Ajani, Judith. The Forest Wars

MUP, $34.95

 “The environmentalists unknowingly took on Australia’s king industry. In the green corner we have thousands of volunteers operating on mainly public donations. In the blue corner we have seven companies with a war chest drawing on an estimated $1.5 billion (in 2004 prices) in lifetime after-tax profits. This somewhat lopsided contest was configured before the first woodchip-laden ship leftAustraliain 1970.”

Forestry can be a divisive issue, couched in clichéd dichotomy: trees/jobs, economy/ecology, green warrior/chainsaw-wielder, dreadlocks/flannelette.

For many interests (such as politicians, unions, environmentalists, industry lobbyists, woodchip exporters), there may be currency in a public awareness restricted to simplistic either/or dichotomies. But an authoritative new book dismisses absolute extremes and argues that a solution toAustralia’s “forest wars” lies in our plantations.

Australia’s existing softwood plantations alone could meet nearly all of our sawn timber needs as well as replace native forest woodchipping. Forestry as an industry can develop with regard to environmental concerns. Yet, in the political ring, the fights are over logging old growth, native forests – mainly for exported woodchips.

Woodchips dominateAustralia’s native forest logging output. Eighty to 85 per cent of the log-cut in Tasmania is woodchipped. Ecologically, woodchipping is a disaster. Eucalypts need over 120 years growth before they create hollow suitable for fauna, and at least a century of regeneration is needed for water catchments to return to normal flow or to regain benefits as carbon sinks.

Sawn timber from native forests is responsible for a minute percentage of native forest…. and specialty timbers could be sourced from native plantations. Native forest logging is woodchip driven, not sawlog driven.


In The Forest Wars, Judith Ajani argues that a national forest conflict exists because our government has not backed economically superior products over environmentally inferior ones, and has provided a heavily subsidised raw product for unsustainable native growth woodchippers.

Over the past half century or so, softwood plantation growers and native foresters have kept united against a common “green” enemy. This avoided the risk of plantation sawmillers declaring that they could do the job of meeting our sawn timber needs, which could break the industry into competing factions and highlight plantation-versus-native forest differences within the forestry industry.

Industry associations, dominated by native foresters, deliberately frustrated any potential alliance between environmentalists and plantation processors, even if these associations could benefit the plantation processors (who were usually silent members of the same associations). In one example, Ajani, a postdoctoral fellow at the ANU, contends that NAFI (National Association of Forestry Industries) demanded a book titled Forest-Friendly Building Timbers be withdrawn from sale, even though nearly fifty companies (including BBC Hardware and The Wilderness Society) had provided information to compile it.

The Forest Wars is Ajani’s life’s work, teasing out political, union, and industry interests against a studious history of the development of, and rationale for, our softwood plantations and delicious description of political processes.

This is no greenie guide. Ajani’s unemotional impartial account – more politics than ecology – belies her background in economics, experience in forest policy advice, and acquaintance with political process and policy.

The spectre of Keating’s 1995 “grenade” flits throughout the book. In an oversimplified nutshell: this “grenade”, a reaction to unpopular internal party policy, set the regional forest agreement process in place for the states, effectively removing export-woodchip controls and, consequently, the federal government’s responsibility to protect native forests.

The well-connected member of the Labor party, Michael O’Connor, cops ample analysis. His role as senior national secretary of CFMEU’s forestry section saw him help organise a loggers’ truck blockade as a response to regional forest agreements that may have threatened their native forest logging regions. Politically, this made Keating look pretty unpopular with the Aussie “battlers” that John Howard was courting at the time.

In 2004, O’Connor stood on the platform next to a delighted Howard as he received a rousing reception from Tasmanian timber industry workers, following Mark Latham’s badly-received forest industry package – the one that helped him lose the 2004 election.

Ajani seems to delight in her reporting of Paul Keating’s bitter description of O’Connor as a ‘Labor rat’ who should be ‘excommunicated’ from the party. Her mapping of CFMEU’s power in Labor party backrooms is focussed, if perhaps preoccupied.

Ajani also tells her tale of the Queensland forestry solution starring Peter Beattie the visionary hero: brokering agreement between industry and conservationists, guaranteeing sawlog supply to plantation mills, prohibiting clearfelling and export-woodchipping in Queensland’s public native forests. And indeed it’s a hopeful story, promising a conflict-free future for Timber Queensland thanks mainly to an unlikely but fruitful union of Timber Queensland CEO Rod McKinnes and founding president of the Australian Rainforest Conservation Society, Dr Aila Keto.

Rather than forests being used as yet another facile political wedge as we face a federal election, Ajani sees an end to the conflict. And particularly within the “moderate green” section of the electorate, it is perhaps timely that timber issues be viewed now with factional sophistication, not emotion.