The prospect of a resolution to continuing conflicts over forest management in Tasmania is a positive one. However, the process so far has been far from ideal.
A few key parties have been involved in largely secret discussions that have excluded involvement from many people that will be affected by the outcome.
By global standards, Tasmanian native forests are generally well managed. Tasmania has some of the world’s highest rates of forest protection in conservation reserves, including 970,000 hectares of old growth forests. Those forest types below current conservation protection targets are largely on private land in eastern Tasmania, where there is little timber harvesting but significant threats from clearing for agriculture or urban development. Environmental NGOs continue to focus on protection for ‘icon’ forests in south-west Tasmania, but these forest types are relatively well represented in the reserve system.
The biggest sticking point in the agreement is likely to be the proposed transition of the forest industry out of public native forests into plantations. There are currently insufficient plantations to meet wood supply commitments or replace the level of industry activity and employment from native forests. Only 10 per cent of current Tasmanian plantations can produce higher value products. The current crop of eucalypt plantations was established largely for pulpwood, either for export or for use in the proposed pulp mill. They are generally not of the right species or varieties, nor have they been managed to produce products for construction, flooring or joinery.
Consequently, it will take some time to establish a sufficient area to a replacement resource. It will take 20 to 40 years (depending on site and management) for new plantations to provide higher-value products. Further research will be required to support their management and new types of processing will be required to produce higher value products.
Expanding plantations has also been controversial. Increased plantations on agricultural land have created strong community reactions due to concerns about loss of community values, farming land, water or aesthetic impacts.
Consequently, developing an increased plantation estate will take time to build community support and the knowledge base for plantation production. A similar deal struck between government, industry and conservation groups in south-east Queensland about 10 years ago has not yet resulted in sufficient public or private investment in new plantations to offset losses in timber production from native forests.
It will also take money. Given the failure of most companies involved in plantation-based managed investment schemes and the controversy surrounding the sector, there is little interest in banks or the finance sector in investing in new plantations. Public funding will necessarily need to come from the Federal Government, with arguments for this investment competing with water buybacks, irrigation, infrastructure, education or health commitments.
New investment models will be required to provide the necessary finance. Some are pointing to financing from climate change and carbon. While the carbon benefits of new plantations are clear, the potential benefits of phasing out native forest harvesting, in the face of increasing fire risks and other impacts of climate change are highly uncertain.
The need for the Tasmanian agreement has been driven primarily by changes in international timber markets. Australians use the equivalent of 22 million cubic metres of wood each year in timber, paper and other forest products. Thirty per cent of this currently comes from native forests. With our high value dollar, the forest sector in Australia needs to go high-tech.
In Europe the forest sector and government are investing heavily in research to support new types of engineered and laminated wood products, biochemicals to replace petrochemicals and in clean, highly efficient, wood-based bioenergy systems. We need research and industry investment to maximise volume production, value recovery and resource use efficiency from the wood we do harvest.
These new technologies will require more highly skilled and trained professionals and technicians that can bring wider benefits to Tasmania and other parts of regional Australia. However, investment in research, from industry or government, requires assurance of resource security and a long-term future for the industry.
While the agreement is focused on protecting ‘high conservation value’ forests, defining these forests has proven challenging. In my view, we should be providing for high conservation values across our forest estate. All forests, including those managed for timber production, should be managed to provide clean water, biodiversity, carbon, soil protection, recreation and pollination benefits in a multi-functional, landscape-scale approach. This philosophy is widely promoted internationally, but in Australia we seem to be stuck in a limited vision, ‘ecological apartheid’ model, where conservation and production must be clearly segregated.
We might overcome this by improving the aesthetics of forest operations. Foresters have developed management practices that result in effective regeneration and retain most landscape-level biodiversity, but, let’s face it, they often look pretty bad. We are now more demanding in visual and functional design in the built environment. We need to adopt the same principles in managing our natural environment.
I have been a close observer of forests and forestry in Tasmania all my life. The forest sector in Australia is in a turbulent period. This can provide the opportunity for creativity and innovation to drive new models of forest management, new products and new industries. A lasting and sustainable agreement on forest management in Tasmania will require new thinking and some tough choices. It is only likely to be achieved through genuine, long-term engagement in decision making from all parts of the Tasmanian community. With that, Tasmanian forests may well become, in the words of Dr Kerry Arabena, co-chair of the Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, “landscapes of reconciliation”.
Rod Keenan is a Professor of Forest and Ecosystem Science at The University of Melbourne. He grew up in Tasmania and worked there in forest management and research for 10 years.
In response to the Wilderness Society’s call for support for the “Statements of Principles” re forest practices
Dear Vica Bayley,
While I and many others agree 100% with a retreat from clear felling native/natural/old growth Tasmanian forests I find the recently signed “Statement of Principles” ( On TT: HERE )regarding the future development of what is misleadingly called forestry not only extremely ill-conceived but outright illegitimate. Any agreement of how the forests (and land use in general) of an entire State should be managed cannot be based on the meeting of two handfuls of selectively chosen representatives of groups with a direct monetary interest in the subject at hand.
We are looking at a major social, economic and ecological issue of State wide, even national and ultimately global importance. How does a population in its entirety wish to manage its natural resources? How does this population want to do this, looking at the past and attempting to avoid major mistakes that are now well known and reasonable people do not want to repeat?
Having a few meetings around a table and coming up with what is clearly a shallow statement of principles fraught with ambiguous and outright deceiving phrases cannot be the way to go.
Your organisation and other ENGOs have been warned about the danger of such an outcome for over a year. But you chose to pursue your myopic line of action without taking note of the many well meaning and well founded warnings. Sensible alternatives to a superficial forest peace deal have been presented (and continue to be published around the traps) by many qualified writers. Obviously to no avail.
The Tasmanian forest management with all its wide ranging consequences for land use planning in general as well as economic and social wellbeing needs to be reformed well beyond a misleading set of untenable principles.
It is embarrassing to observe the PR hype created consciously (by players like your organisation and forest enterprises) and less consciously by some media and many battle weary individuals. Principles that contain the adherence to contracts, which assure the continuation of forest practices (or even an acceleration of the resource mismanagement) are about the last thing this sorely tested state now needs.
To achieve the goal of protecting “old growth” forests, securing wood supply for a reasonable timber industry, the preservation and enhancement of agricultural land along with rural communities, water and climate management, landscape and tourism considerations call for a totally different approach to a decision making process.
Your organisation may think that the current situation could be regarded as a first step, a foot in the door. The text of the “principles” before us, however, suggests that you are in a check-mate after the first move in this tough game. But not only is your organisation in a check-mate. You are dragging a significant proportion of the population down with you – and a good percentage of your important following as well.
As for practical solutions to the core problem, which is forestry management, there are today silvicultural approaches in several parts of the world that address satisfactorily the management of “production forests” by using nature based forest management systems that lead to high biodiversity, sustainable harvest of quality timber as well as forests open to recreation and playing a vital role in the preservation of watersheds, favourable micro climates, erosion control, and pleasant landscapes.
We hear and see not even a hint of such considerations in this deceptive document that you have signed. We see and hear not a hint of public consultation methods or outright direct democracy with binding popular votes that might lead to a truly durable Tasmanian forestry policy.
And I daresay we don’t see it because organisations like yours are not interested in the big picture of democratic policy making and in particular of alternative resource management approaches that are widely and successfully practiced elsewhere.
The Wilderness Society and other ENGO signatories of the Tasmanian forestry “Principles” do no longer have my support unless you admit your error of judgement and are open to a steep learning curve by listening to experts in silviculture, land use planning and democratic decision making processes. Such experts are easily available locally and globally.