The Tasmanian and federal governments signed an Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) last August that promised immediate protection for 430,000 hectares of high conservation value forest.
But it also agreed to continue supplying the industry hundreds of thousands of cubic metres of sawlogs and veneer peeler logs. The agreement included more than $250 million in finance to restructure the timber industry.
Logging continued while negotiations took place and reports were prepared. Malaysian logging company Ta Ann Holdings has been promised an ongoing supply of over 265,000 cubic metres of timber a year from Tasmanian forests.
The Independent Verification Group set up under the agreement, chaired by Professor Jonathon West, handed its report to state and federal governments at the end of February.
A leaked section of the report, made public by the Tasmanian Liberals on March 17, showed that the state’s native forests were insufficient to cover minimum wood supply guarantees in the agreement, even if no new reserves are created.
Vica Bayley from The Wilderness Society said: “This draft report clearly shows that public native forests have been systematically overcut and over-allocated in existing and new contracts.”
He said high conservation value native forests should not to be sacrificed to meet wood-supply contracts.
“Forestry Tasmania has committed the state to contracts that could never have been met, and potentially left the Tasmanian taxpayer exposed to huge compensation payments.”
The full report was released to the public on March 23. It confirmed that existing contracts were too big. “The report presents estimates of the wood volumes that could be sustainably supplied from native forests, without any new reserves, over a 100 year period. These yields are much less than the wood supply guarantees in the IGA.”
Coalition forestry spokesperson Richard Colbeck said on March 23: “The environmental movement might have 'claims' on some areas, but the forest industry has contracts.
“Even with the exit of Gunns Ltd, locking up our forest resources will mean existing contracts cannot be met. It was clear from looking at the wood supply projections at the very start of the Statement of Principles process that locking up more forest resources would cause supply shortages.”
However, the report said 94% of the 572,000 hectares of forest nominated by environment groups had high conservation values, including rare and threatened species, old growth forests, Aboriginal heritage, cave systems and formations, giant trees, and rainforests.
It also said: “The area known as the Tarkine was assessed to have values that meet National Heritage criteria and are very likely to meet World Heritage criteria.”
Tarkine was “the largest area of cool temperate rainforest in the southern hemisphere”. The report said most of the proposed reserves met one or more national or world heritage criteria.
Australian Greens leader Bob Brown said when the report was released: “The Gillard and Giddings governments should move to extend the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area to include forests in the Tarkine, Styx, Weld, upper Florentine and Great Western Tiers.”
The report also found that creation of the proposed reserves has the potential to make a “significant and quick” contribution to reducing Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions.
However, not only are sections of the high conservation value areas sought after by timber companies, they are also potentially valuable to mining companies.
The “Minerals Prospectivity” section of the report said: “45% of the nominated reserve area has low to moderate mineral potential, 22% has high mineral potential and 33% has very high mineral potential. It is recommended that the 55% of high to very high mineral potential reserves be given a land tenure classification that enables mineral exploration and mining in the future.”
The report spells out many reasons why the proposed forest reserves need full protection. But it also makes clear that Forestry Tasmania needs to access to fulfill current contracts. And its acceptance of mining industry interests in concerning.
Socialist Alliance spokesperson Rose Matthews said: “Governments need to arbitrate over these competing interests and make a decision based on what is in the best interests of society and the environment. In this case, the arguments for protecting these forests win hands down.”
The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, which was left out of the negotiations, held talks with Forestry Tasmania about managing any reserved land.
The centre's legal director Michael Mansell said on March 2: “We can manage the conservation areas better than National Parks and Wildlife.”
The March 2 Hobart Mercury said Mansell said Aborigines should receive the $7 million a year under the IGA to manage the forests to employ up to 60 Aboriginal rangers.
Aboriginal people also want to manage Forestry Tasmania's tourism properties in the Tahune, Geeveston and Maydena and to earn royalties from forest production.
On March 14, Ta Ann said Evan Rolley had become its executive director. Rolley is also a director of Tasports as well as Forest and Wood Products Australia.
He was a former director of state-owned Forestry Tasmania and a former secretary of the department of premier and cabinet.
The Greens criticised the appointment and activist Miranda Gibson asked on her blog: “Wasn’t he the one who coordinated the contract between Forestry Tasmania and Ta Ann in the first place?”
At the same time, independent Upper House MP Paul Harriss has defended an overseas trip he took in 2010, which was paid for by Ta Ann. The March 8 Examiner said Greens MP Kim Booth raised the issue in the House of Assembly.
Booth said Harriss had declared a trip paid for by Ta Ann and a $1000 gift from the company made in 2007-08.
Harriss has spoken out publicly in favour of Ta Ann and against further conservation of forests, branding the actions of Markets for Change activists as “eco-terrorism”.
Members of Markets for Change have travelled to Japan to
investigate educate customers on the origin of Ta Ann’s timber, disputing the company’s claims that its products are sourced from plantations.
On February 13, Ta Ann announced that it was shedding 40 jobs. The company's senior manager, Greg Hickey, said the job cuts were the direct result of environmental groups lobbying markets in Japan.
The ABC reported that a company that has been laying flooring at the London Olympics “stopped buying timber products from Ta Ann after being told the wood came from high conservation value forest”.
Twelve of Tasmania’s 15 Upper House Legislative Council members gathered on parliament lawns that day to proclaim that they would block any legislation relating to the creation of new reserves.