Privatise Tasmania's forests
Prime Minister Tony Abbott was right last week to describe foresters as the ''ultimate conservationists''. He said he would seek to delist 74,000 hectares of Tasmanian forest marked for World Heritage protection.
Those working in the timber industry know that the long-term sustainability of forestry resources is in their best interest. Without these resources, their businesses and jobs would not be viable.
The people who use these natural resources are in a better position to care for them than distant bureaucrats and government departments. This move will take control of the forest land from the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, which will this year meet in Qatar, and hand it back to the local Tasmanian industry that has cared for the land and created its conservation value in the first place.
The Greens and other extreme environmental groups were quick to express their outrage at the Prime Minister's comments. These groups have long taken the dogmatic approach that conservation is a synonym for prohibition - the only acceptable way to conserve the natural world is lock it up and prohibit its use.
Any move towards development is quickly criticised as an ''assault on the environment''.
This rigid approach to conservation polarises the policy debate. Environmentalists often paint forest management as a choice between unrestrained plunder versus the preservation of the pristine. The truth, of course, is in the middle. No two pieces of forest land are the same, and the land will lend itself to a variety of uses - most of which are not necessarily mutually exclusive. It will always be a question of balance.
The political problem is how that balance can be achieved. Environmentalists operate under the assumption that the best way to protect any natural resource is to lobby government to pass regulations. They distrust the ability of humans and nature to co-exist, and the ideal becomes impeding human interaction with the environment.
But this dogmatism runs counter to the experience of those working in primary industry. In this regard, Abbott recognised the respect that the timber industry has for the environment in making ''the most of the good things that God has given us''.
Laws that lock up forestry should be particularly unwelcome in Tasmania. The timber industry is a significant contributor to a lacklustre economy. It provides tens of thousands of jobs in a state with the country's highest unemployment rate. Delisting the forests will be a good start.
In fact, Abbott could go further. Tasmania's economic malaise is crying out for a free-market approach to environmentalism. About 50 per cent of the state is forest. Only 31 per cent is owned by the private sector.
The easiest way of taking the politics out of forestry is to get the government out - privatise Tasmania's forests and let individuals determine the best use of the land.
Would this be committing forests to destruction? Absolutely not. It is one of the fundamental principles of property rights that individuals who own property take care of it.
Environmental disasters occur when no property rights have been allocated - this is what is described as the tragedy of the commons. This is also the reason why the communist states of the 20th century were as much environmental catastrophes as they were human ones.
Not content with locking up Australian forests, environmentalist groups successfully lobbied the former Labor government to lock up Australians' access to timber right around the world.
In 2012, the Illegal Logging Prohibition Act was passed. The act criminalises the importation of illegally logged timber and any product containing illegally logged timber, including paper.
While the law sounds noble, it is impossible to comply with. Penalties apply even in cases where an importer has no knowledge of illegality further up the supply chain. The onus is on importers to prove their innocence. This is at odds with a free-market approach that respects the rule of law.
The law's real effect is to limit the production of timber, particularly in developing countries that are using timber as an economic resource to pull their citizens out of poverty. If the Coalition is serious about respecting loggers as conservationists, this sort of regulation should also be addressed.
If we are to move towards a free-market solution for forestry and forest protection, it is important that corporate welfare does not distort it. To be sure, the industry has had to face a range of external challenges such as a high exchange rate and increased global competition. But so has every industry.
The Tasmanian timber industry has had $180 million in grants in the past three years. Continued funds will only undermine an efficient balance between logging and other uses. We want to allow forestry - but why subsidise it?
Hopefully, the recent policy changes from the Prime Minister signal an end to environmental policy that places humankind and the natural environment in conflict. Only a free market for forests will deliver a lasting peace deal.