Environment & energy, Government and governance, Trade and industry | Australia, Asia

14 June 2016

Former Prime Minister Paul Keating implemented a revolutionary change to the framework for managing Australia’s forests. A quarter of a century later the time has come to revisit the forest agreements, argues Rod Keenan.

Another Australian election campaign, another call from environmental NGOs for federal intervention in native forests.

Native forest timber harvesting has been a feature of federal election campaigns since 1989 when right-wing Labor powerbroker Graham Richardson famously underwent a green epiphany and promoted World Heritage listing of rainforests in north Queensland.

This federal government intervention created a yearly circus over the annual approval of woodchip export licences required under federal environmental law until the 1995 timber worker blockade of Parliament House led then Prime Minister Paul Keating to initiate a new approach: 20-year agreements with state governments: the Regional Forest Agreements (RFAs).

With more than $400 million spent to date, RFAs have been the largest investment in environmental assessment and conservation ever undertaken in Australia. The aim was to provide a rational framework for decision-making, but political controversy and state-federal bickering dogged the development of the RFAs almost from the start. Nonetheless, ten RFAs were signed between 1997 and 2001, in Tasmania, Victoria, Western Australia and NSW.

While much preparatory work was undertaken in Southeast Queensland, an agreement was never reached between the Howard and Beattie governments. Instead, Labor in Queensland developed their own agreement with key environmental NGOs to phase out harvesting in public native forests over a 25-year period and invest in hardwood plantations.

So, what have the RFAs achieved?

Comprehensive assessments have greatly improved the information base on forest values. Fifteen per cent of forests in all regions (and 70 per cent of old growth forest) were included in conservation reserves with significant increases in the protection of wilderness, cultural and other values and provision made for the protection of threatened species and habitat. In return, state forest agencies and industry received funds for plantation establishment and industry development (value adding, alternative products) and, sometimes, business exit. Funding was made available for conservation on private lands in Tasmania, and there was more investment in monitoring and reporting.

Subsequent decisions by state governments indicated that while the federal government could not reduce reserves, the states could increase them with little capacity for federal government objection. The Carr government increased forests in national parks in NSW, while guaranteeing resource supply to the Boral sawmills. In Victoria, the Bracks Government unilaterally reduced timber harvest volumes by 30 per cent and increased areas in conservation reserves under the 2001 Our Forests Our Future statement. Harvesting in old growth forests stopped under the Gallop government in WA, and new national parks have been created in river red gum and cypress pine forests in NSW.

The Tasmanian Government sought to provide resource security to industry by legislating for a minimum supply of high-quality sawlogs from public land. This did not stop forests in Tasmania becoming a major issue in the 2004 election campaign with John Howard seeking to wedge then Federal Labor leader Mark Latham by committing to support the timber industry, while also working with the Lennon Tasmanian Government to increase the area in conservation reserves. This resulted in an amendment to the RFA, the Tasmanian Community Forestry Agreement, increasing the reserve area by 170,000 ha and providing $150 million for more intensive forest management and industry compensation programs. In 2013, then Prime Minister Tony Abbott sought to provide industry with access to these reserves.

As a policy tool, RFAs have been successful in their primary purpose, in (mostly) keeping the federal government out of the year-by-year decision-making on forest operations. Combined with the additional areas that various states have included in reserves, the conservation outcomes have been extensive and durable. Forest operations are now restricted to relatively small (generally less than 30 per cent) areas of public forest in the RFA regions. On the other hand, the RFAs haven’t resolved the conflict over forest use or provided the expected resource security to the native forest timber industry.

As technologically driven, information intensive, political bargaining processes, they failed to capture widespread public awareness or support. Both levels of government have generally been unwilling to promote their benefits, and five-yearly reviews have often been delayed, or undertaken in a fairly cursory way. Except in Tasmania, RFAs provided little analysis or support for privately-owned native forest or considered the broader wood supply options through farm forestry or industrial plantations.

The time is approaching to take another look at the RFA framework.

Timber consumption in Australia is growing with population size, with about 80 per cent of supply to the Australian industry coming from plantations. Timber imports have increased, and we have a long-standing, and growing, trade deficit in value-added timber products. One million hectares of mostly short-rotation hardwood plantations were established on agricultural land under managed investment schemes over the 12 years to 2008. Wood from these plantations is now being exported to paper mills in Asia, and a considerable proportion are being converted back to agriculture. There has been little new investment in plantations for nearly a decade. Meeting future wood demand will depend on continued access to native forests, or increased imports.

Internationally, there is little controversy about well-managed native forest harvesting. Mainstream NGOs such as WWF and the Nature Conservancy now accept that under carefully monitored conditions, timber harvesting in native forests can be ecologically sustainable. More activist NGOs still see native forest harvesting in Australia as worthy of federal attention.

Among politicians, forests have become a more local concern, with national environmental interest on forest conversion for grazing and cropping in NSW and Queensland. Greater threats to the Australian native forests and their dependent wildlife species than timber harvesting stem from uncontrolled wildfires, pests, diseases, feral animals, and the impacts of climate change, particularly drought and shifting species distributions. There is a real lack of resources to manage these threats. While increases in forest conservation reserves has been commendable, state governments have not generally committed sufficient resources for their effective management.

The RFAs were developed under the 1992 National Forest Policy Statement. This has not been reviewed for almost a quarter of a century. Looking ahead, negotiations on RFAs could result in a new vision for Australia’s forests, embracing all interests, giving proper acknowledgement and power to Indigenous owners and addressing the future challenges facing forests, forest managers and forest dependent communities. A new form of RFA can provide the basis for effective inter-governmental cooperation, providing the mandate, commitment and resources to tackle these future challenges.

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Keenan, R. (2016). The future challenges facing our forests - Policy Forum. [online] Policy Forum. Available at: http://www.policyforum.net/facing-forests-future-challenges/