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Tuesday, 18 June 1996
Page: 1703

Senator LEES (Deputy Leader of the Australian Democrats)(4.11 p.m.) —The Democrats will be supporting this urgency motion. We believe it is a continuing disgrace that our native forests are being woodchipped—in particular, that they continue to be clear felled at such a rate. I make no bones about it: the reason we are in this mess is that the previous Labor government did very little to put our old-growth forests, our mature forests and rainforests, out of the reach of the chippers.

The previous government did not protect adequate stands of forest in East Gippsland where—and I have seen it myself in past months—area that include rainforest are still being clear-felled. It did not protect magnificent stands of jarrah forest in Western Australia. I remember the Sharpe block 6 which was accidentally logged. It did not protect adequate stands of old-growth forest or rainforest, and in many cases a combination of both, in Tasmania. The high conservation forests in New South Wales have been at risk and are continuing to be at risk under this new government's policies. This madness, a legacy from the last Labor government, means that at least 5 million tonnes of our prime forest which should be preserved will be lost this year. They should have been preserved because of their intrinsic value, their extraordinary beauty, their complex, unique biodiversity—ecosystems that are found nowhere else in this world. They should have been protected because of their important value as water catchments and for many other purposes, including tourism. They should have been protected, for example, to prevent further erosion of our fragile soils. Instead, they will be turned into woodchips and exported.

The national forest policy statement is not worth the paper it is written on. Not only are the state governments flagrantly disobeying its conservation intent, but the document itself is another excuse for unsustainable logging to continue indefinitely. The policy is industry oriented and the process is to create regional forestry agreements to effectively guarantee supplies—that is, until the trees run out and they simply have to give up. We must ask: why is this government supplying such an unsustainable dinosaur industry—a dinosaur that is gobbling up our native forests, and we are actually paying for it to do that?

Yesterday, the Minister for the Environment (Senator Hill) tried to justify an increase in woodchip export quotas when he said, `There is timber left on the forest floor and this is therefore a waste.' Yes, there is timber left. So firstly we have to ask: why are we still cutting down trees for woodchip? I have seen perfectly good logs going into the mill at Eden. I have sat at the turn-off on the Pacific Highway and watched millable timber, truck load after truck load, going into that mill.

I have stood with Senator Bell at Triabunna in Tasmania on the east coast and again watched millable timber, truck load after truck load, being sent to the chippers. I have walked through the Wombat forest in central Victoria and seen huge volumes of timber just left rotting on the forest floor—much of it canopy; a lot of it either twisted or split. In other words, they have taken out the best, the straight and the solid timber, chipped that and left the rest on the forest floor.

The second point I make is that this industry was set up to use waste. They have not done so unless it has been forced on them. They have made an economic decision that it is cheaper to chip the long, straight timber and they have left on the forest floor what they should have been chipping.

Now they come back and say, `There is some wood left on the floor. We want to use the canopy now. We have decided we will chip what is not straight.' Here the minister jumps to attention and says, `Right. We will look at increasing the quota,' rather than saying to them, `Surely this is why woodchipping was allowed in the first place, to use the waste. Why are you continuing to clear-fell such huge areas and leaving the waste on the forest floor in the first place?'

We need to look at some of the other arguments the industry puts before us. I will just go through some of the papers that have come across my desk. They argue that regrowth occurs faster if they clear-fell as opposed to selectively log. Technically this may be so in some cases, but let us be very clear about this. Regrowth is not the regrowth of the forest. Regrowth is usually regrowth of one or two species. Indeed, the trees—I have seen this happen in East Gippsland—in surrounding coupes that they do not want reseeding into logged areas are cut out to ensure that the only seed trees in the surrounding areas are those that will grow the particular couple of varieties they want for their chippers.

Let us be clear: a forest system is not restored. Indeed, to actually get a forest back—if you can do it—will take hundreds of years. Work that has been done suggests that it is at least 200 years before we start seeing full ecosystems returning. In Tasmania it is more likely to be around 400 to 450 years before mature eucalypt forests are there again. Of course, we have to wonder what is going to happen to the various species in the mean time. Presumably they go into some sort of hibernation for several hundred years.

What it is all about is getting that regrowth back quickly so that the industry can go back in 10 or 15 years and clear-fell again. What they get the second time is only suitable for pulp or for chips. It is nothing like the volume they got the first time, but this is really only about money. It is very clear and very easy to go through and take it all out the second time.

The economic argument, if we have to go to that, is a spurious one. Here I really wonder, having listened to the minister's speech, why he is not speaking on behalf of the Treasurer (Mr Costello). I really do wonder about an environment minister who comes in here and tries to justify the clear-felling of our native forests with an economic argument. But we will talk economics. We will talk economic rationalism for a moment and we will actually look at the utter economic madness it is to turn our native forests into woodchips.

A report released by Dr Andrew Dragun, senior lecturer in law, economics and public policy at La Trobe University, found that the Victorian government directly spent $90 million on logging for a return of $40 million in a 12-month period. In other words, the Victorian taxpayers subsidise the industry to the tune of $50 million a year. Dr Dragun goes further and says that, when you take all costs into account, a more reasonable estimate of the annual subsidy could be in the order of $385 million. He called this an industry social welfare policy.

The combined debts of the forestry commissions around the country—I am quite happy to go through them state by state—are over $5 billion. The debts are: Queensland, $1.66 billion; New South Wales, $1.12 billion; Victoria, $1.17 billion; Tasmania, $565 million; and Western Australia, $481 million. Only my home state of South Australia is actually able to show a profit. Why? Because my home state gets 90 per cent of its sawlogs from plantations. That is where the real future of this industry lies. Consulting economist Francis Grey has identified 23 types of effective subsidy to this industry.

It makes good economic sense to actually keep our native forests intact. Why? Not only do they provide habitat, including for endangered species, they also store greenhouse gases. It is amazing to see the minister come in here and talk about revegetation when he is actually supporting policies that cut down the trees faster than they are being replanted.

If he really was serious about our greenhouse policy, we would be protecting our native forests and we would be trebling or quadrupling the planting and, in particular, providing some incentives for people to move out of the native forests and into plantations. This is where some of the very difficult decisions have to be made.

There are some areas in this country, some small country towns, where if people want to keep working in forestry industries they are going to have to look at moving into the tourism industry in the forests rather than felling trees. If they are going to keep felling trees, then they will have to look at policies such as have already been implemented in New South Wales where these people are given first option at jobs next to some of the new plantations, such as out at Oberon. As new plantation forests come on stream, people who are still working in the forestry industry—on the south coast of New South Wales or in East Gippsland, for example—are given the opportunity and the financial support to move themselves and their families so that they can keep working in the industry they have chosen.

Another economic reason for keeping our native forests is that they hold the soil together and provide organic matter for it. Also, they help to ensure clean water. I mention the ridiculous situation in East Gippsland where the catchment for Mallacoota is still being logged and is under threat of further logging. To keep felling the Betka makes absolutely no economic sense whatsoever.

A hectare of old-growth mountain ash forest clear-felled may produce $270 worth of woodchips once, but studies show—indeed, a study commissioned by the Victorian government shows—that more than $6,000 of water can be produced by that same forest, year after year.

In conclusion I stress: native forest logging is not sustainable. It is going to finish. Let's finish it before we destroy our forests. It is costing us money, destroying our environment and putting our old-growth forests at real risk. (Time expired)