Recently, a lengthy process of negotiation between timber and conservation interests led to a significant change in a decades long conflict over the use of public forests in Tasmania. An agreement was reached to protect significant additional areas of forest through industry consolidation, with support from all parties. After years of costly and divisive conflict through social, political and market lobbying and campaigning, an alternative approach of direct negotiation between the main stakeholders was undertaken. The process started in 2010 and led to the Tasmanian Forest Agreement being reached in late 2012. The project provides a unique case study of the benefits and challenges of taking an approach which strives to address underlying values discrepancies through negotiated change, rather than asserting values through combative approaches.
The use and protection of forests, and reconciling their development challenges, has been one of Australia’s—and much of the rest of the world’s—most fiercely contested policy arenas over the last half a century. Forest policy development in Australia has often come about through politically arbitrated processes. It was typically the role of elected officials and experts to determine these matters. In the last two decades, Regional Forest Agreements have been developed for each of Australia’s natural forest logging regions. A common feature of these agreements was the lack of sustained direct negotiation between the key conflicting stakeholders—in particular conservation and timber harvest interests. Rather, groups worked separately to influence the political and scientific processes in order to try and secure preferred outcomes. A key limitation of this approach was its failure to address the strongly divergent values of key stakeholders which underpin the conflict. And so the conflict continued.
- Negotiations: The main mechanism for implementing the solution was a process of formal negotiations. These were structured around participation of ten key groups, which represented conservation interests, timber industry interests, unions and timber community groups. The process was lengthy, and is still ongoing to some extent. It is morphing from formal negotiations to an ongoing need for constructive dialogue, as the agreement is implemented.
- Government Support: The state and federal governments provided support for the process, when it was requested and jointly agreed by the negotiating stakeholders. With ruling coalitions split between pro-logging and pro-conservation interests, at both levels of government, it was perhaps advantageous for the governments to avoid the past arbitration role by supporting stakeholders to find a mutually supportive position. Once it was clear that negotiations had yielded an agreement supported by all the negotiating parties, the governments were willing to play a larger role in implementation.
- There needs to be a willingness for political and bureaucratic institutions to step out of an arbitration role when that fails to address underlying values conflicts. However, it is important that they be supportive of negotiations and implementation).
- It generally takes considerable resources to bridge major values differences and reach common ground. However, adversarial conflict also generally often involves the expenditure of substantial resources from both sides, much of which is negated by the effort of the other, which results in much effort and cost for little or no progress.
- As organizations shift positions in the negotiations process, previous alliances can be broken and new ones will be built. As major movements on either ‘side’ move towards a shared position, old allies can become the most aggressive towards those on their own ‘side.' Management of these behaviors is useful.
- Stakeholders with interests in the issue, that might have seemed to be peripheral or minor, can become significant sources of problems if they are not brought along in the process. While simplifying a difficult negotiation by restricting it to major stakeholders can be beneficial in early stages, do not forget, or ‘leave behind’, other stakeholders.
The major outcomes of the agreement were to:
- Increase the area of public natural forest protected, including addition of significant areas of tall eucalyptus forest to the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.
- Pursue Forest Stewardship Certification for logging in remaining areas of Tasmania’s public production forests.
- Support and consolidate a restructured timber industry in the state, as well as supporting new emerging alternative economic activities in regional Tasmania. It is also significant that these outcomes were supported by all of the participating negotiating organizations. The participating timber industry organizations backed the protection of agreed areas of forest. In return, conservation organizations supported the newly agreed wood supplies coming from the state’s forests. Since the implementation of the agreement, there have also been changes at state and federal levels of government, with both entities promising to undo the agreement and to reimpose a pro-logging arbitrated position. However, it now appears that considerable aspects of the agreement will continue to remain in place, in either form or substance, and look likely to endure beyond the current electoral cycle. This trend suggests another outcome of the negotiation process is the increased resilience to outcomes made possible through the new alliances forged in the process.