In the keynote address to the Forestworks industry conference in Melbourne in early September, the new CEO of Gunns Ltd, Greg L'Estrange, announced that Australia's largest timber company would move away from harvesting native forests and divest its hardwood sawmilling assets. To many in the audience, this wasn't particularly surprising given that Gunns had already sold off its freehold native forests - around 30,000 hectares of largely harvested and regenerating Tasmanian forest bought by a philanthropist to create a private conservation preserve!
Choosing his words carefully, L'Estrange professed that after a long career in the timber industry he was "…. a believer in the science of forestry. We have many outstanding contributors to the field, who lead the world in the sustainable management of natural forest areas." But he acknowledged that the timber industry and the environmental movement were "pitted in a fierce battle for the support of the Australian people, who in turn balance the political debate", and asserted that "we have lost the public debate and the support of the broader community".
Regarding the debate, he went on to say that "the industry has been out-thought and out-played, with the ENGO's [environmental non-government organisations] using three key leverage points: public emotion, multi-level government involvement; and certification - market action. Whilst the industry has maintained a stance that science will prevail ……"
Few in the forestry sector would disagree with the broad thrust of this summation, but most are troubled by its inference that the environmental movement has been "successful" while the industry has "failed". While such labels infer a fair debate, the ENGO's have in reality run deceitful campaigns that have misrepresented the scale and extent of timber production while either ignoring or skewing the science without regard for the implications; while the forestry sector has, for the most part, defended itself using facts, statistics and science.
The ENGO "success" has been substantially assisted by elements of the city-based media which have virtually promoted their cause almost without question. In the mainland capitals, broadsheet daily newspapers have consistently reported the forests debate from the green perspective. While at the national level, the ABC has been overly reliant on ENGO views for their reportage of forestry issues - programs such as Four Corners' "Lords of the Forests" and Australian Story's "Something in the Water" come immediately to mind. Both were subsequently discredited, but not before they had heavily influenced community sentiment.
The forestry sector is inclined to beat itself up over its inability to get fair media treatment. However, it is up against wealthy, professional corporations whose very existence relies on creating environmental conflict specifically to inhibit resource-use industries. They also have a far simpler and more marketable message. The visual and moral imagery of "saving" beautiful forests from the grim - albeit temporary - devastation of logging, appeals to both the media's need for sensationalism and it's craving to be a popularly acclaimed agent for public good.
Counteracting this is almost impossible in a modern media designed for the superficial and simplistic rather than the complex and scientific. The city-based media which reaches the majority of the population has rarely given sufficient time or space to the forestry sector's views and has at times further blunted their effectiveness by applying more rigorous editorial standards.
That unscientific and unprincipled ENGO campaigns have helped to push our timber industry out of native forests is hardly something that Australian society should be proud of given that native hardwood production is a small-scale, renewable activity posing a negligible environmental threat. Nevertheless, celebrations greet each sawmill closure betraying a disconnected community that has lost perspective to such an extent that urban myths are unquestionably accepted as absolute truths, while rural realities are dismissed as self-serving myths.
With regard to its native forest operations, Gunns has never acted illegally or corruptly. Yet ENGOs have routinely accused it of doing so, despite the reality that the company's operations in Tasmania's public forests (which receive almost all the scrutiny) are undertaken in accordance with a Parliamentary Act, are regulated by a forest practices authority, and controlled by a government agency, Forestry Tasmania, which decides where and how logging is undertaken.
Gunns has every right to move away from native forests, and it is not too hard to be sympathetic to such a move given the extent to which the company and its reputation have been vilified over the past decade. However, the company's prosecution of this change of direction so soon after acquiring substantial additions to its native hardwood sector in Victoria and Western Australia raises some questions.
While L'Estrange articulated a view of Gunns coming to a pragmatic realisation that there was no future except as a plantations producer, he admitted that "Our customers, shareholders, employees, contractors and other stakeholders have given us a clear message" However, the manner in which former Gunns' CEO, John Gay, was forced out by corporate bullying orchestrated by self-styled anti-forestry crusader, Geoffrey Cousins, suggests that this message was foisted upon the company rather than arrived at after considered thought.
In an interview on ABC's Lateline program in June, Cousins was quite forthright in explaining how he and the Wilderness Society had "put pressure on the financiers of the company ..... we put pressure on the customers ..... we put pressure on the shareholders, finally" For their part, the Wilderness Society's annual review outlined how it had pressured a company being courted by Gunns as a financial partner in its planned Tasmanian pulp mill: