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Sustainable Forestry - Tasmania’s hardwood forests are the tallest in Earth. Mountain ash trees grow to heights of 100m and can live for more than 400 years. They have become iconic symbols of anti-forestry sentiment; they can also produce quality timber, support jobs, safeguard clear water, and provide refuge for countless forest species.

prepared by David Obendorf [Extracts from Forestry - Past, present and future - by Ken Eastwood Australian Geographic, July 2011]

For decades a battle has raged over who has a right to do what with Australia’s forests. This is a story about the passion and business of trees and timber, and the future of Australian forestry.

In 2011, the winds of change are blowing through Australia’s forest and deeply rooted practices are being challenged and altered. In southern New South Wales, red-gum forests managed for timber for more than 140 years were turned into national parks in mid-2010. The past two years have seen the collapse of forestry investment scheme (MIS) managers Timbercorp, Great Southern Plantations, Forest Enterprises Australia and Willmott Forests.

The change has been most profound in Tasmania, where the forest wars have always seemed more virulent. On the Australian mainland - perhaps the extra space helps distil intense feelings about forestry. But there’s little room in Tassie for timber fence-sitters, and the result is a deeply divided, passionate community of foresters and environmentalists. Stories abound of people being run-off roads, having their pets killed, copping death threats and committing suicide when they could no longer bear the stress. Truth has been a casualty as arguments are simplified to ‘greens versus reds’ and both sides employ unbending rhetoric. Greenies have been accused of not being able to see the trees for the forests, while they have successfully sown seeds of doubt about the industry with explicit photographs and evidence of forest destruction. International protest actions have joined in.

Green groups target Gunns Limited - by far the largest forestry operation in Tasmania, and one of the biggest in the country. Gunns was suffering from dramatically reduced profits; hardwood woodchip sales, taken largely from native forests, were down 30% and hardwood sales had been in decline for decades. International markets wanted ‘sustainable’ product and through three decades of environmental campaigning, Gunn’s reputation had been bored full of holes.

In a dramatic turnaround in 2009, Gunns removed its long-term CEO and brought in Greg L’Estrange, who later announced the company would cease native forest logging in Tasmania. Greg acknowledges that, as the Tasmanian forestry industry sets off in a new direction, no everyone is happy. “I want an outcome accepted by the whole of the community, not just the people who have been employed by the industry. You can either keep fighting this now and keep looking at the personal cost or you can say we need to resolve this to provide a better outcome for everyone in the longer term.”

Late last year representatives from 10 disparate groups with interests in Tasmania forestry - including the environmental movement, foresters, the union, and sawmillers, but not Gunns - thrashed out a statement of principles to stop the forest wars. It’s a way forward that includes halting all Tasmanian public native forest harvesting during the next 30 years.

[For comments from Lindsay Hesketh, ACF campaigner and Barry Chipman, Tasmanian manager of Timber Communities Australia - refer to the text in July-Aug 20011 edition of Australian Geographic]

THE PROBLEMS

Sarah Rees and her partner Adam Menary set up MyEnvironment in 2001 to fight for native forests and document breaches in forestry codes, of which they have multiple examples: logging in rivers, logging in the wet, the cutting down of habitat trees, and the destruction of pre-1900 trees.  “It’s not just a one-off; it’s year after year. It’s a major management failure,” Adam says. Other forest activists across the country have similar tales of breaches - ‘special protection zones’ have been illegally logged - but the evidence often seems of little value. When a breach is investigated and proven, the punishment is usually a verbal or written warning to the contractor; fines are rare and usually just a few thousand dollars.

The claimed routine breaching of rules and laissez-faire attitude towards enforcement has led some activists to believe that the highest echelons of forest managers want the natural values of forests destroyed, so they will be easier to manage in the future.

[For comments from Professor David Lindenmeyer of the Australian National University on the decline in tree-dwelling marsupials - refer to the text in July-Aug 20011 edition of Australian Geographic]

Generally, when wet forests in Australia are harvested, they are clear-felled, which can lead to a loss of large eucalypts in the landscape. This regime doesn’t return the forest to its previous state - even over a 50 to 80 year period.

THE CHIPS ARE DOWN

Although everyone uses paper, pulpwood and woodchips remain one of the hardest aspects of forestry to fathom. Pulpwood is low-grade timber that is generally turned into woodchips and used to make paper and packaging. Some of the offcuts from saw timber can be turned into woodchip. Lower quality timber felled in a logging operation also becomes woodchip. In a native forestry operation, this is the bulk of the timber - a ratio that might be one good sawlog to every 5-10 that go to the chipper.

Given the current market for woodchips, many environmentalists claim that the tail is wagging the dog - that the forests are being cut down in order to maintain a cheap woodchip supply. In many cases, logs being sent to the chipper have been shown to have quality timber that could be used for other purposes. In the 21st century the bulk of our pulpwood comes from plantations.

RENEWABLE RESOURCE

The word ‘sustainability’ is the taproot of forestry’s future in Australia. If we’re going to expand plantations to make up for less native-forest harvesting, are there alternatives to monoculture planting that are able to support a variety of wildlife? Forest ecologist, Professor David Lindenmeyer says it would only be a few moderate changes, such as intertwining plantation with a ratio of about one quarter native forest.

One thing is clear: ‘forest certification’ will become more important, as international and domestic markets demand more accountability. Japanese markets, which until recently took 85% of our woodchip; most buyers now want a stamp of approval that reads: “This timber product has been manufactured sustainably.”

Forest certification schemes underpin the use of forests. Australia has two very different schemes; The Australian Forestry Standard (AFS) and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Under the guidelines-based AFS, State forests and large forestry corporations find it easier to gain accreditation - 9 million hectares of such forest are AFS accredited.  Under the mandatory requirements of FSC rules just 500,000 hectares are certified across Australia.

The first native forest harvesters to receive FSC certification in Australia were Annabel Kater and James Felton-Taylor of Sustainable Timbers in Dungog, the NSW Hunter Valley. Through selective harvesting on their 300 hectare forest block, they supplied spotted gum of high value interior timber panelling and they are now seen by many to be forging the future of a new sustainable industry. “Plantations aren’t the panacea of timber supply,” James says, explaining that slow-growing native forests produce better timber than fast-growing plantations. Instead of constantly pulling out the best logs for short-term gain, they intentionally leave the best trees. In doing so, they’re increasing habitat for all the species that depend on older trees, as well as raising the value of every tree they leave.