Image for The forestry assault

If someone wanted to damage you, your property, your lifestyle, your future and/or your business how would you feel about it if they also expected you to pay them to cause the damage?

Unenthusiastic? Hostile?

That’s basically why so many Tasmanians oppose forestry as it’s conducted here.

Overall it seems that the shift of focus of Tasmania’s timber industry from valued timbers to woodchips has fuelled a range of dysfunctional results, including huge losses to the industry involving multiple bankruptcies (e.g. Great Southern, TimberCorp, FEA) and lost profits for Gunns. The ongoing efforts to shoehorn the idea of turning trees into their lowest common denominator of fibre, has corrupted our political system and threatens a massive community revolt.

The forestry story has previously been focused on environmental objections versus forestry interests that decry objections as “green” (and therefore presumably irrelevant). Without paid representatives and professional media spokespeople, the stories of communities and ordinary individuals have been swamped by paid spinmeisters.

I will try to tell the story simply - complex and extensive though it is - and to go beyond the name calling, accusations and assumptions of entitlement that are usually contained in forestry’s self-interested narrative.

The island …

… of Tasmania is about 63,000 sq km, much of which is inaccessible. Overall, it offers one of the few remaining places on the planet where some natural wilderness still exists along with low population densities that promise rural lifestyles that could be enjoyed in peace and tranquillity.

Because there are still some natural forest areas that remain beautiful and offer peace and tranquillity, the island offers the opportunity for relaxed lifestyles, intimate relations with nature and innovative industries (for example, self sustaining retirement centres) except for …

The forest industry

… which dominates Tasmania’s landscape, resources, infrastructures and governments and enjoys multiple exemptions from the laws that apply to, and protect, the rest of us; that judges public grievances against it and finds itself blameless; that depletes the landscape and our water catchments at our expense; and that constantly expects more money and more resources from us in order to feed global fibre markets and line the pockets of a few.

Astute readers will note that trying to compete in a global low margin/high volume commodities market from a small island with relatively high costs was always a very dubious proposition. It seems to fit a 19th century “big is good” mentality but doesn’t fit Tasmania.

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The only way that forestry has been able to maintain any semblance of profitability is via generous subsidies and exemptions from laws coupled with low or no cost resources and other forms of public assistance. Forestry describes their heavily subsidised state as “sustainable”.

When the absurd “world scale” pulp mill was first mooted, it was well known that global prices for pulp were on a long term decline and that low cost suppliers would dominate. Indeed expert forest actuaries and others advised the ill fated Resource Development and Planning Commission (RPDC) of the realities. The Labor government’s answer to that problem was to dump the RPDC!

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DBS Vickers pulp and wood report ( HERE ) published at the time the pulp mill was to be evaluated, forecast current world realities …

Low cost suppliers could displace existing producers. A key trend on the supply side is that producers from low-cost regions like Brazil and Indonesia could displace higher cost producers from North America and Europe. This is especially so given that supply is expected to exceed demand over the next few years. The closing down of some capacity should then help to tighten supply.

When we read the Vickers report (and many others) and looked at Gunns “world scale” proposal in context, we saw that the entire idea was ridiculously over scaled for a small island like Tasmania. The only “solution” was more and bigger subsidies from taxpayers; money that couldn’t possibly be justified if forestry was “sustainable” as the industry insisted.

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To get a better sense of what “world scale” means, Gunns mill was to produce about 1 million tonnes of pulp per year, requiring 4 million tonnes of green pulp wood. With a production rate per hectare of land of around 150 tonnes per hectare taking around 15 years to grow, that means clearfelling about 270 sq km of densely planted trees each and every year - about twice the area of Sydney.

Since it takes about 15 years to regrow, the total area to be shaved clean by the mill would be around 4,000 sq km! To produce that timber requires more than 600 Gl of free water taken from Tasmania’s catchments each year at the expense of food producers and communities, plus a load of fresh water to be converted into a toxic waste stream by the pulp mill’s operations.

From recent collapses in the pulp wood supply industry it’s pretty clear that Tasmania cannot compete on price in global markets in which the price paid is not only non-negotiable, it’s declining every year!

Tree growers and forestry contractors are the ones who must suffer the predictable price squeeze. Taxpayers must fork out for any losses via a cosy $15/tonne 20-year wood supply deal between the government and Gunns that prices our resources to attract foreign buyers. We already know that …

The impacts so far include …

  * closure of sawmills, many of which were family owned;
  * job losses as mechanisation takes over from manual work;
  * expansion of activities to feed a global market with a low value commodity (fibre);
  * expansion of plantations to nearly 3,000 sq km requiring 600 Gl water each year;
  * large reductions in rates income to Councils as plantations pay a fraction;
  * legal problems for everyone as forestry exempted from laws that apply to taxpayers;
  * health and other system failures as taxes are diverted to forestry subsidies;
  * serious concerns that vast plantation operations are polluting water supplies;
  * health problems as autumn forestry “burns” cloud skies with particulates;
  * frightening driving experiences from encounters with massive log trucks; and
  * MIS failures creating big losses for mom and pop “investors”.

Some argue that Gunns is fortunate that they don’t have their $2.5 billion pulp mill already because they’d have more than $3 billion debt that they couldn’t pay off as opposed to the current level of $600 million.

Ever since the mill was first falsely described as an investment in Tasmania, the industry and government have relied on deception, ignorance and spin to sell their proposal. The community always knew that the mill was a $2.5 billion investment in Scandinavian suppliers that Tasmanians would have to pay off with their resources and taxes.

Why is it all happening?

According to many, Australia’s governments believe that forestry money and CFMEU votes can get them elected, consequently, like Howard’s government previously, they are prepared to sacrifice our lifestyles, our hopes and aspirations, our taxes and other services, our water and forests, impartial representation, our environment and animals and anything else that it might take to get this outsized, 19th century, big smokestack proposal off the ground and lever themselves into office.

What Tasmanians get

Here’s the story that I was told by the many people that I visited in rural communities in Tasmania.

“The industry puts its hand out for multiple favours from taxpayers in the form of big cash subsidies; free water to feed their 3,000 sq km plantation estate which was acquired at taxpayer and small investors’ expense; free roads and bridges plus their maintenance; paid forestry research and publicity; legal exemptions from planning, clean air, freedom of information and other laws that apply to everyone else.

“So many exemptions and favours that forestry is now literally a law unto themselves.

“In exchange they cut down our forests to sell as wood chips to overseas markets; destroy animal habitats; burn off everything with napalm including ground cover and organic soil; smoke out our towns and villages and threaten asthmatics and anyone else with breathing problems; dominate our roads with overloaded log trucks; put poisons in our water supplies; and threaten us all with a sub standard pulp mill whose approval was bought from a Swedish pulp mill supplier.

“The result of forestry’s efforts includes losses of food production farmland; huge depletion of our water catchments (600 Gl/yr); bankrupt food processing businesses; forest contractors forced to operate on a shoe string; bankrupt MIS schemes; massive losses to small investors and taxpayers; and a divided community and corrupted government.”

That’s what most Tasmanians have got for their hard earned taxes … detrimental impacts, big costs, conflict and division. Meanwhile patients of our health system are suffering as lack of funding bites deep into essential services.

Mark Poynter’s article ( Extract, Comments on TT, HERE  On OO HERE ) goes a long way to showing how that conflict is inspired and maintained. Instead of recognising the damage that forestry is doing, he takes the simple-minded approach of attacking critics as being “deep greens”. In doing so, he extends the problems for forestry and for communities.

The root cause of conflict is the actions of forest clearers that attack the lives, properties, health, governance, taxes and futures of forest lovers and ordinary people who must pay for the depredations and failures of an industry that was designed for another time and another place.

The debate

The exchange of media releases that passes for debate in Australia has mainly been focused on environmental objections to forestry. Both these and industry arguments have been advanced by paid representatives of the groups involved.

The community’s paid representatives are the politicians from Labor and Liberal parties that “approved” the pulp mill before it was even evaluated. Once party approval was achieved, Labor and Liberal politicians took a position of ignoring community representations against more support for forestry, or opposed to a “world scale” pulp mill.

The community chant of “no pulp mill” can now be replaced with “no taxation without representation”.

The perversion of our “representative” system is complete.

That represents the case for the community.

Key concepts and assumptions that I used:

  1. Most Tasmanians want to retain the unique qualities of the environment that we have, rather than degrade it to advantage a few people at the expense of many.
  2. An industry should contribute more to communities than it detracts.
  3. Communities have the moral right to establish the manner in which industries operate in their midst (e.g. pollution and noise control) and the moral right to determine how their resources and monies are used.
  4. In Tasmania too much “forest management” means wholesale clear felling and burning, with valued timbers along with pulp wood all going to the chipper.
  5. The level of concern being expressed in the community (approximately 65 per cent oppose a pulp mill) is proportional to the damage being done by forestry.
  6. Tasmanian Times doesn’t create anti-forestry fervour; it is the actions of forestry that lead to those views.
  7. The existence of forests does not itself justify the actions of forestry nor create a need for woodchips. The existence of areas reserved from logging do not justify further logging undertaken elsewhere.
  8. By dint of paying taxes, Tasmanians and Australians are entitled to fair and equal representation from their paid representatives.
  9. All Australians should be equal under the law. There exists no justification to exempt one industry from the laws and requirements under which the rest of us must live.

Mike Bolan is an independent complex systems and business consultant. Mike worked for the Tamar valley community and others to prepare materials for the RPDC in which he spent about a year visiting Tasmanian communities, businesses and individuals to learn the impacts of forestry operations and the implications of a pulp mill on them. The lessons learned from that period are still relevant today and are used in this story, which is told to inform not to gain income.

First published today on Online Opinion: HERE