Image for From Forest Destruction and Public Subsidies to Profitable and Sustainable Forestry Practices

Although at the time of writing we have no clear idea as to who will form the next Australian Government, it is certain from the results of the 21 August election that there is a growing recognition of the need for important changes in policy directions.

In conditions of climate change, addressing the issues of economic, social and ecological sustainability requires transparency in government and long-term visions for the future.  Open discussions, democratic procedures, social inclusion and economic equity,  as we develop new ways to live with our physical environment, need to be both real and important in the new directions that we seek to pursue.

It is clear that many Tasmanians who are concerned about environmental, social and economic matters want an open and inclusive discussion of the issues surrounding the production of paper pulp from our forests, both native and plantation. 

Both before and since the call on Tasmanian Times (July 1) by Dr David Obendorf for such a discussion(1), there have been a number of articles written on this subject. 

This paper notes some previous contributions and suggests possible ways to involve more people in working to end the widely perceived corruption in forestry.  It advocates open discussion of the issues rather than talks that are, as advocated by Minister Bryan Green, “out of the public spotlight.”  We hope to start such a discussion and to go beyond discussion to action in the interests of a more sustainable, healthier, more prosperous and more genuinely democratic Tasmania.  There is a vital need to turn forestry practices from a pathway that continues to defraud the public and future generations to a sustainable, economically viable and socially useful pathway.

One valuable contribution to this discussion was a piece on Tasmanian Times (June 15) by Mike Bolan(2) which brings together facts that underpin a powerful argument for radical changes in forestry practices and uses of the timber grown in our forests.  Papers by Senator Christine Milne(3) on the large sums of public money wasted to maintain current forest practices and by Malini Alexander(4) outlining alternative forestry methods have also added usefully to the debate. 

Dr David Leaman has repeatedly drawn attention to the lack of monitoring of the amount of groundwater drawn on by plantations (most recently here(5)) and a piece by Vica Bayley, of the Wilderness Society(6), warns against moves to use woodchips to generate electricity.  There have also been a number of articles, e.g. this one from Frank Strie(7), on the value of the production of biochar through pyrolysis. 

This communication seeks to highlight points made by Mike Bolan (op cit) in particular. We also put on record, our view, of the Ian Johnston paper, (The Mercury, July 14 2010) On TT: Cutting through the forest feud, HERE namely that although it avoids the monoculture plantations issue, it contains very valuable practical suggestions. 

Further the Johnston paper is an example of the open discussion of the issues that is so essential to resolution of the acute problems the pulp mill, forest corporations, successive governments and Forestry Tasmania have created and are creating for present and particularly for future generations of Tasmanians.  The closed discussions between forest corporation representatives and Our Common Ground are not a way forward and have created unhelpful tensions. 

The matters under discussion are about a public resource. They involve vital issues concerning land use, water quality and water quantity and they have major consequences for Tasmania’s future, therefore they must be the subject of open public discussions.  We wish to highlight matters on which people may have widely varying opinions but can act in common, sharing as they do a serious concern for the future of Tasmania.       

Kim Booth MHA, a person with real life experience in the timber industry and Greens spokesperson on forestry issues, as reported on the front page of the Launceston Examiner of Thursday August 12,  said “… a pulp mill will generate virtually no jobs compared to sawmilling and value-adding for a range of products.”  Mr Booth MHA was commenting on the behind the door discussions about Gunns’ mill.  The same report contains the following: “Gunns Ltd spokesman Matt Horan yesterday would only say the company had approval to build on the Bell Bay site.”  There is no mention of the complete lack of due process involved in granting that approval, nor an apology for Gunns’ part in the abuse of proper public process that made this “approval” possible.  To this could be added that open public discussions on the issues involved in the mill and the whole paper from woodchips and pulp project has made it clear that there are losers as well as the few winners. A few locals plus offshore corporations have pocketed massive sums of money that came from the public purse to enable them to keep their otherwise uneconomic projects afloat.

These open rather than behind the door discussions, on Tasmanian Times in particular, have produced hard evidence that the Tasmanian and for that matter other Australian taxpayers have already lost hundreds of millions of dollars as inept or corrupt government practices have channelled large sums of public money into the bank accounts of forest corporations and investors in forestry tax dodges;  the latest estimate by Professor Graeme Wells is $767 million over the last twelve years(8). 

Contractors who have been conned by Gunns into investing in machines to destroy our forests in clear felling operations are now calling for many more $millions of public money to be handed to them.  Considering the likelihood of upcoming hard economic times for all Tasmanians, their compensation should take the form of retraining to work in a revamped forestry industry, one that contributes to, rather than taking from, the public purse.

Further there is the issue of the damage to key water catchments and the misuse of large amounts of water.  There is, as well, as loss of farm lands and farm based communities caused by the spread of monoculture plantations. And as if all the above was not enough there is the issue of toxins from Eucalyptus nitens that has to be added to any serious evaluation of the negative aspects of monoculture plantations for chips,  pulp and paper.

These comments underline how correct the representatives of TAP (Tasmanians Against the Pulp Mill) were in refusing to be part of behind-closed-doors discussions about an issue that has consequences for all Tasmanians, taxpayers throughout Australia and particularly for the people in the Tamar and for the young and future generations.  TAP, as a major organiser of very large mass protests against Gunns Mill, has taken a clear stand for openness in affairs of major public concern which need to be decided by an informed public opinion in open rather than “out of the public gaze” discussions.

Monoculture plantations for pulp are not only an ecological disaster but are economically dependent on massive subsidies from public funds, as well as being socially damaging.  Eucalyptus nitens plantations in particular are intended for paper pulp production and only have very limited use as a timber for construction, so thousands of hectares of our land are thereby locked into an industry whose end products have a short life and release carbon into the atmosphere, thus contributing to detrimental climate change. We believe that any policy response to the question of plantations must take into account the context of global climate change and be based on the following principles.

Toxicity

Monoculture plantations that are dependent on the use of harmful chemicals must be stopped.  The well-publicised concerns raised by Drs Bleaney and Scammell about the possible toxicity of the nitens trees themselves have not been satisfactorily resolved. Perhaps a public debate should be held between members of the committee that presided over the ruling on Dr Scammell’s and Dr Bleaney’s evidence, the doctors themselves and the scientific experts who worked on their evidence.  These concerns aside, the topical application of pesticides and herbicides by spraying and baiting must cease.  Damage to our water, native fauna, domestic animals and public health constitutes too high a price. 

Biodiversity and Food Production

Where plantations have replaced native forests they need to retain, as far as is possible, the same mix of species and tree ages as the original.  We need to restore productive farm land to the production of food.  This is a matter of increasing importance as the issue of food-miles becomes more urgent.  Not only is it environmentally damaging to import food we could grow ourselves, but jobs have been lost in the food processing industry as a result of the loss of cropping land.  As climate change makes other parts of Australia less valuable for food production, the North-East and North-West of Tasmania will become more competitive in this area.  At the broader level, food security itself is likely to be an increasingly important factor in planning for food production.

Social Costs and Land Values

The Bolan analysis (op cit) reveals in detail how once plantations start they drive down the livelihoods of farmers, farm production and land prices in the area they have been planted in. Then in turn still more farmers are forced to sell their farms in a buyer’s market situation.  Tourism and other industries also suffer; no-one visits Tasmania to look at hectare upon hectare of identical trees in straight rows, especially when this is coupled with the likelihood of meeting a laden log truck on a narrow road.

Subsidies

The tax benefits derived from MIS (managed investment schemes) have been all that have kept the timber plantation industry from financial collapse in recent years.  In the case of some of the industry’s major players, even this has not been enough, and they have gone under, causing hardship to many small investors, employees and contractors.  As Bolan puts it “…the system results in support for P[ulp] & P[aper] operations being organised through a small group of powerful interests who will be ‘winners’ in the business while a majority of taxpayers and others get the role of ‘losers’ whose role is to pay the P & P industry to prosper.”  Local government loses income because of the lower council rates paid on plantation land.  State and local governments need to spend millions on upgrading and maintaining roads and other infrastructure in order to keep the industry profitable.

Water

There has never been a comprehensive audit of Tasmania’s water resources and usage.  Groundwater resources have never been measured, nor has there been any study of the effects of its extraction by plantations on other water users, agricultural, industrial or domestic.  As Leaman (op cit) points out, “water generation in the South Esk catchment (and the Meander its principal tributary) is now being reduced by large scale plantation forestry in the upper catchments.”

If we don’t know how much water we have, it is irresponsible to allow unfettered access to it.

Economics of Plantations

According to the Deputy Mayor of Meander Valley, Cr Bob Loone(9), the conversion of agricultural land to timber plantations has cost 1800 jobs and $400 million annually in income.  Mike Bolan (op cit) puts this in a global and historical context: “Globally the P & P (Pulp & Paper) industry has a history of creating social upheaval, engaging in corrupt activities and subverting process.”  He explains that “almost all of the risks are at the feedstock production and processing end” and, as noted above under ‘Subsidies’, this results in a system where taxpayers foot the bill for the industry to apparently prosper.

A Way Forward?

All aspects of forest practice need to be put on a sustainable basis, and clear felling, whether in native forests or plantations, has to be ended.  Properly practised selective harvesting, in approved areas, for building and craft use as distinct from clear felling for wood chips, can be sustainable and has potential for an industry that no longer destroys forests or depends on large scale public subsidies. Our unique and iconic leatherwood honey industry must be saved.  The article on Tasmanian Times by Malini Alexander (op cit) outlines how sustainable and economically viable forest practices elsewhere in the world have succeeded.  Our goal must be an industry that will provide socially beneficial work opportunities, that is economically and ecologically sustainable, and that operates in the interests of all Tasmanians.

The project we suggest below needs to look at land use and at issues of water quantity and quality as the vital matters they are in terms of our own and our children’s future.  There needs to be serious thought and interchange of ideas on how we can:
• encourage sustainable farm practices and phase out dependence on damaging herbicides and pesticides as part of the protection of people’s health and the quality of water.
• recognise that global warming is increasing the urgency of the need to shift public expenditure away from road towards rail infrastructure,
• focus on local production of food and other essentials. We need to give real social, economic and ecological content to the catch phrase “think globally act locally”.

Through all of this we need to recognise the wisdom of the emphasis Professor Ian Lowe puts on new ways of thinking and the open discussion that is essential to making ideas and proposals for a new approach politically viable(10).  Attempts to find solutions behind closed doors and “out of the public gaze “  are at best anti-democratic and at worst open the door to continued corruption.

In this communication we are canvassing the possibility of a widely agreed and broadly sponsored development and publication of a positive set of policies as an alternative to the current push by corporate interests and by politicians who are content with the status quo for a newly dressed up version of the same old policies of forest destruction and water and soil degradation.  Now is the time, when the voters in the recent federal election have called the whole political process in Australia into question, for us to reassess the major party politicians’ subservience to corporate interests, particularly in the forestry industry.  What do you think? And would you / your organisation consider participating in a joint process to create:

(A) a detailed proposal for a new way forward and
(B) a campaign to gain public support for the necessary changes?

John Biggs
Max Bound
Stuart Godfrey
Austra Maddox
Tim Thorne
For Now We The People Tas. Project

References:

1.  http://tasmaniantimes.com/index.php?/weblog/article/without-the-skills-grand-plans-melt-into-dreams/

2.  http://tasmaniantimes.com/index.php?/weblog/article/the-truth-about-plantations/

3.  http://tasmaniantimes.com/index.php?/weblog/article/the-rot-remains-at-the-core-of-forestry-and-government/

4.  http://tasmaniantimes.com/index.php?/weblog/article/a-sustainable-way-forward-for-forestry/

5.  http://tasmaniantimes.com/index.php?/article/water-policy-reality-and-the-future/

6.  http://tasmaniantimes.com/index.php?/article/world-environment-day-warning-watch-out-for-wood-fired-power-stations/

7 http://tasmaniantimes.com/index.php?/weblog/article/frank8/

8.  http://tasmaniantimes.com/index.php?/weblog/article/beware-of-politicians-bearing-gifts/

9.  http://tasmaniantimes.com/index.php?/weblog/article/methyl-bromide-for-logs-must-be-abandoned/show_comments (comment no13)

10.  Lowe Ian, A Big Fix (Black Inc 2010)—(a readable111pages of useful information and good ideas)