01 August, 2012

Planet Ark founders cut ties with 'lost' organisation

Adam Harvey
ABC News, 1 Aug 2012

PHOTO: Pat Cash and John Dee have withdrawn their memberships from Planet Ark. (johndee.com) 

The founders of environment group Planet Ark are speaking out about the charity they say has lost its way.

Environmentalist Jon Dee and tennis great Pat Cash founded Planet Ark 20 years ago.

It soon forged a high profile, thanks in part to the backing of celebrities like Olivia Newton John, Kylie Minogue and Pierce Brosnan.

But times have been tough for Planet Ark lately.

It has made substantial losses for three years running, sold some major assets and offered redundancies to staff.

After National Tree Day at the weekend, Mr Dee and Mr Cash have told 7.30 they are particularly upset about Planet Ark's links with the timber industry.

Planet Ark has allowed its logo to be used on advertisements for timber, paid for by Forest and Wood Products Australia (FWPA).

It is part of a sponsorship deal in which Planet Ark gets $700,000 from the timber industry.

Planet Ark is also under fire for working with the timber industry to update the industry's certification system for wood products, which is called the Australian Forestry Standard (AFS).

It is seen as weaker than the rival certification system backed by the environmental movement and run by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

A timber company ticked off by the AFS was last year fined for illegal logging.

The Planet Ark board and management team should be held accountable for this decision to work with the forest industry... Planet Ark needs to return to the values that once made it such a great organisation.

Mr Dee and Mr Cash left Planet Ark five years ago. They say at that point, the organisation was "highly successful".

They remained members of the organisation, but now, both Mr Dee and Mr Cash have cancelled their memberships.

"The AFS scheme concerns many environmentalists. Clear felling, environmental destruction, death of native forests," Mr Dee said.

"An organisation like Planet Ark cannot be seen to be associated with that particular standard. The only standard they should promote is FSC. That's why I felt I had to take a stand on this.

"It's been very difficult for Pat and I. We founded Planet Ark. They do some great projects, National Tree Day on the weekend with a million native trees and shrubs.

"We beleive this campaign, tied up with the forest industry, is one step too far."

Mr Cash issued a statement to 7.30, saying Planet Ark should be held accountable for its decision to work with the forest industry, and return to the values that made it great.

"The deal with the forest industry and the controversy around the Peter Maddison TV advert has eroded Planet Ark's credibility as an environmental organisation," Mr Cash said.

"The Planet Ark board and management team should be held accountable for this decision to work with the forest industry, as well as the sale of Planet Ark Park and any staff redundancies.

"Planet Ark needs to return to the values that once made it such a great organisation and withdraw from their association with the AFS and the FWPA."

Selling out?

Mr Cash and Mr Dee are not the only ones accusing Planet Ark of selling out.

"What in effect Planet Ark is doing today is endorsing logging in the Styx Valley," Sarah Rees from My Environment said.

"This is a very confusing message for consumers, given Planet Ark has such an important role to play in advising people on best brands and good wood."

Greens Leader Christine Milne agrees.

Planet Ark is an environmental organisation committed to encouraging positive behaviour change... We guard our independence and reputation fiercely.

"What Planet Ark has done is they have undermined the rest of the environment movement by effectively trying to give some green wash to the native forest logging industry," she said.

"The AFS has no credibility at all. It was only dreamt up in response to the FSC standard and Australia couldn't meet that standard. Next thing we knew we had this dodgy standard which no-one has any respect for."

Independent Senator Nick Xenophon says Planet Ark's deal with the timber industry is a conflict of interest.

"There could be a perception that who pays the piper calls the tune. And when you're getting $700,000 in donations from the industry and part of the review of the forest standard, then it raises some serious questions of a potential conflict of interest," he said.

Financial trouble

Planet Ark's financial statements show it has been in the red for three consecutive years.

Last year, the charity put its former Blue Mountain headquarters on the market. It sold for a bargain $875,000.

Planet Ark says it is not in financial trouble, and recent redundancies are simply because the charity has shifted from the Blue Mountains to Circular Quay.

Planet Ark's deal with the Forest Industry has made it easier to balance its books for now, but they may find that the relationship causes long-term damage with its traditional supporters.

"I think it will be the beginning of the end for Planet Ark unless they change direction because everybody looks at it and sees what it is," Senator Milne said.

Planet Ark declined 7.30's request for an interview. But in a statement, it says it is not compromised by its deal with the forest industry.

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