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This story begins with Richard Flanagan’s powerful and influential 2007 essay, ‘Gunns: the Tragedy of Tasmania’ (i). The story Flanagan tells is reimagined here as but one act in a larger work of tragic theatre, in the classic Greek tradition – let us call it The Tragedy of Tasmania’s Forests. What is striking about the drama currently playing out on the Tasmanian stage is how much of the script echoes Flanagan’s, even if many of the roles have been reversed. There are also new elements of farce and irony, but the underlying behaviour of the lead actors – and the outcomes for Tasmania – remain little different from those against which Flanagan railed.

The definition of tragedy as ‘a form of art based on human suffering that offers its audience pleasure’ (ii) seems particularly apposite here. Flanagan’s essay, among others (iii), describes the human cost of Tasmania’s long-running forest conflict, for the pleasure, Flanagan contends, of corporate interests and their political lackeys. As James Boyce’s Van Diemen’s Land reminds us, human suffering associated with contestation over Tasmania’s forests has a history as long as that of European conquest of the island; the pleasure that was once entirely Her Majesty’s could, in more recent times, be argued to be that of the national political advantage wrought from Tasmanian forest issues.

The drama described by Flanagan emerged following the failed Salamanca Process (iv) of 1989-90, the first serious attempt at a negotiated settlement to contemporary conflicts over the management of Tasmania’s forests. The curtain came down on this act twenty years later, in 2010, when hitherto secret talks between the erstwhile villain in Flanagan’s act, Gunns Ltd, and a newly energised alliance in Tasmania’s environmental movement, became public.

As Flanagan argues, this story is of profound importance for Tasmania’s people and future. It is also nationally significant: if, as Boyce suggests, the dramas of Van Diemen’s Land were once separable from the broader Australian context, this is no longer the case. The general character and storyline are well known, even if many of the details are not. They have been told in historical terms in John Dargavel’s Fashioning Australia’s Forests; from the perspectives of forest managers in Leslie Carron’s History of Forestry in Australia; and from the perspective of environmentalists in Judith Ajani’s The Forest Wars (v). Broadly, the sequence of events in the Tasmanian forest story could be embodied in acts titled ‘Aboriginal Management’; ‘European Conquest and Aboriginal Dispossession’; ‘Wanton and Unregulated Plunder’; ‘Early Technical Management and Industrial Forestry’; ‘Woodchipping Begins’; and ‘Conflicts Escalate’. The legacy of each of these performances shapes the set, the cast and the audience for what Flanagan describes.

In Flanagan’s essay, power over Tasmania’s forests and political leadership rests with Gunns Ltd, by 1995 overwhelmingly the largest Tasmanian forestry company, with decisions made in a shadowy world removed from public scrutiny, where vested interests prevail in ‘a culture of secrecy, shared interest and intimidation’.

Due process, such as that regarding the State’s approval for Gunn’s pulp mill, is subverted in the interests of the dominant player; the larger polity is threatened.

The current act opens in October 2010 with the release of a Statement of Principles from a group of forest-sector actors – environment NGOs, and forest industry and forest workers’ organisations (vi) – who have been in closed-door negotiations ‘to resolve the conflict over forests in Tasmania, protect native forests, and develop a strong sustainable timber industry’ (vii). This is a goal little different from that of the governments’ Regional Forest Agreement (RFA) process fifteen years previously (viii), or the Salamanca Process before it. This time round, negotiations were catalysed by a change of management and a consequent radical change of direction at Gunns, still the dominant industry voice in Tasmania’s forests sector. Gunns is now willing to forgo the public native forest wood to which it is contractually entitled, and close its native forest businesses, to focus on its proposed and now entirely plantation-based Tamar Valley pulp mill, the focus of so much reprobation in Flanagan’s essay (ix). Ironically, Gunns is able to pursue this strategy only as a consequence of a decade of native forest conversion to plantations. This replacement of native forests with plantations was facilitated by the RFA as a trade-off for conservation reserves and sadly acquiesced in by the majority of the conservation movement: another tragic element of recent Tasmanian forest history (x).

The Tasmanian and Australian governments, who had leading roles in past performances, are now conspicuous by their absence. So too are others whose interests appear not to coincide with those of the parties in the closed-door meetings – public forest managers, private forest owners, professional foresters, local governments, Indigenous Tasmanians, and a host of other forest users and stakeholders. Ultimately, at the behest of the parties to the Statement, the governments returned to the stage to sign a Tasmanian Forests Intergovernmental Agreement (xi) in August 2011, committing Australian Government funding to – among other elements – forestry business and worker exit assistance packages; regional development measures; an independent verification process to assess the conservation value of the fifty percent (572,000 ha) of remaining State forest nominated by environmental groups for reservation, and the wood supply implications; and sustaining sawlog supply at around half the level that preceded the Agreement. At the time of writing, the various verification processes continue, but have so far provided ‘no insurmountable impediment’ (xii) to proceeding with implementation of the Agreement. The process currently playing out will continue until at least 30 June 2012, when the Agreement requires the Tasmanian Government to introduce enabling legislation for the new conservation reserves. If Tasmania’s Legislative Council maintains its scepticism about the Agreement, the performance season may well be extended.

At face value, 2011’s version of the ongoing Tragedy of Tasmania’s Forests looks very different from those which preceded it. But behind the scenes, the similarities are striking.

Like its antecedents, the current tragedy has held true to its roots in classical theatre, in which an essential element is the ekkyklēma – a stage device used to reveal the outcomes of brutal actions that have occurred out of the audience’s sight (it is usually bloodied corpses that are wheeled on, to the audience’s horror). Concern about the hidden behaviour between key actors is at the heart of Flanagan’s 2007 critique, and many in the environmental movement had condemned the intergovernmental RFA negotiations on those terms (xiii). In the current manifestation, the continuing closed-door negotiations, between self-appointed parties with strongly vested and narrowly focused interests (xiv), provide a contemporary exemplar of such off-stage action, which continues to transgress all the principles of good governance advocated for Tasmania’s forests by Environment Tasmaniaxv, the NGO that played a leading role in initiating the peace process. The environmental actors in the process have been no less ruthless exponents of the ekkyklēma tradition than their antecedents; indeed, they deserve recognition for reinterpreting and honing use of the device.

Other core features of the previous script are also in evidence. Sizeable donations from actors to political parties and for advertising remain a feature of Tasmanian forest theatre – but instead of those from Gunns that characterised the previous act, the Greens are now the principal beneficiary (xvi). Millionaires remain the ‘real mates’ of the dominant actors, although their identities have changed with the new act (Jan Cameron and Graeme Wood, for example, replacing John Gay). The foregone political conclusion of the pulp mill assessment process – a feature of the earlier negotiations – has been succeeded by an apparently similarly foregone expectation of the Agreement’s high-conservation forest verification process. Gunns’ ability to shift losses on to others continues in the new act: the company will receive $23 million from public funds under the Tasmanian Forest Agreement, for decisions it took voluntarily to advance its own business interests (xvii). Opposition to its proposed pulp mill remains strong (xviii), including from some environmental NGOs that negotiated the Statement of Principles. The opprobrium directed in the previous act at those who opposed forestry is now reserved for those who support its continuation in a form other than that envisaged by the negotiating parties. It is now these ’who pay a high price for their opinion on the forests’.

Another constant, of course, is in the setting: Tasmania remains ‘the poorest Australian state’, with an unsustainable level of public sector expenditure relative to revenues, a narrowing rather than a diversifying economy, and social indicators that confirm the entrenched disadvantage of a shockingly high proportion of its population (xix). Flanagan wrote that ‘giving away such an extraordinary public asset as Tasmania’s forests now threatens Tasmania’s economic prosperity’. The betrayal of a public asset is no less the case now, when the asset is being effectively ceded to conservation interests, than it was when corporate shareholders were the principal beneficiary.

What though of the relationship between tragedy and farce? In July 2011, Gunns sold its Triabunna export woodchip mill, a facility central to plans to sustain what is supposed to remain of the native forest industry, to two environmentalists, Jan Cameron and Graeme Wood, for less than the competing forest industry-backed bid. The new owners appointed a former Wilderness Society Director and green hard man, Alec Marr, to manage the facility, and all involved kept a straight face while asserting that ‘his job is to implement the forest statement of principles and to work with all industry players to re-open the mill’ (xx). That reopening remains a distant prospect, some Machiavellian gestures to the contrary notwithstanding (xxi).

Flanagan’s ‘savage vortex’ of corporate logging seems likely to be succeeded by a different vortex, a service-based economy reliant in large part on carbon footprint-heavy tourism, and itself subject to the disadvantage of Australia’s resource boom-driven high dollar (xxii). It is rarely acknowledged that the carbon balance of timber versus tourism is not in the latter’s favour: all of the carbon saved from not harvesting a hectare of typical Tasmanian wet eucalypt forest is emitted by only two days’ schedule of flights between Hobart and mainland Australia (xxiii). It is actually worse than that, as forest–based emissions are progressively recovered when the forest regrows, and are overestimated by current carbon accounting rules (xxiv); whereas transport emissions are permanent additions to greenhouse gas levels.

There are further elements of irony. Businesswoman Jan Cameron co-funded the purchase of Gunns’ 28,000-hectare estate of Central Highlands forests, and transferred them to the Tasmanian Land Conservancy to be managed solely for conservation. Yet Cameron’s international business interests include the sale of wooden furniture increasingly from forests certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the environmental movement’s preferred standard for forest management. The alpine ash forests within this Central Highlands estate are the global epitome of native forests suited to minimal-impact, long-rotation, selective harvesting promoted by the environmental movement and certified by the FSC; other similarly managed Central Highlands forests are the only significant area of FSC native forest certification in Australia (xxv). The wood from these forests is ideal for value-adding processing, such as for furniture, one of its traditional uses. Instead, the wood for Cameron’s (and similar) businesses comes from Tasmania’s international competitors. Meanwhile the Tasmanian Land Conservancy is trying to raise funds from donations to repay some of Cameron’s and the co-investors’ upfront contributions (xxvi).

So in this most recent act some of the actors have reversed roles, new actors have appeared and others have been sidelined, but the storyline remains the same – dominant interests forcing deals offstage, ekkyklēma-like, with the bloodied corpses of good governance and due process fleetingly displayed before again being hidden behind the dissembling spin of public statements. Flanagan’s observation that, ’In consequence of the forest battle, a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) fear has entered Tasmanian public life; it stifles dissent, avoids truth’, remains accurate today. In this case, the avoided truths, as I see them, include the assertion by environmental NGOs that the majority of Tasmania’s remaining state forests are of High Conservation Value (xxvii), rather than of high value to those in the community for whom conservation is necessarily the highest value. The harvesting of native forests for wood products is not inherently incompatible with the many other values of these forests. The truth in these matters is far more complex, and far less definitive, than the convenient untruth that values such as biodiversity, carbon and environmental services are necessarily best delivered by forests managed only for conservation (xxviii).

A second untruth is the assertion that a forestry sector based entirely on plantations offers the best future for Tasmania. Rather, the truth remains as Flanagan wrote, that ‘A growing weight of financial analysis suggests that the economics of plantations (with which native forests are being replaced) are not assured but are rather a huge gamble for Tasmania.’ The more complex reality here includes the strength of opposition globally to industrial plantation forestry (xxix), the constraints to producing commercial volumes of high-value solid wood from Tasmanian eucalypt plantations in the foreseeable future (xxx), and the challenges confronting management of all forms of forested landscapes in the climate-changing, food- and energy-insecure, world of the twenty-first century (xxxi).

The shared tragedy of these two most recent acts in the Tasmanian forests play is that both represent ‘go for broke’ strategies on the part of the dominant actors – first Gunns Ltd and their supporters, and now the environmental movement. In both cases, it is the less extreme positions and possibilities for Tasmania’s forests and forest-based industries that have been marginalised through the politics of power and exclusion. The failure of the polity, at both state and federal levels, to act on behalf of the many, less powerful and generally more moderate, interests in the community is no less reprehensible now than it was then, where it was rightly and roundly criticised by Flanagan and others.

None of this is to argue that it is anything but desirable, indeed imperative, to address the social conflict over Tasmania’s forests, a conflict that for too long has had the characteristics Flanagan’s essay described in such persuasive terms. Nor is it to argue that the form of industrial forestry that has increasingly prevailed in Tasmania since the first pulp and paper concessions were granted in the 1920s should continue. But alternative futures to those the environment groups imagine for Tasmania’s native forests are possible, and at least as defensible in terms of their environmental and economic outcomes (xxxii).

Those futures lie partly in understanding and managing the landscape as a whole, not just as if its component parts were separable. It requires the application of well-established ecological, conservation biology and landscape management principles that recognise the complementarities between different management objectives and tenures (xxxiii). They lie partly in recognising that Tasmania’s comparative advantage in forest products and services is not from input-intensive, short-rotation plantation forests grown for pulp; but in the low-input, extensive management of some of its native forests, and the many co-benefits such management can deliver (xxxiv). They should be founded on processes that respect and give effect to the principles of good governance, not those that continue to give ekkyklēma a central role.

Flanagan’s act ended with an articulation of his concerns that Tasmanians not ‘be condemned to endure the final humiliation: bearing dumb witness to the great lie that delivers wealth to a handful elsewhere, poverty to many of them, and death to their future as the last of these extraordinary places is sacrificed to the woodchippers’ greed’. The current act in the larger Tragedy was prompted by and has addressed the last of these concerns, the future of Tasmania’s old-growth forests (xxxv); but the perpetuation of an alternative great lie, and the prospects of wealth for only a handful and poverty for many Tasmanians, remain concerns as real now as they were when the curtain came down on the act about which Richard Flanagan wrote.

Peter Kanowski is Professor of Forestry at the Australian National University. He first walked and worked in Tasmania’s forests in 1981, and has continued to do so intermittently since, though less often than he would like.

Republished with the permission of Island Magazine, Island 127 available now from good bookshops and newsagents. Visit Island Magazine HERE:

Notes:

i Published most recently in What do you do, Mr Gable, Vintage, 2011, pp 227-267. All subsequent unreferenced citations refer to this reprinting of Richard Flanagan’s 2007 essay.

ii Banham, M, The Cambridge Guide to Theatre, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

iii Dargavel, J, ‘Managing amidst conflict: the Huon District forests of Tasmania’, In search of excellence, FAO Regional Office for Forestry, Bangkok, 2005.

iv See, eg, CSDev Asssociates, Levelling the playing field: reforming forestry governance in Tasmania, Environment Tasmania, 2010, p 14.

v Respectively, Oxford University Press, 1995; ANU Press, 1985; Melbourne University Press, 2007.

vi The ten signatories to the Statement of Principles comprised three environmental NGOs – the Australian Conservation Foundation, Environment Tasmania and The Wilderness Society; five forest industry organisations – the National and the Tasmanian Forest Industries Associations, the Australian and Tasmanian Forest Contractors Associations, and the Tasmanian Country Sawmillers’ Federation; and two groups representing forest workers and communities – the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, and Timber Communities Australia.

vii www.premier.tas.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/134991/draft_principles.pdf, p 1

viii www.daff.gov.au/rfa/regions/tasmania

ix See also Gale, F, ‘Tasmania’s Tamar Valley pulp mill: a comparison of planning processes using a Good Environmental Governance framework’, Australian Journal of Public Administration 67, 2008, pp 261–282.

x See WWF Australia, ‘A blueprint for the forest industry and vegetation management in Australia’, WWF Australia, 2004; Kanowski, P, ‘Pulping Tasmania’s future’, theconversation.edu.au/pulping-Tasmanias-future-1570, 2011.

xi www.environment.gov.au/land/forests/tasmanian-forests-agreement.html

xii ‘Tasmanian Forest Agreement Verification: advice to Prime Minister and Premier of Tasmania, Interim Reserve Boundaries’, www.premier.tas.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0006/148164/tasmanian-forest-agreement-verification.pdf

xiii Eg Ajani, J, ibid.

xivSee also Gale, F, ‘The Tasmanian Forest Agreement: too close to collapse?’ theconversation.edu.au/the-tasmanian-forest-agreement-too-close-to-collapse-2504, 2011.

xv CSDev Associates, ibid; Gale, ibid.

xvi www.smh.com.au/national/web-millionaire-bankrolled-greens-20110107-19iw9.html

xvii www.gunns.com.au/news/latest-news/latest-news-article/Market-Update/427/

xviii Eg Flanagan, R, ‘Holding up Gunns through secret deals’, The Drum, 25/3/11. www.abc.net.au/unleashed/45622.html; Pulp the Mill, www.pulpthemill.org

xix 40% of whom were ‘dependent on government welfare’ in 2007, in Flanagan 2011, p 263.

xx www.theage.com.au/environment/tree-saviour-named-as-tasmanian-mill-boss-20110715-1hhxv.html#ixzz1dl8D7bMg

xxi www.abc.net.au/news/2011-11-16/20111116-mill-owners-call-for-tenders/3674326?section=tas

xxii Cleary, P, Too much luck, Black Ink Press, 2011.

xxiiiEstimates based on data in Keith, H et al, ‘Re-evaluation of forest biomass carbon stocks and lessons from the world’s most carbon-dense forests’, PNAS 106, 2010, pp 11635-11640; Moroni, M et al, ‘Carbon in trees in Tasmanian State Forest’, International Journal of Forestry Research, 2010; doi:10.1155/2010/690462; at www.carbonplanet.com/shop/offsets?offset_type=Flight; and at hobartairport.com.au/flightinfo/

xxiv See, eg, Lippke, B, et al, ‘Life cycle impacts of forest management and wood utilization on carbon mitigation: knowns and unknowns’ Carbon Management 2, 2011, pp 303–333.

xxv www.brandtasmania.com/newsletter.php?ACT=story&issue=108&story=3

xxvi www.tasland.org.au/newleaf/

xxvii ‘High Conservation Value’ (HCV) forests are a FSC designation (www.fsc.org/152.html); definition is case- and place-specific. In the Tasmanian Intergovernmental Forests Agreement, ‘HCV forests’ ‘means those forest areas identified as High Conservation value by the Signatories to the Statement of Principles’.

xxviii See, among others: Fleming, R, et al, ‘Emerging perspectives on forest biodiversity’, UNEP Yearbook 2011; Lippke, et al, ibid; Pfund, J-L, ‘Landscape-scale research for conservation and development in the tropics: fighting persisting challenges’, Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 2, 2010, pp 117–126; WWF Australia, ibid.

xxix For recent reviews, see Gerber, J-F, ‘Conflicts over industrial tree plantations in the South: Who, how and why?’ Global Environmental Change 21, 2011, pp 165–176.; Kanowski, P & Murray, H, ‘Intensively managed planted forests: towards best practice’, www.theforestsdialogue.org, 2008.

xxx See, eg, CSIRO Submission 11/409, to House of Representative Standing Committee on Agriculture, Resources, Fisheries & Forestry – Inquiry into the Australian Forest Industry.

xxxi For an overview, see WWF International, ‘Living Forests Report’, www.panda.org/livingforests, 2011.

xxxii I outline these in Pulping Tasmania’s future, ibid; see also McDermott et al, Global environmental forest policies, Earthscan, 2010, Chapter 8.

xxxiii For a recent review, see.Pfund, ibid.

xxxiv See Kanowski 2011, ibid; WWF International, ibid. Perversely, the opposite – intensification of management in the remaining public native forests – will be promoted by the Tasmanian Agreement.

xxxv Recognising that, prior to the 2011 Intergovernmental Agreement, 79% of Tasmania’s old growth forests were already protected in conservation reserves (Australia’s State of Forests Report 2008, Table 9).