06 December, 2013

Forest foes join forces to fight Tony Abbott's plan

Sid Maher
News.com.au, 6 December 2013.

NEGOTIATING an end to Tasmania's timber wars required a leap of faith for both Vica Bayley and Terry Edwards.

For years, they had been fighting opposite corners: Mr Bayley for The Wilderness Society, which had campaigned tirelessly to preserve the state's old-growth forests; Mr Edwards for the companies that fought just as tenaciously to log them.

Now they're on the same side with the same message for Tony Abbott, amid concern that intervention by the federal government could blow up the peace deal on Tasmania's forests.

"This thing is working; why go and tear out a key pillar of it?" Mr Bayley said yesterday, as the future of the agreement was expected to go before cabinet. Mr Edwards chimed in: "Our markets are calling for conflict-free wood."

Mr Edwards has written to the Prime Minister and senior ministers warning that implementation of a Coalition election policy to rescind expansion of Tasmania's World Heritage-listed forest reserve would scuttle the deal he helped broker on behalf of the Forest Industries Association of Tasmania.

The landmark agreement between the industry, environment groups and unions was backed by the then federal Labor government and the Tasmania government.

Increased forest protection was traded off for industry assistance measures, including a "green stamp" for timber products demanded in key export markets such as Japan.

Mr Edwards fears the Forest Stewardship Council certification scheme will be undermined if the 100,000ha World Heritage expansion at the heart of the deal is dumped, jeopardising up to 1000 logging-related jobs in the short term and thousands more down the track.

"The principal warning we have given them (the federal government) is it would put the FSC certification of the Tasmanian forests at risk and make it extraordinarily difficult to achieve," he told The Australian.

"From an industry point of view, that is one of the key planks of the whole of the forest industry agreement . . . our markets are calling for conflict-free wood that is independently certified to the FSC brand."

Mr Bayley, a key negotiator of the deal, said there had been a "paradigm shift" among the former warring parties. This meant that representatives of environmental groups had travelled to Tokyo last January and in September on trade missions to help promote the green credentials of Tasmanian timber exports.

"The agreement is demonstrably delivering . . . we are all signed up to the one vision, we are all promoting that same vision," Mr Bayley said.

"That's why you have environment groups in Japan and that's why you have got industry groups now standing up and defending this World Heritage area. Both of those things are unprecedented in the history of this conflict."

The local boss of veneer-maker Ta Ann, Evan Rolley, said the company had binding contracts to use only FSC-approved wood in its two timber mills employing 110 people.

Malaysian-owned Ta Ann also planned to promote its green stamp to break into plywood manufacturing - a market dominated in Australia by imports from countries "where forest practice is not nearly as rigorous".
Increasingly, the company's domestic customers were joining those overseas in demanding that timber products be sourced from sustainable forests, Mr Rolley said.

FSC certification under the forestry agreement "has been the basis of our entering into new wood supply and it's the basis on which we are producing our product in the market today".

Industry veteran Bernard McKay, of McKay Timbers, questioned whether Mr Abbott grasped how important the deal was - and how hard it had been to secure. His family-owned company operates two saw mills, a processing plant and a sales outlet employing 92 people, with turnover of about $12 million a year in Tasmania.

"There were huge compromises by all groups," 72-year-old Mr McKay said. "There really was. Many a time they were walking away . . . and I would suspect that the Prime Minister doesn't really understand how this end result has been achieved and what compromises have been made by all sides to reach the agreement."

While Mr McKay said he had been personally opposed to "locking up our forests", the damage to employment and the state economy would be compounded were the deal to collapse.
"It's a disaster, but going back and retreating from the agreement would be another disaster on top of it," he said.

Mr Abbott, on the eve of the September 7 federal election, stood by the Coalition's pledge to "seek" to unwind the extension to the World Heritage estate in Tasmania backed by signatories to the forests pact last June. His office did not respond to questions on whether this remained government policy.

Bill Shorten insisted it would be reckless of the government to try to dismantle the agreement.

"This has been a government who in opposition stormed around the country making every promise to every group of random people on every street corner they could find. Now they're finding out that being in government is harder," the Opposition Leader said.

Greens leader Christine Milne said the Tasmanian economy depended on being branded "clean, green and clever", and tearing down the agreement would "hurt the people Tony Abbott thinks he would be helping".
Additional reporting: Sid Maher

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