Tasmania's Timber Wars

What could well be the world’s longest running battle over forestry regulations is taking place in the Australian state of Tasmania, where Greens have been squared off against the forestry industry for at least 30 years, observers say.

Sen. Richard Colbeck, the Liberal shadow parliamentary secretary for Fisheries and Forestry, in an interview accused the Greens of seeking to kill the logging industry outright. Bob Brown, also an Australian senator and head of the Australian Greens, in turn accuses the logging industry of being economically not viable and of seeking to exist on government handouts. On top of that, a woman named Miranda Gibson has spent the past 119 days sitting 60 meters above the ground in a massive eucalyptus regnans as loggers have circled below in the forest. In a world where there have been countless tree sittings, Brown calls it the world’s tallest tree sitting.

“Forestry has been a long-running issue for three decades,” Colbeck told Asia Sentinel. “There have been a lot of processes, assessments of how much reserves should be accessible for harvest. That has continued for a long time, formal processes that resulted in the regional forest agreement process of 1997, which set up a process to reserve a significant area, heritage areas. There is a million hectares of Tasmanian forest in reserve. The issue is that the environmental groups haven’t got all they wanted. They want to end logging in Tasmania altogether.” He accused Brown of “wanting to close all of the forest management in Australia.”

Brown, on the other hand, accused the timber industry of a “massive milking of public funds by people who are well practiced at milking public funds.” The environmental groups, he said, “came to the table two years ago.” Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard signed an agreement to protect 420,000 hectares of forest in return for A$270 million. The industry, he said, has received A$1 billion in public funds from the state and federal government and “Now has their hand out again.

“But no protection has occurred, and the money is flowing to the industry yet again.” And hence Ms. Gibson in her tree. Some 2,000 hectares has already been logged this summer, he charged. The arguments seem to have taken on a personal tone as only it can be practiced in Australian politics.

“We have got to the absurd point where the industry won’t come to the table unless people like me agree not to contact people like you,” Brown said . “How can a senator agree to a gag order? That is absurd in a democracy. They have made some pretty ludicrous claims in the past, and we will get more in the future.”

To a request by the Greens for a moratorium until the issues are resolved, Colbeck responded in a prepared release sent by email, the offer “is yet another move designed to bring about the total destruction of Tasmania’s native forest industry. We know it is the ultimate intention of (environmentalist) groups including Markets for Change, Still Wild Still Threatened and Last Stand to force the end of all native forestry. Today’s conditional offer demonstrates that the claims these groups make about the Intergovernmental Agreement being a peace process are completely fraudulent. This “offer” is akin to telling your prey ‘if you cut off your own arm, we’ll stop shooting at you... but just for now.’

He went on to demand that Prime Minister Gillard kick the Greens out of her cabinet.

The issue gained added fuel in December, when it turned out that a unit of Ta Ann Group Bhd, a Sarawak-based timber giant closely linked to Sarawak Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud, who has been accused by environmentalists of raping the Sarawak rainforest, was logging in Tasmania. Brown accused Ta Ann of invading the rainforest in violation of a moratorium until an independent verification process could be completed.

Colbeck retorted that Ta Ann was closely monitored and doing no such thing.

There are some 1.5 million hectares of state forest on public land in Tasmania, according to Forest Tasmania, a government enterprise established by parliament to manage the state’s forests. In 2010 and 2011, some 3 million cubic meters of sawlogs and pulp were harvested from state forests for processing with a value of A$585 million.

Most of this is on land that has been cut over. The jewel in Tasmania’s crown, however, is virgin forest, a tangle of Tasmanian blackwood, sassafrass and other species that forestry companies would love to get their hands on. Brown called it the tallest flowering forest on earth, filled with rare and endangered species such as Swift parrots, eagles and Tasmanian devils.

The argument over how much of the forest should be protected takes place against the backdrop of a state jobless rate at 7.2 percent, the highest in Australia, with 18,200 people unemployed at the end of March. Colbeck says there are some 7,000 people employed in the logging industry and they will lose their jobs if the Greens get their way.

Brown says that figure is vastly inflated, that there are only about 2,000 people employed in the entire industry – and no more than a few hundred in the forest. The rest, he said, are concocted out of people who “make mattresses for beds and other things.” Forestry Tasmania puts the figure at 4,650 Tasmanians.

The industry is mainly involved in cutting eucalyptus for pulpwood. Vast eucalyptus plantations produce most of the state’s output. The industry, however, argues that there aren’t enough plantations to meet supply commitments or replace the level of industry activity and employment from native forests. Only about a tenth of the plantations produce high-value products for construction, flooring or joinery. Most of it goes into pulp. Eucalyptus is a valuable hardener for paper products. The main old-growth species, harvested at a lesser rate, are used by boat builders, furniture craftsmen and other artisanal products.

It is estimated that developing increased plantation area will take anywhere from 20 to 40 years and considerable funds. The Greens argue that these single-species plantations destroy diversity, require vast amounts of water and are generally bad for the environment.

“In my view, we should be providing for high conservation values across our forest estate,” wrote Rod Keenan, a professor of Forest and Ecosystem Science at The University of Melbourne in a local newspaper. “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, he continued, “but in Australia we seem to be stuck in a limited vision, 'ecological apartheid' model, where conservation and production must be clearly segregated.”