Corporate slash and burn in Tasmania


I live in Tasmania, an island about the size of the republic of Ireland, or the state of South Carolina, which lies off the southern coast of the mainland of Australia. It has a population of just under half a million, a temperate climate, and an ongoing war over the question of forestry.

Evano seeded a story about logging in Tasmania, and I promised him I’d write an article describing the situation here, but I’ve come to realise as I’ve struggled with it that I’m just not capable of being objective and sensible about it. I turned over all sorts of ways of starting the piece, but it boils down to this:

In my view the logging industry in this state has systematically corrupted the political process and is using a campaign of lies and distortion to obscure the fact that it is tearing down Tasmania’s old growth forests for maximum profit and with no regard to the future.

There is no way of adequately describing the ancient forests of Tasmania’s wilderness. Swamp Gum (Eucalyptus regnans) stands are often over 80m (260 ft) tall, and 600 years of age. Huon Pines have been found which are 3000 years old. Manferns, mosses, Myrtle, and Sassafras make an environment which leaves any visitor awestruck.

The north west, north, and south east of the State are settled, and most of the land in these areas is in private hands, but the central highlands, some of the north east, and most of the south west and far south are public lands, some of which are National Parks. The giant logging company Gunns dominates the timber industry and is Tasmania’s biggest private land owner. It has large areas of plantations, but also engages in extensive harvesting on public land, of both regrowth and old growth timber, by means of licenses from the Government.

Locking up Tasmania’s forests

Two centuries ago, when Europeans first settled Tasmania, there were 4.8 million hectares of forest; there are now 1.2 million hectares of this original “old growth” forest remaining, nearly all of which is on public land, and most of which is in the wild and unsettled south west of the island. So far, so good. In 1997 the State and Federal governments signed what is called the Regional Forest Agreement (RFA), which was supposed to lay out which areas could be logged whilst protecting areas of important conservation value. In particular the RFA appears to protect 68% of that remaining 1.2 million hectares of old growth forest. As the government website puts it “[the RFA] brought the total reserve system to 2.7 million hectares, nearly half Tasmania’s land area. As a result, more than two thirds of the State’s public land is in reserves.” In the hands of politicians and industry, this is usually described as

We’ve already locked up more than half the State, what more do you want?

Which just goes to show how misleading numbers can be. The RFA was carefully designed to reserve all the public land which was of no use to the logging industry. Much of the old growth in the reserve system is smaller species and short rainforest. Over half of the tall eucalypt stands are under threat from clearfelling. For example only 13% of the original Eucalyptus regnans remains as old growth, and less than half of this (6.3%) is “protected” by the RFA, and if you don’t count small slivers and roadside reserves the amount is 4.6% – in other words only just over a third of current regnans forest is actually properly reserved: 4600 hectares. It’s a similar story for the other tall eucalypts. The RFA was supposed to protect 60% of each of these species, but in most cases it has actually protected less than half. Much of the reserved area is not National Park, but available to any use which does not impact species diversity.

Forestry practice

If this was the whole of the story there might be common ground. It would be a matter for the Tasmanian community to come to an agreement about what amount of logging it wished to balance against tourism, conservation, and wilderness values of the forest. This is exactly how the Government and the Gunns corporation portray the situation. They say that logging 60% or so of the remaining tall eucalypt forests is required to keep employment (as many as 9000 jobs are claimed) in the timber industry, and that it can be done without damage to conservation values.

In fact the economics of the industry are all about quick profits for Gunns. Nearly all (84%) of the wood goes directly to the chipper to make paper pulp. Two thirds of forestry operations in public native forests consist of clearfelling and burning. The practice is to clearfell a coup (using chains in mountainous areas, a practice which inevitably leads to erosion), truck the logs out, marking some of the better ones and specialty timbers for the sawmill. Then the whole areas is bulldozed into piles and burnt; even in Hobart the sky is sometimes orange for days. Two thirds of coups are replaced by plantations (usually a monoculture of bluegums) or not replanted at all. Thirty or forty years later the process will be repeated, and the state receives A$10 per tonne of harvested logs. In spite of markedly increased levels of logging in recent years, returns are so low that the government forestry administrator regularly returns little or no net profit to the government coffers.

Division and protest

Many of these figures are disputed by the industry, although they match those of most reputable investigations. The situation is made more difficult because the government passed legislation in 2003 exempting its forestry body from freedom of information legislation.

It’s a very divisive issue within the community. Timber workers are about 3% of the population, outnumbered 2 to 1 by tourism workers, but in economically depressed rural Tasmania many towns feel they depend on the industry, which has been successful as portraying “greenies” as unemployed ferals or disconnected intellectuals. It’s a rural urban divide as well as an economic divide and by population it’s probably fairly equal with high passion in both directions. Equal numbers of car stickers say “Save our forests” and “Save a job, kill a greenie”.

The two biggest of Tasmania’s three political parties are very cosy with Gunns, and receive large donations each election. An ex state premier is on the board of Directors. It is said only slightly facetiously that first trip any new Premier makes is to Launceston to visit Gunns’ managing director John Gay. In 1989 a previous Gunns CEO was found guilty of paying a A$100000 bribe to a state politician, and there have been a number of scandals relating to the impunity with which Gunns operates in Tasmanian forests.

Protests have been constant and appear to be gradually gaining support. The company recently issued a SLAPP lawsuit against twenty activists and organisations in an attempt to dampen their enthusiasm, but in spite of this there are protesters sitting in trees in the Styx valley, a recent successful purchase of some historically significant forest in the far south, and thousands attend rallies to protest logging old growth forests.

The future

In any sane world, Tasmania would sell the timber on its publicly held land primarily for sawlogs, and reserve old growth forests to conservation and tourism. The return to the government would be ten times higher, even though volumes would be much lower. Gunns already has large areas under plantation, and if it is to make good its claims of a sustainable industry, then it should not need to continue to chip more and more old growth.

The truth is Gunns has no interest in sustainability. Like timber companies in the third world, they corrupt the local officials and harvest as much timber as quickly as possible with no thought to what they will leave behind. Gunns is extending its reach into old growth forests at an accelerating rate: they seem to be trying to mark off as much virgin forest as they can before Tasmanians come to their senses and put a stop to it.

It’s time we did.

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