22 February, 2012

Ludwig retreats as arbiter on Tasmanian forests

The Australian, (paywall) February 22, 2012

BOTH sides in Tasmania's forest debate have been warned by the Gillard government that it will not intervene to impose a peace deal if they fail to reach agreement.

Federal Forestry Minister Joe Ludwig told The Australian he would not support a government-adjudicated outcome if negotiations between timber and green groups failed to reach agreement.

The stance is at odds with the understanding of key players in both the green and timber camps who had expected the state and federal governments to impose an outcome if they failed to reach an agreed one.

It appears to slap down state-owned logging company Forestry Tasmania, which has been drafting a compromise in case the two sides fail to strike a deal under the $276 million forestry inter-governmental agreement.

Senator Ludwig said he would not support an imposed solution, believing it would fail, and that his advice to industry was to negotiate a deal or lose the best chance of securing a sustainable future.

"You've got to negotiate; there is no alternative way," he said. "There is no plan B. It is up to the industry to work through the options, come to a concluded view and agree on an outcome.

"If they want to continue this industry in Tasmania, the IGA gives them the best opportunity to do that. The IGA is the only way forward for this industry. The federal government does not have a magic wand."

Signed by the state and federal governments last August, the IGA set up an independent process to assess how much forest was worthy of protection, and how much timber was needed to meet existing contracts.

Peak green groups, including The Wilderness Society and Environment Tasmania, are expected then to negotiate an agreed position with industry groups, such as the Forest Industries Association of Tasmania and the Tasmanian Sawmillers Association.

FIAT has suspended its role and expectations grow that the process will reveal far less room than thought to protect more forests while honouring contracts.

Forestry Tasmania chief Bob Gordon has been working on an alternative proposal that could be imposed by government should the negotiations fail.

But Senator Ludwig was unwilling to back this option, saying both sides needed to accept that they needed to focus on achievable outcomes, not "wish lists".

He planned to give that message to industry bodies on his Tasmania visit this week, and urge them to accept that to be sustainable the industry needed to change. "There is no silver bullet that will fix this industry because it has been in decline for some years," Senator Ludwig said. "It will look different from what it was 10 years ago. There is no market for some products and so the participants (in the talks) do need to recognise that they have to come and find an outcome."

Senator Ludwig will tour the operations of veneer maker Ta Ann, whose contract for 265,000 cubic metres of logs each year to 2027 has become key in the IGA process.

It was too early to say if aid to the Malaysian company to add greater value to less timber, and to use more plantations, might figure in a solution, he said.

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