The Commonwealth Position



Preface

This position paper describes the Commonwealth's approach to comprehensive regional assessments and the regional forest agreement process outlined in the National Forest Policy Statement. It is intended to provide the basis for developing with State governments and other interested parties mutually acceptable, and regionally appropriate, arrangements for achieving regional forest agreements.

The position paper builds on a discussion paper that was released to governments and major interest groups in March 1994. The discussion paper presented the Commonwealth's preliminary view on the application of comprehensive regional assessment and the regional agreement process.

Comments on the discussion paper were received from State governments, Commonwealth agencies, conservation organisations, industry associations, unions and private companies. Governments and industry stressed the need to recognise and draw on existing information and management achievements and proposed that accreditation of State processes under the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment would be an appropriate approach to developing regional forest agreements. The position paper takes this into account, as it does requests for clearer arrangements for determining assessment needs, for a firm time frame for the agreement process, for greater detail on the operation of impact assessment processes, and for more specific consultative arrangements.

The Commonwealth has no illusions about the complexity of many forest issues. The practical reconciliation of competing resource use priorities is an important challenge for ecologically sustainable development. This paper describes the Commonwealth's position on a cooperative process to achieve intergovernmental agreement on the management of Australian forests.

The Commonwealth remains committed to the regional forest agreement model: it offers a cooperative and genuinely comprehensive approach to resolving regional forest use and management issues. The model proposed focuses on use of Commonwealth-State forest assessments to identify values and accommodate the interests of governments in the development of agreements on regional forest management. Each application of this regional forest agreement process will involve negotiation and adaptation to the requirements of particular regions and governments.

The paper is divided into four sections: Section 1 describes the development, aims and potential coverage of regional forest agreements, including the role of regional assessments; Section 2 describes the scope and nature of environment and heritage assessment; Section 3 outlines the scope and nature of social and economic assessments; and Section 4 discusses Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues relevant to regional assessments and the regional forest agreement process. Details on specific Commonwealth environmental and heritage assessments and obligations are contained in an attached information paper (Attachment 1).

Throughout the paper the terms 'State' and 'States' are used to refer to the States and Territories of Australia, as appropriate.

Executive Summary

This paper describes the Commonwealth's position on the development of regional forest agreements. It is intended to form the basis for the development, with State governments, of a framework for the regional forest agreement process.

The regional forest agreement process is outlined in the National Forest Policy Statement; it offers a mechanism whereby the Commonwealth and a State government can reach agreement on the long-term management and use of forests in a particular region. A State government initiates the process by inviting the Commonwealth to participate in the assessment of a specific region with a view to developing a Commonwealth-State forest agreement for that region. The regional forest agreement approach recognises that Commonwealth and State governments have a range of obligations and interests in relation to the protection of forest values and the sustainable use and development of forest resources. Regional forest agreements are designed to streamline and coordinate the various decision-making processes necessary to meet governments' obligations and interests in relation to forest use.

A central objective is to reduce uncertainty, duplication and fragmentation in government decision-making by producing a durable agreement on the management and use of forests. This will not only facilitate timely land use planning and development approval decisions; it will also protect environmental, heritage and cultural values and provide industry with secure access to forest resources. Greater certainty for industry is expected to encourage investment in downstream processing and value-adding manufacturing, and as a consequence stimulate regional economic development and employment.

The Commonwealth's intention is to finalise regional forest agreements as expeditiously as is consistent with assembling key necessary data, undertaking assessments, and developing and discussing the options. Wherever possible, full opportunity for progressing processes in parallel, rather than sequentially, will be taken. Consultation periods will be tightly monitored.

The Commonwealth has identified a number of stages in the development of a regional forest agreement, as shown in Figure 1 The regional forest agreement process.

The first stage is the formulation of a 'scoping agreement', which will identify government obligations, regional objectives and interests and broad forest uses. It will also specify arrangements for managing the process, including details on timing, methodology, data requirements, consultative mechanisms, and administrative and management requirements.

The second stage involves the Commonwealth and the State concerned in jointly identifying and assessing the environmental and heritage values, economic opportunities and social impacts of resource use options, and industry and community aspirations, taking particular account of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander concerns. There are two main streams of assessment: one aimed at ensuring that the environmental and heritage obligations of governments are met; and one aimed at ensuring that the social and economic objectives of forest use are achieved. To ensure the timely development of agreements and to avoid duplication, the assessments will use existing information and, where possible, accredit existing processes.

The third stage is the generation of forest resource use options based on the environment, heritage, economic and social assessments, and involving the participation of local government, industry, unions, regional economic development organisations, conservation groups and other interested parties. The options would be considered by governments in terms of their environmental, social and economic impacts. A thorough impact assessment of forest use options and the development of management approaches would obviate the need for further impact assessment for future forest use proposals that are covered by the regional forest agreement.

The fourth stage of the process involves the Commonwealth and the State concerned in negotiating, on the basis of the regional assessments, a regional forest agreement. The agreement will provide details of forest management and use arrangements that seek to ensure that governments' environmental obligations are met and industry has access to forest resources. It will also contain agreed details on the duration of the agreement and its implementation, and provisions for review at scheduled intervals and, if necessary, in exceptional and unforeseen circumstances.

Community acceptance can profoundly affect the durability of intergovernmental agreements. The Commonwealth is committed to encouraging public participation and will seek to involve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, conservation and other community groups, industry, regional economic development organisations and local governments in the preparation of regional assessments and in the development of regional forest agreements. The appropriate public consultation model to be adopted for a particular regional forest agreement will be considered during the 'scoping agreement' stage.

The management structure for administering the regional assessment process and the negotiation of individual regional forest agreements will be agreed on by the Commonwealth and the respective State government. It is envisaged, however, that an intergovernmental committee, with representatives from appropriate Commonwealth and State agencies, would manage the regional assessment stages of the process. A smaller, high-level committee would be involved in the negotiation of regional forest agreements.