Tasmanian tree fern trade, an indicator of corruption?

Author John Hawkins, first published 2019, Tasmania Times.

 

The outside world was first alerted to the uncontrolled export of Tasmanian tree ferns by an essay written by Stephanie Roth published on 6th March, 2002 in The Guardian:

It is estimated that 90,000 Tasmanian fern trees are exported each year. Tasmanian environmentalists now fear that many have been taken from the wild, and that the increasing demand for the plant will serve as a catalyst to log even more old-growth forests in order to “rescue” even more tree ferns.

Dicksonia antarctica is a valuable commodity for good reason – it only grows up to 5cm (2 inches) in height per year, and reproduces for the first time after about 23 years. Gardeners buy by the trunk length and prices start from £20 for a 20cm (8in) high plant. Both the Royal Horticultural Society and BBC Gardener’s World websites are currently offering plants that have taken 30 to 40 years to reach between 75cm and one metre (3-4ft) for between £145 and £166.

Yet in Australia and in Britain, the tree is marketed as having been “saved” from Tasmanian forests where ordinary trees have been felled for wood chips. And Environment Australia, the national environment body, has refused to issue export permission for any fern trees taken from Tasmania’s unregulated market. So how did the Tasmanian trees find their way into Europe?

The state of Victoria has a regulated system for fern tree harvesting. Due to the constitutional right to free trade between the states, Tasmanian fern trees were sent to Victoria where the Victoria Department of Natural Resources and Environment simply tagged them as ‘Victorian’ and issued them with export permits, thus circumventing Environment Australia’s soft-ban …

A promise was made to change the situation last January when the Tasmanian government introduced legislation to control the fern tree laundering and to get its share of a market estimated to be worth £12 m. Fern Trees from Tasmania now will be issued with export permits and a Tasmanian tag. Fern tree harvesting has been brought under the control of the Forest Practices Code (FPC) which will monitor the industry closely. For the next five years or more, the taking of fern trees will only occur as ‘salvage harvesting’ from forests which are to be clear-felled,

Forestry Tasmania estimates that there are over 17 m tree ferns in formal and informal reserves, and over 26m in other forests. Graham fears that the Tasmania tag would see a glut of commercial exploitation. “Such a programme would allow substantial economic return to the state in the next five years,” reads the Forest Practices management plan.

The introduction to a disgraced forestry industry of a tagged licencing system for the sale of Tasmanian tree ferns provided Richard Flanagan with a hard-hitting introduction to his iconic essay published in The Monthly in May 2007 – The tragedy of Tasmania’s forests …

This story begins with a Tasmanian man fern (Dicksonia antarctica) for sale in a London nursery. Along with the healthy price tag, some £160, is a note: “This tree fern has been salvage harvested in accordance with a management plan approved by the Governments of Tasmania and the Commonwealth of Australia.” If you were to believe both governments, that plan ensures that Tasmania has a sustainable logging industry – one which, according to the federal minister responsible for forests, Eric Abetz, is “the best managed in the world.” 

The truth is otherwise. The man fern – possibly several centuries old – comes from native forests destroyed by a logging industry that was recently found to be illegal by the Federal Court of Australia. It comes either from primeval rainforest that has been evolving for millennia or from wet eucalypt forests, some of which contain the mighty Eucalyptus regnans. These aptly named kings of trees are the tallest hardwood trees and flowering plants on Earth; some are more than 20 metres in girth and 90 metres in height. The forests are being destroyed in Tasmania, in spite of widespread community opposition and increasing international concern … 

The responsible body for appointing and supervising the contracted Forest Practices Officers (FPOs) that oversee the harvesting of Tasmanian tree ferns is the state’s Forest Practices Authority (FPA). The FPA authorises the issuing of a Forest Practices Plan (FPPs) a document that details the number and size of the tagged harvest in the field as per the recommendations of the FPO:

The harvesting of tree ferns (Dicksonia antarctica) is strictly regulated in Tasmania and is confined to the salvage of stems from forests that are being cleared for infrastructure, agriculture or plantation. Harvesting may only occur under an FPP that authorises salvage. Operations must be conducted in accordance with a management plan for the sustainable harvesting of tree ferns that has been endorsed by the Australian and Tasmanian governments. All tree ferns must have tags issued by the FPA affixed to their stems prior to removal from a harvesting area. These tags must remain on the stems at all times to ensure that the origin of tree ferns can be tracked to approved harvesting areas. The majority of tree ferns harvested in Tasmania are exported to national and international markets. 

I have extracted the following figures from the Annual Reports of the Forest Practices Authority of Tasmania for 2017-2018 regarding the harvesting of Tasmanian tree ferns, and the introduction of tags gifted then and now for a pittance to this rapacious industry.

2002 -2003 tree fern tags issued: 64,182 and this when the legal harvesting of tree ferns was at a maximum as Tasmania wood chipped at a loss 6 million tonnes of forests a year allowing their salvage.

2003 – 2004 tags: 54,866.

2004 – 2005 tags: 61,368.

Then the numbers fell every year as the logging of native forests imploded and Gunns headed towards bankruptcy leaving Forestry Tasmania unpaid and bankrupt until bailed out by the 2012 Tasmanian Intergovernmental Forest Agreement.

2010 – 2011 tags: 10,729. This coincidentally was the year of the one and only FPA compliance audit when the tags produced an income stream of $37,000.

As usual in Tasmania, as soon as that moment of compliance had passed things rapidly changed:

2011 – 2012 tags: 22,177 – income $24,000. How can the number of tags double and the money received drop?

Currently … 2017 -2018 tags 26,100 with income $32,000.

 

These tags give legitimacy and value to the tree fern in the hands of the purchaser and the final vendors. Without the tags the product is virtually worthless, if not unsaleable. They were issued in 2018 at between at 79 cents and $1.58, according to tree fern size, by the FPO on behalf of the FPA as per his FPP. This is down from $2.34 in 2006.

How very Tasmanian that the taxpayer receives a reducing pittance for a valuable forest commodity in a world of escalating prices. The forestry insiders have reduced the price by an average of 100% over the last 12 years.

The sum received for the tags by the FPA in 2017 -2018 of $32,000 is supposed to fund:

  • Administration of the tree fern system within the FPA.

  • Database and record keeping within the FPA.

  • Monitoring within the FPA.

  • Enforcement within the FPA.

  • Research into options for sustainable tree fern harvesting.

 

The harvesting of the Tasmanian tree fern closely matches the collapse of the Native forest demolition industry, and mirrors the falling numbers 'Salvaged'.

The clear felling and burning and then the conversion to plantations of Tasmanian forests has fallen off a cliff since 2007, yet the number of tree ferns harvested has shot up for the year 2017 – 2018 to a 26,100 (latest financial year figures not publicly available). This tagged figure correlates to the forest harvest in 2008 when clear felling and burning, hence 'salvage', was some 16 times higher.