In Australia, Environment Wins Over Jobs
New South Wales's conservation movement makes strong economic case for demiseof state's wood-chipping industry
EDEN, AUSTRALIA — Few American environmentalists could even dream of it. An entire industry that Australian "greenies" say is destroying the country's old-growth forests may soon be eliminated in part - if not all - of Australia.
With the victory of the environmentalist-backed Labor Party in a crucial March state election, Australia's wood-chipping industry is facing extinction in New South Wales, the most populous and influential of Australia's six states.
Playing heavily on the fact that most of this region's wood chips are exported to Japan, turned into paper, and then sold back to Australia at up to five times the cost, environmentalist-backed candidates won majority control of the New South Wales state government and are vowing to eliminate the industry as soon as feasible.
"I think it's possible they could shut the whole thing down," says Vince Phillips, local field officer for the pro-wood chipping New South Wales Forest Products Association. "The greens [environmentalists] are much more effective here [than in America]."
The victory in New South Wales may be a bellwether for a growing environmental movement.
Environmentalists and timber industry supporters agree that one of the main reasons the "greenies" are succeeding in this state is that they are making such a strong economic argument. As Australia struggles to keep up with its booming East Asian neighbors by transforming its traditional agriculture- and mining-based economy into one supported by high-tech and service industries, dollars-and-cents-based environmental arguments no longer appear to be falling on deaf ears.
"You've got to balance the economic benefits with the environmental costs," says Mark Belcher, a high school industrial arts teacher and head of Southeast Forest Conservation Council, an environmental group opposed to the woodchipping industry. "At the moment, we're spending a huge amount of money on paper."
Over the last few years, large layoffs in industries that export cheap raw materials instead of high-quality finished goods have become common in Australia. The classic jobs versus the environment debate that environmentalists tend to lose in the US has been turned on its head here.
"When the media says it's jobs versus forests - we can't win on that," says timber industry representative Mr. Phillips, who tours the mostly rural part of New South Wales in a Subaru station wagon wearing jeans and a short-sleeve shirt. "We've gone through a massive recession. People have seen 2,000 people laid off from a plant in a day, so when they hear about a few hundred jobs, they don't care."
The Labor Party and environmentalists say wood chipping guts forests, pushes some animals toward extinction by destroying habitat, and should only be practiced on tree plantations where trees are planted and "harvested" every 10 to 20 years in a confined area.
The Liberal Party and industry supporters say managed, low-intensity wood chipping does not cause severe environmental damage to the influential state's old-growth forests. Meanwhile, supporters of the larger logging industry figure that if wood chipping is eliminated, the banning of all forms of logging could follow.
Mr. Belcher, who helped found his local environmental group eight years ago and has seen it grow from 15 people to 150, says the choice is logical.
"People realize there's a lot of hypocrisy in harming the environment to maintain jobs," he says, "while we're willing to sacrifice jobs in other areas for the good of the economy."
The wood-chipping issue exploded onto the national scene last December when two federal government ministries produced vastly different rulings on how much of Australia's forests would be placed in new national parks.
More than 1,000 industry supporters, using 300 logging trucks, blockaded the Parliament building in Canberra for five days and demanded that more areas be left open to logging. The government of Prime Minister Paul Keating backed down and allowed a larger amount of forests to remain open.
But how the issue will be resolved at the federal and state government levels remains unclear.
In a 1992 National Forest Policy Statement, Prime Minister Keating reaffirmed a federal government promise that all wood chipping would end in Australia by 2000, but three years later, several pro-industry state governments are still refusing to implement the plan.
"Ninety-five percent of old-growth areas should be protected, but none of the states are even close to achieving this," says Tony Bigwood, press secretary for the Department of Environment, Sports, and Territories. "We're going to draw a line on the map and say, 'You can't log here, states.' If they cross that line, they're not going to get a permit to export it."
The narrow victory of the environmentalist-backed Labor Party over the pro-wood-chipping Liberal Party in the New South Wales elections has raised hopes that more forests in the state could be preserved.
Industry supporters partly blame the American environmental movement for their defeat. They complain that high visibility confrontations and legal delay tactics used by American environmentalists have been exported to Australia.
"We thank you Americans for this. They've moved from confrontation to the courts," says Frank Whitelaw, forest manager at the Harris Daishowa woodchipping plant here in Eden. "They've put up a good [public relations] campaign over the last four or five years."
Mr. Whitelaw says environmentalists frequently play on racist sentiments by highlighting the plant's Japanese ownership. The facility, nestled on a scenic inlet on Australia's mostly undeveloped southeastern coast, exports more than 500,000 tons of wood pulp every year. One of six wood chip mills in Australia and the only wood chip mill in New South Wales, it has been the target of numerous protests in recent years.
Whitelaw, seated in an office cluttered with reports and maps, estimates that since last April over $200,000 worth of damage has been done to five different logging operations around the state. The Harris Daishowa plant has had 41 power poles cut since 1991, and one attempt has been made to set the plant's four-story wood chip pile on fire.
The road leading into the plant was blocked by protests for four days prior to the crucial March 25 election.
Belcher, a local resident who participated in the protests, says he wasn't involved in the vandalism. He also says the company is upset because the protests have been effective. "We've never denied that a lot of [the protests] were to gain publicity," Belcher says. "That's what the issue is about, getting people's attention about an important issue."
Belcher and other environmentalists caution that their victory in New South Wales is a limited one. The government in the neighboring state of Victoria is eager to open up its forests to Harris-Daishowa, and on a national level the movement is making little headway on a variety of issues.
"In other areas ... there haven't been near the gains [in wood chipping that] we've made in New South Wales," says Peter Wright, a biodiversity campaigner for the Australian Conservation Foundation. "With wood chipping, particularly in Tasmania and Victoria, it's business as usual in those states."
Wright says Australia's temperate climate and outdoor-oriented culture have made people more receptive to environmental issues, but not yet galvanized public opinion in the "land of Oz."
"A lot of the progress being made is limited to specific issues," he says. "Broader issues like ... management of our resources and