Australia Conflict is back in Tasmania's forests, and two decisions in Victoria could make it worse

01:08  20 june  2020
01:08  20 june  2020 Source:   abc.net.au

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Total wood production has been slowly on the rise, with plantation timber making up the vast majority of Tasmania's total supply. (ABC Northern Tasmania: Fred Hooper) © Provided by ABC NEWS Total wood production has been slowly on the rise, with plantation timber making up the vast majority of Tasmania's total supply. (ABC Northern Tasmania: Fred Hooper)

It had been quiet in Tasmania's forests, until recently.

With a long history of forest conflict, a peace deal struck between environmentalists and loggers in 2012 cooled things off in the state.

And despite the Liberal government putting a symbolic end to the peace deal in 2014, there had been some semblance of peace.

But now, it seems, the conflict is back on, with tree-sits in the Tarkine, locking onto machinery at Ta Ann's Smithton mill, glueing themselves to the offices of the state-owned forestry agency Sustainable Timber Tasmania resulting in about 25 activists arrested in the past six months.

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Now, two decisions in Victoria are being closely watched for whether they'll spell more conflict for the island state.

Protesters fighting 'destruction of native forests'

Colette Harmsen a former vet who also worked on the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program, has been protesting in Tasmania's forests for 15 years and arrested 10 times.

"I just felt like things were not moving fast enough to help protect those endangered species that I was caring so much about," she said.

"It's worthwhile because of what we're highlighting which is the ongoing destruction of native forests in Tasmania."

The workplace safety regulator had tried, unsuccessfully, to effectively ban protests by the Bob Brown Foundation — the group Colette Harmsen is associated with, and the group supporting the protests.

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WorkSafe Tasmania has said it is still investigating a complaint regarding alleged unsafe work practices by workers of the Bob Brown Foundation.

Protests have been scattered through the state; in the Tarkine in the north-west, at Wentworth Hills on the Central Plateau and north of Mt Field National Park.

"We aren't definitely covering all the forests that are being logged, we're just showing a small snippet of what's going wrong in Tasmania's forests," said Jenny Weber, the campaign manager for the Bob Brown Foundation.

The more protests are held, and the more protesters that are arrested, the more heightened the political landscape around forestry has become, with the vitriol reaching fever pitch in May with the discovery of metal objects in logs delivered to two sawmills.

The tree-spiking prompted not-so-subtle accusations over the alleged sabotage, in which police now say more than 20 objects were discovered.

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The Bob Brown Foundation denies any involvement and has condemned the behaviour, with Tasmania Police saying it is pursuing a "specific avenue of inquiry" but isn't at this stage of initiating any proceedings.

'Enough is enough': Bob Brown Foundation

Total wood production for Tasmania hit a low point in 2011-12 as the so-called forest wars came to a head.

Tensions have steadily on the rise since then, with plantation timber making up the vast majority of Tasmania's total wood supply, and most harvested from private land.

The state's public forestry agency has increased its native forest harvesting since 2014, but is still only harvesting about half the native forest area it used to.

The Bob Brown Foundation said it was escalating forest protests and calls for an end to native forest logging in response to an increasing climate emergency, made more apparent by the recent bushfires across much of Australia's east coast.

"That's why protests are ramping up — because enough is enough," Ms Weber said.

Some in the industry, with a vested interest in native logging, are more sceptical, suspecting a conflict-reliant business model.

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Industry dominated by plantation-based companies

Through most of the "forest wars", the most prominent body representing the industry was the Forest Industries Association of Tasmania (FIAT).

A new group, the Tasmanian Forest Products Association, has formed, with chair, Bryan Hayes, speaking of a "united, cohesive organisation" which' formation "heralds a new era of cooperation between all parts of the industry".

The man who has been the face of FIAT for almost two decades, Terry Edwards, said just because the industry was changing, that didn't mean native timber harvesting would be replaced.

"It doesn't have to be on or the other. In fact, plantations don't necessarily produce the high quality timbers that Tasmania is famous for and that are very much sought-after right around the world," he said.

One business that relies on native forest harvesting is Torenius Timbers, in Forcett. The family sawmill business sources wood from state forests managed by Sustainable Timber Tasmania, selling mostly to local architects, builders and home renovators seeking high-end timber products.

"When Tasmanians come in to the mill here they know where the timber is coming from, if they don't know, they ask and we tell them," Matthew Torenius said.

"I think the majority of Tasmanians are comfortable with where timber that we use is sourced from, but there are always going to be groups opposed to native logging. We'll never please them."

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For Mr Torenius, the increase in forest protests has been concerning.

"It's a little bit deflating. I mean, it's hard enough to run a small business, and it is difficult when you see these protests," he said.

Mr Torenius said while coronavirus had impacted some aspects of the business, demand had been good in recent years. And it's potentially going to get better.

Victorians will look to Tasmania: FIAT

The Andrews Government in Victoria has declared it will phase out all native timber logging by 2030.

Mr Edwards said he expected that as the production of native forest timbers in Victoria declined, the demand for Tasmanian native timbers would increase.

"Victorians will look to Tasmanian oak as a supplement to the loss of their Victorian ash product," he said.

Matthew Torenius agrees.

"And we're already seeing more phone calls out of Victoria — furniture makers, window manufacturers — looking to buy timber," he said.

How that demand could be met looks set to be yet another point of conflict in the state, with a moratorium on logging in 356,000 hectares of previously protected forest having ended in April.

The forest was reserved under the Tasmanian Forest Agreement, after industry and environment groups spent years working towards the peace deal for the forests.

But the Liberals' victory in 2014 came with a promise to rip up that deal, and allow logging in what they dubbed the Future Potential Production Forest (FPPF) this year.

There is no formal application process to access the trees. Instead, interest businesses would make their case to Minister Guy Barnett, who calls the forests a "wood bank".

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So far, the Government has said no-one has applied to access the areas. And if they did, the proposal would need to pass through Parliament.

Publicly, there does not appear to be any appetite to access forests that are extremely contentious and guaranteed to spark protests.

"I don't think the industry wants to have the fight, I think there are groups that do want to have the fight," Mr Torenius said.

Mr Edwards said apart from the specialty timbers industry, he wasn't aware of anyone seeking access to the FPPF land. But he said it was conceivable that if Tasmania weren't able to meet demand, particularly in light of the impending decline of Victorian production, there could be interest.

"People may become interested in going into the FPPF land on a sustainable, light-tread basis, to obtain material to be able to sustain those markets," he said.

The idea greatly concerns Ms Weber from the Bob Brown Foundation, who believes even Victoria is moving too slowly to end native forest logging.

"It would be alarming if the Tasmanian forest industry saw a Victorian native forest transition and exit out of old growth logging as an excuse to ramp up logging in Tasmania," she said.

"And as soon as there is a bulldozer or chainsaw heading into those forests, absolutely the Bob Brown Foundation, and I would say a lot of Tasmanians, will get out in front of those bulldozers and call for the protection of those forests.

Logging areas inhabited by endangered species

Another decision made in Victoria is being dissected for its potential implications in Tasmanian forests.

Last month, the Federal Court ruled that state-owned timber company VicForests breached environmental laws by logging sections of the Central Highlands inhabited by the critically endangered Leadbeater's possum.

In Tasmania, environment groups are looking closely at whether the principles of the Leadbeater's possum decision could apply, given logging has been carried out habitat of endangered species, including the swift parrot.

In 2007, Bob Brown won a federal court case against logging in Wielangta forest on the grounds it would destroy habitat of the swift parrot, wedge-tailed eagle and Wielangta broad-toothed stag beetle, but the judgment was overturned on appeal.

As a result of the initial court case, then-prime minister John Howard and Tasmanian premier Paul Lennon varied the Tasmanian Regional Forest Agreement (RFA) to say that the reserve system and management prescriptions in the Tasmanian RFA did protect rare and threatened species.

But the Bob Brown Foundation is pursuing legal advice regardless of the amendment.

"And if a legal opportunity comes up for the Bob Brown Foundation to challenge what is going on out here in these forests, we will absolutely have a look at that," Ms Weber said.

Guy Barnett believes the Federal Court decision is likely to be specific to Victoria, but the Tasmanian Government is considering the judgement.

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