Tuesday, 7 February 2017
There is a long-held saying that the world's forests are its lungs. That being the case, the coalition federal government and the Victorian Labor government just snuck into the tobacconist to buy a carton of cigarettes for a cancer patient.
Over the last 20 years Australia's native forests designated for logging have been exempted from our national environment laws. Even open-cut mines do not get that sort of special treatment. These logging laws, known as regional forest agreements, were meant to protect jobs and protect the environment. They have failed on both counts.
Last Friday was a chance to restore balance, with the expiration of the first of these 10 agreements—the East Gippsland Regional Forest Agreement. This chance was wasted. Despite all the evidence that the industry needs to be brought into the 21st century, like a wink and a nod in a dark car park Prime Minister Turnbull and Premier Andrews quietly extended their failed laws.
I most recently visited these majestic East Gippsland forests three weeks ago. It is invigorating to breathe in the fresh air and to hear cascades of clear water, clean enough to drink straight from the creek. I am proud to have been one of the leaders of the campaign that created the Errinundra National Park, which is in the heart of these forests. It was a win for people over the outdated 'chop it down, ship it out' attitude.
The reality of how regional forest agreements have failed our forests was starkly evident on the edge of the Errinundra National Park three weeks ago. Normal environment protection law does not apply. Great swathes of formerly magnificent forest have been devastated. It is a brutal process conducted by an industry stuck in the past century. When a forest is logged it is cut down and bulldozed. The complex understorey is destroyed, the resulting silt and debris is sent downstream, possums and gliders are thrown from their nesting hollows and wombats are buried alive. Then, just in case any plants or animals have survived, a napalm-like substance is dropped from the sky to scorch the former forest in the name of regeneration. Yes, napalm. No modern industry would use dynamite to go fishing, but the native forest logging industry uses napalm as part of its 'management' regime. All this is for mostly low-value wood products like woodchips and tomato stakes.
Yet Minister Ruston and the Victorian Labor Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change, Lily D'Ambrosio, have the gall, in announcing the extension of the agreement, to continue the blatant lie that this is ecologically sustainable forestry. This destruction of complex forest ecosystems is no more ecologically sustainable than clean coal or healthy cigarettes. What is more, the East Gippsland Regional Forest Agreement does not even recognise the important role of these forests in combating dangerous global warming. Each undisturbed hectare of forest holds hundreds of tonnes of carbon, which is many times more than most other forests around the world. And if it is logged, it is gone—literally up in smoke.
The justification for extending the East Gippsland Regional Forest Agreement is the myth that native forest logging can support jobs into the future. The truth is that we subsidise the industry in East Gippsland up to $5½ million a year. We, the taxpayers, are paying for this forest destruction. Just think of how many jobs we could create building walking, horse riding and bike trails and employing local people as custodians of our forests with these millions. Yet the federal and state ministers together talk about delivering sustainable economic growth. It is simply unsustainable to keep propping up this outdated industry at the expense of our native forests. We have got the balance wrong. Governments have failed us, Labor and Liberal alike.
Last Friday was an opportunity to restore the balance: to announce the transition to a 100 per cent plantation-based industry. Eighty-five percent of the wood products industry is already in plantations. It needs to be 100 per cent. We cannot continue the mistake of simply rolling over the destruction of Australia's native forests. Governments on both sides, you are on notice.