Last week, the Bob Brown Foundation's (the BBF) latest legal challenge against Tasmania's native hardwood timber industry was dismissed by the Federal Court. Following the court's decision, Brown indicated that his Foundation's activists will continue protesting in the forests while its lawyers will appeal the decision in the High Court. He remains adamant that the state's (and the nation's) native hardwood timber industry will eventually be forced to close because logging is on the nose in the 'court of public opinion'.
Brown may well have a valid point. Most with a strong interest in the environment probably do believe that the future of our native forests is being jeopardized by continued timber harvesting. But just how this belief has taken root and grown over the past 35 years should be of concern in this so-called new age of 'misinformation.'
Brown, the founder of the Australian Greens and, arguably, still the spiritual leader of Australia's environmental movement, recognised early-on that mass-market advertising strategies could give environmental campaigns the cut-through needed to shape public opinion and influence political decision-making. In a 1983 interview in the aftermath of his successful Franklin River campaign, Brown admitted that:
We have grabbed ideas from wherever we could. We looked at the way other people sell cheese and paper tissues, how they do it, and thought if that sells an idea than how much more important that (it) be grafted by us into saving wilderness.
Most of us are sceptical of mass-market advertising. It is, by design, based on selective facts, exaggeration or distortion, emotion, and even blatant untruths in some instances. Environmental campaigns against native forest use have, since the mid-1980s, been based on these core principles. But without exception, they have also featured a strategic omission of wider context and perspective, such as, for example, acknowledging the actual scale and proportional extent of timber harvesting, or the adverse socio-economic and environmental consequences of ending it.
The BBF's recent Federal Court challenge to Tasmanian native timber production is a good example of how this works. For marketing purposes, they gave the legal action a catchy name – 'The Great Forest Case' – with a web page linked to an 'Australian Native Forest Declaration' which, for each signatory, sends an email to Federal Parliamentarians making a range of dubious claims and calling for them to act to end native forest logging.
Their 'Australian Native Forest Declaration' makes claims that are wrong (ie. Australia has more than enough plantations to meet its wood needs); at least highly contestable (ie. logging increases bushfire risks); or just lack context (ie. logged and burnt forests emit …. greenhouse gases, which is true if subsequent carbon sequestration by regenerating forests is ignored). Other claims are based on a misconception that timber production represents an existential threat to biodiversity which is completely at odds with its minor extent over a huge forested (and largely already reserved) landscape.
To generate further support for their case, the BBF engaged in a media blitz in the two months prior to the Federal Court's ruling in early February. Over this period, they produced 22 media releases on Tasmanian logging which created a litany of erroneous or dubious claims. These included that there are "precious few native forests … left"; that there is "large scale removal of Tasmania's giant ancient trees"; that "logging the Swift Parrot to extinction is a choice by Tasmanian Premier Gutwein and Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley"; and that there is an "effective exemption from environment laws granted to all native forest logging".
Indeed, their 'Great Forest Case' was effectively based on the notion of Tasmanian timber harvesting being exempt from national environmental laws enshrined under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999. Over a long period, environmental activists have pushed this claim even though forestry has never been exempted from these laws, and is arguably the nation's most highly regulated land use.
Far from granting an exemption to timber production, the EPBC Act delegated its forest conservation requirements to the Regional Forest Agreement (RFA) planning and regulatory process. This was a practical response to the prohibitive difficulty of otherwise requiring all of the hundreds of small timber coupes harvested each year to be individually subject to Environmental Impact Statements and other approvals processes normally applied under the EPBC Act to large-scale one-off development proposals, such as new housing estates or mines.
A 2009 Independent Review of the EPBC Act by former ANU Chancellor Alex Hawkes and four expert scientists, specifically examined the interaction between the EPBC Act and the RFAs, and noted that:
The interaction between the EPBC Act and forestry operations is often referred to as an "exemption". This term does not, however, accurately reflect the relationship. The rationale for the RFA provisions in the Act recognises "that in each RFA region a comprehensive assessment has been undertaken to address the environmental, economic and social impacts of forestry operations". Rather than being an exemption from the Act, the establishment of RFAs (through comprehensive regional assessments) actually constitutes a form of assessment and approval for the purposes of the Act.
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