NSW forest plan shrouded in secrecy

Issue 

By Pip Hinman

SYDNEY — The silence on the forest accord — the centrepiece of the NSW Labor Party's election strategy — is deafening. In over two months, hardly a word has been said, and no action taken, on the uneasy compromise, stitched up just weeks before the March 25 election, which is supposed to protect timber workers' jobs, timber companies' profits and old-growth forests.

The conservationists Green Left Weekly spoke to have little idea about what is going on behind the scenes in Macquarie Street.

"The blinds are down", was how Peter Wright from the Australian Conservation Foundation described it. "Kim Yeadon [state land and water conservation minister] is being very quiet about the process. He's told us that he is working on a submission to cabinet, and that we should 'trust him'. That doesn't make us feel very confident."

The ACF's executive director, Tricia Caswell, in a letter to the prime minister in early May, expressed similar concerns with the federal government's lack of consultation over determining high conservation value areas. She queried whether it had the political will to protect the 264 coupes listed by the federal government, some of which are now being logged.

There is also widespread public mistrust of the timber industry — despite its big-budget propaganda campaign. Polling by the National Association of Forest Industries, reported in the June 1 Financial Review, reveals that few believe the industry's claims to be ecologically sustainable. The poll found that more than 80% of people support an independent auditing of forest management and approved of government intervention; more than a third said that conservation groups should be given responsibility to manage the nation's forests.

A few weeks ago the NSW government announced that logging would stop — temporarily — in all wilderness areas identified by the federal government as needing protection. However, Wright said that there was no certainty that timber companies would be prohibited from exploiting them in the future.

The ACF's forests policy, launched on May 31, calls for a moratorium on native forest harvesting, an end to the export of woodchips and a rapid transition strategy to achieve these goals.

A spokesperson for the North East Forest Alliance, David Julian, told Green Left that timber companies, assisted by district forestry officials, are determined to push ahead with their logging schedules. "They are being driven by Boral, which has an 80% monopoly on the industry." NEFA has said it will continue to blockade old-growth and high conservation value forests if this happens.

Environmental activists have been told by Yeadon that an announcement on the urgent rescheduling of coupes — promised during the state election campaign — would take another two weeks to prepare.

The rescheduling will identify moratorium areas which will then become part of regional forest agreement negotiations with the federal government.

The Commonwealth has requested that state governments "make significant progress" in determining these areas over the next three months in order to feed into discussions about a preliminary reserve system for which woodchip licences would not be issued.

ACF is worried, however, that the determining of woodchip export licences for 1996 — due to be decided in August — is proceeding before a national reserve system has been agreed to.

It is also concerned that the federal government's policy of phasing out export woodchipping by the year 2000 may be replaced by a policy which allows export woodchipping to continue if regional forest agreements are in place. In Tasmania, for example, the regional forest agreement will allow an increase in output of 790,000 tonnes.

Both the state and the federal processes are supposed to involve all stake holders. However, Wright told Green Left that the ACF believes that, in both, environment groups are being sidelined in favour of industry and union groups. In NSW, for example, while the ACF has tried unsuccessfully to meet with Yeadon, a senior official from the timber workers' union is now working as one of his advisers.

According to Julian, Yeadon is waiting until parliament stops sitting to announce the government's new forest policy. He said that government was worried about a timber industry blockade of the NSW Parliament House!

"Labor's forest policy will take the pressure off old-growth forests and put it on regrowth forests, which is not the solution", Julian said.

"Real solutions for a sustainable timber industry have to involve agro-forestry using mixed species rainforest timber, preserving biodiversity and rainfall catchment areas, preserving jobs, replanting as well as more plantationing."

The other major problem Julian identified is the Carr government's support of corporatisation of State Forests. "This is a sell-out because it will give resource security to a few multinationals."

Julian said that Labor has committed itself to complying with wood supply agreements made two years ago by the previous government with Boral and Daishowa. "This commits State Forests to supply timber to these companies for 20 years. It is another resource security-type piece of legislation. The ALP says it is legally committed to preserving this, yet it was signed without adequate knowledge of the available resource and is a total overestimation of the supply of available timber."