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Peace in Tasmania’s forests?

By Mark Poynter - posted Thursday, 17 June 2010


Tasmanian anti-forestry protestor, Barnaby Drake, recently announced that he was leaving the state. As he explained on the Tasmanian Times website “... enough is enough, and I am retiring to a less stressful life in France ... where toxic chemicals are banned and they have learnt to appreciate and conserve their forests.”

Most of those responding to Mr Drake’s announcement wished him well in France and praised his past efforts to “save” Tasmania’s forests. This, by his own admission, included initiating a campaign of harassment against the ANZ Bank which may have helped deter it from investing in the state’s approved, but still unbuilt, pulp mill.

However, amongst the bonhomie, several respondents pointed with bemusement to the considerable irony of a “dark green” environmentalist, such as Mr Drake, eschewing Tasmania for a European country that is powered mostly by nuclear energy; where there are few “natural” forests; where pulp mills are embraced; where millions of hectares of farmland have been converted to plantations; and where the leading source of renewable energy is the burning of woody biomass.

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Significantly, one other respondent recalled growing up in the industrial heartland of the UK in the 1940s and 50s and confessed that “I have to smile at the complaints about the environment here (in Tasmania)”.

Recalling this minor blip in the blogosphere serves to illustrate the lack of knowledge and perspective which is rife among Australia’s “save-the-forest” activists particularly those campaigning in Tasmania. This is further emphasised by facts such as that:

  • Tasmania’s 6.6ha of forest cover per capita is one of the world’s highest - compared to France (just 0.3ha per capita), and the world average of just 0.6ha per capita;
  • Tasmania retains 64 per cent of its original area of forest cover - compared with about 25 per cent in France;
  • about 70 per cent of Tasmania’s forests are publicly-owned of which about two-thirds is contained in some form of conservation reserve - compared to France where just 12 per cent of forests are publicly-owned with the rest privately-owned and largely managed for wood production;
  • Tasmania’s proportion of forest reservation is higher than anywhere in the world and almost five-times greater than the world standard of just 10 per cent reservation; and
  • Tasmania’s often maligned forest practices are actually among the best in the world, having recently won praise from UNESCO’s World Heritage Commission and the FAO’s Asia Pacific Forestry Commission.

Yet, despite Tasmania having one of the world’s healthiest balances between conservation and renewable resource use, enviro-activists continue to oppose its forest management with an almost religious fervour that is disdainful of challenging facts and intolerant of rational discussion. Where once “saving” old growth forests was de rigueur, now all aspects of Tasmanian forestry are under attack, including plantations which were once unanimously regarded as the way of the future.

The Tasmanian Times website serves as a useful barometer of the island state’s “green” sensibilities. It was established in 2004 as an interactive forum for discussing the state’s most pressing social and environmental issues. Sadly, an initiative which could have given rational voice to real concerns has to a large extent been hijacked by a tribal collective overtly focused on forestry issues. On this topic, their discussion is generally angry and littered with untruths, half-truths, irrational pseudo-science and conspiracy theories. This is interspersed with barely tolerant and sometimes abusive put-downs of those daring to proffer an alternative view.

During the first four months of 2010, the Tasmanian Times posted more than 450 articles about forestry. These were mostly purpose-written for the site by disaffected individuals or activists, but they include articles recycled from other media. That they represented close to half of all the articles posted to the website during this period illustrates the degree to which forestry dominates the mindset of the state’s “green” demographic.

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While it may be easy to dismiss one website espousing often irrational views, it is these views, and the people that hold them, which sustain the state’s anti-forestry fervour. Also, as per the old maxim - if falsehoods and half-truths are repeated often enough, they eventually assume a factual status and become embedded in the community psyche. This seems to have happened in Tasmania where, with the help of a $140,000 pre-election advertising campaign, this manufactured conventional wisdom about forestry was a significant factor in the creation of a new Labor-Greens Tasmanian Government in March.

Regular anti-forestry contributors to the Tasmanian Times include retired “tree changers”, medical doctors, lawyers, accountants, Greens politicians, career activists, and bush-block alternative life-stylers. Where once the latter three groups comprised the bulk of those railing against forestry, the rise of the internet has made it possible for anyone to be an e-activist without getting their boots dirty. While this has greatly amplified the anti-forestry message it has ensured that it is largely devoid of personal experience, and overtly reliant on the simplistic, skewed views of mainstream environmental groups which are freely available to anyone with a computer.

With the assistance of compliant and unquestioning elements of the media, gross distortions and misconceptions about Tasmanian forestry are now regarded almost as a “given” and underpin public discussion on this topic usually without being challenged.

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About the Author

Mark Poynter is a professional forester with 40 years experience. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Foresters of Australia and his book, Saving Australia's Forests and its Implications, was published in 2007.

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