ABC pic of Jan Davis

Today has been described as “the last hurrah” for the latest round of forest peace talks. Deputy Premier Bryan Green and federal Environment Minister Tony Burke will enter the room with the ‘negotiators’ in a last ditch effort to deliver a deal that is supposed to deliver peace in the forests.

I’m not holding my breath looking for a magic solution – or, in fact, any durable solution – to come from the meeting today.

From the outset, we’ve said this process is not only inherently flawed, but is destined to fail. It is time to bring down the curtain on this small group of unelected people poring over maps to divide the spoils of Tasmania’s publicly-owned forests, forests over which they have no proprietary rights. It was unwise of the Tasmanian government to delegate its responsibility to these people. That’s what we pay politicians to do.

Let’s focus for a minute on the view from where we sit. Private foresters – many of whom are farmers – own and manage some 885,000 ha of private forests. We have been told since the outset of this process that it would not impact on our businesses because the ‘deal’ was only about publicly owned forests. We’ve said that was nonsense; and even the Premier has now acknowledged we were right.

We are told that the downturn in the timber industry in Tasmania is a result of changing world markets and the high level of the Aussie dollar. I am not convinced that this apparently simple explanation is actually as straightforward as it is presented. Figures clearly show that the market share Tasmanian timber exporters have lost over recent years has been picked up by producers in other states; data released earlier this week shows that demand for timber is increasing both in Australia and worldwide; and imported timber products are flooding into Australia. But let us not argue over that for now – let’s assume for the moment that this is fact. Does it justify locking up the shop and throwing away the key?

Farmers have to deal with the roller-coaster of commodity markets year in, year out, from generation to generation. When times are tough for one commodity on the farm, they look to diversify into other activities. When demands change, they look for new products. They don’t lock up the farm and walk away.

When the bottom fell out of the wool industry, farmers moved into other businesses, such as fat lambs, pyrethrum and poppies. Now wool growers are enjoying good times again. When there was a crisis in milk prices, dairy farmers didn’t put a dozer through their dairy sheds. They looked for other ways to earn an income from the farm. When consumers made it clear they wanted more than two varieties of potatoes (washed and unwashed), or something more interesting than iceberg lettuce, farmers developed and planted new crops – and so we now have a dozen or more varieties of spuds at the supermarket; and more green salad choices than most people can even identify.

Cropping and livestock production and products are cyclical. Good farmers hedge their bets. We have good times and we have bad times; but we don’t cut off our options for the future.

So why is our government proposing to lock up even more of our state simply because they say that markets are changing? Surely, we should be preserving access to that resource for whatever the ‘new forest industry’ we hear so much about will look like.

If there is a lull in the market, then we should ride it out while we do what farmers do: and look for other opportunities. It might be high-end furniture from what we can rightly claim to be the most sustainably managed forests in the world (a message that has never been sold properly); it might be a more clever use of low-grade timber, such as Ta Ann’s product; it might be smarter hardwood plantations that produce saw log quality timber in shorter rotations; it might be biomass for power generation or as a carbon store; it might be a myriad of things we haven’t even dreamt of yet.

Ian Dickenson is a farmer and private forester who has been involved in the forestry debate for decades. He often says that “the trees don’t know there’s a war going on; they just keep growing”. And he’s right.

I certainly don’t have all the solutions to the problems with Tasmania’s forest industry; but I do know that this whole process has hurt much more than the confidence in the public forest sector.

Private forest owners have been innocent bystanders, collateral damage, call it what you will. Our markets have been affected; confidence in our product has been damaged; and this has impacted seriously on our farm businesses, our incomes, our ‘future proofing’ and our lives.

Our state economy is in a parlous condition, and this debate has impacted on all Tasmanians in many ways. Confidence in our willingness to support people and businesses is at an all time low; people are hurting across the state as impacts flow into local communities; and the rest of Australia is looking askance at our seeming complacency with living off handouts and being a ‘mendicant’state.

We need to make sure we keep our options open – at a farm level and at a state level – for whatever the future may bring.

Let’s hope that after today we can draw a line under what has gone before and come out of the trenches, ready to look to the future rather than be driven by the past.