By Lisa Macdonald
In an exercise aimed at defusing anticipated anger from both the environment movement and timber corporations over the 1996-97 woodchip export licences, the federal cabinet released the first draft of its national forest reserve plan on September 29. The plan, compiled by a special task force in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and based on the National Forest Policy Statement (NFPS) signed by all mainland states and territories in 1992, sets aside areas of native forest for interim protection pending "deferred forest assessment" (DFA) to decide what areas will receive permanent protection from logging.
Permanent protection is supposed to be guaranteed in regional forestry agreements between the Commonwealth and all state governments. These are expected to take up to three years to negotiate.
According to conservation criteria adopted by cabinet in July, the national reserve system will protect 15% of all forest types that existed in Australia prior to European settlement. This includes at least 60% of existing old growth forests, up to 100% of rare old growth forests and 90% of high quality wilderness areas.
However, these criteria have not yet been accepted by state governments. The Victorian government, for example, is insisting that old growth forest areas which also contain some patches of regrowth, because of unrestricted logging operations in the past, not be included for protection.
More generally, the state governments are calling for a reduction in the amount of forest to be protected from 15% for the interim areas to 10% for the permanent reserves.
The draft plan is now up for three weeks of public discussion before final boundaries are drawn up.
NAFI campaignEven before the public release of the draft, logging companies have been screaming foul.
In particular, the National Association of Forest Industries has been targeting NSW, where past heavy forest clearance in the north-east means that substantial areas of remaining forests have to be given interim protection to meet the 15% quota.
NAFI propaganda has been forecasting disaster for "many small towns and thousands of jobs because there will be a 40 to 50% reduction in forests access". A dishonest $2 million print and television advertising campaign which counterposes jobs and forest protection has ensured that its complaints are heard far and wide.
Despite the protests of the timber industry, however, both government and industry spokespeople have said that total woodchip exports next year are expected to roughly equal this year's estimated 6 million tonnes.
In fact, very few new native forest areas have been set aside for protection in states other than NSW. The Western Australian, Victorian and Tasmanian state governments seem to have convinced the federal task force that the reserve system requirements can be met from within areas already protected. This means that there will be no significant reduction in woodchip yields from these states' forests for two or three years.
In Victoria, only two catchments have been protected in the entire state.
In WA, neither the ancient Tingle forest nor any additional areas of the famous old growth karri forests have been included in the DFA list.
According to WA Greens Senator Christabel Chamarette, the state Department of Conservation and Land Management has simply submitted a list of areas to be included in the DFA process, which constitute a map of CALM's logging plans for the foreseeable future. The fact that CALM has "thumbed its nose at the public consultation process completely ... is yet another indication that it is a totally flawed process [which is] proving itself to be a mechanism to entrench logging and woodchipping in WA and Australia", said Chamarette.
In NSW, only three weeks was spent assessing forests for recommendation as DFA areas, and the federal government has admitted that NSW State Forests has been stalling the process.
'Hopelessly inadequate'In an initial response, a statement released on September 29 by 17 of the main environment groups from all states condemns the draft plan as "diabolical". The statements says that the DFAs are "hopelessly inadequate and incomplete ... a sell-out to woodchippers, thinly disguised with a scientific veneer".
The groups have called on the federal government to reject the draft plan, saying, "This process has failed. The data supplied by the states is dubious and inadequate ... in all states old growth, wilderness, endangered species habitat and bio-diversity values have been denied."
That the draft plan does not meet the aims of forest conservation should be no surprise. Environmentalists had claimed that procedures agreed on earlier this year to decide what areas were off limits to loggers were being rorted. This has been confirmed by government admissions that forests vital for the promised reserve system are likely to be logged within 12 months due to state governments' refusal to provide full and accurate information about the quantity and type of forests under their protection.
According to Chamarette, "The NFPS has always been dysfunctional and ineffective in securing real forest protection ... allowing our forests to fall prey to a ridiculous and dangerous tug of war between state and federal powers and the whims of state logging agencies".
While state governments retain ultimate responsibility for land management, the federal government can exert considerable control over logging operations via the Export Control Act. This act can be used to regulate the export of woodchips, including the annual volume and from which forests the woodchips are sourced.
So far, however, the only action the federal government has taken is to threaten that those states which do not comply with the NFPS will face a 20% reduction in their annual woodchip export quota.
Election fearsThe DFA process is a desperate attempt by the federal ALP to ensure that Keating's promise, made on the eve of the last election, to "protect the remainder of Australia's wilderness and high conservation value forest" retains some credibility for the next election.
Labor has good reason to be desperate. Alongside growing threats by the Green parties and the environment peak bodies that their preferences will not automatically go to the ALP, an opinion poll conducted for the Australian on September 16-17 shows that the environment has gained in importance in the past three months as an issue on which voters will decide between Labor and the Coalition at the federal election.
In this poll, 64% of respondents said that the environment was "very important" in deciding how they will vote, an increase of 5% since an equivalent poll in June.
The same surveys indicated that, between June and September, there has been a sharp decline in the level of public confidence in the federal ALP's ability to deal with environmental issues.