12 October, 2010

Peace over forests a precedent

The Australian, editorial
12 October 2010

AS environmentalists and irrigators dig in for a fight in the Murray-Darling Basin, they should look across Bass Strait, where the Tasmanian timber industry and green groups are on the verge of ending a generation of conflict over the logging of native forests.

Both sides say there are details to debate, in particular whether residue from native forests can count as fuel for renewable power generation. But for both sides to want peace at all is an achievement all but unimaginable six years ago, when the state split over the issue at the 2004 federal election. The green south backed Labor leader Mark Latham's promise to protect forests and the working-class electorates of the north supported John Howard, after he committed to the timber industry. It was the culmination of years of conflict, with timber workers demanding job security and activists arguing that clear-felling native forests was vandalism.

Now it appears the two sides are accepting the other has a point because economics has provided a solution that always eluded ideology. On the loggers' side, changes were forced on big timber company Gunns by institutional shareholders, worried by its tough tactics in fighting environmentalists and its controversial plan for a pulp mill. Gunns also took over 300,000ha of plantation blue gums from the failed Great Southern company this year, ensuring that the Tasmanian company no longer needs to exploit old-growth forest . While the Wilderness Society indulged in some unseemly crowing last week, saying Gunn's agreement was a "backdown", there is no doubting sober strategists among the environmentalists understand public opinion will never accept a ban on logging altogether, and that the timber company was never going to go away.

While it is far too long in coming, this outcome offers hope for the water debate. Despite decades of venom, the loggers and environmentalists both needed Tasmania's forests to survive. It is the same with the Murray-Darling. Nobody benefits if the river system is degraded, just as no one wins if the rivers run a banker but communities along their banks die for want of water. Like the fight over Tasmania's forests, the argument over river use is immensely complex and controversial and will take years to resolve. But the first step to a solution is for all sides to accept that ultimately they will have to compromise, so why waste time with non-negotiable claims?

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