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The rise of blogging, mainstream media, and Victoria’s river red gum forests

By Mark Poynter - posted Thursday, 14 August 2008


Recently on ABC TV’s Lateline program, it was inferred that social and political web blogs should not be taken too seriously as they are little more than a forum for the chronically disaffected. The observation that there are many correspondents to online blogs who will readily respond with apparent authority to virtually any topic, perhaps lends some credence to this perception.

However, there are many bloggers who participate in online discussions on topics about which they have a particular expertise which deserves to be taken very seriously. It is the extent to which these correspondents are resorting to online blogs that raises questions about the capability and willingness of the mainstream media to give oxygen to the full range of expert opinion and to report objectively on current affairs free from their own bias and spin.

An all-too familiar example of this media failure was aired on ABC TV’s Stateline program recently in a woefully inadequate and biased coverage of the ongoing community debate over the management of Victoria’s Murray River red gum forests (Testing the government - a new plan to save Victoria’s red gums, August 1, 2008).

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Rural Australia has been increasingly angered by city-centric land use policies over the past decade. Under the guise of improved environmental outcomes which are rarely realised, state governments have gained tremendous political mileage among “green” inner-urban electorates by implementing a massive program of national park expansion with scant regard for the socio-economic implications for rural and regional communities. The city-based media’s mostly simplistic and unbalanced treatment of rural socio-environmental issues has played a key role in generating the popular support for these policies that has ensured their political success.

The debate over Victoria’s river red gum forests is somewhat different to the many forestry debates that have preceded it. This is because all parties agree that these forests are in real trouble and that something must be done. Their rapidly declining health follows a decade of severe drought which has magnified the already entrenched stress caused by river regulation which, since the 1930’s, has completely modified the natural flood regime to which they are adapted.

There is widespread agreement on the need for more water and better water management to artificially replicate the flood events needed to restore forest health and stimulate regeneration. Beyond that, the debate takes a familiar course with environmental activists campaigning to turn all the forests into national parks, while local communities prefer multiple-use forest management under a mix of parks, reserves and state forests. An important point is that re-badging all the forest as national park will do nothing to improve environmental outcomes which are only achievable through major water reform.

In 2004, following several years of co-ordinated environmental activism, the Victorian government instructed its environmental assessment agency, VEAC, to investigate the management of the Victorian red gum forests and make recommendations for the future. This was greeted with scepticism by those communities in close proximity to the forest because VEAC investigations have invariably been commissioned in response to environmental activism and have always resulted in substantial national park expansion.

The suspicion that VEAC would work to a pre-ordained outcome of more national parks has been progressively confirmed as local concerns raised during the public consultation phases of the investigation have been neglected or studiously ignored. Unsurprisingly, VEAC’s Draft Proposals Paper, released in July 2007, recommended a tripling of the area of national parks, the virtual exclusion of commercial forest uses, and a substantial reduction in opportunities for traditional recreational activities. In addition, VEAC proposed that some new national parks be managed by Boards of Management controlled by local indigenous representatives - a move widely viewed as compensation for the Yorta Yorta whose claim for Native Title over the Barmah Forest was defeated in the High Court in the mid-1990s.

In response to VEAC’s Draft Proposals, incensed local communities have been mobilised in unilateral opposition to an extent that is unprecedented in the history of rural public land policy determinations in Victoria, and possibly Australia.

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Since October 2007, 25 community groups have come together to form the Rivers and Red Gum Environment Alliance. The Alliance represents over 100,000 people and includes four municipal councils backed by the Municipal Association of Victoria, six community and environmental groups, nine recreational user groups, five commercial user groups. It also includes the Bangerang People who harbour a strong claim to the traditional custodianship of much of the country in question and are opposed to the VEAC proposal to give control of national parks to the indigenous community.

After considerable effort and expense, the Alliance produced a highly professional 150-page Conservation and Community plan which challenges VEAC’s underlying rationale and scientific veracity, and proposes a far more balanced strategy for managing the forests that would address actual environmental problems with the support of the local community. This visionary plan was formally launched at Parliament House on July 31, 2008, and has been presented to Premier John Brumby as well as key politicians of all persuasions. Copies were also provided to media contacts prior to its formal launch.

The significance of the Alliance and its unique and determined challenge to government policy proposals has been widely recognised by the rural media including the Weekly Times and ABC regional radio who have provided considerable exposure to the issue. This presumably sparked the interest of the city-based ABC Stateline program which focuses largely on Victorian political issues.

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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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