Prime Minister John Howard announced today that if his Coalition wins the general election on Saturday, he will protect one million hectares of Tasmanian forest, 150,000 hectares more than is protected under the Regional Forest Agreement currently in place.
But conservationists who have been campaigning against the cutting and woodchipping of Tasmania's old growth trees say the offer does not protect enough of the unique and irreplaceable forest.
Howard flew to Launceston to announce his proposal for saving Tasmania's old growth forests. He first met with the Forest Industries Association and the forestry union, and says his package has industry support.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard (Photo courtesy Office of the Prime Minister)
The Prime Minister released a $50 million plan to help the timber industry and promised that no jobs would be lost under his forest protection plan.
"We do not believe that in the pursuit of understandable and laudable environmental objectives nationally, one section of the Australian population should bear a disproportionate level of pain and dislocation," Howard said.
Greens Senator Bob Brown, who represents Tasmania, was not impressed. "We want the forests on Mr. Howard's list saved," he said. "But the list of forests he will send to the chainsaws is twice as long. No wonder the loggers are cheering."
"Forests outside the reserves identified above should not become ‘sacrifice zones,’ through the transfer of woodchipping pressure and an even higher rate of logging than is current," said Brown.
Forest conservation campaigner Geoff Law stands up for some of the world's largest trees in Tasmania's Styx Valley. (Photo courtesy The Wilderness Society)
"On Saturday, a vote for the Coalition will be a vote for the chainsaws in some of the most magnificent forests on Earth. I hope every undecided voter has this in mind," said Brown.
Conservationists prefer the proposal offered by Howard's rival Australian Labor Party leader Mark Latham.
On Monday, Latham said that if he forms the federal government after Saturday's election, he will immediately initiate a rigorous scientific assessment of Tasmania's high conservation value old growth forests and rainforests to confirm their status for protection based on World Heritage values, national heritage values, and the protection of threatened species and ecosystems.
"On completion of the review, a Federal Labor Government will legislate to permanently protect all the areas confirmed by the experts as worthy of protection," Latham said.
Brown assessed the offers by the two major parties simply. "Mr. Howard's Tasmanian forests package is one-third of the forests and five percent of the money offered by Mr. Latham," he said. "The fact that it is backed by the woodchip industry speaks volumes."
Labor’s policy is to end land clearing across Australia, the party's Tasmanian forest policy statement declares. "Tasmania’s biodiversity is particularly threatened by this practice. Labor will act to end broad scale clearing of native vegetation in Tasmania at the time of the implementation of new conservation measures."
Australian Labor Party Leader Mark Latham (Photo courtesy ALP)
As for saving jobs, Labor wants to keep people working just as the Coalition does. "Labor’s $800 million Sustainable Development for Tasmania Fund will provide Tasmania with a greater capacity to develop new economic opportunities, support continuing employment for forest workers, and help the industry move to sustainable practices, especially in plantation forestry and high-value wood products," says the policy statement.
The Wilderness Society, Australian Conservation Foundation and Greenpeace today described the Australian Labor Party’s policy on old growth logging in Tasmania as "potentially historic," but said no one could be sure until September next year.
The groups particularly welcomed Labor's commitment to prevent any new logging activities or forestry operations in the area subject to the review, the investment of $800 million to provide new employment opportunities in Tasmania, and the commitment to end the clearing of native vegetation.
The groups also liked Labor's ruling out of the burning of native forests as a potential source of renewable energy, and the program of buyback of forests on private land.
The Wilderness Society, Australian Conservation Foundation and Greenpeace have advanced a proposal that would protect a total of 550,000 hectares on public land, of which 240,000 hectares is loggable high conservation value forests.
Tasmanian Premier Paul Lennon, who heads a Labor government, said today that nothing short of full support for the existing Regional Forest Agreement (RFA) is acceptable to him.
Gunns Ltd. owns all four woodchip export mills in Tasmania. It consumes about 90 percent of logs extracted from old growth forests. (Photo courtesy The Wilderness Society)
“I will not bargain away the job protection and the resource security that timber-based families and their communities were promised when the RFA was signed in 1997," Lennon said.
“On what basis can Senator Brown claim the public wants an end to logging old-growth in Tasmania only and not elsewhere?" Lennon asked. “He is happy to allow old-growth logging to continue in Victoria. Why?"
“After all, Tasmania has more old growth protected than Western Australia, South Australia and Victoria combined," the premier said.
But Brown blames the the Lennon government for the high rate of logging in Tasmania's forests under the Regional Forest Agreement, which designates certain forests for conservation and others for cutting.
"The RFA guaranteed protection of high conservation values, including wildlife," said Brown. "It removed the Commonwealth and entrenched the Tasmanian government with this task. Instead the rate of logging has doubled."
Brown says the Lennon government is responsible for "poisoning of native wildlife including species listed for protection" and "the removal of habitat causing Tasmania's wedgetail eagle - larger than its mainland cousin - to be pushed towards extinction."
The run-off from poorly managed logging sites has been polluting streams and threatening the world's biggest crayfish, Astacopsis gouldi, which grows to one meter (39 inches) in length, Brown points out.
Destruction of forests "like those in the Huon and Weld valleys which are of World Heritage value" have occurred under the Lennon government as well as "the loss of ancient forest ecosystems without adequate study to assess their environmental value," says Brown.