For the logging industry’s movers and shakers at the Australian Forestry Conference in Melbourne in late July, one of the few hopes touted in an otherwise gloomy political landscape was the prospect of co-operating with the World Wide Fund for Nature to divide and conquer the Australian environment movement.
Bob Burton reports.

“The idea of the forest industry in Tasmania embracing WWF is a very far-fetched fantasy indeed,” the World Wide Fund for Nature’s (WWF) conservation director, Ray Nias, told ABC Radio, dismissing criticism of his blueprint that backs logging in areas proposed by local conservation groups for National Parks.

While Nias was keen to avoid being seen as too close to the logging industry, at the Australian Forestry Conference, elements of the national logging industry were openly praising WWF.

In the keynote address to the conference, the head of the National Association of Forest Industries (NAFI), Kate Carnell, reviewed the trends affecting the Australian logging industry for almost half an hour replete with management speak – “market opportunities”, “value adding” and “sustainability certification”. Then Carnell turned her attention to what she described as the industry’s Achilles Heel – “public perception”.

NAFI is an umbrella organisation for state-based logging industry lobby groups. As head of NAFI, part of Carnell’s job is to track the public standing of the industry across the country. Carnell’s assessment of public opinion trends was gloomy.

If strong public opposition to the logging of native forests had been enough to worry the logging industry in earlier years, Carnell added to the list. “Once it was only the native forest sector that was seen to be the problem,” she told the audience of over thirty mostly middle-aged men from Australia’s timber industry. “But with the advent of the national water debate and fears surrounding chemical usage, plantations are suffering major public acceptance issues as well.”

While public opposition to the industry was growing, Carnell held out the prospect that a strategy to divide and conquer the environment movement could save them. “One of the keys to a politically stable policy environment will be developing a consensus between the leaders of our industry and the more moderate elements of the environmental debate,” she said.

“Although the radicals get all the media attention, there are elements of the environment movement which can and do work with industry,” she said. Carnell refrained from elaborating on who exactly the ‘radicals’ were that she would seek to marginalise or who were the ‘moderates’ to be courted. However, for those attending the conference it was crystal clear who Carnell was referring to. Sharing the opening session with her was Senior Policy Officer with the WWF, Michael Rae, who would be next up to the speakers rostrum.

For “bridge-building” to work, Carnell explained, it would require both parties to “protect the ability of those with more reasonable opinions to find a place in the public debate and to win the ear of policy-makers.”

According to Carnell, making modest concessions to groups such as WWF is a shrewd way of minimising risks. The alternative is prolonged political instability which “means weaker commercial results for forestry over the longer term”.

Later that afternoon Carnell revealed that she harboured serious doubts about the industry’s ability to pull off the strategy of developing ‘win-win’ solutions with ‘moderate’ environmental groups.

Was such a divide and conquer strategy “really realistic”, she asked. Carnell fretted that while doing deals with WWF wouldn’t be hard, they lacked the grassroots muscle and credibility to make them stick. “The problem as I see it . is that although I think Michael Rae and WWF are doing an absolutely stunning job [attempting to negotiate with industry],” she said, ” . we know that if we come to an arrangement with Michael and WWF, the Wilderness Society will still hate us because their fundamental position is that native forestry shouldn’t exist at all”.

“We then end up with other chunks of the environmental sector that don’t believe we should increase our plantation coverage at all, that we have plenty to go on with” she added.

“The hard thing for industry,” she complained, “is working out who do you come up with the win-win outcomes with and whether you end up with an outcome that is then shot down by somebody else, even if the industry could stick together.”

Bob Burton is a Canberra-based freelance journalist that edits Disinfopedia http://www.disinfopedia.org for the U.S.-based Center for Media and Democracy, which investigates the PR industry. With Nicky Hager he co-authored Secrets and Lies: the anatomy of an anti-environmental PR campaign published in New Zealand.

Reprinted from Tasmanian Times.

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