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Tasmanian Forests Agreement: deeply flawed, worth backing

On April 30 2013, Tasmania’s Parliament passed the Tasmanian Forests Agreement, with the aim of ending one of the world’s longest-running forestry conflicts. The deal “locks up” a further half-million…

Whose opinion of this forest is most important? The Tasmanian Forests Agreement has decided. Sarah Caulfield

On April 30 2013, Tasmania’s Parliament passed the Tasmanian Forests Agreement, with the aim of ending one of the world’s longest-running forestry conflicts.

The deal “locks up” a further half-million hectares of Tasmania’s outstanding high conservation value forests, including the iconic forests of the Styx, Weld, Upper Florentine, Great Western Tiers and Tarkine.

This is an extraordinary conservation gain, even if it not immediately delivered.

In return, the industry receives guaranteed rights to 137,000 cubic metres of high quality sawlogs which they will get from more secure Permanent Forest Production Reserves.

Wood supply contracts will be accompanied by tradable Forest Compensation Certificates, with compensation payable should Forestry Tasmania be unable to supply the stated volume due to a change of law or policy.

About $200 million in State and Commonwealth compensation will flow to buy out sawlog quotas ($15 million), downsize the regional sawmill sector ($10 million), and help harvest, haulage and silviculture businesses and workers exit the industry ($20 million).

Compensation is also provided for regional development projects and programs in affected communities ($120 million over 15 years).

The forestry industry will get 137,000 cubic meters of high quality saw logs. AAP Image/The Launceston Examiner

A long journey toward a shared vision

The deal was brokered by a small group of industry, worker and environmental organisations. Following three years of listening, deliberation and bargaining, these “signatories” finally reached what for each was a minimally acceptable compromise.

  • Industry gave up over half of its high quality sawlog quota and accepted a significant downsizing. It also bowed to the need for Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification, which requires an internationally recognised level of sustainability in forestry.

  • Workers and communities abandoned their vision of a large forest industry and settled for one that is smaller and more innovative, and that adds value.

  • Environmental groups abandoned a longstanding “no native logging” policy, permitting native forest to be logged on a moderate scale subject to FSC certification.

The agreement requires all parties to abandon their deeply held views on forests and forestry and work instead towards a common vision. The figurative distance the signatories travelled is truly remarkable.

Figure 1 sets out a sustainability governance triangle populated with many of the groups who made submissions to the Upper House inquiry into the forests agreement. The arrows indicate how remarkable the shift from initial to final position among the signatories was.

Reaching an agreement means substantial compromise. Fred Gale

It now remains to be seen whether the many other groups which did not participate in the signatories process will undertake a similar journey.

While initial indications are not encouraging, given a little time it is to be hoped the forests agreement will create its own dynamic as forests are protected, markets reopened, supply guaranteed and regional development funds expended.

Grounds for opposition

All legislation is contestable and the forests agreement is no exception. Areas of contention include vision, necessity and durability.

Vision

Different visions of Tasmania’s forest future abound. Some environmental groups see a future where virtually no native logging occurs and there is a shift to non-forest industries like tourism.

This “no native logging” ideology causes outrage within the forest industry, whose members vigorously defend its antithesis: a large-scale, status-quo, native forest industry based on sustained-yield calculations and “clearcut, burn and sow” silvicultural practices.

Is it safe to come down? The Weld has been ‘locked up’. Rainforest Action Network

Between these two irreconcilable positions, there is a third “eco-forestry” vision that promotes lighter-touch selective logging of native forests across a larger land base.

Still others have advocated for a plantation-based industry that provides all the timber and wood products necessary.

To date, none of these visions has gained broad acceptance across all constituencies in Tasmania.

It is the unlikelihood of reaching agreement based on any of the above visions that the vision contained in the forests agreement — Forest Stewardship Council-certified logging of native forests across a reduced land base — must be judged.

Necessity

The signatories have argued that the crisis in Tasmania’s forest industry is structural, not cyclical.

Consequently, doing nothing is not an option. To regain competitiveness industry requires sustainability certification, security of investment, and innovation into engineered wood products.

Others dispute this analysis. Private foresters in particular have argued that the downturn is cyclical, that markets will recover and that governments should not give in to “ENGO extortion”.

This view is also shared by the Tasmanian Liberal Party. Its leader Will Hodgman noted in a speech last year that the very attempt to strike a deal had created the investment and jobs crisis.

But with Forestry Tasmania and Ta Ann both agreeing that FSC certification is required in foreign markets, those making the cyclical argument need to explain how that can be achieved outside the forests agreement.

Durability

Any agreement worth its salt has to be “durable”. It must secure each party’s objectives into the foreseeable future.

The agreement establishes a Special Council composed of signatories and other ministerial appointees to oversee its implementation. A key role for the council is to prepare “Durability Reports”.

A compromise is better than a war. AAP Image/Matt Newton

For environmental signatories, durability has meant getting as large a portion as possible of the identified high conservation value forest protected as soon as possible.

For industry signatories, durability is an agreement to end protests in international markets and the setting up of Permanent Timber Production Zones.

In amending the agreement to end protests, the Upper House very nearly upset the deal’s delicate balance, causing consternation among environmental non-signatories. They now claim one purpose of the agreement is to “silence” environmental critics.

But while the amendments are clearly designed to put pressure on environmental groups to not engage in protests against markets and business, it does not directly silence them. If they believe the deal to be a dud, there is nothing to prevent them from taking action.

Deeply flawed, worth backing

The Upper House was under enormous pressure to reject the forests agreement outright. Surprisingly, after taking a really close look at the deal, it chose instead to amend it.

These amendments do not alter the fundamental bargain that underpins the agreement. The Upper House ultimately accepted the signatories' vision of Tasmania’s forest future.

If the agreement is implemented, over 500,000ha of high conservation value forests will ultimately be protected in exchange for establishing a smaller, more secure, Forest Stewardship Council-certified native forest industry.

Seen from the perspective of groups that haven’t shifted their position, this is a deeply flawed agreement. But the forests agreement — or something very like it — is the only bargain that could ever be struck to reconcile Tasmania’s forest conflicts.

If the agreement falls over, Tasmania can look forward to another 30 years of forestry conflict. I, for one, judge that to be a far worse outcome for forests, firms and communities than accepting the current deal.

Others, of course, must make up their own mind.