Lessons from Tasmania’s timber industry

File photograph



THE ‘precautionary principle’ is not included in the Tasmanian Forest Practices Code, where a more pragmatic approach manages any threatened species, according to a senior Tasmanian forestry expert.

Dr Peter Volker, the retired Chief Forest Practices Officer for Tasmania’s Forest Practices Authority (FPA), said the ‘precautionary principle’ clause was not included in Tasmania because it is a very ambiguously defined concept.

“At the extreme, the precautionary principle means if you don’t know anything, you don’t do anything,” he said.

The FPA, established in 1985, manages the Tasmanian forest practices system on both public and private land, based on the Forest Practices Act 1985. It operates independently, alongside government and private businesses, to regulate all the activities that are defined as ‘forest practices’. These include establishing forests, growing and harvesting timber, and working within forest areas.

“Our system is tenure blind – whether national parks, private or state forest – the same rules apply to everybody. The 1985 Forest Practice Act was ahead of the game,” said Dr Volker, who has decades of forestry experience.

With no precautionary principle, Dr Volker said the approach in Tasmania was more pragmatic.

“Threatened fauna in Tasmania are ‘managed through’ a threatened species adviser tool; we have developed prescriptions for most threatened fauna species,” he said.

The threatened species adviser is a decision-making tool for both plants and animals.

“We plug in the characteristics of the forest and the type of forestry operation, and the tool provides a standardised prescription on how to manage each species that is present on the site,” he said.

“In cases where something is unusual, where circumstances don’t fit standard cases, then we refer the circumstances to the threatened species section of the Department of Natural Resources and Environment (NRE Tasmania). They look at the circumstances and provide a recommendation, which is signed off by the Department Secretary; that is then put in the forest practices plan to manage the threatened species in that coupe or forest.”

Dr Volker said the Tasmanian threatened species adviser is based on research, and new prescriptions are endorsed by an independent threatened species advisory committee convened by NRE Tas. The threatened species adviser prescriptions “probably applies in 95 per cent of circumstances”.

“It can cover what’s required,” he said.

Dr Volker said Tasmania’s Forest Practice Act talks of ‘reasonable’ protection for the environment.

“You can’t cut trees without having some environmental impact, but what is ‘reasonable’ is the attitude we have taken here.”

Dr Volker said the FTA’s forest practice planning was done on a ‘coupe by coupe’ basis, but the landscape context was taken into account as part of that planning process.

“In Tasmania, we have pretty much bipartisan support for the forest industry and forest practice system through Labor and the Liberals. A Greens politician in Parliament said, ‘The FP Authority is the shining light of forestry in Tasmania’,” he said.

“It is recognised that our rules are robust and apply the best and latest available knowledge.”

Dr Volker said the FPA was more like the Conservation Regulator in Victoria, whereas Sustainable Timber Tasmania (STT) resembled VicForests.

“The difference is here, STT manages all ‘state forest’ at all times, whereas in Victoria it is DEECA that looks after those areas once forest operations are completed, not VicForests,” he said.

Regarding criticism in Victoria about failed regeneration coupes, “they are probably adequately regenerated when VicForests hands the coupe back (after five years), but something happens in the meantime”. (VicForests regularly has about 95 per cent compliance in official forest audits).

Perhaps problems in coupes became apparent 10 years later, but VicForests was blamed for the failure.

“In Tasmania, STT would be in position to do something about it as they still manage those areas.”

Dr Volker said the FPA was a dedicated forestry environment regulator in Tasmania.

“The Victorian Office of the Conservation Regulator, like the EPA in New South Wales, has other responsibilities, and so they may not have that focus on forestry,” he said.

Dr Volker said the forest practices system operates under a co-regulatory model.

“The FPA has 20 staff, but 150 authorised forest practices officers whose job is to enforce the forest practices code on a day-to-day basis. They are in the coupes every day, supervising operations, because they know the code backwards and have legal authority.

“They have the power to enforce compliance at this time,” he said.

“In any coupe in Tasmania, ask a contractor doing the harvesting, they know the code themselves. They know they are not allowed to go in streamside reserves, they know the forest practice plans have prescriptions for threatened species, and as in Victoria, they also take a huge amount of care. Contractor staff are also formally trained and accredited in environmental care and workplace safety.”

Dr Volker said the system had been in place for more than 30 years and had stood the test of time.

“We have been able to harvest, reforest and protect threatened species in a sustainable manner,” he said.