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Gunns v Greens#3 « Previous | |Next »
December 27, 2004

An article in The Age by Steven Curry that responds to Greg Barnes defence of Gunns. Curry in support of my position, that the Gunns suit is a SLAPP designed to damage as many prominent foes as possible and to hurt the protest movement. It is a use of the civil courts to undermine basic democratic values.

In commenting on my criticism of Barnes Rick took issue with my argument about needing to shift from the logging of old growth forests to plantations to ensure a sustainable forestry. These comments are too important to be left in the comments section of that earlier post. I am posting it in full.

Rick says:

"In very approximate proportions, the nation’s wood comes about one third each from plantations, native forests and imports. The main point here is that as native forests close down as sources, the proportion of imports increases. This shift is taking place now, and if the plantations had the capacity to pick up where the native forests leave off, I wouldn’t be arguing with you now.

In terms of sawn wood, the plantations that are ready for harvest now were planted in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. There is some wood coming from younger plantations, but this would be from highly productive sites, and thinnings, much of the latter being undersize, marketed as posts or chipped for particleboard and paper.

There is a belief around that we have enough plantation resource to supply everything we need, and there is even a resource economist, whose name escapes me, who has written a paper to this effect. Apparently there is a conspiracy to withhold plantation resources so that we can knock over more native forest. She is, in the opinion of the industry, wrong. I haven’t read the paper, but the fundamental gap in her argument to me is that plantations are expensive to establish, and the longer the interval between establishment and harvest, the worse the economics look. Private and government organisations that established plantations that are approaching final harvest now have been paying interest on those investments for decades. If you do the analysis of the present value of a future sum of money, you’ll see that the long period between establishment and financial return makes sawlog plantations a risky investment. The ever-accumulating interest (govt departments pay interest too) is the main burden. So in this situation, to argue that any plantation owner would deliberately delay harvest for long periods of time is to argue that money is free. Another particularly important point is that plantations reach a harvestable size and then wood production slows down without further thinning. Modern pine mills are also not built to saw large logs, so the cost of milling “over mature” logs begins to rise. There are many details glossed over here, such as early revenue from thinnings and silvicultural strategies, but this will be too long as it is. Basically, a plantation management timetable is determined by silviculture (agronomy for trees) and economics. Conspiracy theories about this are like most conspiracy theories; a shred of evidence and a lot of imagination.

It is normal to say “they” should have planted more plantations in the 70’s and 80’s. Back in those days, social attitudes were different, support for plantations was much less and hindsight has always been excellent.

More plantations should be established now, I don’t think there is any disagreement between us on that. A few points:

1. New sawlog plantations will not come onto the market for many years, and we need to be discussing where our wood should come from in the interim decades. The current situation looks to me like we will import much/most of it from the rainforests of Asia because that’s the cheapest source.

2. Long rotation sawlog plantations don’t look very attractive compared to a pulpwood plantation harvested once at age 10. At present most of the private investment goes to pulpwood. Why? 10 years fits within a working life. Not many people early in their working life have the wealth to invest in longer rotation plantations. Consequently most of the sawlog investment comes from corporations, of which Gunns is one of the most prominent.

3. From the industry side, things look bleak. Our opponents may say “they have brought it on themselves”. But they must realise that an industry with an uncertain future doesn’t attract finance readily for 20-40 year investments. As evidence, Wesfarmers, who bought Bunnings and have sold the timber production side of the business as quickly as possible. Meantime, the timber and hardware sales side of Bunnings is an economic flagship. We are collectively busy buying wood, but we don’t understand what it takes to make it.

4. I have mentioned previously that there have been concerns expressed by Brown that too much prime farmland is being swallowed up by bluegums. The most vitriolic criticism of forestry is directed at woodchipping. The modern bluegum plantations are a deliberate strategy, initiated in the late 80’s with levies on native forest woodchip exports in WA, to establish a plantation resource to supplement, and then perhaps even replace, the native forest resource. This is an example of industry financing, under government pressure, the development of a plantation wood resource for a particular market. The result is further criticism and the principal proponent of this strategy has been vilified as the worst thing to happen to WA forestry by the greens and he has been reskilled. The worst fallout from this is the implication that forestry will be attacked no matter what it does. Not a healthy social environment for long-term investment.

5. We already have plantations, even pine, that are impossible or difficult to log because of public concern about the aesthetic impact. This is not public belligerence, but it demonstrates the somewhat irrational nature of the human animal. We all like a sense of continuity and dramatic changes to the landscape cause concern. Hence there is usually strong opposition to the establishment of plantations if they are large scale and impact on the visual character of a district. The next generation of people grow up used to the plantations and then oppose the harvesting phase. Normal behaviour; I’ve heard anecdotes along these lines from around the world.

6. The plantation industry is commonly criticised for using monocultures. This is a basic economic requirement for the production of wood and with the high cost of establishment of plantations on one side and the cheap resource in neighbouring Asian forests on the other, monocultures are here to stay. If you look at European forests, they are very largely monocultures and people there are very attached to their plantation forests as a place of recreation. (They also don’t seem to have much trouble, to my knowledge in Sweden, Finland, France, Germany and Austria, with harvesting those forests in the full view of the public.) I have noticed anecdotally that there is mounting opposition from green people to the bluegum plantations in WA due to this monoculture concern.

7. There is discussion about, and some trials, growing mixed species of native trees in plantations. These will be more expensive to manage, but we could pay more for our wood, especially when the Asian forests run out in the future. But if there are instances of people becoming attached to their neighbourhood pine plantations, there is a strong possibility that today’s mixed native species plantation will be tomorrow’s high conservation value forest. This happens virtually every time a regrowth native forest (argued by most people to be appropriate for timber harvesting) approaches final harvest. This point also demonstrates the irrationality of, or at least circular logic of, the belief that harvesting forests “destroys” the forest.

In general, you are arguing sensibly that there should be a move from native to plantation forests, and most people do the same. As individuals. But if you take the general form of public opinion, which is what influences political behaviour and policy, the situation is different. Public opinion sloshes around under the influence of many factors, but it is comparatively easy for a dissenting minority to stir up support AGAINST many issues. It is very difficult to harness such unified public support FOR a complex reasoned argument. When it comes to intergenerational resource production and management, we don’t seem to be coping very well.

The RFAs were an attempt to develop a negotiated long-term strategy, with all parties at the table. I am not aware of the details nationally, but my understanding is that the major green groups refused to participate in this process because by standing aside from the negotiating table, they were free to then attack the Agreements as soon as they emerged. It must have been difficult for the greens to sit at the table with the industry if government and industry have responsibility for supplying the nation with the wood it consumes. There will always be a gulf between those with ideals and those with responsibilities. Politically, this has been a most successful green strategy and it even calls into question, are they about responsible resource management, a genuine practical balance between our consumption of resources on one hand and the protection the environment on the other, or are they just out for political influence? When your genuinely held fundamental aim is to “save the world” (who can oppose such an ideal?), almost any means could be justified by the end.

In terms of responsible long-term resource management, the RFA process seems have been a disaster. Decisions were made without the benefit of a stronger conservation influence. The situation is now more chaotic than it was before. Why are we surprised that there is inadequate plantation resource being established?

I consider it reasonable to conclude that the core of the green movement is indirectly working for the removal of commercial forestry from this country. They don’t have that as a formal part of their platform, probably very few if any of them recognise what impact they are having. But the net real effect of their efforts is that commercial forestry in this country is too expensive and subject to too many wild swings in the public mood (measured over the length of a forest rotation). The industry here will diminish further and responsibility for our wood resource will move off shore, because there is a lot of cheap old growth forest over there, at the moment."

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 10:46 PM | | Comments (0)