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Ignoring fact, logic, and expertise

By Mark Poynter - posted Tuesday, 9 December 2008


The public hysteria surrounding the proposed Tasmanian pulpmill shows that the logging of native forests remains one of Australia’s hottest environmental topics. This is surprising given that sustainable wood production is now permitted within just a net 6 per cent portion of the nation’s public forests, it is highly regulated, and it is regarded as among the best managed in the world. As an environmental threat, the government’s Australia State of the Forests Report, regards logging as insignificant.

Despite this, it has become politically incorrect to support native hardwood production as a sensible and responsible use of a naturally renewable resource. Those who do so are routinely vilified as I was last week when a letter I had published in The Age newspaper drew responses that scorned me as an “industry apologist trying to keep us in the dark ages” and a “spin doctor” who “relies on the public being fools”.

In the past, I have also been described as a “mouthpiece for the logging industry” or the “pro-logging lobby”, which is apparently “blind to the bigger picture of global crisis”. I have been called a “forest raper” and a “pro-logging, anti-life person”. Others believe I am “motivated by short term greed” and “headed towards my own demise”. I am apparently one of those “people who can chop, hunt, maim, kill, exploit, dominate and destroy in the name of progress and jobs” and I have been likened to “the captain of the Titanic refusing to believe that your enterprise is fatally flawed”.

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When I have made the point that wood production is planned and controlled by foresters on a scientific basis, my professional discipline has been described as an “anti-science rooted in greed and domination” and a “science that fosters death”. Although the facts about forestry are readily accessible from government sources, my critics have described them as “twisted deceptions, cover-ups, hidden agreements between power brokers who care little for the welfare of our planet”. They are apparently “nothing but justifications for an evil that is supported by governments, corporations, and those who cannot see beyond their own narrow interests”.

I am no “logger”, but a forest scientist with five years of tertiary training including a university degree, and additionally, close to 30 years of experience including the last 13 years as a self-employed consultant involved with both plantations and native forests. However, despite this extensive grounding, any attempt to add an informed and rational voice to the forestry debate is met with a stream of personally vindictive bile.

It would be surprising if any other scientific discipline has endured such public disrespect and vitriolic contempt as forestry. This mostly emanates from career activists who - through “green” conservation groups - have engendered a supporter base that is largely drawn from an inner urban populace who know little about forestry. These include our brightest, most articulate, and highly educated people who are not normally prone to follow populist causes without firm justification. Remarkably though, when it comes to environmental issues, many need only the flimsiest of evidence to drop their rational reticence and morph into self-righteous and emotional “save-the-whatever” advocates.

This over-the-top and largely irrational support for environmental causes is increasingly being enhanced by enthusiastic, but ill-advised celebrity activists with ready access to a fawning media. This is a social phenomena that has been magnified in recent weeks by the near hero-worship of Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan for his efforts in opposing forestry and industry development in his home state. This was the subject of a recent episode of Australian Story on ABC television (November 3, 2008) and was informally discussed in a follow-up appearance on ABC Radio 774 Melbourne (November 12, 2008).

Richard Flanagan is undoubtedly an intelligent and passionate man with a great love of the environment. A Rhodes Scholar and skilled wordsmith, he is admired for publicly standing-up for beliefs that are in equal measure as unpopular as popular in the stifling hot-bed of emotion which continues to swirl around the forestry debate in both his Tasmanian community and beyond.

For this, Flanagan is feted among the literati, the media, and the intellectual elite; particularly in the urbane mainland states which are farthest removed from the issue. Despite having no scientific training or experience in forest management, he has for many Australians, become the oracle on Tasmanian forestry and all its perceived or actual social ills.

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That his every pronouncement on this issue has for many become an undeniable truth, was effectively confirmed at the recent 2008 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards when his 4,000-word essay, “Out of Control: The Tragedy of Tasmania’s Forests”, was awarded the John Curtin Prize for Journalism.

“Out of Control” was published in The Monthly in May 2007 at the height of the Gunns pulp mill debate and was heavily publicised during the 2007 federal election campaign when a wealthy businessman used it as part of his personal mission to unseat then Environment Minister, Malcolm Turnbull. In assessing the essay, the award judges correctly described it as a “piece of advocacy journalism with no pretence at balance”, but substantially erred in describing it at the same time as a “fact-rich piece … full of great anecdotes and telling details”.

If Flanagan knows the facts about Tasmanian forestry he has never publicly acknowledged them nor allowed them to get in the way of a good story. Indeed, after the publication of “Out of Control”, the then federal Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation, Senator Eric Abetz, noted that it contained some 70 “deliberate or inexcusably negligent errors of fact, selective citing of fact, or twisting of facts”.

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This article was first published on the ABC Unleashed website on November 24, 2008.



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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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