It was back to nature last week – but now it’s back to Canberra. Does the Labor Leader realise what drafting a decent environment policy involves?

Iron Bark Latham (as we must now call him) waxed lyrical after his visit to the Styx forest with Bob Brown last week:

“Yeah, I’d like to say a few thing that I’ve certainly learnt a lot over the last couple of days. I’ve been asked about this issue right around the country and, really, you couldn’t have an informed opinion unless you saw it with your own eyes and heard both sides of the story,” he told the meeja.

“I wanted to find out the facts and I did come here with an open mind and it can… it obviously is a contentious issue in the community but I think with good process and good policy, good science, good consideration of all the issues, you can come out with the right outcome and I’m confident we’ll do that prior to the next federal election.”

Now, after experiencing the thrill of nature, there’s the drudgery of serious policy making – a forest of facts and figures and a swamp of sensitivities Iron Bark will need to navigate if he is to find his way to the Lodge.

Let’s just look at one issue – old growth forests.

People either haven’t thought about it, aren’t really rattled by it or think cutting down one tree each year is one tree too many. Labor’s policy makers, however, will need to look at the statistics and then make a fully informed decision.

Iron Bark’s new pals at the Wilderness Society have a page of statistics that they’ve assembled from various Government references at http://www.wilderness.org.au/campaigns/forests/tasmania/tas_stats2).

Most of it looks about right, bearing in mind that the Wilderness Society will always spin the data their way.

But under the section “Logging” and the “Area of old growth logged in 2001-2002” they say that the figures are unavailable – but that they estimate it to be 11,000 hectares.

However, figures are available from Forestry Tasmania in their Sustainable Forest Management Report 2003 at http://www.forestrytas.com.au/forestrytas/pdf_files/sustainable_forest_management/sfm_2003/sfm_2003_objective_2.pdf).

Forestry Tasmania reckon that they clear felled about 780ha of old growth forest. Old growth is also harvested by other systems such as selective logging, so the total area logged in 2001-02 is about 1,800ha.

Under the Tasmania Together program, the state government has said that they will pursue the “Complete phase out of clear felling in old growth forests by 2010” (see http://www.tasmaniatogether.tas.gov.au/second_report/environment_overview.html).

Doesn’t this mean that all the current talk of ending the clearfelling of old growth forest really affects six years of cutting 780ha per year, or 4,680ha?

The Wilderness Society are really only concerned with the most Tolkienesque forests or old growth tall forests, and according to their site there was 201,340ha in 1996. So, does this mean the major federal environmental issue will be all about reducing Tasmanian tall old growth forests to about 97.5 per cent? Would any other issue be so argued?

There’s is another important aspect to consider – the environment.

It’s almost a year since the Australian Terrestrial Biodiversity Assessment was released, and the warning was raised that Australia faces an extinction crisis.

Almost three thousand ecosystems are threatened, along with their resident species, and the vast bulk of these are found in heavily cleared areas.

The report states that “The highest number of threatened species occurred in southern and eastern Australia, within the subregions from the southern highlands in Victoria and NSW and along the coast from Sydney to north of Brisbane”.

Various other reports have stated that the Murray River is on the brink of collapse, we will lose almost 40 per cent of our productive farmlands to salinity within 20 years, and The Australian Greenhouse Office says emissions are still increasing.

Iron Bark could go ahead and save the Tasmania old growth forests. It would cause a lot of bother, cost a lot of money, and make negligible difference to real environmental values – but the photo-ops and preference flows might mean that his personal environment changes to the Prime Minister’s suite.

However, if Iron Bark has really been moved by his back to nature trip last week, why just worry about old growth forests? Why not sell the rest of Telstra and use the proceeds to save the Murray?

Why chase non-issues when there are much more serious matters at hand?

It couldn’t be because it’s hard to create great visuals for the evening teevs by warning how turning rivers muddy kills fish, could it?

Iron Bark thinks he’s tough – but he’s going for the easy option. Showing pictures of majestic trees rising from mist in some exotic location is a lot easier that showing people the consequences of their day-to-day lives at home.

“I think anyone who just wanders around different sites, tourism sites and the like, you realise that it’s more than just a Tasmanian question,” he told us last week.

Does he realise the full significance of what he’s said – and what drafting a decent environment policy involves?

Hillary Bray can be contacted at [email protected]

Peter Fray

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