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Chain Reaction

Tasmania's old growth forests

by CamWalker last modified 2009-04-16 07:15

Ula Majewski

Tasmania’s forests are at the centre of one of the most protracted and conflict-ridden debates over natural resource management in Australia’s history. This debate has again reached crisis point, with international concerns raised over recent road building operations in the Upper Florentine Valley.

In July 2008, the World Heritage Committee released a crucial decision relating to these tall-eucalypt old growth forests, along with those located in the Styx and Weld Valleys, requesting the Tasmanian and Australian governments seriously consider an extension of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area to include these forests. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature called for a consideration of a moratorium on logging in these forests of potential outstanding universal value. These calls from the planet’s peak conservation bodies were ignored by federal environment minister Peter Garrett and Tasmanian environment minister Michelle O’Byrne.

Early in the morning on January 12, over 60 police raided a peaceful community blockade in the Upper Florentine Valley. Camp Florentine, constructed in a logging coupe, has been defending the globally-recognised old growth forests of the Upper Florentine for over two years. The blockade was constructed of tree sits cabled to monopoles, a suspended monopole and tripods, three ‘dragons’ (blockading devices that usually consists of a car body, a pipe and a lot of cement) and a tunnel dug deep beneath the existing logging road. The raid came as Forestry Tasmania moved machinery into the forest, attempting to build a new 4 km logging road to open the valley to industrial-scale destruction.

The Upper Florentine Valley contains hundreds of hectares of threatened old growth tall eucalypt forest and old growth rainforest, significant karst water systems, a wild river and outstanding examples of Indigenous and European cultural heritage. The valley is bordered on three sides by spectacular mountain ranges located within the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. These tall eucalypt old growth forests also store huge amounts of carbon.

Since January 12, over 30 activists and community members have been arrested in the fight to protect these ancient ecosystems. In an Australian first, activist Adrian King spent 36 hours underground in the tunnel. As at February 11, four tree-sitters were still perched high in the canopy of these irreplaceable forests. On January 18 and 31, over 500 community members conducted a peaceful mass walk-in to the site, entering Forestry Tasmania's 'exclusion zone' to protest against the continued devastation, woodchipping and burning of some of Australia's most precious natural heritage. Rolling actions have taken place every single day since the blockade was raided, with forest defenders locking onto road building machinery; new tree sits and blockading structures erected; and community members walking into the site and refusing to leave. In Tasmania's capital city, Hobart, activists scaled the roof of Parliament House and hung a giant 'Save the Upper Florentine' banner.

International support for the ancient forests of the Upper Florentine was demonstrated in London on January 19 and 26, as British activists presented the Australian High Commission with petitions, climbed trees and unfurled banners to send the Australian government a message that the destruction of Tasmania's carbon dense old growth forests is a global issue.

Lies, damned lies and forest statistics

A number of statistics are utilised ad nauseum by the forestry industry and certain governmental bodies to obscure from public view exactly what is happening in our publicly-owned tall-eucalypt old growth and high conservation value forests. Many of the RFA old growth forests protected in Tasmania consist of trees of little use to the timber industry. However, RFA old growth and high conservation value forests that contain species highly desirable to the forestry industry have been poorly reserved. Despite repeated requests for solid evidence supporting such ‘statistics’ as “90% of the Upper Florentine Valley is reserved from logging,” data and maps supporting such claims have failed to materialise. We do know, however, that most of the ‘protected’ country in the Upper Florentine consists of buttongrass, scrub and high-altitude moorlands, with very few tall-eucalypt forests reserved.

So, here are some lesser-known statistics concerning these globally recognised forests, which are owned by the people of Tasmania and managed by Forestry Tasmania. Only 22% of Tasmania’s original tall-eucalypt forests have been reserved. In 2006, approximately 61,000 hectares of tall-eucalypt RFA old growth forests remained unprotected, with an additional 32,000 hectares located in non-secure informal reserves.

Ten thousand hectares of tall-eucalypt RFA old growth forest have been lost since 1996, predominantly as a result of industrial logging operations. Over 84% of the timber extracted from our publicly-owned native forests is woodchipped, with only 4% becoming solid wood products. The majority of the woodchips come from mature or old growth trees. The overwhelming majority of old growth woodchips generated in Tasmania are exported by Gunns Limited.

Due to increased mechanisation and technological developments, the logging industry has become less dependent on people, resulting in massive job losses. In 1997, a state-government memo said only eight forestry jobs would be generated by logging the Upper Florentine. Today, that number is even less. Yet taxpayer funds are being used to subsidise building roads and felling forests in the area.

Exporting woodchips

Tasmania is the largest exporter of woodchips in Australia, exporting more than all the other states combined. In 2007, Forestry Tasmania released figures showing wood from publicly-owned native forests would be sold to Gunns, the world’s largest exporter of hardwood chips (3.7 million tonnes in 2007/08), from between $12.50-13.75 per tonne from January 2008. Managing Director of Forestry Tasmania, Bob Gordon, has also confirmed that at least 500,000 tonnes of woodchips sourced from publicly-owned old growth forests will be exported annually.

Although Gunns cut the majority of Tasmania’s 170 forest harvesting businesses’ long-term woodchip contracts by over 40% in 2006, the company reported a $75 million annual net profit for the 2006-07 financial year. Over the past few months, Tasmanian forest contractors have been lobbying the Australian government for assistance packages to exit the industry. These calls have been largely ignored. Over the past decade, Forestry Tasmania and the forestry industry have received at least $326 million in federal and state-based taxpayer funded subsidies through the Tasmanian RFA and Tasmanian Community Forest Agreement financial packages alone. Last year, Forestry Tasmania, the government business enterprise responsible for managing our public forests in an environmentally, socially and economically sustainable manner, reported an annual loss in excess of $38 million.

Taken together, these factors begin to suggest a markedly different picture to that propagated by key players in the forestry industry and their counterparts in government. This alternative picture has little to do with conflict between loggers and greenies and everything to do with local jobs, taxpayers’ dollars and publicly-owned old growth forests being destroyed by Forestry Tasmania – identified by ANU economist Judith Ajani as “a profitless wood supply service” – and Gunns Ltd., to maximise profits for the largest and wealthiest corporation on the island, predominantly through the export of enormous volumes of woodchips.

In November, an alliance of Tasmanian environmental groups, including Still Wild Still Threatened and the Huon Valley Environment Centre, put a forest solution proposal on the table. This was an attempt to open up a space for mature and intelligent discussion with the aim of finally resolving this long-running debate over our old growth and high conservation value forests. We are still waiting for a response from Premier Bartlett and Prime Minister Rudd.

The fight to protect our precious old growth forests continues in Tasmania. For more information on the campaign to save Tasmania's old growth and high conservation value forests, and to see what you can do to help, please visit: <>, <>, <>, <>, <> or contact us at <> or <>.

Ula Majewski is a Still Wild Still Threatened forest campaigner and Triabunna 13 defendant.

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