Nineteen years ago this week, the forest wars were meant to end.
Nineteen years ago, the first of 10 Regional Forest Agreements was signed, aimed at weighing up the needs of forest-based industries and conservation within areas of native forest.
As the then-Environment Minister Robert Hill said, we were meant to see “more effective management of endangered species by protecting areas of high quality habitat, by making programs more focussed, and by setting priorities for specific plans to protect threatened species”.
But with one year to go until their 20-year lifespan ends, the consequences of the agreements have been dire.
The East Gippsland Regional Forest Agreement was the first of 10 such agreements to govern logging within four states. Right now, native forests in all of those areas are still being clearfelled. Our native forests are being razed to the ground, animals killed and streams polluted.
We are back where we were in the 19th and 20th centuries.
With the federal Liberal government threatening to roll the agreements for another 20 years, we’re faced with the prospect of living with the same failed and backwards regime until at least 2037.
It is about time forests management followed the rest of us into the 21st century by making the full transition to a wood and paper industries fully reliant on plantations. We need an urgent and comprehensive reassessment of how we manage our forests.
We need to address the clear power imbalance between local communities and the industry, whose pockets are lined with taxpayer subsidies.
This summer we have seen courageous locals banding together to survey forest areas and detect illegal logging, and taking action to protect precious wildlife. Just last month, Bob Brown joined dedicated locals to defend Tasmania’s Lapoinya forest from bulldozers. He was there on behalf of the majority of Australians, who want to put an end to this outdated practice once and for all.
Critically we need to review the exemption the native forest logging industry receives from our national environment and conservation laws. These laws exist to ensure protection of our most precious places and animals.
The industry’s exemption has meant some our most at-risk wildlife is dying, less water is flowing into town water supplies and some of our most beautiful destinations are being decimated.
Animals like the Leadbeater’s Possum and the Swift Parrot are on the brink of extinction because of habitat loss, but the impacts of logging their habitat doesn’t have to be assessed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.
Not even the mining industry benefits from such a broad exemption and there’s no reason the native forest logging industry should either.
We need to acknowledge the massive changes this century has brought to our forest ecosystems, our climate and the way we are meeting demand for wood products.
We are seeing the impacts of this change right now. Just this summer, communities in Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia have had to cope with the horrifying bush fires. Our thoughts are with all those affected. Our eternal gratitude goes to the people who’ve put themselves in danger to fight the fires.
But we cannot get away from the fact that our actions today will mean bushfires will become more frequent and more intense in the future.
At a time when the effects of global warming are being felt worldwide, we must consider the carbon storage values of our native forests, which the science tells us may exceed the direct financial values of native forest for timber and paper products.
The science also tells us that logging old growth forest actually increases the risk of bushfire, as well as making those fires more intense.
We clearly need to produce wood products and it’s important to keep jobs in the timber industry.
Fortunately we can have our wood and the forests, too, with more than 85 percent of Australia’s wood products already coming from plantations, not native forests.
There is no reason to wait any longer.
My vision is for the industry to complete the transition into the 21st century so that our native forests can be enjoyed by all Australians. This means completing the shift of logging out of native forests. And while any logging continues it must be subject to our national environment laws.
Then we will all have the opportunity to experience incredible bushwalks, the crystal clear water, the precious Australian animals and everything else that is wonderful about our forests.
Over the coming year, I will be working with local residents and community groups to pressure the government — whether Liberal or Labor — to let Regional Forest Agreements expire so our forests are left to grow.
Senator Janet Rice is the Australian Greens spokesperson for forests.