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Bob Brown legal challenge shines a light on decades of environmental misinformation

Last week, the Bob Brown Foundation’s (the BBF) latest legal challenge against Tasmania’s native hardwood timber industry was dismissed by the Federal Court. Following the court’s decision, Brown indicated that his Foundation’s activists will continue protesting in the forests while its lawyers will appeal the decision in the High Court. He remains adamant that the state’s (and the nation’s) native hardwood timber industry will eventually be forced to close because logging is on the nose in the ‘court of public opinion’.

Brown may well have a valid point. Most with a strong interest in the environment probably do believe that the future of our native forests is being jeopardized by continued timber harvesting. But just how this belief has taken root and grown over the past 35 years should be of concern in this so-called new age of ‘misinformation.’

Brown, the founder of the Australian Greens and, arguably, still the spiritual leader of Australia’s environmental movement, recognised early-on that mass-market advertising strategies could give environmental campaigns the cut-through needed to shape public opinion and influence political decision-making. In a 1983 interview in the aftermath of his successful Franklin River campaign, Brown admitted that:

We have grabbed ideas from wherever we could. We looked at the way other people sell cheese and paper tissues, how they do it, and thought if that sells an idea than how much more important that (it) be grafted by us into saving wilderness.

Most of us are sceptical of mass-market advertising. It is, by design, based on selective facts, exaggeration or distortion, emotion, and even blatant untruths in some instances. Environmental campaigns against native forest use have, since the mid-1980s, been based on these core principles. But without exception, they have also featured a strategic omission of wider context and perspective, such as, for example, acknowledging the actual scale and proportional extent of timber harvesting, or the adverse socio-economic and environmental consequences of ending it.

The BBF’s recent Federal Court challenge to Tasmanian native timber production is a good example of how this works. For marketing purposes, they gave the legal action a catchy name – ‘The Great Forest Case’ – with a web page linked to an ‘Australian Native Forest Declaration’ which, for each signatory, sends an email to Federal Parliamentarians making a range of dubious claims and calling for them to act to end native forest logging.

Their ‘Australian Native Forest Declaration’ makes claims that are wrong (ie. Australia has more than enough plantations to meet its wood needs); at least highly contestable (ie. logging increases bushfire risks); or just lack context (ie. logged and burnt forests emit …. greenhouse gases, which is true if subsequent carbon sequestration by regenerating forests is ignored). Other claims are based on a misconception that timber production represents an existential threat to biodiversity which is completely at odds with its minor extent over a huge forested (and largely already reserved) landscape.

To generate further support for their case, the BBF engaged in a media blitz in the two months prior to the Federal Court’s ruling in early February. Over this period, they produced 22 media releases on Tasmanian logging which created a litany of erroneous or dubious claims. These included that there are “precious few native forests … left”; that there is “large scale removal of Tasmania’s giant ancient trees”; that “logging the Swift Parrot to extinction is a choice by Tasmanian Premier Gutwein and Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley”; and that there is an “effective exemption from environment laws granted to all native forest logging”.

Indeed, their ‘Great Forest Case’ was effectively based on the notion of Tasmanian timber harvesting being exempt from national environmental laws enshrined under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999. Over a long period, environmental activists have pushed this claim even though forestry has never been exempted from these laws, and is arguably the nation’s most highly regulated land use.

Far from granting an exemption to timber production, the EPBC Act delegated its forest conservation requirements to the Regional Forest Agreement (RFA) planning and regulatory process. This was a practical response to the prohibitive difficulty of otherwise requiring all of the hundreds of small timber coupes harvested each year to be individually subject to Environmental Impact Statements and other approvals processes normally applied under the EPBC Act to large-scale one-off development proposals, such as new housing estates or mines.

A 2009 Independent Review of the EPBC Act by former ANU Chancellor Alex Hawkes and four expert scientists, specifically examined the interaction between the EPBC Act and the RFAs, and noted that:

The interaction between the EPBC Act and forestry operations is often referred to as an “exemption”. This term does not, however, accurately reflect the relationship. The rationale for the RFA provisions in the Act recognises “that in each RFA region a comprehensive assessment has been undertaken to address the environmental, economic and social impacts of forestry operations”. Rather than being an exemption from the Act, the establishment of RFAs (through comprehensive regional assessments) actually constitutes a form of assessment and approval for the purposes of the Act.

Under the Regional Forest Agreements, native forest timber production is regulated by a hierarchy of plans and enforceable operational prescriptions designed to prevent and/or minimise environmental impacts. These include regional forest management plans describing regional conservation values; a code of practice that gives operational guidance and sets minimum standards of protection; area-based operational prescriptions for particular situations and localities; and individual harvesting plans for each coupe that guide on-site practices and act as the benchmark for operational supervision and monitoring of contractor performance.

Since the Tasmanian Regional Forest Agreement was first signed in 1999, conservation areas have significantly expanded, more stringent protections for threatened species have been developed, and timber harvesting has substantially declined due to various state and Federal government policy changes, as well as difficult market conditions. The same has occurred in Victoria. This contradicts the activist rhetoric which continues to misrepresent RFAs as exempt from environmental laws and thereby an impediment to environmental protection.

Just one example of the reality is that 97% of Tasmania’s 1.2 million hectares of old growth forest is either protected in world heritage areas, national parks and other reserves, or is otherwise unavailable for timber harvesting. That fact alone debunks the persistent claim by the BBF that logging poses an existential threat to Tasmania’s ‘ancient’ forests and all threatened wildlife species that inhabit them. The other 3% that is still available for harvesting is essential to maintaining Tasmania’s iconic special timbers and wooden boat-building industries.

There is no doubt that misinformation has been the lifeblood of anti-logging activism for several decades. It has been conceived by activists but promoted by the city-based mainstream media either without question, or with only minimal opportunities given to alternative, and usually far more informed, views.

Yet, today’s media pile-ons against alleged contrarians, conspiracy theorists, or the politically-incorrect suggest that journalists have only ‘discovered’ misinformation since 2016 when a recently departed US President began over-using his Twitter account. Those journalists who are most vocal in calling-out misinformation seem to view it solely as a weapon of right-of-centre politics, while oblivious to, or hypocritically silent on, their profession’s role in misinforming the wider community for decades on left-of-centre, politically-correct causes, such as ‘saving’ forests from logging.

The damage attributable to misinformation spread about forestry has been immense. Both in terms of industry livelihoods lost and rural lives unfairly over-turned by political decisions forced by misguided public sentiment; and latterly through the obvious environmental impacts of forest fires no longer able to be fought as efficiently as in the past when a strong forestry culture and workforce prevailed. It may be too late to turn this around, but perhaps the propensity for environmental activist groups to engage in legal actions offers a belated opportunity to expose their modus operandi of exaggerating and distorting reality for ideological purposes, and its quantifiable adverse consequences.

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