Image for Preolenna: An obect lesson in economic irrationality

This paper was written for a Forestry Summit held in Meander in August 2001;  I recently came across a copy while going through some old files.  At the time of writing, I was still living in Preolenna, and watching with despair the destruction of the community which had been home for more than 30 years.  But it is the second last paragraph which particularly speaks to me in light of current discussions about replacing use of native forest with plantations.

I am not totally opposed to plantations.  There is a place for appropriately placed stands of trees, not industrial plantations covering vast tracts of land with a single species of tree.  The irony is that we have a small pine plantation, which is now being partially cleared – making us the only forestry employers currently in Preolenna.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Preolenna I will give a brief picture of the events that have happened there over the last 18 months or so.  Preolenna and Meunna made up one community in a high rainfall area south of Wynyard.  Deep red soil produced potatoes, including seed potatoes for most of the country, milk and beef and associated crops.  While the absolute number of farms has varied over the 30 years I have lived there, there have been approximately 20 farms in the district.  About 10 years ago, an independent plantation developer came into the area and started buying up properties for agroforestry.  There was concern at that time about the planting of pines and blue gums on seed potato paddocks.  Changes to the tax laws put an end to that development, and the developer became a dairy farmer.  His particularly complex financial structure began to fall apart and the developer eventually sold all of his Preolenna/Meunna holdings, bit by bit, to North Forest between 1996 and 1998.

In 1995 there were 16 major dairy cropping and grazing properties putting an estimated $4.1 million dollars into the Waratah/Wynyard Municipality.  In late 1999, Forest Enterprises became active in the area, and Gunns was close behind.  By March 2000, the dominoes began to fall, and by December 2000, the last farm was sold for industrial plantations.  Preolenna is now a dormitory community and Meunna consists on one house, if you know where to find it.

This did not happen quietly.  The implications of removing such a large area from agricultural production by removing the infrastructure and planting it with a single species of tree raised a lot of concern.  Newspaper articles were written and reports appeared on TV.  Preolenna was often referred to during talkback radio sessions and in the council chambers.  Politicians came to see what all the fuss was about, and why they were getting so many angry letters and phone calls.  Preolenna became an example of the worst possible scenario for industrial plantation development.  But statewide farms continued to be bought up; since 1997, forestry companies have bought approximately 450 farms.

While this was happening, it started to become very evident that the decision makers were not the politicians who had little understanding of the issues.  They repeated endlessly the same pat phrases, as did letters to the editor, and Barry Chipman and others.  Unpleasant things began to happen in Preolenna including the looting of one empty house and the destruction of another.  Community tensions grew as the old families left and a new social order developed.  We are still being told that this was all for the good of the state.

The basic question is how can this process be good for Tasmania?  When production stops for 12 – 15 years, and no income is generated for that time, how can a community benefit as we are told that it will?  When questionable agricultural practices are used and justified by economic necessity, how can we believe that permanent damage is not being done to valuable soils and ecosystems?  When two companies own virtually all of the arable land in a fertile district, what is left for future farmers?  The arguments for the benefits of plantations just do not stack up.  There has not been a balanced community discussion about these developments.  It is the process used to sidestep open discussion that is, I believe, the important thing.  How has Tasmania become the plantation state, the label given to it by Wilson Tuckey?  Why is the Tasmanian Government ignoring the best interests of its citizens?  Why is there a need for a plantation state when more and more evidence is being produced showing a worldwide glut of low quality wood fibre, which is what Preolenna, will produce?  How has it happened?  These are some of the tactics I saw used so effectively.

• Divide and conquer has been very successful on a number of levels.  Divide neighbour from neighbour and objectors are seen to be unreasonable.  Leave objectors to battle on their own and they burn out; information is not shared and useful tactics are not passed on.  In Preolenna, individual community members have been targeted, some to act as advocates for plantations, and some vilified.

• Community consultation appears to give citizens an opportunity for input until one realizes that the outcome of each new consultation appears prearranged; having input into the process gives a false sense of being heard.  Tasmania Together is just the best known of these skewed consultations.

• Treating objectors with contempt and refusing public debate has been a constantly tactic.  Frequently, representatives of forestry companies and Members of Parliament refuse to publicly debate the issues, or flatly refuse to attend public meetings.  When MPs and bureaucrats do attend community meetings, it is usual for them to lecture, not listen.

• The use of misinformation is astonishing.  There is a constant mantra of catch phrases to explain why these developments are good of the community and state.  These phrases tend to be truisms.  Sometimes, the information provided is proven to be untrue, but still widely quoted.

• Government regulations are constantly quoted as safeguards for the community.  Experience has shown that these regulations often have no teeth or are ignored.  The fact that most of the population has not read these regulations certainly allows this practice to continue.

• In Preolenna there have been instances of as hoc bureaucratic decision making to quiet opposition.  Whether or not it indicates improper action is debatable, but it has been effective.  In one case, an effective vocal opponent of forestry development was given the opportunity to leave the district, and state.

And then there was that litany of pat responses.  They have been refuted ad nauseum, but still appear to be alive and well.

• Plantations proved jobs now and into the future

• Putting plantations on cleared land saves old growth forest

• Farmers have the right to sell to whoever they want

• Farmers have the right to plant any crop

• Industrial plantations are an agricultural crop

• High value product is being produced

• Plantations are very rarely planted on prime agricultural land

• There is no link between the plantations and population drift from the NW coast

• All farmers sell willing

• Competition from tree farmers drives property values up

• Farmers use more chemicals than plantations

• The spread of industrial plantations is not tax driven.

Traditionally there has been a separation between the actions of industrial plantation developers and the establishment of plantations after clear felling native forest.  I believe that the same developmental processes are at work in both cases and that the divide between the two aspects of forestry are artificial.  It plays into the hands of the planners.

The tactics used so successfully to continue the planting of industrial plantations are the same as those used to allow the destruction of native forest, and to the same end.  I believe that it is vitally important that the opponents of the two faces of forestry activity in Tasmania pool their knowledge and experience to act together.  If we do not do so, the danger is that Tasmania will look like Preolenna, where there is no divide between the industrial plantations on private land, and the industrial plantations on public land.

I would like to acknowledge Colleen Dibley who has been tireless in fighting the battle for sanity in forestry decision-making and who has collected the statistics for the Preolenna district.

Evelyn DeVito
August 3, 2001