Forestry Tasmania is in a mess, says forum

April 12, 2012

More than 150 people gathered at a public meeting in Hobart on April 3 to discuss the problems and solutions related to Forestry Tasmania, the government-owned company established to manage the state’s forest assets. The audience heard from Associate Professor Graeme Wells, Dr Frank Nicklason, Environment Tasmania’s Dr Phil Pullinger, veteran forest activist Geoff Law and Dr Andrew Lohrey.

Wells highlighted the economics of Forestry Tasmania (FT), describing how the price of pulp has trended down since the 1970s. Forestry Tasmania has established itself as an industrial commodity-based supplier in a falling market, and finds itself unable and unwilling to move into value-added products.

Wells said employment has also trended down, with many timber industry workers being laid off in recent times. Today, the industry employs just 1.2% of Tasmania’s workforce and Forestry Tasmania’s return on investment for its owners — the Tasmanian people — stands at just 1.7%. The rate is so low the company will be unable to meet the superannuation entitlements of its workforce. Wells said Forestry Tasmania is in effect broke.

Law and Nicklason, a founding member of Doctors for Forests, spoke about the environmental and human costs of a mismanaged Tasmanian forest industry.

Law said Forestry Tasmania’s website is starkly at odds with the reality of the company’s practices on the ground, arguing that they fail on all environmental fronts.

He used the Weilangta forest case to demonstrate that, for Forestry Tasmania, logging takes precedence over threatened species. The company pressured an independent expert to retract key evidence indicating that the endangered Stag Beetle would face extinction if logging continued.

The court initially ruled against Foresty Tasmania in the case. But the decision was overturned on appeal and the law was changed to exempt Forestry Tasmania from the Threatened Species Act.

The speakers said Forestry Tasmania has also entered into Joint Venture Partnerships, whereby it was able to, in effect, privatise state-owned forests and avoid parliamentary scrutiny, with all profits going straight to its own bottom line.

Pullinger pointed to the wood supply data, which made it clear Forestry Tasmania is unable to meet its contractual obligations due to its over-allocated resources.

Lohry, a former state minister for forests, spoke of the unbridled power of the forest industry within Tasmania. He described how as a minister in 1978, he requested the financial records of what was then the Forest Commission. When none were forthcoming, he instigated an inquiry.

He was quickly summoned to a meeting with the then premier and deputy premier and told to cease his enquiries. When he declined to do so, he was promptly removed in a cabinet re-shuffle and the inquiry was dropped.

All speakers agreed Forestry Tasmania is in dire need of restructuring. It is a drain on the public purse and is not fulfilling its obligations to manage the forests in the interests of the Tasmanian people.

Some of the speakers favoured making it a fully accountable public enterprise, while others argued that it should be fully privatised and left to market forces.

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