It seems Tasmania may have had its Neville Chamberlain moment on the future of its forests.

“I believe it is peace for our time,” the British PM famously declared after signing a deal with Germany — in 1938. Similarly, a recent Tasmanian deal to end the bitter conflict over logging may be a false dawn. If the Liberals win the state election on Saturday, as expected, they’ve promised to scrap the deal.

So does that mean a return to the Tasmanian forest wars which divided the state for 30 years, burst periodically onto mainlanders’ TV screens and plagued federal politicians? Protesters have largely dropped their marches, blockades and market-based actions. Are we in for another round?

Crikey talked to a range of insiders and the answer is: yes, it is quite likely the forest wars will kick off again. But industry figures told us the state Liberals may refine their strategy after polling day and find a compromise to avert full-scale conflict.

Forestry has long been the hottest topic in Tasmanian politics. You’re either for forestry or against it, and you’ve probably got a bumper sticker advertising your views. Families have been split, businesses burned down, people assaulted in closed-door meetings, lifelong enmities formed. A key issue for decades has been which forests to log and which to reserve; the trend has been to reserve more forests, as more of the public (including the mainland public) called for it.

Labor has been in power in Tasmania since 1998. The federal and state Labor governments worked out a peace deal which resulted in them signing the Tasmanian Forests Intergovernmental Agreement (2011), basically a deal to reserve more forests and funnel federal money to the state as compensation. In a related move, a chunk of the forestry industry and most environmental groups signed the Tasmanian Forest Agreement (2012) which agreed to put a lot of forest in reserves — about half a million hectares, including parts of the Tarkine and the deep south — while agreeing that other bits of forest could be logged. The green groups promised to stop their protests. Laws to put the peace deal into effect passed the Tasmanian Parliament in 2013.

There are people on both sides of the debate who don’t support the agreement. And among those who signed the deal, both sides genuinely think they had to compromise a lot.

Enter the Liberals. At the state and federal levels they’ve promised to scrap the peace deal. A key reason for this relates to the way the deal was reached, the fact it is a Labor deal, and the fact that Labor is deeply unpopular in Tasmania.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott recently told a forestry industry crowd “we have too much locked-up forest”. He has taken action to delist 74,000 hectares of newly declared Tasmanian World Heritage Area.

But the state Liberals have given few details. We don’t know what they would do with the crucial half a million hectares of new reserves. Liberal leader (and premier apparent) Will Hodgman says he will “open them up … so that they can be used to create jobs”. But there’s no lines on maps, and as insiders know, it’s the lines on maps that matter.

“Behind the scenes, there’s talk the Liberals may symbolically ‘tear up’ the forest peace deal while keeping most of it in place …”

All the state Liberal forest policy really says is that the government would bring in tougher anti-protest laws (including a mandatory jail sentence) and give businesses greater rights to sue protesters. The Tasmanian Liberals did not respond to Crikey‘s request for comment for this story.

Vica Bailey from The Wilderness Society, who signed the peace deal, says if the Liberals open the new reserves to logging, “of course” the forest wars will return. “It would be naive in the extreme to think that you can log World Heritage forests and not expect the community to stand up,” Bailey told Crikey from Hobart. Bailey says his organisation won’t walk away from the peace deal.

Scott Jordan from the Tarkine National Coalition says the Liberal policy will “go back to 30 years of fighting about it”. “If anything, I think it will be a hotter situation and much harder to get to another agreement,” he told Crikey.

But there’s a lot more to it, and what a politician says who desperately wants to win 14 seats in an election in three days’ time might be different to what he does with a majority under his belt and four years to make it count. Hodgman may declare the Tasmanian Forest Agreement dead, but the real issue is what he does with the new reserves. Terry Edwards, who represents the timber industry and signed the peace deal, says the lack of detail from the Liberals “gives us room to move”. Edwards, the chief executive of the Forest Industries Association of Tasmania, says the idea of “no new reserves” is open to interpretation. Does it mean going back on recent reserves?

Edwards, along with Evan Rolley from hardwood veneer producer Ta Ann, told Crikey the industry needs a “controversy-free” wood supply. Both emphasised the industry needs wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council; this is an international process which discourages taking wood from high conservation value forests.

Rolley, a former chief of the GBE Forestry Tasmania (and not loved by green types), said: “We will not process wood from any of the areas that have been agreed should be protected.” Ta Ann, which sells wood for flooring, construction and furniture, has locked in contracts until 2028 which specify wood will not be taken from those areas. Ta Ann has briefed Japanese customers this week about their Tasmanian wood supply after media reports on the World Heritage delisting. Rolley pointed out the Abbott government’s bid to delist the new WHA may fail; the World Heritage committee decides.

Jane Calvert from the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union said the industry won’t want to log a former World Heritage Area: “There’s no market for the wood the Liberals think they’re going to provide us with.”

Behind the scenes, there’s talk the Liberals may symbolically “tear up” the peace deal while keeping most of it in place, with some tweaks. There are concerns the peace deal does not provide enough speciality timber; that could be addressed. A proportion of the half a million hectares could be taken out of reserves but most left in. Industry insiders told Crikey they hope the new Liberal government would listen to them and come up with a new forest plan which averts major conflict. Whether environmental groups would accept that is an open question; many environmentalists think the movement has already given up enough.

CLARIFICATION. The original version of this story stated that one signatory to the Tasmanian Forest Agreement had walked away from the agreement in the wake of Abbott’s speech. This was in relation to media reports on March 6 that the Australian Forest Contractors Association had dropped its support. However the Contractors Association issued a media release on March 10 saying it “remained committed” to the agreement.

Peter Fray

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