Forests ‘peace’ deal piecemeal on high conservation values

The ‘Tasmanian Forests Statement of Principles’, signed last year between forest industry and some conservation organisations, doubtless presents both an opportunity and significant challenges if its broad intention is to be realised. In this article I address one of those challenges - the protection of High Conservation Value (HCV) forests.

The Statement has as one of its principles to: “Immediately protect, maintain and enhance High Conservation Value forests identified by ENGO’s on public land”.

ENGOs stands for Environment Non-Government Organisations and is defined in the Statement as those who are signatories to it – Environment Tasmania, The Wilderness Society and the Australian Conservation Foundation.

There are a number of reasons for concern about the high conservation value elements of the Statement which, if implemented without elaboration and detail, may ultimately fail to protect a significant amount of the conservation value in Tasmania’s forests.

Before elaborating my concerns, let me outline that basis for comment. I have spent the last 20 years running a consulting business that specialises in principles and processes for the identification of conservation values. Most of the last 15 years have been spent designing such systems in Tasmania, for example for the former Private Forest Reserves Program, the Forest Conservation Fund and the Conservation or Freshwater Ecosystems Values project. Last year our business was also successful in bringing Forest Stewardship Council certification for management of native forests to Tasmania, a process in which addressing HCVs is essential.

My first concern is that the Statement seeks to appropriate the identification of HCV forests to only the ENGOs who are signatories.

Assessment of conservation values is a substantive field of scientific research throughout the world, including in Tasmania. I know a number of conservation scientists who have expressed concern about various aspects of the Statement, including those related to the monoplisation of HCV identification by one stakeholder group and the seemingly endless media reports about ending native forest logging.

I can understand the reasons why ENGOs might want to control the identification of HCV forests. There is certainly a view that scientific expertise has not been well represented in the outcomes of past forest conservation initiatives, and that there is merely the facade of having followed a science-based process.

I will address the basis of scientific concern in the following sections, but the point here is that a significant body of expertise has been sidelined. Perhaps the authors of the Statement should have given more thought to ways of ensuring good science – and good scientific process – is accounted for. It is there, but it’s a matter for later, and that is of concern.

At the heart of the problem around science is my second concern – that HCV forests are being interpreted as only those areas that appear on Environment Tasmania’s map of areas proposed for reservation. These areas are described in the organisation’s forest policy and are broadly depicted on a map1. The Statement envisages the development of a plan that includes ‘verification’ of HCV boundaries.

There is no doubt in my mind that many areas on the map are of high conservation value, and that substantive scientific support for their protection can be found.

I also believe some areas on the map are not of high conservation value, at least from the perspective of their importance for protecting biodiversity. At the heart of this issue I suspect are confounded perceptions among proponents of these areas on issues such as clearfelling, the permanence or otherwise of impacts, and visual amenity.

Though all forests are of some conservation value, protecting by reservation those that are of limited importance can increase the political and economic cost of those that really need this type of protection. Reservation is one form of management; there are many others.

There are also doubtless areas of high conservation value which do not appear on the map. Some of these areas can be readily identified: for example, vegetation communities which are inadequately reserved under existing forest policy.

However, it is important to recognise that many high conservation values cannot be broadly mapped. My view is that the importance of these is probably at least of similar magnitude to the biodiversity value in the areas proposed for reservation, and possibly more so. The protection of these values will ultimately depend on adequate forest management systems and the continuing evolution of scientific knowledge.

It is true that the Statement has a principle to: “Develop a fully-funded, independent, scientifically-led landscape conservation, restoration and integrated-catchment management program, and associated governance and regulatory improvements.”

I have grave concerns that any undue focus on mapped areas, and the idea that protection always means reservation, may lead to details such as these being ignored. If this occurs, the suite of biodiversity values which depend on such a management system will be compromised. I would have much preferred to see the Statement identify specifics, such as the need to implement the recommendations of the review of the biodiversity provisions of the Forest Practices Code.

My final concern relates to forests on private land. Forests on private land contain a very significant proportion of the biodiversity conservation values that are threatened in Tasmania. Not all of these are threatened by forest operations; most are threatened by current and past land management practices. The Statement seeks to encourage and support private forest owners to manage and protect HCVs. And so it should – private land has historically accounted for around 40% of wood production.

Tasmania has had well-funded, voluntary programs for conservation on private land since the late 1990s. Significant progress has been made in some respects but there is still much to be done. There is already public debate about the potential costs to governments of implementing the Statement. The ‘poor cousin’ way in which private land is dealt with in the agreement, along with the emphasis on public land reservation and finances, does not inspire confidence.

I consider the Statement has the potential to significantly enhance forest conservation in Tasmania. Much of the detail is there, but there is also much that could be improved. For example, we could do worse than ensure that public native forests managed for wood production are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council rather than simply ‘Encourage Forestry Tasmania’ to do so. ENGOs could project a more positive view about the future of the native forest sector, including challenging media reports about the Statement seeking to end native forest logging. Silence and tacit assent on this issue is alienating the scientific community, and others such a private forest owners. And we have not yet scratched the surface on whether new administration and governance of public forests is needed to deliver the Principles.

My main worry at the moment is that we are seeing a very narrow focus in the public debate, and that this will lead to selective implementation of the agreement around those points of focus at the expense of the big picture. If this occurs, the outcome for high conservation values will be piecemeal, and for some values extremely poor.

Rod Knight is the CEO and Chair of Natural Resource Planning Pty Ltd, and a foundation member of FSC Australia. NRP is a Tasmanian company specialising in the science and practice of natural resource management.