addition, there has been no all-encompassing socio-economic analysis examining the full impact of what eschewing substantial areas of wood production forest for new national parks will mean for Tasmania, its people, and its economy.

While such flaws are unacceptable to many, those directly employed within the industry have been understandably more concerned about their financial survival. Accordingly, most industry spokespersons have embraced the passing of the TFA Bill as the best/only way forward, arguably not least because it comes with around $200 million of Federal Government money dangled by Environment Minister Tony Burke to ‘encourage’ a favourable political outcome. This outcome will also enhance his reputation as an environmental saviour and political-fixer deserving of higher station.

While it appears that the last minute offer of this Federal money revived the failing ‘peace deal’ negotiations and eventually delivered the current outcome, the reality is that only around 25% of it is earmarked for an ongoing native hardwood industry. The bulk of the rest will be directed to regional development projects in unrelated industries ($93 million over 15 years), to manage the new national parks ($25 million), and to compensate those businesses forced to exit the industry.     

While the ‘peace deal’ outcome has exposed differences of opinion amongst the broader forestry sector, these have been somewhat tempered by a general appreciation of the grave situation faced by the industry and its direct employees. Such pragmatism was reflected in comments made last week by the CEO of Ta Ann Tasmania, the largest remaining native hardwood company, who opined that although the ‘peace deal’ results in “the loss of 40% of the wood supply”, it removes uncertainty and creates “conditions where private investment can again be encouraged allowing businesses to be rebuilt on the basis of the new arrangements.”

In stark contrast to this muted optimism amongst the timber industry, there seems to be precious little support for the ‘peace deal’ amongst Tasmania’s Green-Left demographic. Rather, the passing of the TFA Bill has opened a substantial split pitting the Tasmanian Greens who voted the TFA Bill through Parliament and the ENGO negotiators who forced its outcomes against virtually all other Greens/ENGO groups, members and supporters. According to celebrity activist Richard Flanagan, the spiritual mouthpiece of Tasmania’s progressive elites and who also disagrees furiously with the ‘peace deal’, this split “will take many years to recover from”. 

Tasmanian Greens leader Nick McKimm and the ENGO negotiators are insisting that, while not perfect, the ‘peace deal’ offers the best prospect for ‘a stunning conservation gain’ and an end to decades of conflict. Unsurprisingly, this view is also being spruiked by key Tasmanian and federal politicians, including Premier Giddings and Prime Minister Gillard.

Sitting on the other side of the split are some very prominent Greens and ENGOs, all dismissing the ‘peace deal’ as a failure. Some ENGOs, such as Markets for Change and Still Wild Still Threatened, were pledging to resume their Tasmanian forests campaigns virtually as the TFA Bill was being passed.

The language emanating from those Greens politicians and ENGO spokepersons who support the ‘peace deal’ is that its opponents are ‘sitting outside the mainstream consensis’. However, as these opponents include such luminaries as Australian Greens leader Christine Milne, and Greens founder and spiritual leader Bob Brown, there must be some doubt about what the ‘mainstream consensus’ actually is.

Amongst the majority of Tasmania’s Green-Left demographic opposed to the ‘peace deal’ there is anger and disbelief that the Greens could pass a Bill that

  • Defers most of the new national parks until late 2014, therby opening the way for a new Tasmanian Liberal Government – expected to be elected next March – to scupper the TFA  legislation and prevent all but the first tranche of new parks from ever being realised;
  • Requires ENGOs to ‘help’ the timber industry get FSC certification. This is seen as another hurdle likely to block the reservation of most of the new parks, given that few Australian native forests have been FSC-certified thus far;
  • Requires ENGOs to desist from protesting until the new parks are declared. This is being condemned by Christine Milne, Bob Brown and many others as an attack on democratic free speech; and that
  • Allows the hated timber industry to secure federal funding assistance for agreeing to a deal that will ultimately be scuppered before its conservation gains are realised.

Seemingly, most anger stems from the delaying of the new national parks. It is surely not unreasonable for the industry and the state to expect ENGOs to demonstrate good faith by ceasing protests before earning their rewards. However, the likelihood of a new Liberal State Government scuppering the process before it can be completed is a reasonable expectation given that the Liberals have consisently said as much while opposing the ‘peace deal’.

The FSC-certification requirement is of particular interest as it directly challenges ENGO forest activists who have shamelessly misused FSC as a weapon to wedge Australia’s native hardwood industry out of its markets in the hope of destroying it. Accordingly, the industry’s failure to become FSC-certified has had far less to do with forestry practices — amongst the world’s best, as noted earlier, and AFS-certified, than with ENGOs acting as FSC’s local gatekeepers.

Under the ‘peace deal’, this must change if Tasmania’s proposed new national parks are to be fully realised. This has greatly angered forest activists because it will effectively require them to sanction intensive harvesting systems that the remaining industry will continue to use in some forests. Despite being silviculturally appropriate for wet forests, harvesting systems such as clearfelling and modified clearfelling have always been the prime target of anti-logging activism.

Despite activists’ rhetoric that the FSC-certification of Tasmanian forest management will entail a weakening of FSC standards, it would in fact pull the highly partisan Australian interpretation into line with its international application to natural forests, such as Canada’s boreal forests, where intensive harvesting systems are FSC-certified when acknowledged to be the most appropriate silvicultural technique. This would likely benefit timber industries across Australia by creating a precedent that removes what is arguably the key barrier to FSC-certification.

While FSC-certification is a key focus of the ‘peace deal’ based on the premise that it will neutralise future eco-activism against the remaining industry, this is not necessarily the case. Internationally there is a trend away from certification to legal frameworks and policy processes as a basis for trade. Certification has become less important. In any case, such is the split amongst the ENGO community that FSC-certification alone can’t guarantee that disaffected activists won’t still create sufficient noise to force a market shift to products from less controversial sources.

Despite Greens/ENGO fears, even if the ‘peace deal’ fails or is trashed before all new reserves can be delivered, they would still have recieved considerable gains from the process and what led to it. These include the departure of hated corporate ‘timber giant’ Gunns, which halved the annual rate of public forest harvesting; the de-commissioning of the Triabunna port facility, thereby virtually ending native forest woodchipping in southern Tasmania; and the creation of at least 88,000 hectares of new national parks immediately created by the passing of the TFA Bill. Any cry from Greens/ENGOs that they’ve been dudded by the ‘peace deal’ needs to be considered in this context.

An enduring theme from many of those supporting the ‘peace deal’ is that there was no other option and that, through it, the ENGOs have actually saved a dying industry. The alternative view is that in the absence of ENGO-activism:

  • The domestic and international market demand for native hardwood timbers remains strong.
  • The industry would have adapted to the high $Aus by developing other markets and products for its residues.
  • The voluntary departure of Gunns had provided the opportunity to reduce percieved harvesting impacts across the landscape and would have led toa more value-focussed industry.

As ENGO-activism underpins the industry’s problems and has actively stymied the capability of the industry to evolve through its difficulties, the notion that they should be lauded for saving the industry could be equated to thanking the Mafia for cutting off only one of your legs.     

Clearly, there remains considerable uncertainty as to whether the passing of the TFA Bill will end Tasmania’s forest conflict — and there are already ominous signs that it won’t. These include the split in the state’s Green-Left demographic and amongst the ENGO-community, and the likelihood that the new national parks will need to survive an incoming Liberal Government intending to tear-up the enabling legislation.

Even if the process is completed due to exemplary ENGO behaviour and a lack of political interference, there is no guarantee that forest peace will continue beyond the delivery of these new national parks. Indeed, given past history and the enduring distaste for the industry amongst most Greens/ENGOs and their supporters, it would be unsurprising if the breathless media rhetoric of “a historic agreement ending a 30-year conflict” is never realised while any Tasmanian public forests are harvested for wood.

Whatever happens, the anger the TFA Bill has created amongst Tasmania’s Green/Left demographic confirms yet again that the persistence of forest conflict in Australia, despite two decades of substantial reductions to timber harvesting and a progressive expansion of conservation reserves, has been due far more to an uncompromising brand of environmental extremism than the forestry activities that it targets.

This is somewhat out-of-step with environmentalism elsewhere around the world which is far more reasonable and accepting of a moderate balance between forest conservation and use. Unfortunately in Australia, the propensity for governments to just accept and try to appease unbending environmental extremism, rather than stand-up to it, has already substantially unbalanced sensible land management often with perverse, unintended consequences. This looks to be another example.

As this ‘peace deal’ process is arguably the only time ENGOs have been forced to compromise in any tangible way on forests, it can at least be lauded for that. However, its price tag of 500,000 hectares of new reserves (including around half of the state’s former public wood production forests), for what is potentially only a temporary reprieve from ENGO forest activism, is massive.

Given the upsurge in international demand for renewable, low-emission wood products in an increasingly carbon-constrained world, allowing future wood production to be limited to just 12% of its public forests hardly seems to be in the best interests of a state with a mendicant economy.   

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

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