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Discussion on the future of woodchip export quotas

MONICA ATTARD: Conservationists are warning of more protests if the Federal Government lifts the ceiling on woodchip exports as demanded by the forestry industry. Primary Industries Minister, John Anderson, has confirmed the Government is reviewing what he calls the absurd system of woodchip export restrictions, but he stresses that environmentally-sensitive forests should be protected under the regional forest agreement, which is now being negotiated. Robyn Loydell, from the Forest Protection Society, says the current restrictions sees woodchip lying around on the forest floor or being burnt because they can't be exported, and she's confident the Federal Government will address this. Ms Loydell is in our Canberra studio. To speak to her, here's Catherine Job.

CATHERINE JOB: What exactly have you asked the Government for?

ROBYN LOYDELL: What we've actually asked them is not for any more areas of forest, at all; we've asked them for the areas that are outside the deferred forest area, like outside of the reserve system, to be utilised to their capacity. So to ensure that this country no longer just cuts down trees, takes the saw log component and leaves the rest on the forest floor to rot and burn.

CATHERINE JOB: So are you actually asking for woodchip quotas to be scrapped?

ROBYN LOYDELL: Yes. Not scrapped. What we're asking them to do is to put in their quota system that will enable the sustained yield harvesting of our forests, outside of our reserve system, to be utilised to their full capacity.

CATHERINE JOB: Well, let me rephrase that, then. Are you asking for woodchip export quotas to be scrapped outside the reserve system?

ROBYN LOYDELL: That's right. We're asking for .. not to review the reserve system, all of us. The Wilderness Society and ourselves have gone through a lot of arguments and a lot of pain over the reserve system, and the Australian community must be totally confused by the whole thing. Now we've got that reserve system sorted out and there's going to be further assessment and further study, so we can look down the track to the future. Let's secure the industry and our markets, our jobs and our communities, on the small amount of area that we've got left.

CATHERINE JOB: But the Government is already committed, isn't it, to reviewing the reserve system? It's said all along that the reserve system had got it wrong, that they'd picked the wrong places and that, in some places, it needed to be looked at, like northern New South Wales.

ROBYN LOYDELL: No. What they said is that they will follow the National Forest Policy Statement and they'd go down the path of regional forest agreements. Through that process....

CATHERINE JOB: But that doesn't .... mean the same reserves as the previous government settled on.

ROBYN LOYDELL: It doesn't mean any more reserves of the deferred forest areas. Some areas, say in northern New South Wales and in Queensland, it's very, very difficult to put in the 15 per cent pre-European reserve system and maintain our communities and our jobs and our economic viability of Australia. So they've said, in northern New South Wales and Queensland, we'll raise the question and put people on the same platform as the environment and deal with that.

CATHERINE JOB: So they may scrap some of the reserve ideas for northern New South Wales, for instance?

ROBYN LOYDELL: Well, that's to be worked out through a regional forest agreement process. That's where we all have input - we have input, Greens have input, and that we work through that process in a way that takes it out of one group protesting or another group protesting. Hopefully, it will be a more constructive process.

CATHERINE JOB: The Government must be aware that any question over raising of woodchip export quotas is going to be a very politically-sensitive one. What arguments have you put to them to argue your case?

ROBYN LOYDELL: Well, look, the Government's just come out of an election and it's quite clear that the people of Australia have decided to send a message to all governments that, yes, the environment is important, but yes so is our economic viability of Australia, so are our communities and so are our jobs. Now, the role and the task of the Government is to actually deal with that balance, not to go to one side or the other, but to actually come out on a position that ensures the economic viability, also the environmental regards of our forest estate in Australia.

CATHERINE JOB: What indications has the Government given you that it will lift at least, or perhaps even scrap, woodchip quotas?

ROBYN LOYDELL: Well, they haven't actually given us any indications. What they've said....

CATHERINE JOB: Do expect that they will?

ROBYN LOYDELL: I expect that the Government, the two Ministers in charge and then the Government in its totality, will look at the whole forest package, not just the woodchips - that they will look at the plantation side, they'll look at farm forestry, they'll look at the native forest issues, and the woodchip is just simply one component of that policy statement.

CATHERINE JOB: Well, I know you're expecting that a package will go to Cabinet within a month. Do you expect that, as a result of that decision, there will be more woodchips allowed to be exported from Australia?

ROBYN LOYDELL: I do hope so. Yes, I do.

CATHERINE JOB: Do you expect so?

ROBYN LOYDELL: I don't know. How can you dictate what politicians and what governments do? We do hope that they will allow some further woodchips to be exported from Australia and stop making this industry waste about four million tonnes per annum. We do hope that; we'll certainly be pushing in that direction; and as, no doubt, the Greens will be going in the other direction. And it's up to the Government to sort that out, but I believe that this government is about a balance and is about the economy of Australia, as well as the environment.

CATHERINE JOB: Robyn Loydell, thanks for your time.

MONICA ATTARD: And Robyn Loydell is from the Forest Protection Society. Well, Virginia Young, from the Wilderness Society, says that's just an ambit claim from an industry under increasing competition from plantation timber, and she warns that any move by the Government to lift woodchip export restrictions will spark massive protest. Virginia Young is also in our Canberra studio.

CATHERINE JOB: Virginia Young, has the Government given you any indications of its thinking on the woodchip question?

VIRGINIA YOUNG: No, it hasn't. It's simply said that this is clearly an issue that they're considering. They have indicated that they're looking at whether or not the penalties that currently apply until the regional forest agreements are in place, will stay in place. They're also looking at the issue of ceilings and woodchip quotas. They are also looking at the deferred forest areas and whether or not that should be opened up. I think we need to make one thing very clear here: there is absolutely no forests in any reserves as a result of that deferred forest area process. There are certain areas of importance that have been pulled out of production, but there are also a vast number of other areas of very high conservation value that the previous government failed to protect.

And we are clearly saying to the Government that you need to maintain leverage on the State governments and the industry, and you get that leverage through your powers over export licences, and it's imperative not to give that leverage away until we see a viable forest reserve system put in place in this country, and that, given the way .. the history of the States dragging their toes on this issue, could be very many years off.

CATHERINE JOB: Nonetheless, do you expect this government will be more sympathetic to Robyn Loydell's argument that 40 per cent of useable woodchips are lying around on the forest floor, not allowed to be exported and have to be burnt, should be utilised?

VIRGINIA YOUNG: I think there are a lot of complex issues associated with this whole industry. What we are seeing, and it's quite right, is a period of intense competition between the plantation sector and the native forest sector of the sawn timber market. We are seeing inventories building up of sawn timber from the native forest sector, unable to be sold. I'm a little bit at a loss at why you would cut if you didn't have a market there. I think that's a great puzzle to me, personally, and I'm sure to very many other people, ordinary Australians, would be puzzled about some of those statements.

What we must remember is that the conservation movement was saying last year, and we've said for many years, that we want to see native forest woodchipping phased out. We said to the Government that it wasn't good enough to have a very small percentage decrease in woodchip quotas over the previous year, that we wanted to see at least a one-third reduction in those woodchip quotas, and a phase-out of native forest woodchipping. If we see a release or no controls over native forest woodchipping, we will increasingly see an industry that is basically only native forest woodchipping and not about a sawn timber market at all.

CATHERINE JOB: Is that a response, a decision, that you're expecting will come out of Cabinet? Is it possible that we could see a scrapping of woodchip quotas?

VIRGINIA YOUNG: Look, at this stage, I'd say anything's possible. We are not getting any clear signals from government that woodchip quotas are going to be abandoned or that they're going to be maintained. I think what you have to recognise is that the Government is on a very steep learning curve here, that issues in our forests are very complex. The bio-diversity conservation needs in our forests are very complex and it's not a matter of .. there's no simplistic approach to this and we've certainly never advocated a simplistic approach, but we are saying that native forest woodchipping is not an ecologically-sustainable industry and you must draw a very big difference between issues of ecological sustainability and issues of sustained yield, which is an economic concept.

CATHERINE JOB: What will be the response if woodchip export quotas are raised?

VIRGINIA YOUNG: Oh, look, it will set a very bad tone with the environment movement. I mean, the Government has so far .. the positioning of the environment movement in the run-up to the Federal election was largely determined by the previous government's failure on forests. We have certainly set that as a threshold issue in the previous election and, if the Government sets the tone now by increasing woodchip quotas, I think any show of having the conservation movement participate in a genuine and constructive way, in say the CRA process or RFA process, will be out the window.

CATHERINE JOB: Very briefly - the Environment Minister has just been downstairs at the Ministerial entrance, rejecting the Wilderness Society and other conservationists' call for an inquiry into uranium mining at Kakadu. The greens knew as well, or better than anyone else, what this present government's position was, both on forests and uranium, before the election, and yet endorsed their environment policy. Are they in any position to be calling for inquiries and complaining when they don't happen?

VIRGINIA YOUNG: We have always been firmly opposed to their policy of expanding uranium mines, and we made that plain all the way through the election. We made it plain all the way through the election that we didn't support the Government's forest policies, their uranium policies or their greenhouse policies. And I do think it's a pity that the Government's had a knee-jerk reaction today, actually rejecting what we were asking for, which is for a publicly-open and fully-accountable process in any decisions made to open up mines in Kakadu, which is a major World Heritage area and one that, not just Australians, but many international people care about passionately.

CATHERINE JOB: Virginia Young, thanks for your time.

MONICA ATTARD: And Virginia Young, of the Wilderness Society, was speaking there to Catherine Job in our Canberra bureau.