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Tasmanian forest deal: is this peace in our time?

A deal has just been struck to end Tasmania’s 40-year war over forests. Tasmanian-based freelance journalist Bruce Montgomery asks if the armistice will hold.

Is there really to be peace in Tasmania’s forests following the signing of an agreement between industry players and some conservation organisations? Will 40 years of conflict that started with the advent of woodchipping here in 1972 come to an end?

You wish.

The agreement just signed between some industry players and some environment groups is not an enforceable, done deal by any stretch of the imagination. The fact that both sides say they have mixed feelings about putting pen to paper only reflects the real world outside the cloisters of their two-year negotiations.

On one side, industry groups, business, private foresters, farmers and the now dominant Tasmanian Liberal Party (43% support against Labor’s 20%) are vehemently against the agreement, as it has been explained this morning by chief industry negotiator Terry Edwards, chief executive of the Forest Industries Association of Tasmania.

On the other, The Wilderness Society, the Australian Conservation Foundation and Environment Tasmania may have signed up, but other environmental groups have not. They include those still active in the forests; Still Wild Still Threatened, the Huon Valley Environment Centre and, most notably, Markets for Change, which specialises in bagging Tasmanian forestry practices in the state’s overseas timber and paper markets. This week Markets for Change appointed Bob Brown to its board and former Tasmanian Greens’ leader Peg Putt as its chief executive. Peace?

The Wildos, ACF and Environment Tasmania all concede they cannot speak for the groups like Markets for Change. In this microcosm of environmental politics we see the continuing evolution of the green, the light green and the dark green, the realists and the fundamentalists. We are still trying to work out where the political arm, the Tasmanian Greens, sits in the spectrum — maybe even further to the Left. Current Greens leader Nick McKim categorises those who continue to protest in the Tasmanian forests, throughout the peace talks, as heroes akin to Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi.

The key elements of the agreement are 395,200 hectares of forests into immediate reserves, another 108,813 ha included in March 2015 if everyone behaves themselves and an annual cap on high quality sawlog production of 137,000 cubic metres, down from 348,000 cubic metres.

At the time of writing it was expected the Giddings Labor government would introduce enabling legislation into the House of Assembly today with a view to qualifying for a grab-bag of federal money to diversify regional economies and compensate workers, contractors and sawmillers.

The state’s Upper House, the Legislative Council (which is dominated by independents), will baulk at rushing its consideration until perhaps the beginning of next year. It is far from certain the independent MPs in the Legislative Council will support it. Industry that is opposed to the deal and private foresters will mount an intensive lobbying campaign to have the deal rejected.

In that lobbying Terry Edwards will find his words today coming back to haunt him: his “mixed feelings” about the concessions that he has had to make; “sacrificed access” to the forests, “more job losses”; his declaration that FIAT signed the deal because it was time for the war to cease.

The terms of the armistice have to stand the test of time, not the need for hostilities to end. The legacy of any legislated agreement will not only be the extent of timber resources available to future players. It raises fundamental issues about the management of a greatly enlarged forest reserve in a state half of whose land mass is already in reserves.

Chief among those issues is fire management. Forests in national parks and the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area cannot be managed to minimise their susceptibility to wildfire and, as 1967 showed, Tasmania is a potential tinderbox each summer.

War may be too strong a word but nobody wants the vitriol of the past 40 years to continue. There has to be a middle path, but it should not have been left to this group to peg out the preferred route.

*Bruce Montgomery is a former journalist with The Australian and a former communications manager with the Tasmanian Forests and Forest Industry Council

5
  • 1
    dazza
    Posted Thursday, 22 November 2012 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    Considering the forest industries in Tasmania employ …well, not many people at all, I find it strange the media are interested at all in what this propaganda council has to say. They seem to be very loud for a small group.
    Surely common sense will prevail and someone can pursuade the loggers to think about the next generation and not just the immediate needs of a few investors.

  • 2
    Posted Thursday, 22 November 2012 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    I wonder why they call themselves ‘The Liberal Party’, when they’re against everything?

  • 3
    Posted Thursday, 22 November 2012 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

    Nice try Bruce. The more logging of wet schlerophyll with the replacement of dry schlerophyll regrowth the GREATER the risk, intensity and danger of megafire.

    It’s criminal negligence to log wet forest in the 21C creating a patchwork of dry tinder across whole landscapes.

    Phil Chaney made the point very eloquently for the Tasmanian Forest industry years ago with this:

    Planning Considerations

    Fire Risk

    One of the major planning constraints associated with thinning is the higher level of fuel present after the operations. It is not considered feasible in Tasmania to carry out fuel reduction burns in thinned coupes because of the high fuel loads and the sensitivity of the retained trees to fire. The location of thinned coupes amongst conventionally logged coupes is problematic, as it is not recommended that any regeneration burn take place within two kilometres of areas with high levels of flash fuel within two years of harvest (Cheney 1988).

    Tree crowns (heads), bark, and other harvest residue make up the fuel load. The climate on the floor of the forest is altered by thinning, with higher wind speeds and temperature, lower humidity, and lower moisture content in the fuel itself. Understorey vegetation characteristics change because of these changes to the microclimate, especially increased light. Bracken ferns and cutting grass may grow vigorously, each having a far higher flammability than the replaced woody species (Cheney and Gould 1991).”

    Reference: Forestry Tasmania (2001), Thinning Regrowth Eucalypts - Native Forest Silviculture Technical Bulletin No. 13 Second Edition, Forestry Tasmania.

    And ecological scientists have confirmed the above observation with more systematic studies of the effect of logging promoting bushfire hazard - no doubt through removal of water from the micro climate. Wet stuff doesn’t burn so well. Dry stuff does. That’s the grim reality, and it’s time the loggers faced up to both the music and their responsibility for the debacle of old forest land management this last 50 years of highly mechanised woodchipping, never mind “timber”.

  • 4
    Posted Thursday, 22 November 2012 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

    By the by, what is the proportion of conservation areas in Tasmania (population 500,000) to the area of Australia?

  • 5
    Posted Friday, 23 November 2012 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

    ULYSSES BUTTERFLY [4} Excellent question.

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