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Open season on Tasmania’s old growth forests (Canberra Times)

The parties champion logging despite green rhetoric.

WANTED: Major political party prepared to stand up for Tasmania's world-renowned old-growth forests.

Last week, politicians turned their attention to forests. We had Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull telling a conference in Sydney about the Federal Government's commitment to protecting forests, stopping deforestation and encouraging sustainable forestry as a way to reduce carbon emissions.

But the forests Mr Turnbull was referring to are not in Australia; they're in South-East Asia.

Then we had Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd standing in a Tasmanian timber yard and “locking in” Labor's support behind the Federal Government's Tasmanian Community Forest Agreement an arrangement that leaves many tens of thousands of hectares of high conservation value forest on public land open to logging.

Australians are left wondering if both major political parties have deserted Tasmania's spectacular and ecologically important old-growth forests.

The Tasmanian Community Forest Agreement, announced by Prime Minister John Howard in May 2005, committed to protect about 135,000ha of forest on public land. The Tarkine was promised strong protection (consistent with its World Heritage status) and the Styx was partially protected. But other areas vital for tourism and the environment, like the Florentine, the Weld and the Blue Tier, and the Western Tiers remain open to logging under the current agreement.

Mr Rudd's announcement, far from securing the future of Tasmania's forest industry, will entrench division and uncertainty.

In 2004 the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Wilderness Society, in conjunction with other environment groups, put forward a structural reform and development package called Protecting Forests, Growing Jobs. The package proposed a five-year transition to help Tasmania's timber industry get out of high conservation value and old-growth forests and move to value-adding operations based largely on the available plantations.

Federal Government investment of $50 million a year for five years would deliver up to 1190 jobs, more than offsetting the 320 jobs assessed to be directly impacted by forest conservation initiatives. The problems surrounding forestry in Tasmania have not been addressed in the Community Forest Agreement. The Protecting Forests, Growing Jobs proposal is still relevant.

Adding to the existing, ongoing problems of unsustainable industry practices is the Gunns pulp mill proposal for the Tamar Valley in the north-east of the state. Pulp mills do not have to be environmentally damaging. Visy's Tumut pulp mill, which ACF has not opposed, uses plantation feedstock and non-chlorine processes and employs hundreds of people.

In contrast, Gunns plans to build a mill that will be fed by native forests and run with chlorine-based technology. In the event of a malfunction, toxins could be released to the air and water. The Australian Medical Association has raised concerns about the health impact increased air pollution from the mill would have on families in Launceston and the wider Tamar Valley a “closed” valley that tends to trap wood smoke from fire places and any industrial emissions.

Scallop fishermen fear their industry could go under if the mill is allowed to discharge toxic effluent into Bass Strait, as is proposed. Grape growers and the tourism industry have also voiced concerns. Much of the community anger has centred around Tasmanian Premier Paul Lennon's decision in March to introduce a controversial fast-track assessment process for the mill.

After throwing out the Resource Planning and Development Commission's assessment process, the state Government engaged consultants ITS Global to conduct a review of the social and economic benefits of the proposed pulp mill. The Australian Conservation Foundation is familiar with ITS Global through the consulting firm's work in Papua New Guinea. Last year it helped controversial Malaysian timber giant Rimbunan Hijau run a public relations campaign to justify the company's notorious logging operations in PNG.

ACF's 2006 report Bulldozing Progress documents how Rimbunan Hijau's operations in PNG have been repeatedly linked to serious human rights abuses, and environmental damage, the very activities Mr Turnbull is now trying to address. In the interests of providing maximum protection for the Tasmanian environment, the state Government should have stuck with the Resource Planning and Development Commission process. The Tasmanian Parliament is expected to vote on the mill proposal at the end of August.

But questions remain for federal politicians on both sides of the fence. Government and Opposition should commit to the highest possible environmental assessment standard for the proposed mill.

The ALP should honour its April national conference commitment to “further protection of identified Tasmanian high conservation value, old-growth forests, rainforests and other ecosystems”.

And the Federal Government should tell Australians whether its laudable commitment to reducing deforestation and encouraging sustainable forestry extends to Tasmania's magnificent old growth forests.

Don Henry is executive director of the Australian Conservation Foundation