Logging Van Diemen's Land: Is There a Green Light for More Sustainable Forestry in Tasmania?

Article excerpt

Although the origins of the Tasmanian forestry debate extend back decades, there's recently been a growing sense of ecological urgency from the green side that there could soon be nothing left to fight for; that continued logging of the state's native forests is causing an irreversible loss of international significance.

'Certainly in the wider scientific and environmental communities, it's recognised that we've really just about run out of time,' comments Dr Tony Norton, Professor of Spatial Information Science and Head of Geospatial Science at Melbourne's RMIT University.

Norton was one of the key protagonists behind a public declaration calling for an end to old-growth logging in Tasmania which was placed as an advertisement in the Australian newspaper, other publications and on websites just before the 2004 Federal election. About 100 leading Australian scientists across a wide range of disciplines endorsed the statement.

'There are now more and more impacts on those high conservation value forests that were recognised some time ago but weren't protected,' Norton explains, referring to areas many scientists believe should have been reserved from logging according to the scientific rationale underpinning the Tasmanian Regional Forestry Agreement (RFA), but haven't.

'Certainly in my judgement and in my colleagues; if we were to wait one more election cycle another three years--we're going to lose a lot of these areas and all of their biodiversity, landscape, wilderness and heritage values, not to mention the potential tourism, leisure and recreational amenity values they would have as well,' Norton says.

'We wanted to make it known very strongly, particularly to the Commonwealth Government, that if we didn't act now there would be no other significant opportunity to safeguard these remaining forests.'

On the so-called brown side of the debate, there's also a feeling that crunch time for the controversy is approaching. There is now a raft of action groups and traditional environmental organisations dedicated to ending Tasmania's old-growth logging practices and there has also been a flurry of policy documents addressing the issue from industry bodies, political parties, government departments, environmental groups and even the Uniting Church.

Having been reproached in the British Parliament and with polls showing most Australians want an end to old-growth logging, Tasmania's forestry industry has been under siege. Many working in forestry with good intentions are understandably tired of criticism and of being perceived as uneducated and uncaring by the wider community.

All serious strategies proffering solutions to the impasse anticipate job losses, some substantial, from regional locations throughout Tasmania. Many on the green side advocate retraining in, and a shift towards, tourism operations, possibly an option for young workers, but widely considered unrealistic for older employees. According to many social indicators, Tasmania is the most impoverished state and loggers are understandably prepared to fight for their jobs.

The green side, however, has managed some significant, although small, victories. The state government, for example, recently gave a commitment to an imminent phasing out of the practice of baiting native wildlife with 1080, the poison used to kill animals that eat plantation seedlings, but also implicated in wider ecological impacts.

Beside poisoning and old-growth logging, there are several other strong criticisms about the way forestry operates in Tasmania. Many are uncomfortable, for example, that the industry is dominated by one economically and politically powerful commercial player, Gunns Ltd, the nation's largest timber company. Despite the debate raging around it, Gunns has just recorded a 42% increase in after-tax profits.

With forestry operations in Tasmania exempt from Freedom of Information legislation (now mooted to change) and development laws applying to other industries, many locals complain the industry's operations are covert. …