Activists return to defend Tasmania's forests as logging resumes

| 27th April 2012
An agreement that would end 30 years of verbal, and often physical, confrontation over the future of the forests in the Australian state of Tasmania is teetering on the edge of collapse. Ollie Milman reports

The  future of the state and federal government-brokered agreement aiming to balance the interests of conservationists and the timber is in doubt amid accusations of bad faith on both sides. Tasmania, at first glance, appears an unlikely spot for environmental activism. The rugged island state is viewed by 'north island' Australians as sleepy and somewhat parochial. But strident green activism is becoming an increasing force, precisely because of its untouched nature.

The Tarkine, in Tasmania’s north west, is one the largest single areas of temperate rainforest in the southern hemisphere, at 3,800 square kilometres. It's home to three endemic species of frog, 12 species of birds and the pugnacious Tasmanian Devil. The birth of the Australian Greens, who claim to be the world’s first green political party, originated in ferocious protests in Tasmania against the construction of dams in the 1970s. Bob Brown, the party’s current leader, even spent 19 days in prison for protesting against the Franklin River Dam. The Tasmanian Greens are currently part of a coalition state government, while several environmental NGOs, such as the Wilderness Society and Australian Conservation Foundation, were also created in the state.

These environmental activists have clashed with timber companies for the past three decades, with protests to prevent logging in native forests a regular occurrence. However, hopes were high of a belated end to the conflict in August last year with the signing of an Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) between the state and federal governments, in consultation with green groups and the loggers. The deal will turn 430,000 hectares of native forest into an informal reserve – less than the 572,000 hectares sought by environmental lobbyists – with $277 million set aside to compensate forestry workers and manage the new protected areas.

But the process has stalled, with protests resuming over claims that Forestry Tasmania, the state-owned logging agency, is again felling trees in the conservation areas. 'There seems to be an inability to get Forestry Tasmania to plan logging outside this area,' says Vica Bayley, Tasmanian campaign manager for the Wilderness Society. 'The state government can’t control its own agency. It’s a rogue agency that is almost ungovernable. There’s real frustration that the agreement hasn’t been honoured. If this process doesn’t work, what will? There’s about 1,900 hectares being logged within the area. It’s just business as usual. If anything the logging has intensified.'

Bayley says that it’s not only Tasmania’s diverse flora, such as the tall wet eucalyptus forests that have been judged one of the most effective carbon banks in the world, that is at risk from logging activity. The endangered swift parrot, which has around 1,000 breeding pairs left, nests in the hollows of Tasmanian trees, while the Tasmanian Devil and the wedge tailed eagle also depend heavily upon the forests.
Miranda Gibson, a young activist, has spent the past three months perched 60 metres up a tree in an area of supposedly protected forest, around an hour-and-half drive north of the state’s capital, Hobart.

'The loggers have picked bits and pieces out of the agreement and ignored the bits they don’t like,' she says from her vertiginous platform, from which she regularly blogs to a sizeable online audience. 'People think the forest is protected, but it is falling rapidly. I felt it was important to share the story of the forest with the rest of the world. The first week up the tree was the hardest. They were logging in this coupe and I had to watch. They’ve since moved to another copse and most days I can hear the chainsaws. They aren’t giving the forest any space, even while they are trying to put this agreement in place.'

Gibson says that she’s happy to spend a further three months taking part in her arboreal protest – the kind of stance that has infuriated Forestry Tasmania. The state agency, which is responsible for the management of 39 per cent of Tasmania’s forests, says a clause in the IGA allows it to log within the protected area if it cannot access timber outside the zone to meet contractual obligations. 'It’s disgraceful, really,' says Ken Jeffreys, general manager of corporate relations and tourism at Forestry Tasmania. 'They call us a rogue agency when we are the ones spending time and money providing data and modelling for this agreement, and how are we rewarded? By attacks on our customers and having our people confronted in the forest.'

The timber industry has been hurt by several blows in recent years, with the global financial crisis followed by a soaring Australian dollar, making exports uneconomical. Worse still, Gunns, Forestry Tasmania’s largest customer, announced that it was pulling out of native forest logging as part of the peace deal. Now, Forestry Tasmania alleges that customers, mainly in Japan and the UK, have been victims of 'economic vandalism' from pressure groups such as Markets For Change, determined to deter them from purchasing Tasmanian native timber.

Earlier this month, New Zealand company Richard Chandler Corporation pulled out of a $150 million investment in Gunns, because the move did not meet its "social criteria". 'Customers aren’t put off by Tasmanian wood because of our environmental record, because we have some of the most stringent laws in the world here,' says Jeffreys. 'It’s because they are fearful of cyber attacks from activists. Customers know we have world-best practice, but they face blackmail if they do so. If the IGA goes through, over 50 per cent of the state’s forest will be in reserves. If you look at any area in Asia or Europe, can anyone else say that? Most ecologists would say that native forests, properly managed, are the best for biodiversity. You don’t get much biodiversity in plantations. It’s logical to have a mix of native and plantation resource. In a carbon-restrained world, timber is better than steel and concrete. We want to be known as something other than one giant national park.'

For all of the protests, Bayley concedes it’s the economics that will be key in the future of logging in Tasmania. 'Japan doesn’t want Tasmanian woodchips and the other option, China, has got cheaper markets in Vietnam and Cambodia,' he says. 'Tasmania loses money every time it ships timber overseas. It’s a broken model. The industry needs to diversify.'

Tourists drawn to Tasmania’s clean, green image is seen as part of the solution, although the logging industry is also pushing for the construction of a controversial pulp mill to help sustain it. One thing both sides can agree on is that a solution to the lengthy forest war is something almost all Tasmanians crave. 'I think everyone wants this resolved,' says Jeffrey. 'I just don’t know that the green groups will be satisfied with. Ultimately, people still need to eat.' Bayley adds: 'One pathway leads to outcomes for the environment and the community, the other leads to more trench warfare. People are sick of the debate and conflict. We all want to move on, but if this agreement doesn’t work, we all lose.'