Deal or no deal? Reflections on Tasmania’s forest agreement

Will the prematurely released Agreement bring peace in Tasmania’s forest wars? Rainforest Action Network/flickr

A great deal of head scratching will take place in Canberra and Hobart in the coming days as politicians and bureaucrats try to make sense of last week’s Signatories Agreement for Tasmania’s forests.

Premature release

Brokered by Bill Kelty, the draft agreement was released prematurely as a result of an “administrative error” and has yet to be signed by all parties.

The error sparked a media frenzy that subsided only when several parties reaffirmed their commitment. Positive statements were forthcoming from the Forest Industries Association of Tasmania, CFMEU, Environment Tasmania, and the Australian Conservation Foundation.

Even The Wilderness Society, which a month ago suspended its involvement in the negotiations, responded favourably. A spokesperson for the organisation stated they would be prepared to re-enter the process once the two levels of government publicly commit to negotiate outcomes.

‘Compensation all round’

Despite the parties’ compromises, there are legitimate concerns about whether the Agreement can really deliver peace to Tasmania’s weary forest warriors. The current draft not only lacks vision, but is also schematic, poorly structured, contradictory in places, full of typing errors, and unsigned.

No doubt some flesh has been put on the bones of the earlier Statement of Principles that the parties negotiated and signed in October 2010.

The current agreement recapitulates the same basic arrangement and consists, to paraphrase McEwen, of “compensation all round”. Gunns Limited, Tasmania’s debt-ridden timber company, will be compensated for surrendering wood supply contracts, contractors for losing their businesses, and workers for losing their jobs.

Show me the money

Various estimates for this compensation package exist: they range from $100 to $800 million. The higher figure, redolent of Latham’s 2004 failed Tasmanian forest package, appears very unlikely to materialise. The Tasmanian State Government is broke and intent on curbing public expenditure. Its recent budget will see school closures, health care cuts, and police force retrenchment. The Government simply does not have the money to fund a huge forestry bailout package.

The State’s Premier and Treasurer, Lara Giddings, will thus be in Canberra seeking alms. However, the Commonwealth, committed as it is to returning the federal budget to surplus in 2013, is itself strapped for cash.

Tough questions will likely be posed about the real value of Gunns’ wood supply contracts and about how much should be paid to contractors and workers. With regard to the latter, one might wonder whether the generous redundancy deal detailed in the Agreement (three weeks’ pay per year worked capped at 120 weeks) will be funded at the expense of other, vaguer commitments.

Environmental gains

In exchange for backing extensive financial compensation, environmentalists are guaranteed the protection of an additional 360,000 ha of high conservation value (HCV) forests.

The area could increase to 432,000 ha providing enough fibre is available to guarantee a general industry volume of 155,000 m3 per annum, as well as Ta Ann’s veneer requirements of 235,000 m3 per annum and specialty timber producers’ need for 12,500 m3.

Another gain for environmentalists is that the explicit link to Gunns’ proposed Tamar Valley pulp mill has been severed. While mention is made of the pulp mill and it is considered a value adding option, the Agreement states that the mill will be subject to normal commercial considerations and that ENGOs do not support it.

This spells the end of Gunns’ attempt to obtain a social licence for the mill through this process. The fact that Gunns nonetheless welcomed the deal indicates how desperate it is for cash to pay its creditors.

Tamar Valley residents will be intrigued by a reference in the pulp mill section of the Agreement to the government having “initiated a further report arising from the considerations of the Kelty interim report”. Undoubtedly clarification will soon be demanded about who might be writing this report and what its terms of reference are.

The road to forest peace?

In addition to all the head scratching on how to interpret and fund the Signatories Agreement, a key concern for the Commonwealth will surely be whether the agreement, if implemented in full, would actually settle Tasmania’s longstanding forest conflict.

There are some signs that it would not. Senator Bob Brown, on behalf of the Federal Greens, has already criticised the Agreement for failing to protect the full 572,000 ha of HCV forests.

He has been joined by the Huon Valley Environment Centre and Still Wild Still Threatened, two local wilderness groups that have been highly critical of the process used to negotiate the deal.

So how good is this deal? Ultimately, it disappoints because it remains so firmly embedded in the “use it or lose it” dichotomy that pits clearcut-burn-sow loggers against diehard wilderness defenders.

A lack of new ideas

Readers will search in vain for the range of new ideas that have emerged in the past two decades from within conservation biology in the shape of ecosystem-based forest management (ESBM). None of the parties has been prepared to think outside the box.

ESBM is an emerging forest management paradigm with a proven capacity to balance high levels of forest protection with a viable native forest industry. It permits genuine variable retention, low-intensity and selective forestry to occur by requiring the landscape to be managed within its range of natural variation (RONV).

Built around the precautionary principle and utilising adaptive management techniques, ESBM also requires extensive community consultation and involvement.

In heavily forested countries like Canada, ESBM has been embraced by proponents of Forest Stewardship Council certification. Several FSC Canada standards including the FSC Regional Standard for British Columbia require the forest industry to meet tough environmental requirements while enabling them to continue to operate profitably.

While such an approach might be thought to be pie in the sky for Tasmania, it is in fact already happening. In 2010, 6,500 ha of native forests in the central highlands of the state was certified to an ESBM-inspired FSC standard.

Tasmania faces a huge barrier in moving to FSC certification, however. The state’s major public institution, Forestry Tasmania (FT), is fully wedded to FSC’s competitor scheme, the Australian Forestry Standard (AFS).

Not only has its management spearhead the development of AFS in Australia, but FT’s Executive General Manager also sits on the board of the international umbrella body, the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC).

Horse trading, budgets and the illusion of haste

While there are several positive elements to the Signatories Agreement, the absence of an overarching ESBM framework undermines its capacity to deliver a final settlement. Whether the Agreement can deliver an interim settlement is all down to horse trading and money. The fiscal constraints confronting both levels of government suggest some tough bargaining to come.

The industry is on the rack in Tasmania. It has sought assistance from environmentalists to bail them out and they have stepped up and signed the Signatories Agreement. However, the Tasmanian government cannot afford the bill.

And while the Commonwealth appears motivated, it also wants to avoid a budget blow-out. As with most public compensation deals, the longer the process drags on, the fewer there will be left standing to pay.

The illusion of haste rather than any actual speed might be the order of the day in Canberra.