Firstly, a short history by Gwenda Sheridan, the eminent Tasmanian garden historian, as written for The Companion to Tasmanian History
Tree Ferns (Soft tree fern, Manfern, Dicksonia antarctica) form part of the under-storey of tall wet forests and rainforests in Tasmania, and they can live for up to 250 years. An early reference to tree ferns in Tasmania comes in 1827 when Thomas Scott, a merchant of Launceston in a letter to Dr Hooker in Glasgow, alludes to an ‘extraordinary fern, (the fern Tree)’. By 1832, John Glover painted tree ferns on the foothills of Mount Wellington, while Baron von Hügel commented on their large fronds in 1834. Skinner Prout and others painted them in the 1840s, while Louisa Meredith described an enchantingly exquisite northern valley thus: ‘we were in a world of fern-trees, some palm-like and of gigantic size’. Such references predate tree fern interest in Victoria.
Piguenit used tree ferns to decorate his Salmon Ponds lithographs and work for the Cascade Brewery. By the latter half of the nineteenth century a whole micro-landscape using the fern tree theme at Fern Tree Bower, Mount Wellington, had been created, and captured well in a painting by AH Fullwood. Fern groves were favourite photographic subjects by many in the latter half of the nineteenth century. As fern fever mounted in Victorian England in the 1860s and 1870s, tree ferns became an exchange plant for the Royal Society‘s Garden, and sent overseas in Wardian cases. They were used widely in the beautification of huts on Mount Wellington for decorating many important civic occasions, and even today on the British market they can fetch from £99 to £599 (about A$1,500).
Gwenda Sheridan – Copyright 2006, Centre for Tasmanian Historical Studies.
The outside world was first alerted to the uncontrolled export of Tasmanian tree ferns by an essay written by Stephanie Roth published on 6th March, 2002 in The Guardian:
It is estimated that 90,000 Tasmanian fern trees are exported each year. Tasmanian environmentalists now fear that many have been taken from the wild, and that the increasing demand for the plant will serve as a catalyst to log even more old-growth forests in order to “rescue” even more tree ferns.
Dicksonia antarctica is a valuable commodity for good reason – it only grows up to 5cm (2 inches) in height per year, and reproduces for the first time after about 23 years. Gardeners buy by the trunk length and prices start from £20 for a 20cm (8in) high plant. Both the Royal Horticultural Society and BBC Gardener’s World websites are currently offering plants that have taken 30 to 40 years to reach between 75cm and one metre (3-4ft) for between £145 and £166.
Yet in Australia and in Britain, the tree is marketed as having been “saved” from Tasmanian forests where ordinary trees have been felled for wood chips. And Environment Australia, the national environment body, has refused to issue export permission for any fern trees taken from Tasmania’s unregulated market. So how did the Tasmanian trees find their way into Europe?
The state of Victoria has a regulated system for fern tree harvesting. Due to the constitutional right to free trade between the states, Tasmanian fern trees were sent to Victoria where the Victoria Department of Natural Resources and Environment simply tagged them as ‘Victorian’ and issued them with export permits, thus circumventing Environment Australia’s soft-ban …
A promise was made to change the situation last January when the Tasmanian government introduced legislation to control the fern tree laundering and to get its share of a market estimated to be worth £12 m. Fern Trees from Tasmania now will be issued with export permits and a Tasmanian tag. Fern tree harvesting has been brought under the control of the Forest Practices Code (FPC) which will monitor the industry closely. For the next five years or more, the taking of fern trees will only occur as ‘salvage harvesting’ from forests which are to be clear-felled,
Forestry Tasmania estimates that there are over 17 m tree ferns in formal and informal reserves, and over 26m in other forests. Graham fears that the Tasmania tag would see a glut of commercial exploitation. “Such a programme would allow substantial economic return to the state in the next five years,” reads the Forest Practices management plan.
The introduction to a disgraced forestry industry of a tagged licencing system for the sale of Tasmanian tree ferns provided Richard Flanagan with a hard-hitting introduction to his iconic essay published in The Monthly in May 2007 – The tragedy of Tasmania’s forests …
This story begins with a Tasmanian man fern (Dicksonia antarctica) for sale in a London nursery. Along with the healthy price tag, some £160, is a note: “This tree fern has been salvage harvested in accordance with a management plan approved by the Governments of Tasmania and the Commonwealth of Australia.” If you were to believe both governments, that plan ensures that Tasmania has a sustainable logging industry – one which, according to the federal minister responsible for forests, Eric Abetz, is “the best managed in the world.”
The truth is otherwise. The man fern – possibly several centuries old – comes from native forests destroyed by a logging industry that was recently found to be illegal by the Federal Court of Australia. It comes either from primeval rainforest that has been evolving for millennia or from wet eucalypt forests, some of which contain the mighty Eucalyptus regnans. These aptly named kings of trees are the tallest hardwood trees and flowering plants on Earth; some are more than 20 metres in girth and 90 metres in height. The forests are being destroyed in Tasmania, in spite of widespread community opposition and increasing international concern …
The responsible body for appointing and supervising the contracted Forest Practices Officers (FPOs) that oversee the harvesting of Tasmanian tree ferns is the state’s Forest Practices Authority (FPA). The FPA authorises the issuing of a Forest Practices Plan (FPPs) a document that details the number and size of the tagged harvest in the field as per the recommendations of the FPO:
The harvesting of tree ferns (Dicksonia antarctica) is strictly regulated in Tasmania and is confined to the salvage of stems from forests that are being cleared for infrastructure, agriculture or plantation. Harvesting may only occur under an FPP that authorises salvage. Operations must be conducted in accordance with a management plan for the sustainable harvesting of tree ferns that has been endorsed by the Australian and Tasmanian governments. All tree ferns must have tags issued by the FPA affixed to their stems prior to removal from a harvesting area. These tags must remain on the stems at all times to ensure that the origin of tree ferns can be tracked to approved harvesting areas. The majority of tree ferns harvested in Tasmania are exported to national and international markets.
I have extracted the following figures from the Annual Reports of the Forest Practices Authority of Tasmania for 2017-2018 regarding the harvesting of Tasmanian tree ferns, and the introduction of tags gifted then and now for a pittance to this rapacious industry.
2002 -2003 tree fern tags issued: 64,182 and this when the legal harvesting of tree ferns was at a maximum as Tasmania wood chipped at a loss 6 million tonnes of forests a year allowing their salvage.
2003 – 2004 tags: 54,866.
2004 – 2005 tags: 61,368.
Then the numbers fell every year as the logging of native forests imploded and Gunns headed towards bankruptcy leaving Forestry Tasmania unpaid and bankrupt until bailed out by the 2012 Tasmanian Intergovernmental Forest Agreement.
2010 – 2011 tags: 10,729. This coincidentally was the year of the one and only FPA compliance audit when the tags produced an income stream of $37,000.
As usual in Tasmania, as soon as that moment of compliance had passed things rapidly changed:
2011 – 2012 tags: 22,177 – income $24,000. How can the number of tags double and the money received drop?
Currently … 2017 -2018 tags 26,100 with income $32,000.
These tags give legitimacy and value to the tree fern in the hands of the purchaser and the final vendors. Without the tags the product is virtually worthless, if not unsaleable. They were issued in 2018 at between at 79 cents and $1.58, according to tree fern size, by the FPO on behalf of the FPA as per his FPP. This is down from $2.34 in 2006.
How very Tasmanian that the taxpayer receives a reducing pittance for a valuable forest commodity in a world of escalating prices. The forestry insiders have reduced the price by an average of 100% over the last 12 years.
The sum received for the tags by the FPA in 2017 -2018 of $32,000 is supposed to fund:
- Administration of the tree fern system within the FPA.
- Database and record keeping within the FPA.
- Monitoring within the FPA.
- Enforcement within the FPA.
- Research into options for sustainable tree fern harvesting.
From the FPA chart below it can be seen that the harvesting of the Tasmanian tree fern closely matches the collapse of the Native forest demolition industry, and mirrors the falling numbers Salvaged.
The clear felling and burning and then the conversion to plantations of Tasmanian forests has fallen off a cliff since 2007, as can be seen from the above FPA chart. It is now virtually zero, yet the number of tree ferns harvested has shot up for the year 2017 – 2018 to a 26,100. This tagged figure correlates to the forest harvest in 2008 when clear felling and burning, hence salvage, was some 16 times higher.
I have recently been in discussion on Tasmanian Times with Martin J Fitch (MJF), a former Tasmanian Forest Practices Officer (FPO) and pro-forestry comment contributor on Tasmanian Times.
He is both articulate and well-resourced, and good at defending and/or promoting the arcane world of the logging industry in Tasmania which, with its twists and turns and specific complex details, are set to trap and divert the researcher.
Before he weighs into the debate to point out my errors, I have a number of questions he may care to answer …
- Who set the price of FPA tags, the Minister or the FPA?
- Who determines in the field which of two sizes should be used?
- Who measures each tree fern and attaches the appropriate tag?
- The tag gives the tree fern a considerable commercial value – do you think the price of a tag is sufficient? It is less than the cost of single cigarette.
- Where are today’s tree ferns coming from?
- With no Native Forest logging, do they come from Crown Land, and if so, who authorises their removal when harvesting may only occur under a FPP that salvages?
- The 2017 – 2018 FPA Annual Report – Sale of Goods and Services notes that: Amounts earned in the exchange for the provision of goods are recognised when the significant rewards of ownership have been transferred to the buyer – As a Forest Practices Officer can you explain exactly what this means?
- After the issuing of tags, and the collection of those that were unused, is the harvest inspected and counted to tally with the FPP by the responsible FPO?
- Have you ever been offered, as a FPO, a reward in a Brown Paper Bag to increase the numbers of tree ferns allowed to be harvested in your proposed FPP, and if so, did you report the matter?
- If the market was assessed to be worth A$12 million in 2002, why does the FPA settle for a return of $32,000 in 2018?
The number of tags issued for the harvesting of Tasmanian tree ferns for 2017 – 2018 was 26,100 and they can only be harvested as salvage.
I suggest, based on the historical numbers salvaged which closely correlates with the hectares logged, that the tree fern is the perfect indicator of corruption over due process in the Tasmanian logging industry.
What say you, Mr Fitch?
John Hawkins was born and educated in England. He has lived in Tasmania for 16 years. He is the author of “Australian Silver 1800–1900” and “Thomas Cole and Victorian Clockmaking” and “The Hawkins Zoomorphic Collection” as well as “The Al Tajir Collection of Silver and Gold” and over 100 articles on British and Australian Decorative Arts. He is a Past President and Life Member of The Australian Art & Antique Dealers Association. John has lived in Australia for 50 years and is 76 this year. In two of the world’s longest endurance marathons and in the only teams to ever complete these two events, he drove his four-in-hand team from Melbourne to Sydney in 1985 and from Sydney to Brisbane in 1988.
General Robley with his unique collection one of the world’s iconic photographs of an island native culture
As Silent as a Darwinian Fitch in a Tasmanian Tree Fern
Fitch you are a working Tasmanian Forest Practices Officer with a detailed and complete knowledge of the Tasmanian tree fern and the forest industry on this island, an industry which as shown by your comments on this site you are anxious to promote and protect. Your deafening silence on the subject of tree ferns shows you in full damage control as you duck and weave through past those who try to hold you and your industry to account.
To tempt you into answering the fern tree questions I will expand on the hint I gave you over General Robley. You raised the subject of heads as a throwaway line during our initial windmill tilting, a matter over which I have some knowledge.
General Robley wrote two books relating to his time in New Zealand, Moko or Maori Tattooing in 1896 and Pounamu: Notes on New Zealand Greenstone. I happen to own a very fine collection of New Zealand, gold fields, greenstone jewellery, created by Scottish and German lapidaries in and around Dunedin (The ancient Gallic word for Edinburgh) in the 1870’s a result of the gold rushes of the 19th century.
In the General’s first book, as well as demonstrating and explaining the art of Māori tattooing, he wrote in detail about the drying and preserving the tattooed heads of great warriors defeated in battle then kept and celebrated. From his time in New Zealand during in the Maori wars the General built up this unique collection of 35 heads.
The General with his unique collection one of the worlds iconic photograph’s of an island native culture.
In 1908 he offered them to the New Zealand Government for £1,000; his offer was refused. Later, with the exception of the five best examples which he retained, the collection was purchased by the American Museum of Natural History, New York, for the equivalent of £1,250. He died in London on 29 October 1930. The missionary Samuel Marsden was seemingly the only Australian owner of a Maori head, collected during one of his 6 visits to NZ before his death in 1838.
As an aside, NZ has completely destroyed its old growth forests containing unique, rare and valuable cabinet timbers which like ours will never be replaced.
Then it never had the advantage of a Forest Practices Authority full of such exalted beings as the – Forest Practices Officer!