Tricia Caswell, Chief executive officer of the Victorian Association of Forest Industries.
The Age, July 30, 2007
Ahead of the federal election, the Liberal and Labor parties have set their policy sights on sustainable forest industries in Tasmania - and the jobs, skills, economies and environmental values that go with them. These are issues for the whole of Australia.
With global warming a major issue, this approach is unsurprising - production forestry, with its vast array of wood and paper products may be the most carbon positive industry on the planet. Trees, their roots and soil all store carbon, much of which stays stored in the wood and paper products we use every day. It is simply not true that all the carbon in trees turns to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere when a forest coupe is harvested and relatively little energy and water is used in the extraction and manufacture of native hardwood products. Both parties have declared there will be no further extensions to reserve systems in Tasmania. They both refer to the history and science of the Regional Forest Agreements settled in the 1990s. Both refer to the need for viable forest industries in 21st century Australia.
It is worth placing this in the Victorian context. Only 10 per cent of the state's forests are available for production and a meagre 0.14 per cent are harvested in any one year. Native hardwood trees sequester carbon during their growth phase and most are organically grown with no chemical fertilisers. Local seeds are collected for regeneration as close to the original as possible with two trees planted for every one harvested.
Native forestry is efficient and makes good use of the resource - on average a third to sawn timber, a third to residue for woodchips and a third left on the forest floor. Compare this with most mining operations where resource efficiency is often very tiny.
Going to a coupe harvest is like going to the opera. There are spectators all around, activities are heavily regulated and monitored. No rainforest is harvested, big trees are not harvested. There are buffers along streams and special protection zones for biodiversity. The application of the forestry code is audited by the Environment Protection Authority. Each year compliance has improved. Last year it was 93 per cent - high by any industry's standards.
All of this is State Government business. The Government owns and manages our state forests, where nearly all Victorian native hardwood is sourced. Victoria and Australia have world-class sustainable native forest management. Most production forests in Australia are regrowth - regenerated coupe by coupe. We have world-class forest reserves in national and state parks.
In Victoria the availability of the hardwood resource has been continually reduced over 30 years. Mostly this is the result of establishing reserves, the introduction of new management regions, codes and the development of sustainable yield measures.
The Government's policy framework, Our Forests Our Future in 2002, reduced the resource by 31 per cent in one go after a review of sustainable yield.
The promise of securing the resource at this new level of 567,800 cubic metres has never been kept. Parks have been extended and we have the devastating effects of bushfires in 2003 and last summer. This has reduced the Victorian native timber resource to 500,000 cubic metres at most.
Such reductions and unmet promises to maintain a long-term baseline resource affect the security and scale of the industry and the capacity to gather confidence, skills, investment and eventually, its very survival.
If we close the industry down, demand for timber products will not disappear, far from it. Our national trade deficit in wood and paper products of $2.1 billion, as part of an $18 billion industry, will increase.
We will import more illegal or unsustainably harvested wood and wood products from tropical rainforests. We will have pushed our economies, jobs and communities offshore and the global environment will be the poorer for it. Plantations are held high as the total solution to forest wars. There are many reasons why this is simply not so. There is the threshold question. Why are monocultural plantings, often with few indigenous species, declared better environmentally than perpetually regenerated locally specific native forests?
Regenerated native production forests continue to provide for the local animals and birds, flora and fauna. Plantations of pine or even blue gums cannot do the same job.
Plantations most often provide woodchips for pulp, for paper and other composite wood products. They do not provide the range of quality of timber sawlogs that native forests do. Local conflicts over the availability of land, soil types and depth, rainfall, damaging bugs, silvicultural practices, labour costs, complicated planning regulations and the relatively low priority given by governments have not made plantation development easy.
It's a long time since I have felt that one-dimensional, protest-based environmental campaigns will get us to where we need to go so our grandchildren have a functioning planet to live on and functioning communities to live in. The tree has become the totemic symbol of every kind of environmental issue. The single issue, anti-forestry campaigns will not solve the tough sustainability issues that face us.
If you are a local anti-forestry campaigner, you are an environmental campaigner. Your only job is to save the forest. There are other big questions you never ask. Such as: "What are the environmental, social, and economic consequences of annihilating native forest industries in Australia?"
Tricia Caswell is the chief executive officer of the Victorian Association of Forest Industries.