24 June, 2013

Tasmania's Old Growth Forests win World Heritage protection :

Andrew Darby
Hobart correspondent for Fairfax Media
Sydney Morning Herald, June 24, 2013

After decades of conflict, sometimes fought tree-by-tree, chainsaws have been stilled in the old growth forests of Tasmania's world heritage wilderness.

The boundary described by federal Environment Minister Tony Burke as Australia's most contentious heritage line was settled on Monday when UNESCO's World Heritage Committee backed protection.

About 120,000 hectares of old growth forest was formally included in a 170,000-hectare expansion of the existing Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, giving those trees the highest level of conservation, Mr Burke said.

''These are extraordinarily precious areas of forest,'' Mr Burke said. ''I have camped in and walked through these forests and they are some of the most amazing places on earth.''

Campaigns to protect the forests of the Weld, Styx, Florentine and Great Western Tiers have been under way for more than 30 years.

Conflict over logging has involved many blockades, street rallies by thousands on each side, assaults on environmentalists, and the loss of logging machinery to fire-bombing.

In one individual protest, teacher Miranda Gibson spent a national record 457 days atop a tree in the Styx before nearby bushfires forced her down in March.

''Today I think of the wedge-tailed eagle that I watched fly above my tree, whose habitat was once under threat and is now protected, and of the Tasmanian devils who lived in the forest 60 metres below my platform who can now raise their young in peace'' Ms Gibson said.

The world heritage nomination was the centrepiece conservation achievement of three-year peace talks between industry and green groups, forced by a collapse in native timber markets.

A key participant in the peace process, Vica Bayley, of The Wilderness Society, said the extension finally recognised these forests as global treasures.

But it does not spell the end of environmental conflict in Tasmania, as division widens over the Tarkine region of the state's north-west.

Bob Brown, who drove early forests campaigns and became national leader of the Greens, recently became patron of the Save the Tarkine movement, which is blocking mining in the Federal Court.

23 June, 2013

State of emergency declared in Malaysia due to haze

Australia Network News - ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)
23 June 2013
Workers at a construction site labour away as thick haze covers the city of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Photo: AFP
Malaysia has declared a state of emergency in two parts of the southern state of Johor as smoke from land-clearing fires in Indonesia has pushed air pollution above the level considered hazardous.

The illegal burning of forests and other land on Indonesia's Sumatra island to clear space for palm oil plantations is a chronic problem during the June-September dry season.

The "haze" caused by fires on Sumatra has also shrouded neighbouring Singapore, but air quality in the city state has improved over the weekend after reaching hazardous levels.

Malaysia's minister for natural resources and environment, G. Palanivel, announced the state of emergency in a Facebook post.

"Prime Minister Najib Razak has agreed to declare emergency status in Muar and Ledang with immediate effect," he said.

Mr Palanivel's post said the air pollution index had exceeded 750.

Any reading above 300 indicates hazardous air pollution.

The Johor state operations centre says residents in the affected areas of Johor state, Muar and Ledang, have been advised to stay indoors.

Anger over loggers' grab of exit cash


Andrew Darby  

Hobart correspondent for Fairfax Media

The Age, June 23, 2013

It was the loophole you could drive a truck through. A $44 million federal government bailout of struggling logging contractors has ended in angry dispute.

The taxpayer cash was meant to ensure that operators who cut and cart timber could pay their debts and leave the collapsed Tasmanian native forest logging industry.

Instead, some ''phoenixed'' their businesses, a Senate committee has heard. After companies closed and payouts were made, new businesses rose from the ashes under the control of other family members. Now competition between the survivors is even more cutthroat.

Greens leader Christine Milne said: ''I think the system was rorted, but it was allowed to be rorted. All that's happened in a number of cases is that log trucks have just had a different sign painted on the door.''

A list compiled by industry insiders and seen by Fairfax Media raises questions about 20 of the 61 contractors to receive payouts, at least nine of whom are said to have other family members doing business in native forests.

Separate compliance and fraud teams have been established to manage and investigate the Intergovernmental Agreement Contractors Voluntary Exit Grants Program, (IGACEP), according to a spokesman for Forestry Minister Joe Ludwig.

In the spotlight is a Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry deed poll requiring an undertaking that for 10 years, grant winners will not use their equipment or work in the native forest sector - except as an employee.

Industry leader Ken Padgett won $825,000 under the IGACEP and said he was out of native forest. But Mr Padgett, who still employs 45 people in Tasmania's north-east, said he would not have taken the money if his sons had been precluded from working in native forests, should they choose to.

He agreed with Senator Milne in a Senate committee hearing that this was ''succession planning writ large''.

''An older person can just take the money, refinance the business, and hand it over to the sons,'' Senator Milne said.

''This is not what exit means.''

North-west Tasmanian contractor David Scott received $1.8 million. His 19-year-old apprentice diesel fitter son now operates a native forest haulage business. Mr Scott, who did not return calls, told the ABC: ''I work for the business. I'm just a worker.''

In the state's central highlands at Ouse, contractor Wally Triffett told Fairfax Media the $811,800 he received was used to settle his native forest logging business. He said he gave his son his last Kenworth log truck and now did civil earthworks himself.

''It's terrible what people have done,'' Mr Triffett said.

One of the state's biggest log haulers, Aprin Pty Ltd, won $2.5 million to leave native forests. Aprin principal Ron O'Connor operates from the same yard near Hobart as Timber Marshalling Services (TMS), run by his son Brendon O'Connor. TMS was contracted this year to cart logs for the state public forest agency, Forestry Tasmania. Neither man responded to calls.

The failure of successive federal government attempts to boost the industry shows in a comparison of grants to contractors who first won big handouts to retool for plantation work, then later were given money to leave the industry.

DAFF documents show that Aprin was a $1.05 million beneficiary of a retooling program to move out of native forests four years ago. An Ernst & Young study of a $54 million Howard government program said DAFF files were so deficient that in 60 cases there were no audited statements supporting grant applications.

These cases therefore lacked a basic proof that the grantees needed a grant.

North-west Tasmania contractor Jason Weller, who did not apply to exit, said others with government cash were undercutting him with unsustainable rates. ''While they have given these guys a Band-Aid fix, they are destroying our business, which is a tax-paying business,'' he said. ''It was meant to be an exit package, not a refinance, reboot, get-going-again package.''

21 June, 2013

State threatens to mar beauty of pristine Indiana forest

Matthew Tully
Indianapolis Star, 21 June 2013 

The Low Gap Trail in the Morgan-Monroe state forest takes you over small trickling creeks and under an almost constant umbrella of what the Indiana Department of Natural Resources calls “some of the state’s finest hardwoods.”

With birds providing a nonstop soundtrack, the rugged 10-mile trail wanders deep into the forest’s lush backcountry, mercifully far away from iPhone service and the rest of civilization, giving hikers plenty of time to think about anything. As I winded my way through the trail Thursday morning, getting lost a time or two but never minding, one thought kept popping up over and over.

Why in a state with a short supply of natural beauty, one without the mountains or plains or oceans that grace so many other states, are Indiana government officials so eager to bring loggers and their chainsaws into places such as Morgan-Monroe with increasing frequency?

In case you missed the story, which the state has done its best to underplay, DNR is taking another big step in the most aggressive logging plan in state forests in decades, targeting the backcountry areas that environmentalists, hikers, birdwatchers and others value so much. Morgan-Monroe, just 45 minutes south of Indianapolis but a world away, is on the latest list, as is Yellowwood State Forest. It’s all part of a dramatic increase in state forest logging that began during the Daniels administration and looks certain to continue under Gov. Mike Pence.

But why? To please the politically connected logging industry, which counts key legislators as its friends but has so much private land on which to work? To raise money for the state, roughly $2 million annually, according to DNR? It doesn’t make sense.

That’s not to argue against logging in general, or against the need for smart timber management. But this ongoing effort to invade state forests is just another example — along with over-the-top protections for factory farms and attacks on industrial regulations — in the never-ending disregard for basic environmental protections in Indiana.

As I walked around Morgan-Monroe State Forest on Thursday, hundreds of trees in my field of vision at every step, it was hard to imagine anyone having the thought that, ‘Hmm, there are just too many trees.” Or that anyone would wish to destroy the most mature trees in the forest, which loggers have their eyes on in particular.

But this is more important than spoiling a good walk.

Tim Maloney, senior policy director with the Hoosier Environmental Council, said Morgan-Monroe’s backcountry is one of the few forests in the state with the potential to reach old-growth maturity and that leaving it undisturbed from logging would give researchers a unique opportunity, as “old-growth forests are complex, dynamics ecosystems that still are not fully understood.”

“If you log a forest that is moving toward old-growth conditions, you’re going to change the condition and the wildlife that inhabits that area and the entire nature of the forest environment,” he said. “We need to protect these areas because they’re so rare.”

In its newsletters in recent years the timber industry has celebrated elections that have put friendly faces into key government spots — from legislative committee chairmanships to the governor’s office. Over that time, timber harvesting on state land has increased by up to 400 percent, DNR spokesman Phil Bloom said, though he added that only 1 percent of the land is harvested each year.

Bloom made several arguments in favor of logging as we talked and shared emails in recent days. He said the removed trees would be replaced with new planting and that the money raised funds forestry programs, including the purchase of new land.

“Timber harvests create forest openings that foster new growth, greater diversity of growth, and habitat beneficial to some woodland wildlife species,” he said, offering a case that clearly many people accept.

When the backcountry areas were established in 1981, he noted, pointing to a news release at the time, timber harvesting was part of the plan. Environmentalists question whether it was as big a part of the plan as it is becoming.

The question is when will the increase in logging stop, and when will environmental concerns begin to get a seat at the adult table when decisions are made. Logging has increased to this point with little outcry from Hoosiers and at absolutely no political cost for former Gov. Mitch Daniels and now Gov. Mike Pence. If bumping the figure up to 1 percent of state forests is acceptable, will anything change if, and when, that figure doubles or triples?

Indiana has its strengths and its weaknesses, both now and in its long history. And one of its consistent weaknesses has been an unwillingness to protect its environment. I’m not talking about an Oregon-like belief in placing environmental concerns at the top of the list of every debate, but rather just a basic understanding that clean air and water, open spaces and reasonable controls on industry and factory farms, can add much to the quality of life.

The logging in Morgan-Monroe State Forest is certain to move forward. DNR’s spokesman told me that the environmentalists who have objected to the plan “brought no new issues to light.”

But that’s the point. They shouldn’t have to. In Indiana, the old issues still haven’t received their due.

Singapore smog index exceeds critical level

Australia Network News - ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)
Fri Jun 21, 2013

Singapore's smog index has passed the critical 400 level, making it potentially life-threatening for people who are ill or elderly.

The sun is partly covered by haze over Marina Bay Sands hotels and convention centre in Singapore on June 19, 2013. Singapore's Pollutant Standards Index again shot above the "unhealthy" threshold of 152. AFP: Roslan Rahman
The record level was reached at about 1:00pm AEST after a rapid rise in the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI), which measures the haze crisis caused by Indonesian forest fires.

Indonesian and Singaporean officials have been holding emergency talks on how to extinguish the fires on farms and plantations on Sumatra island, which are also affecting Malaysia.

Meanwhile, Indonesia has sent helicopters to create artificial rain in an effort to fight the fires that are causing the smog in Singapore and Malaysia.

AUDIO: Singapore Haze Update (ABC News)
According to Singapore government guidelines, sustained PSI average levels above 400 on a 24-hour basis "may be life-threatening to ill and elderly persons".

General practitioner Philip Koh said he had seen a 20 per cent spike in consultations in the past week.

Mr Koh estimates about 80 per cent of his patients are suffering from haze-related ailments.

"My patients are telling me they are worried about how long this is going to last and how much higher this is going to go," he said.

Mr Koh said many people were turning to his clinic to buy protective masks, as supplies are low at retailers.

"Our supplies are running low here too," he said.

Ashleigh Nghiem, an Australian producer working for the BBC in Singapore, has spoken to Radio Australia's Asia Pacific about the condition in the city's Central Financial District.

"There are people coming out from work and many of the commuters here tonight are wearing face masks," she said.

"Four days ago, when this crisis began, hardly anyone was seen wearing a facemask.

"Now, people are doing what they can to protect themselves because they just don't see any way in which this smog is going to be cleared soon."

The government has advised all children, elderly people and persons with existing diseases to stay indoors, keep windows closed and avoid physical exertion if the 400 index average is sustained over a 24-hour period.


18 June, 2013

VicForests cash flow under fire

Tom Arup, Environment editor
The Age, June 18, 2013

VicForests has rejected damning analysis and claims it delivered overall profits since 2004. Photo: Paul Rovere
Victoria's state-owned timber company VicForests has racked up cash losses of $22million since it was formed - equating to a loss of $1.50 for every cubic metre of wood it has logged - an analysis of its public accounts has found.

The review was carried out by the Australian Conservation Foundation's economic unit and concludes the company's cash flow problems and large debt indicate trouble with its core business.

But VicForests rejected the analysis saying it has delivered overall profits since it was created in 2004 and generated billions of dollars in economic activity for the state. The state Auditor-General's Office is currently auditing the management of Victorian forests, including VicForests' operations.

The report was commissioned by the Healesville Environment Watch, which is campaigning against native timber harvesting. The group's chairman, Steve Meacher, said it would be submitted to the Auditor-General to be considered in its review.

The ACF analysis of VicForests financial statements from 2005 to 2012 found the company has current debts of $26.8 million to the Treasury Corporation of Victoria - the state government's financing body - which charges lower interest rates than the commercial market.

But if VicForests was required to pay commercial rates it would struggle further, the report concludes. It also questions changes in accounting methods that have seen a sharp rise in the value of VicForests assets - such as seeds, regenerating coupes and stored and standing timber - in recent years.

The report looks at the amount of cash that is being generated by VicForests and how much it is spending. But it does not look at the company's overall profits and losses.

The report's author Tristan Knowles said that was because cash flows were a better indicator of the health of a company. He said profit and loss statements were more prone to accounting adjustments.

Mr Knowles said because it was paying lower rates, and could rack up cash losses, VicForests was crowding out plantation timber growers with wood logged in native forests.

But Nathan Trushell, VicForests' director of corporate affairs, rejected the report findings. He said it showed ''a limited understanding of VicForests' operations and financial reporting practices and at no point was VicForests contacted to provide the clarification needed''.

''Publicly available information has been used to develop recommendations that are unsupported by the scope of the analysis, ignore the realities of the broader timber industry and disregard the current economic climate,'' he said.

Mr Trushell said VicForests had recorded a net profit of $11.6 million since being created and increased the value of its current assets by almost $20 million during this time.

17 June, 2013

Tasmanian forestry contractors using loophole to continue work after being paid to leave industry

7.30 (TV and online)
By Michael Atkin

PHOTO: The forestry industry has been shrinking rapidly in Tasmania over the past few years (Fiona Breen: ABC News)

A Senate inquiry has heard extraordinary allegations that Tasmanian forestry contractors who were paid by the Government to leave the industry are using a legal loophole to continue work.

There are also allegations of widespread rorting, and the Australian Federal Police is considering a request to investigate.

The forestry industry has been shrinking rapidly in Tasmania over the past few years, and successive governments have made almost $100 million available for contractors to leave the industry.

In 2011, after jobs were shed following the collapse of timber giant Gunns, the Federal Government stepped in again to help.

It established the $45 million Tasmanian Forests Intergovernmental Agreement Contractors Voluntary Exit Grants Program.

In return for exiting the Australian forestry industry for 10 years, forestry contractors could receive up to $3 million.

Key points

  • Forestry contractors offered exit grants under 2011 Federal Government scheme.
  • But a loophole allows them to pass their machinery to a family member under a new business name and keep working.
  • Some contractors who have used the loophole say there is nothing wrong with the practice.
  • But others say the practice is unethical and a cause for concern.
  • The loophole is currently being examined by a Senate inquiry.
  • There are also allegations of rorting of the Government program.
  • But there is nothing to prevent them passing on their trucks and machinery to a family member under a new business name and operating from the same site.

The loophole and other problems with the program are currently being examined by a Senate inquiry.

One contractor who has done that is David Scott, a 46-year-old from Burnie in the state's north-west.

He received $1.9 million to stop carting native timber, but he and his family are continuing to work in the industry.

In January a new business, DTS Transport, was created with the sole director listed as Mr Scott's 19-year-old son Dylan.

Mr Scott's son has also taken over another family business, Langan Investments, from which Mr Scott himself only resigned as a director in April.

The ABC's 7.30 confronted the contractor while he was cleaning up an accident by a DTS Transport log truck on the Bass Highway.

He confirmed he was an employee and the company was working in native forestry.

"I've got to have an income somewhere. I've got to work for somebody. There's nothing done wrong anywhere," he said.

I've got to have an income somewhere. I've got to work for somebody.
David Scott
But others are unimpressed with contractors who received millions of dollars in taxpayers' money and re-entered the industry using the family loophole.

Greens Leader Christine Milne says the practice is unethical.

"It is absolutely the Government's fault for signing off on this," she said.

"People will be shocked and horrified that these rules were written in such a shonky way."

Nick Bennetto, a forestry contractor who did not apply for an exit payment, is outraged.

"I don't think that's transparent. This total card shuffle - it just leaves a sour taste in your mouth," he said.

"We all have a right to be very concerned as to how some of these new businesses have been funded."

But Ken Padgett, the director of the Australian Forest Contractors Association, does not see what all the fuss is about.

He received $850,000 to leave the industry and his sons are likely to one day take over the family business.

"I don't see it as being an incredible loophole. Why should I because I've made a decision to do something why should I preclude my sons for instance from working in the industry?" he said.

"I think that's a stupid situation to be in."

Allegations of rorting by up to 20 contactors

Mr Bennetto also believes there has been rorting of the Federal Government program.

7.30 has obtained a confidential letter by him and two other contractors that was provided to a Senate inquiry.

It details allegations that up to 20 contractors have inflated claims to maximise payouts, re-entered the native forest industry and traded with companies that were insolvent when they received exit payments.

"For some reason they think they're going to get away with it. There has to come a day of reckoning," Mr Bennetto said.

"It can't continue and ultimately it's not fair. We've been provided with information from people that know. I'm not prepared to say where that's come from but I have seen it."

A fraud and security team at the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) investigated 18 allegations of fraud and did not find any cases of it.

The team did not visit Tasmania as part of the investigation.

However, according to DAFF some allegations may be breaches of the program guidelines. A separate compliance investigation, involving face-to-face checks is now underway.

Senator Milne is unimpressed with the Department’s handling of the program and has referred the matter to the Australian Federal Police.

The AFP is considering her request to investigate the allegations.

"The people responsible are essentially the ministers at the both federal and state level and the bureaucrats in the federal department because ultimately the ministers signed off on taxpayers’ money being paid out," Senator Milne said.

"I certainly don't want a scenario where we're just wasting taxpayers' money when we're not getting the outcome we want which is the restructure of the industry, not just another cash injection to refinance and get going again."

The Senate inquiry is due to hand down its report into the forestry contractors exit program this week.

Federal Forestry Minister Joe Ludwig declined an interview request with 7.30.