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Has Australia got too much of its forests "locked up?"

Recently, the Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, threw a grenade into the national political debate by declaring that too many of Australia's forests are “locked up” and vowed to set up a new advisory council to support the timber industry.

If that was not enough of a challenge to Australia’s conservation groups, Mr. Abbott went on to also recommit to repealing part of Tasmania's Wilderness World Heritage Area established under the forest peace deal of 2012, through which 170,000 hectares of forest was added to the World Heritage area from more than 500,000 additional hectares to be protected. This so called “peace deal” was legislated as the Tasmanian Forests Agreement in which the forestry industry received Federal grants of $300 million in return for restructuring to use plantation rather than native forest wood and security of supply. The tradeoff was to lock up more forests and ultimately there were fewer jobs.  Mr. Abbott confirmed that his Government had made formal representation to the World Heritage Committee to delist 74,000 hectares. The Government will also not consider further applications to lock up more forests.

The Prime Minister made these statements to a sympathetic audience at a Timber Industry dinner in the nation’s capital, Canberra. Mr. Abbott went on to say, "We have quite enough national parks. We have quite enough locked up forests already. In fact, in an important respect, we have too much locked up forest. Why should we lock up as some sort of World Heritage sanctuary country that has been logged, degraded or planted for timber?”

"Getting that 74,000 hectares out of World Heritage Listing, is still going to leave half of Tasmania protected forever, but that will be an important sign to you, to Tasmanians, to the world, that we support the timber industry."
Mr Abbott added more support to the industry by saying "when I look out tonight at an audience of people who work with timber, who work in forests, I don't see people who are environmental vandals; I see people who are the ultimate conservationists."

The Greens Party, which holds the balance of power in the Australian Senate, responded apoplectically as expected, claiming that would this would be “an assault on the environment, which would actually destroy the forest industry, not to mention Tasmania's clean, green and clever brand which is our main asset and that comes from our World Heritage area.”

At a time when the Tasmanian Government was fighting an election (which it did lose – and comprehensively so), it came out in full support of trying to revive the Gunns pulp mill plans. This was intended to neutralize the platform of the opposition party, which was consistent with that espoused by the Prime Minister. The Greens responded with a view that Tasmania’s nearly 250,000 hectares of hardwood plantations should not be pulped but turned into manufactured timber. This ignores several practical issues and the reality that the forestry sector is in structural decline (as is much of Australian industry). It seems the voters in Tasmania are putting jobs ahead of their clean, green image and suggests that maybe a pulp mill is now acceptable also to the locals.

Glum news relating to automobile manufacturing, which will disappear from Australia by 2018 and huge layoffs in the aviation sector and much of the general manufacturing sector give credit to predictions on the future decline of jobs across Australia released last year by the Department of Employment, which estimated that there would be thousands of job losses between now and 2017. For the agriculture, forestry and fishing sector, a staggering 13,000 jobs are forecast to be lost between now and 2017. However, the reality is, that as much as those of us in an industry that ultimately draws its raw materials from wood think forestry is a fundamental pillar of the economy, economists say the industry is too small and beset by problems to be a vital part of the economy and not especially important for Australia at all.

It is the emotional issue around the harvesting of wood and the way that logging has occurred in the past that has made the industry a touchstone for the environmental movement in Australia.

The debate kicked off by the Prime Minister is a debate that probably needs to be had, although it may have been designed to take the spotlight off the bad news in the other manufacturing sectors.

The reality about forests is that until about sixty years ago, native forest areas had been declining significantly since the day that Australia formally became a colony of Great Britain. After the First World War, returning soldiers were settled on tracts of land with the mission to clear and convert to annual crop agriculture.

Looking back at statistics from the 1950s, the land area of native forests has not changed significantly since that time, although there is merit to the conservationist argument that the heritage area has changed beyond recognition.  At the same time over the past two decades, accessible forest areas have grown significantly through the establishment of plantations. In the decade to 2012, ABARES (Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics & Sciences) records that hardwood plantations area grew by 66%. Softwood plantations were essentially static making for a net growth of all plantations of 28%. The volume of plantation hardwood harvested showed a spectacular 432% increase with softwood harvests basically constant. Harvested volume from native forests fell by 58%. However to put that in perspective, native forest hardwood volume fell from just under 11 million cubic meters to 4.5 million cubic meters annually whereas plantation hardwood volume increased from a modest one million cubic meters to 5.2 million cubic meters. By comparison, current softwood plantation harvest volumes are around 14 million cubic meters.

Looking behind the headline numbers, the statistics reveal quite fundamental changes in the utilization of forest harvests. For many years, Australia was the world’s largest supplier of export woodchips, primarily from native forests. A combination of low prices and the impact of a strong Australian dollar resulted in a significant curtailment of supply of woodchips from Australia. In fact, the value of woodchip exports almost halved from the high point in 2007 to 2013. This was a combined impact of price and volume. The situation was exacerbated by market resistance to native wood and a preference for plantation wood. Nevertheless, demand from China has grown and much of the increase in hardwood plantation harvest has gone into replacing chips from native forests. Exports from native forests have plummeted from a high of about six million cubic meters annually to probably less than one million. Plantation hardwood is now in excess of five million cubic meters per annum. For the record, less than 20% of that export goes to China. Japan remains the largest buyer of Australian woodchips, although purchases are down some 45% from their peak.

Much of the plantation hardwood chip export was intended to feed the Gunns pulp mill and would again be redirected to that facility should it ever be built.

That plantation yield was derived from an area that is 0.3% of Australia’s land area out of a total of 19.4% that is vegetated. As everyone knows, Australia is an arid continent so the actual forest area is only about 6% of the total area of which less than half is thought to be “productive.” It is this statistic that drives the conservation movement, which has been particularly zealous in Tasmania, where forests represent more than 40% of the land area, or even as much as 50%, according to some estimates.

This productivity of plantations demonstrates that for Australia perhaps we can eat our cake and have it too! Significant volumes of wood can be sourced from relatively small tracts of land and large tracts of land can be quarantined to ensure significant wilderness areas remain with their contribution to biodiversity and recreational needs. The issue at the moment in Tasmania is more about returning exploited forests to wilderness and whether this is feasible or necessary. For the defenders of the wilderness, the delivery of oxygen, clean water and diversity are not listed on the stock exchange and as such these intrinsic values are sacrificed to the pursuit of the almighty dollar. For many people, forests can never be accepted as a long rotation agricultural crop and it is probably a debate that will never be won for them. The protest against the Gunns Tasmanian pulp mill was fundamentally about saving trees rather than the other environmental issues, but cleverly the debate was engineered to excite the passions of the middle ground of the voting public who probably are somewhat pragmatic about plantations and wilderness.

The current debate initiated by the Prime Minister, whether designed to wedge the voters of Tasmania or move the pendulum back towards the center, does serve to remind the public at large that we need to find the right balance in all human activity. Of course the current Federal Government also is seeking to repeal the so called carbon tax and the forest debate is seen by many as more evidence that Australia has abandoned the well being of future generations for short term political expediency. It rather seems that this is just the first salvo in what is likely to be a long running battle.


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