By Pip Hinman
In fear of the political consequences, federal cabinet has been postponing a decision on whether 76 sensitive areas of old-growth forests will be logged. Cabinet is due to make a decision on March 6.
The timber industry lobby is stepping up its pressure on the government. According to Robert Bain, executive director of the National Association of Forest Industries, stand-downs are imminent if the federal and state governments don't agree to give the industry the forests it wants.
The 76 coupes in question are among the 509 recommended by cabinet in January for further environmental assessment; 57 of these were released for logging following the timber industry's blockade of Parliament House last month.
According to Senator John Faulkner, cabinet's delay in making the decision signals that "it is taking seriously the need to find a balance between protecting jobs and protecting the environment". This sentiment has been echoed by the Australian Conservation Foundation's Peter Wright, who said that the deferral suggested that cabinet was having "second thoughts about handing over good forest areas to the woodchipper".
However, Bruce Threlfo, Democratic Socialist upper house candidate in the NSW elections, is less confident of the government's motives. Experience, he said, indicates that the green movement shouldn't place much trust in either the state or federal government to protect old-growth forests.
"Public opinion is clearly on the side of protection, not devastation. The Keating government has the power to override the states to protect these unique old-growth forests, but it hasn't. In 1992 it committed itself to set up a comprehensive reserve system to protect such areas, but it hasn't."
Federal Labor and the NSW ALP opposition appear keen to avoid a final decision before the March 25 state election. On March 2, cabinet decided that none of the 30 or so compartments listed in NSW would be logged — yet. The Fahey government, in turn, has said that some of the compartments in question would not be chipped.
But the bulldozing of old-growth forests continues. NSW conservation groups have been organising blockades — so far unsuccessfully — to halt the woodchipping. Activists trying to stop the destruction of Compartment 285 of the Wingham Management Area have accused State Forests of neglecting to conduct fauna surveys prior to logging and roading, even though 30 or more endangered species inhabit the compartment.
North East Forest Alliance spokesperson Dailan Pugh has accused the state government of refusing to allow proper reassessments to be done. The 20 compartments the Fahey government wants released in the north-east include some high conservation value forests which are not part of the current reserve system.
Pugh said the Fahey government has refused to allow the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) or the Department of Planning any more than "a token role" in the reassessments. "NSW is also denying federal agencies access to extensive data bases held by the National Forest Inventory on the basis that the NSW government helped to fund the data base collection and thus can veto their access."
Richard Blakers, from the South East Conservation Council (SECC), said that the 10 compartments in the south-east include those identified as being of the highest conservation value. "State Forests' claims of economic necessity to log these areas is unsubstantiated rubbish. They have an abundance of lower conservation value areas not on Keating's list to log until a proper assessment is undertaken. They apparently want to destroy the best areas before the assessment is done."
The SECC has called for both the NPWS and conservationists to come up with "a balanced, open and publicly accountable process".