Saturday, August 31, 2013

Forest logging propped up by conservationists

Everyone knows the environment and the economy are in conflict; that any effort we make to protect the environment comes at the expense of profit and jobs.

So, for instance, everyone knows that if the community wants to see restrictions on the logging of native forests in Tasmania, it's only reasonable for the government to compensate the industry and its workers for their loss of livelihood.

And this is precisely what the federal government has been doing for years. As long ago as 1989, the Tasmanian forestry sector received $42 million under the Helsham agreement. Under the Tasmanian regional forestry agreement of 1997, it got $110 million and under the Tasmanian community forest agreement of 2005, it got $203 million.

Under the Tasmanian forestry agreement - negotiated by the industry, unions and conservation groups, and finalised earlier this year - it will get another $300 million. Two weeks ago, as the battle for Tasmanian votes hotted up, Labor announced that the release of some of this money would no longer be conditional on the preservation of certain forests.

The national native forest industry has been doing it tough in recent years. Over the period from 2009 to 2011, removals of "roundwood" (logs) were 30 per cent below the average of the previous 18 years. And woodchip exports fell by a third between 2008 and last year.

The fall in production and exports has bankrupted the native hardwood industry's largest producer, Gunns Limited, and led to the closure of numerous processing facilities around the country.

State forest authorities have also recorded substantial losses. Forestry Tasmania recorded a net loss before tax and other items of $64 million over the four years to last year, an average of $16 million a year. The Forests Corporation of NSW recorded a total loss of $85 million over the same period, an average of $21 million a year.

The way the industry likes to tell it, it was hit by the banning of logging in certain forest areas and the tightening up of forest management practices. But while it was recovering from this blow, it was hit first by the global financial crisis and then by the high dollar (which has reduced earnings from exports and reduced the price of the imported forest products it competes against).

Talk about bad luck. Clearly, the industry just needs a bit of government help to keep it on track until things get back to normal.

And, indeed, all of the parties to the latest Tasmanian forestry agreement believe it will deliver "an ongoing, vibrant forestry industry in Tasmania based on native forests and, increasingly in the future, plantation".

There's just one problem: this is wishful thinking. The industry's story uses the environment as a convenient whipping-boy to draw attention away from its long-term structural decline - and probably demise.

The chequered story of the native forest industry and the way it has sucked ever-growing subsidies from governments can be deduced (as I have done) from a report prepared earlier this year by Andrew Macintosh, of the Australian National University, for the Australia Institute, The Australian Native Forest Sector: Causes of the decline and prospects for the future.

It's true the industry has been adversely affected by conservation measures, the global financial crisis and the high dollar. But they're secondary to its underlying problem of declining demand for its products and increasing competition both from other products and other, overseas producers of its products.

When you look at it, you see that the logging of hardwood native forests is under pressure from every direction.

To the extent that people still want hardwood, they increasingly prefer it from plantations, not native forests. But demand for hardwood itself is declining in favour of softwood, most of which comes from plantations.

Demand for wood is being reduced by demand for other products such as steel, by engineered wood (where thin bits of wood are glued together in different ways) and by wood-saving innovations.

And all that's before you get to increased competition from wood producers in other countries - competing in our domestic market and competing in our export markets.

The supply and future supply of plantation wood has been greatly expanded by another government subsidy, managed investment schemes, in which misguided punters overinvested in crazy pursuit of tax breaks.

Where the native forest sector can't sell its logs for use in building construction - as increasingly it can't - it sells them to be chopped into woodchips for papermaking. Naturally, woodchips are worth less. But even the native forest woodchip market is facing reduced demand and increased competition.

Macintosh concludes that "with sluggish demand in many key markets, strong competition from Asian, South American and African producers, and a distinct market preference for plantation-sourced products" and "in the absence of additional government assistance, the sector is likely to continue to decline and, in some areas, it could collapse entirely".

See what's happening? Our perception that protecting the environment is always in conflict with the economy and jobs is being used by the industry, its unions and the politicians as a cover for continued handouts to the industry, handouts that will do nothing but delay the inevitable.

And the conservation groups, having been convinced the industry's problems are all their fault, are running cover for an industry that doesn't want to face the truth and politicians trying to buy Tasmanian votes.

The result is that taxpayers are paying to allow an industry that probably would have collapsed to continue doing damage to native forests. It's getting help other industries wouldn't get, partly because it's doing something most other industries don't do: destroying the environment.

This makes sense?

If the conservationists had more sense they'd joint the economic rationalists in urging governments to stop giving subsidies - explicit and hidden - to an industry trying to defy market realities.

Environmentalists would do more good if more of them knew a bit of economics.