Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Government announces an increase in the export of woodchips, angering conservationists

ELLEN FANNING: It seems whoever is in power in Canberra can't win on woodchips. The Howard Government yesterday decided to allow the export of an extra one million tonnes of woodchips. That will be made up of residue from sawmills and the waste produced when forests are thinned. It's three million tonnes less than the forestry industry wanted, but enough to enrage the green movement.

Well, Andy Fridell is an ex-logger who was forced out of the industry when Labor limited the woodchip quotas. He joined the logging blockade of Parliament House in Canberra 18 months ago, but he told Bronwyn Adcock yesterday's decision does nothing to change an illogical and expensive situation.

ANDY FRIDELL: In native forest hardwood logging probably varies from area to area, but the area that I'm familiar with, for every tree that's cut down approximately, for simplicity say a ratio of 1 : 1 of saw log to residual wood's produced. The residual wood comes from the head end of the tree where the branches are which can't be sawn into timber, and also from the butt end where rot or ant holes affect it and it also isn't suitable for saw log qualities. But in overall volume, for every cubic metre of saw log you get from a tree you'll get a cubic metre of residual wood, the residual wood that was being produced as a by-product of saw log production.

There was a market for that but when the woodchip export quotas were cut, that took away some of the market for that residual wood and within a day of the decision being announced in Canberra I could see that hundreds of tonnes of wood just in the area where I was working were being left in the bush.

BRONWYN ADCOCK: How much did you see rotting on the forest floor when you were there, Andy?

ANDY FRIDELL: Well, of the total volume of residual wood that was being produced on any one landing, probably half, after the Canberra decision late last year probably half of that volume was left to rot.

BRONWYN ADCOCK: And what happens then?

ANDY FRIDELL: Well, the smaller bits, I suppose, take a few years to rot; the bigger bits from the butt end of the tree which might be three or four feet diameter might take 50 or 60 years to rot away. And wherever there's a piece of wood like that lying when the area is regenerated or re-sown, it probably inhibits the growth of five or six new trees.

BRONWYN ADCOCK: Are there any other options for this residual wood, besides exporting it?

ANDY FRIDELL: Well, the local users of residual wood have first call on it, but we only have one major paper-producing facility in Victoria, which is Amcor at Maryvale, and they obviously draw their resource from all over the place, and as close as possible. So if we can't use it locally then the only other option, well the only two options we have is to either export it - remembering that a tonne of woodchips exported is worth $80 or $90 which is about twice the value of a tonne of coal - or we can leave it rot or burn.

ELLEN FANNING: Andy Fridell, an ex-logger on the woodchip debate. Well, we're joined now by the Executive Director of the Australian Conservation Foundation, Jim Downey. He's in our Melbourne studio this morning, and to speak with him, our chief political correspondent, Fran Kelly.

FRAN KELLY: Jim Downey, the decision by the Government does lift the woodchip quota, but only by allowing the chipping of saw log waste that sits around in bins in the mills anyway, and as we've just heard, there's plenty more residual wood lying around on the forest floor being wasted. Why is using this wood, or why would using all this wood be such a threat to the forests?

JIM DOWNEY: Well, because the simple conclusion is, Fran, that if we look at the mathematics you've got 5.25 million tonnes as a ceiling. If you go up to 6.25 million tonnes, plus you've got sitting there in front of Mr Anderson that further application on private land for 700,000 tonnes which will come from northern Tasmanian myrtle rainforest, what the industry calls waste firstly has resulted in a situation where it only comes from one place and one place only, and that is from trees from Australia's native forests, nowhere else.

Much of it is old growth wilderness or threatened species habitat and the reality is now we're sitting here using that so-called waste, or what the industry refers to which is actually trees from Australian native forests, and exporting it at the highest level in Australia's history. And Mr Howard has grabbed now the title of the champion export woodchipper in Australia's history at record levels.

FRAN KELLY: But, as Andy Fridell just said, those trees are being cut down anyway for saw logs, and the branches and the roots are left lying around and they could be usefully exported. Wouldn't most Australians think that was a good idea?

JIM DOWNEY: Well, one of the great myths that the industry attempts to perpetrate in this country is that the industry is driven by the saw log industry, when in fact what we're talking about is an industry that's driven by the woodchip industry and has spent the last 10, 20 years hacking into Australia's forest predominantly for woodchips. It is an absolute myth to contend that woodchipping now, in 1996, is an adjunct or an add-on to the saw log industry.

The reality is if there is too much so-called waste, as the industry refers to it, there's only one conclusion - that is there's too many trees being cut down. Waste doesn't magically appear. Either you leave the trees standing up or you cut them down. The woodchip industry cuts them down to supply their industry. It's not an adjunct to the saw log industry. It's being driven by native forests export woodchipping in this country.

FRAN KELLY: Well, the Minister's also allowing, on a case-by-case basis, the woodchipping from private forests, but only if those forests are degraded anyway and if they're going to be turned into hardwood plantations. Now, is that a reasonable decision to encourage a movement to plantation timber?

JIM DOWNEY: Well, it's certainly a reasonable decision to encourage a move towards plantation timber on the substantial areas of Australia that are already cleared land. What that's exempt, this additional category will add on top of the 6.25 million tonnes, which is already a record for native forest export woodchipping, is areas such as myrtle rainforest, 700,000 tonnes worth in northern Tasmania, much of it old growth forest, wilderness forest, threatened species habitat.

FRAN KELLY: But only if it's degraded, I understand.

JIM DOWNEY: Well, we're expected to rely on the monitoring and the definitions that have been applied in Australia's native forests in that regard over the last 50 years, when what that has resulted in is the loss of half of the forests that once covered Australia, 9 per cent of the land surface. What it has resulted in is the clear-felling of rainforests, the clear-felling of wilderness and the clear-felling of old growth and threatened species habitat. How is the conservation movement, based on that history, expected to believe and be comfortable that State governments that have made their positions clear on woodchipping, that is the more the better, that we're expected to believe that some definition that they are prepared to apply to what they call degraded or regrowth or a definition of old growth or rainforest is going to keep us happy, based on the history that we've seen and the destruction of the last 40 or 50 years?

FRAN KELLY: Well, the conservation movement has now had a series of losses under the new Howard Government on greenhouse, uranium mining, Hinchinbrook, woodchips, funding for the environment, and that's after extensive consultation with conservation groups in the lead-up to the election. In fact, the Coalition generated quite a degree of goodwill with the environment movement before the election. What's happened?

JIM DOWNEY: Well, I guess, Fran, what has happened - two things have happened. Firstly, I think we've come to the realisation, as we woke up this morning after yesterday's decision on top of five or six other incidents since the election, that sadly we've got a government that doesn't think much about vision, doesn't have much compassion when it comes to the environment, doesn't understand, really, what we should be valuing as a nation and really, lastly, doesn't really think about what sort of future we should be leaving our children.

The only mistake the conservation movement made in the lead-up to the election prior to 2 March, was that we believed what people said. So on 30 November, when the Prime Minister mocks Labor for being the champion export woodchippers, on 31 January when people say that all environment programs will continue to be funded, on 10 February when the Shadow Minister says if the Hinchinbrook channel is damaged by the development it won't proceed, on 15 February when the Prime Minister says he's personally not in favour of mining Kakadu, on the 16th the Federal Government will continue to maintain responsibility for World Heritage listings and 23 February when the Minister for Resources says the climate change is a serious environmental issue, I guess the only mistake the conservation movement made was to believe the Coalition in the lead-up to the election and exhibit some goodwill and be prepared to say: Okay, we might be prepared to give them a go. That was the only mistake we've made.

FRAN KELLY: Well, just quickly then, is the Government, though, simply picking the mood in Australia at the moment, and are the times past when the environment movement can not only claim mass support but can actually mobilise it to prove it? Are you confident you can still bring out thousands onto the streets when we haven't seen such a demonstration for a long, long time?

JIM DOWNEY: Well, we saw demonstrations to that end in 1994, with Mr Beddall when he announced the woodchip quotas which was then a record and has now been superseded by the Howard Government yesterday. I think the Government's really misread the electorate and in terms of not just the environment but about questions about what they are about, what's their vision, what sort of future do they want to leave? Eighty-four per cent of Australians don't agree with native forest woodchip exports; 71 per cent of Australians believe that environmental protection is at least as important, or more important, than economic growth as we've come to define it.

And I think the environment, for at least a decade, it's been consistently shown that it's an issue deeply embedded in the psyche of the Australian people, and I think we will see people stand up, because Australians believe at the bottom of their heart that the environment in Australia is one of our strengths, one of our economic assets, as well as its intrinsic ecological and recreational worth as well. And I think we will see that. And I think Mr Howard and his Government have completely misread the situation.

FRAN KELLY: Jim Downey, thank you.

ELLEN FANNING: And Fran Kelly was speaking this morning to Jim Downey from the Australian Conservation Foundation.