Tasmanian forests: future agreement?

Bill McCormick, Science, Technology, Environment and Resources Section

The Tasmanian forest industry has changed over the last forty years with the development of an export woodchip industry, closure of some pulp and paper mills and the re-tooling of saw mills to enable the processing of timber from regrowth forests and plantations, rather than from old-growth forests.

Native forests

There is considerable public pressure to include more high-conservation native forests in reserves and move the sourcing of wood products to plantations.

The size of the publicly owned production forest estate has contracted, resulting in a reduction of the sawlog and pulplog yield. This was due to the inclusion of forests in the reserve system. Over the past thirty years eucalypt plantations have expanded which has resulted in increased pulpwood, and to a lesser extent sawlogs, from these plantations.

The drop in production from native forests along with new more efficient equipment has contributed to a decrease in people employed in the logging, sawmilling, pulp and paper sectors from approximately 6 600 in 1991–92 to 4 700 in 2008–09.

There is ongoing conflict between the conservation movement and the forest industry. In 1989 the Tasmanian Government negotiated the Salamanca Agreement with conservation groups and the forest industry to work towards a resolution of their differences. This agreement ultimately broke down after a year of talks when the combined environmental groups walked out.

Commonwealth involvement in native forestry activities in Tasmania started with the regulation of exports of woodchips in the 1970s. Since then conservation groups have sought to convince state and federal governments to include old growth forest and wilderness in conservation reserves. In 1995 the Commonwealth initiated the Comprehensive Regional Assessment process so that such areas would be protected and the forest industry would have certainty of future wood supply. This was done through the Regional Forest Agreements (RFAs) where 90 per cent of wilderness and 60 per cent of old-growth forests are protected in reserves. The twenty year Tasmanian RFA was signed in 1997. In May 2005 a Supplementary Tasmanian RFA was signed that protected an additional one million hectares of old-growth forests. However, the RFA and the subsequent certification of Tasmanian forests as sustainably managed under the Australian Forest Certification Scheme, have not halted the significant public opposition to the continued logging of old growth forests.

Over the past few years the Japanese woodchip buyers have indicated they want either woodchips from plantations or certification by the Forest Stewardship Council for woodchips that are sourced from native forests. This requirement, combined with the downturn due to the global financial crisis, has contributed to a recent reduction in the ability to sell native forest woodchips. There have been rolling closures at Gunns woodchip plants with subsequent job losses.

About 80 per cent of the Tasmanian native forest timber is exported as woodchips compared with about 93 per cent from eucalypt plantations.

Present negotiations

Since May 2010 the Tasmanian Government has supported negotiations between timber and conservation organisations to look at sustainable options to resolve the issues of conflict. Any agreement from these talks has to gain community support and would need Tasmanian and Commonwealth funding to deliver any outcomes. In July 2010 the Commonwealth was reported to have told the negotiators that Commonwealth money would be made available to help fund any agreement.

In August 2010, logging contractors called for a $50 million payment to save 3000 jobs during the present downturn and the Coalition and the ALP promised $20 million to begin a restructure of the sector due to a significant decrease in availability of high quality sawlogs from 2015. This is also supported by Andrew Wilkie, the newly-elected independent member for Denison. The Greens will not support this without an agreement to end all logging in native forests.

A leaked draft negotiating document from the talks on 25 August 2010, although not an agreed position by either party, mentioned:

  • a halt to all logging in high-conservation native forests within 30 days of the agreement being signed
  • a full moratorium on logging in all public native forests other than in some agreed low-value regrowth areas within three months
  • agreement from environmental groups for Gunns to build its $2.5 billion pulp mill in the Tamar Valley, without protest and obstruction in financial markets
  • all parties to ask the state and federal governments for a fully funded package to implement the native forest exit deal, including financial assistance for contractors and
  • a guaranteed, sustainable quantity and quality of wood for remaining contractors.

The state Liberals opposed such an agreement saying it would cost more than 3500 jobs and lock up 600 000 hectares of forest.

The Wilderness Society negotiating the agreement and the Tasmanian Greens indicated they were not opposed to a Tasmanian pulp mill but were to the Gunns pulp mill in the Tamar Valley. Andrew Wilkie also indicated his opposition to the Tamar mill.

In September 2010 Gunns announced that it would move towards ending the use of woodchips and sawlogs from native forests.

Pulp mills

Two proposals for a world-scale bleached kraft eucalypt pulp mill have been put forward but have been opposed by significant sections of the Tasmanian community. The first was in 1988 at Wesley Vale, but concerns about the potential impact of the pulp mill effluent on the marine environment resulted in the March 1989 Commonwealth decision that the mill could only proceed, subject to the development of Commonwealth pulp mill effluent guidelines. Thereupon the Canadian joint venture pulled out of the project. Later that year the Commonwealth published the CSIRO’s Environmental Guidelines for New Bleached Eucalypt Kraft Pulp Mills, which were reviewed and updated in 1995 to take account of technological advances. In 2004 these guidelines were updated by the Tasmanian Resource Planning and Development Commission as guidance for any future pulp mill in Tasmania.

In 2005, Gunns announced that Long Reach on the Tamar River would be the site for its proposed pulp mill. There have been objections to the project because of the siting in the Tamar Valley, the bleaching process involved, and the proposal to source some pulp wood from native forests. The original pulp mill assessment by the Resource Planning and Development Commission was halted with the Tasmanian Parliament passing special legislation to give approval to the pulp mill. In October 2007 the Commonwealth approved the project under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, subject to certain environmental conditions, including relating to discharge of effluent into Bass Strait.

Comments

Any resulting agreement reached to resolve the differences over forest issues in Tasmania will require structural adjustment of hundreds of millions of dollars to implement. A significant amount of this money will most likely come from the Commonwealth.

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