Signing the Conservation Agreement

Last Friday, the State and Federal Governments signed a Conservation Agreement excluding forest operations from 428,000 hectares of public native forest.  Forestry Tasmania (FT) was also a signatory to this Agreement.  This move has prompted an outcry from conservation groups, condemning the governments for allowing operations to continue to occur in some 2,000 hectares of forest.  What is going on?

A Conservation Agreement is a device under the Commonwealth EPBC Act to enable areas to be excluded from a particular type of activity.  For it to be effective, it must have the support of the State Government and the land manager, in this case FT.

In one respect, the signing of this Agreement does not change anything much.  It simply formalizes a matter covered in the Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) by the Commonwealth and State governments, which was signed in August last year.

Under the IGA, the two governments agreed to remove UP TO 572,000 hectares of native forest, which the environmental movement purported to be of high conservation value, from active forest management. This was to be subject to two separate and independent verification reports.

The first report related to the immediate setting aside of an initial 430,000 ha of native forest into informal reserves.   Under the IGA, this was to be an interim matter only, and was designed to ensure immediate cessation of forest works within that area while the second report was being prepared.  However, there was a caveat.  Harvesting could occur within designated coupes if  it could be proven FT had no alternative if it was to satisfy existing contractual commitments for sawlog and peeler log supply.  This report was delivered to the government in early October, and concluded that FT must have continuing access to at least 25 of these coupes within the 430,000 hectares between the signing of the document and end December 2011.

The timeline for the second report, originally end December 2011, has now been extended to 30 June.  The Conservation Agreement simply formalizes this process, setting aside 428,000 of the 430,000 hectares until the final report is received - or 30 June, whichever is the sooner.

The second report was to detail the boundaries of high conservation value forest within an area up to 572,000 ha.  The committee preparing this report (chaired by Jonathan West) now expects that its work will not be concluded before the end of February.

The Conservation Agreement in part recognises the extension of the timeline.  It requires the support of all parties to the Agrement.  It is temporary, it is voluntary, and it enables FT to continue to operate in some 2000 hectares to achieve its contractual commitments.

The more substantial matter remains unresolved.  The IGA process, of which the Conservation Agreement is now a part, is not going to be smooth, as there are some significant issues that still require consideration.

The Conservation Agreement, which expires 30 June, has been rejected by the conservation movement because of the 2000 hectares deemed necessary for FT to continue to fulfil its contractual requirements.  Yet the need for FT to meet its contractual commitments, an equal condition to all others,was part of the IGA which the conservation movement supported.

The Conservation Agreement is also regarded with deep suspicion by industry as it causes a change of land status which might be difficult to reverse if the IGA fails.  However, a permanent change in the status of the land will require state legislation, and the Legislative Council has already stated that it will not support such a change.

The Committee chaired by Jonathan West is still considering the area (up to 572,000 hectares) which is to be considered of high conservation value.  As I have stated before, this is going to be some task, as this phrase is meaningless.  Like beauty, it is in the eye of the beholder, and like beauty, it is equally ephemeral. It is without definition, and yet it is held up to be the definitive determinant for the establishing the boundaries of new formal reserves.

Again, as stated previously, Forestry Tasmania has advised both governments that, if such an area is set aside, then it will not be able to meet its continuing, legally contracted supply commitments.  Governments seem incapable of absorbing and responding to this fact.

The company Ta Ann Tasmania has come under criticism from conservation interests because it sources wood from our native forests.  However, the criticism is unfounded because the wood sourced is from actively managed regeneration forest.  In fact, the company’s operation is designed to take just that type of timber.  Old growth just doesn’t cut it – pardon the pun.  And yet the sledging continues.

The management of the Triabunna woodchip mill has stated it will not accept any wood that comes from the 572,000 hectares, even though the West committee has not yet determined where the boundaries might lie.

The case for access to special timbers, essential for the craft and boatbuilding industries, also seems to be ignored.  The success of the IGA will permanently remove most of their present allocation, and be a disaster for those enterprises.

The argument continues that changed market conditions have caused the industry to falter.  This is simply not true.  The market is still buying wood product, the sawmillers are selling all they can produce, veneer products continue to find markets, and the overseas markets are still buying product, including woodchips, from Australia.

It is true that Gunns’ management had difficulties in the offshore market for woodchips, but Gunns is not the industry, and I suspect the market difficulties were more a “Gunns” issue, than a change in underlying demand for forest products.

The IGA is the culmination of the roundtable process, which was meant to bring all interested parties together, to resolve the forest conflict.  It is obvious that whatever the outcome of the IGA there will be many unhappy campers.  Already many interest groups have now complained that their interests were not represented at the table, and have disowned the process.  I suspect more will follow.

For better or for worse, the forest conflict continues unabated.

From the department website.

The initial advice prepared by the two independent expert schedulers covered the period to the end of 2011 and was presented to governments and Signatories on 13 October 2011. Following consideration of this initial advice, Signatories requested further information from the independent expert schedulers to clarify and expand on a number of elements. This second report was provided to Signatories on 17 November 2011. As this advice focused on the period to the end of 2011, a further report covering the period to the end of February 2012 was commissioned by the Australian Government and completed on 23 December 2011.

The independent expert forest schedulers found that while some harvesting work could be moved, it was not possible to reschedule harvesting in some coupes.  In accordance with the requirements of the Intergovernmental Agreement, which commits to honouring all existing wood supply contracts, these coupes have been excluded from the Conservation Agreement.