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Tasmania's forestry debacle

By Mark Poynter - posted Friday, 24 August 2012


Tasmania's so-called 'forest peace' process is drawing to a close after almost two-years of secretive talks between conservation groups (ENGOs) and timber industry representatives costing taxpayers upwards of $2.2 million.

As yet there is no final agreement despite the recent personal intervention of Federal Environment Minister, Tony Burke.Quite simply, it is very difficult (if not impossible) to reconcile conservation demands to reserve a further 570,000 ha of Tasmanian forest against the native hardwood industry's requirement to meet existing wood supply committments.

Regardless of the eventual outcome of this process, Tasmanian forestry has descended into a debacle given last week's admission by Gunns that its approved plantations-based Tamar Valley pulp mill is now unlikely to be built.

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The prospect of transitioning to a plantations-based industry centred on the pulp mill essentially underpinned the 'forest peace' process whereby Tasmania's native hardwood sector would be largely sacrificed in return for an ENGO-sanctioned 'social licence' to build and operate the mill. However, the notion that native forest products have no future is far from unanimously supported within the native hardwood sector and indeed the wider Tasmanian community.

Now that the pulp mill is highly unlikely to eventuate, those who devised this strategy – most notably Gunns – can be seen to have voluntarily jeopardised the future of the state's native hardwood sector for an expanded plantations sector that is now unlikely to develop. Indeed, Gunns now seems to be battling for its very survival and, having closed or sold-off its export woodchipping infrastructure, has little current capability to earn income from its Tasmanian plantations.

The damage to Tasmania has now largely been done with thousands of rural jobs already lost or downsized. The state now has the country's highest unemployment rate; while the exodus of workers to the mainland has grown to equal record levels. Social service organisations have also noted the high costs to human health and relationships. In addition, rural land values have fallen by an estimated $2 billion given the uncertainty about whether an industry capable of utilising privately-owned native forests and plantations will exist into the future.

Given the central role of Gunns in what has transpired it has become commonplace for Greens politicians, and ENGOs and their supporters to absolve themselves of any responsibility by portraying this debacle as being of the forest industry's own making.

There is certainly plenty of truth in an appraisal of it as being precipated by the behavior of Gunns and exacerbated by a difficult business climate associated with the GFC, including a high Australian dollar. However, the realisation that other Australian states which largely produce the same native and plantation hardwood products for the same markets have not been nearly so badly affected, points to Tasmania and Gunns having been specifically impacted by another factor.

Putting aside the complication of the pulp mill proposal, the major differentiation between the damage to Tasmania's hardwood industry and its mainland state counterparts has been the systematic 'brand mailing' of Tasmania's major timber companies and their forestry practices by ENGOs operating both in the international marketplace and domestically amongst retailers, banks, shareholders and the broader investment community.

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'Brand mailing' is a term coined in the USA to describe concerted ENGO campaigns to discredit companies in order to achieve specific environmental outcomes. The 'brand mailing' of Tasmanian forestry stretches back to 2007 and continued throughout the 'peace process' most notably with activists in international boardrooms, and a young woman perched atop a Tasmanian tree for the past 8-months connected to a worldwide audience via the internet. Actions such as these continue to grossly misrepresent Tasmanian forestry as being akin to Third World standard.

However, Tasmania's forests are not under any dire threat. Around two-thirds of their area on both public and private land is either already formally reserved or is otherwise not used for wood supply, including 80% of the 'old growth' forest. In addition, Tasmania's forestry planning and practices are widely acknowledged to be amongst the world's best, and there is an absence of the deforestation, illegal logging, and corruption which plagues many other countries which supply natural hardwood to the global market.

Central to the ENGO's 'brand mailing' campaigns has been their errant claim that Tasmanian native forestry is unsustainable simply because it isn't certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (the FSC). Concurrently they have trashed the reputation of the alternative Australian Forestry Standard (to which most of Tasmania's hardwood industry is certified) by misrepresenting it as 'industry standard' when in fact it was developed under the auspices of Standards Australia specifically for Australian conditions. By comparison, the FSC-certification scheme was developed by the global environmental movement and is a generic international standard with no local focus.

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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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