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Australia's new National Forest Policy

F.H. McKinnell

Frank N. McKinnell is the director of project management, Department of Conservation and Land Management, Perth, western Australia.

The new (1992) Australian National Forest Policy was developed as a joint federal and state government initiative, with wide opportunity for public input during the development phase. The policy is a comprehensive document that sets a number of important new directions, such as greater attention to improved management of the private forest estate, incentives for plantation development on cleared private land and improved federal-state cooperation. These new directions flow from a shared vision of the ecologically sustainable management of the nation's forests. The implementation of the policy will be complex, requiring some legislative changes at state level.

In Australia, the states have constitutional responsibility for land management activities within their borders while the Commonwealth government is responsible for coordinating a national approach to both environmental and industrial development issues. Until recent years it did not concern itself with land management issues at the state level.

Each state has its own forest management agency or agencies and, together, they own about 75 percent of the forest area. More than one agency may be involved where there are different types of land tenure. For example, a forest service may manage forests where commercial timber production is permitted, while a national park service may manage forested (and other) national parks. These state forestry agencies have existed in various forms since about 1920. From 1960 the forest services have generally interpreted their mandate as being the management of publicly owned forests for multiple use, covering all forest values. In some State Acts this is explicit, while in others it is not.

Over the years, individual forest services have developed somewhat different approaches to forest management, reflecting differing historical, biogeographical, economic and political influences within and between the states.

Coordination of forestry activities at the national level is the responsibility of the Australian Forestry Council (AFC), which comprises the state ministers for forest services and the Commonwealth minister responsible for forestry affairs. The AFC, which meets annually, is supported by the Standing Committee on Forestry which consists essentially of the heads of the different state forest services.

Australia's new National Forest Policy places greater emphasis on private forestry; pictured is a privately owned plantation of Tasmanian blue gum (Eucalyptus globulus)

This arrangement satisfactorily provided for coordination and general policy development up until the mid-1970s. However, it was quite unable to respond to rapid changes in public perceptions of forest management as a result of a number of intense controversies about forestry which developed from that time. The AFC did formulate a national forest policy in 1986 but it was confined to general principles and did not address a number of important specific issues such as the management of old growth forests or the development of a representative forest conservation reserve system.

Consequently, there was a vacuum in forest policy, which resulted in number of major Commonwealth-state conflicts over forestry issues. A good example is the longstanding conflict between the Commonwealth and Tasmanian Governments over forest land use. These conflicts were frequently complicated by broader agenda associated with the balance of power between the two levels of government and the growing political power of the environmentalist move meet. All of this has to be seen against a wider background of changing public expectations of the role of forests in the period 1975-1992, in common with trends in other parts of the world.

Development of the National Forest Policy

To fill this policy vacuum and reduce the level of confrontation, in 1991 the Commonwealth and states agreed to cooperate in the development of the new National Forest Policy (NFP). It was acknowledged from the beginning that this would not be an easy undertaking. In the Commonwealth arena, two departments were involved, the Department of Primary Industries and Energy, as it has an interest in the forest-based industries, and the Department of Arts, Sport, Science, Environment and Territories, which has a brief for conservation matters generally. On the other hand, the states wanted to defuse the policy conflicts but limit any further involvement of the central government in what they regarded as their affairs. An additional factor was the interest of the environmental bureaucracy, through the Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council (ANZECC), in the conservation of flora and fauna in forest ecosystems.

There were, however, two factors that helped to facilitate the NFP's development process. One was the publication in 1992 of a report on ecologically sustainable development in forestry and forest-based industries (Government of Australia, 1991) and the other was the final report of the Resource Assessment Commission's Forest and Timber Inquiry (Resource Assessment Commission, 1992), both of which helped to identify forest management issues and laid the groundwork for debate. In a very real sense, much of the public participation in development of the NFP had already taken place during the course of the preparation of these two reports.

The gestation of the NFP was difficult and prolonged. It was undertaken by a team comprising both Commonwealth and state representatives who met frequently over a 12-month period. The team included foresters, biologists and an economist. Eventually, a draft was agreed for publication for public comment in July 1992. Briefings on the Draft Policy were held in each state capital city and in Canberra, during which care was taken to involve all interested members of the community through industry associations and various types of community groups, especially from rural areas. A period of two months was allowed for comment, after which a final document was developed by a smaller Commonwealth-state working party. Some 150 substantive written comments were received from the public and a wide range of government agencies. Although there were no major changes of direction as a result of public input, there was a significant change in emphasis on some aspects, for example taxation.

The final NFP was signed by the prime minister and all state premiers except Tasmania's in December 1992. Tasmania did not sign at this time because the Commonwealth refused to agree not to press for changes on that state's forest industry strategy. However, it is hoped that it will sign in the near future.

The NFP did not completely please all parties, as might be expected. Since it had to be a politically acceptable policy in an era of intense controversy and highly polarized views on forest use, there were many who expressed disappointment at the outcome, for example the peak environmentalist body, the Australian Conservation Foundation. However, the NFP does make a number of major steps forward and does address all major current issues.

Outline of Australia's new NFP

The Australian NFP has 11 broad national goals:

Conservation: to maintain an extensive and permanent native forest estate and to manage it in an ecologically sustainable manner for the full range of forest values.

Timber production: to develop internationally competitive forest-based industries that maximize value-adding opportunities within Australia.

Integrated and coordinated decision-making: to streamline land-use decisions and reduce state-Commonwealth conflicts.

Private native forests: to encourage the retention and better management of private native forests, both for resource and conservation reasons.

Plantations: to expand commercial plantation development on cleared private land, both to provide additional timber resources and to help address land degradation problems on farmland.

Water production: to ensure the protection of water catchment values.

Tourism: to give greater recognition to the value of forests for tourism and to ensure that this use does not lead to a decline in these values.

Employment: to expand employment opportunities and the skill base of people working in forest management and forest-based industries.

Public awareness: to foster community understanding of sustainable forest management and their participation in decision-making.

Research: to increase Australia's forest research effort and to ensure that it is well-coordinated and directed to appropriate goals.

International responsibilities: to promote nature conservation and sustainable use of forests outside Australia and to ensure that Australia fulfils its obligations under international agreements.

The policy document elaborates on each of these major goals so as to provide strategic guidance to governments and forest managers.

The Australian National Forest Policy also gives greater recognition to the value of forests for tourism

Implications for implementation

One of the principal changes in direction in the NFP is the greatly increased emphasis on private forestry in Australia.

This is long overdue, as some 25 percent of all native forest is in private ownership. A considerable expansion of both eucalypts and exotic pines is envisaged, and virtually all of this will be on privately owned land. To achieve these objectives, a range of incentives will be developed to encourage the private sector, focusing partly on taxation concessions and partly on the removal of rural land-use planning constraints. In some states this may involve legislative amendments.

The NFP also sets up a mechanism for reviewing nature conservation reserve systems in the states' forests and attempting to achieve a more uniform approach to reserve design. In particular, the NFP deals with the question of old growth forest by recognizing old growth as one of the parameters to be taken into account in the development of the reserve system; however, the NFP also states specifically that not all old growth will be reserved. The system will take account of wilderness values, as well as more general nature conservation and biodiversity aspects, and has a target date of 1995 for completion. A national approach will also be taken to the development of baseline environmental standards and codes of forest practice, and these codes will be made applicable to both public and private forests. A national "State of the Forests Report" will be produced every five years.

An important aspect of the policy is its provision for joint Commonwealth-state assessment of regional conservation values and environmental impact of utilization proposals so that the responsibilities of both levels of government can be dealt with efficiently and speedily. This will greatly reduce conflict over potential resource processing developments.

The NFP sets out to give tangible expression to the concept of ecologically sustainable development by balancing the requirements for nature conservation with those of viable and competitive forest-based industries.

The implementation of many aspects of the NFP will not be easy, especially in some states where past conflicts have left a legacy of polarized attitudes. To oversee the process, the National Implementation Steering Committee has been set up to control the activities of several working parties charged with progressing particular aspects, such as a uniform approach to reserve system design and baseline environmental guidelines. Each state and the two Commonwealth departments will be represented on the steering committee, which will report to the AFC and ANZECC on its progress. In this way, the NFP's implementation will be a highly visible process.

State management agencies will need a heavy input of experienced staff time in documenting a wide range of activities and developing incentives for the private sector. In the forest, there is expected to be a rapid intensification of information systems to permit closer control over planning and operational processes. Lack of appropriately skilled staff and suitable systems will be a difficulty in some states.

The critical factor in the successful implementation of the NFP is ongoing commitment to the policy by the state and federal governments and their continuing cooperation to do what will be necessary to achieve its objectives, especially the reduction of conflict. This cooperation is essential if the correct climate is to be created for motivating the private sector to make the necessary investments in plantation establishment and encouraging the industry to undertake essential restructuring.


Government of Australia. 1991. Final Report - Forest Use. Ecologically Sustainable Working Group. Canberra, Australian Government Publishing Service.

Government of Australia. 1992. National Forest Policy Statement. A New Focus for Australia's Forests. Canberra, Australian Government Publishing Service.

Resource Assessment Commission. 1992. Final Report of the Forest and Timber Inquiry. Canberra, Australian Government Publishing Service.

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