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A new deal for Tasmanian forests?

The prospect of a resolution to continuing conflicts over forest management in Tasmania is a positive one. However, the process so far has been far from ideal.

A few key parties have been involved in largely secret discussions that have excluded involvement from many people that will be affected by the outcome.

By global standards, Tasmanian native forests are generally well managed. Tasmania has some of the world’s highest rates of forest protection in conservation reserves, including 970,000 hectares of old growth forests. Those forest types below current conservation protection targets are largely on private land in eastern Tasmania, where there is little timber harvesting but significant threats from clearing for agriculture or urban development. Environmental NGOs continue to focus on protection for ‘icon’ forests in south-west Tasmania, but these forest types are relatively well represented in the reserve system.

The biggest sticking point in the agreement is likely to be the proposed transition of the forest industry out of public native forests into plantations. There are currently insufficient plantations to meet wood supply commitments or replace the level of industry activity and employment from native forests. Only 10 per cent of current Tasmanian plantations can produce higher value products. The current crop of eucalypt plantations was established largely for pulpwood, either for export or for use in the proposed pulp mill. They are generally not of the right species or varieties, nor have they been managed to produce products for construction, flooring or joinery.

Consequently, it will take some time to establish a sufficient area to a replacement resource. It will take 20 to 40 years (depending on site and management) for new plantations to provide higher-value products. Further research will be required to support their management and new types of processing will be required to produce higher value products.

Expanding plantations has also been controversial. Increased plantations on agricultural land have created strong community reactions due to concerns about loss of community values, farming land, water or aesthetic impacts.

Consequently, developing an increased plantation estate will take time to build community support and the knowledge base for plantation production. A similar deal struck between government, industry and conservation groups in south-east Queensland about 10 years ago has not yet resulted in sufficient public or private investment in new plantations to offset losses in timber production from native forests.

It will also take money. Given the failure of most companies involved in plantation-based managed investment schemes and the controversy surrounding the sector, there is little interest in banks or the finance sector in investing in new plantations. Public funding will necessarily need to come from the Federal Government, with arguments for this investment competing with water buybacks, irrigation, infrastructure, education or health commitments.

New investment models will be required to provide the necessary finance. Some are pointing to financing from climate change and carbon. While the carbon benefits of new plantations are clear, the potential benefits of phasing out native forest harvesting, in the face of increasing fire risks and other impacts of climate change are highly uncertain.

The need for the Tasmanian agreement has been driven primarily by changes in international timber markets. Australians use the equivalent of 22 million cubic metres of wood each year in timber, paper and other forest products. Thirty per cent of this currently comes from native forests. With our high value dollar, the forest sector in Australia needs to go high-tech.

In Europe the forest sector and government are investing heavily in research to support new types of engineered and laminated wood products, biochemicals to replace petrochemicals and in clean, highly efficient, wood-based bioenergy systems. We need research and industry investment to maximise volume production, value recovery and resource use efficiency from the wood we do harvest.

These new technologies will require more highly skilled and trained professionals and technicians that can bring wider benefits to Tasmania and other parts of regional Australia. However, investment in research, from industry or government, requires assurance of resource security and a long-term future for the industry.

While the agreement is focused on protecting ‘high conservation value’ forests, defining these forests has proven challenging. In my view, we should be providing for high conservation values across our forest estate. All forests, including those managed for timber production, should be managed to provide clean water, biodiversity, carbon, soil protection, recreation and pollination benefits in a multi-functional, landscape-scale approach. This philosophy is widely promoted internationally, but in Australia we seem to be stuck in a limited vision, ‘ecological apartheid’ model, where conservation and production must be clearly segregated.

We might overcome this by improving the aesthetics of forest operations. Foresters have developed management practices that result in effective regeneration and retain most landscape-level biodiversity, but, let’s face it, they often look pretty bad. We are now more demanding in visual and functional design in the built environment. We need to adopt the same principles in managing our natural environment.

I have been a close observer of forests and forestry in Tasmania all my life. The forest sector in Australia is in a turbulent period. This can provide the opportunity for creativity and innovation to drive new models of forest management, new products and new industries. A lasting and sustainable agreement on forest management in Tasmania will require new thinking and some tough choices. It is only likely to be achieved through genuine, long-term engagement in decision making from all parts of the Tasmanian community. With that, Tasmanian forests may well become, in the words of Dr Kerry Arabena, co-chair of the Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, “landscapes of reconciliation”.

Rod Keenan is a Professor of Forest and Ecosystem Science at The University of Melbourne. He grew up in Tasmania and worked there in forest management and research for 10 years.

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