Last week in Victoria – our most ‘socially progressive’ state – the Andrews Labor Government announced the phased closure of the state’s 120-year old native forest timber industry, dressed-up as an impossible 10-year ‘transition’ to a plantation timber resource.
While the decision was celebrated in the green-Left heartland of inner Melbourne, it was devastating news for forestry and timber industry workers employed in regional Victoria and in outer suburban wood and furniture manufacturing businesses, where job losses have been estimated at up to 5,000.
In announcing the decision, the government asserted that it was forced by “… a reduction in available native timber resources due to fire and wildlife protection”. While it is true that there is a shrinking available timber resource, the effects of bushfire had already been accounted for in reduced harvest levels, and it was mainly the government’s over-the-top and unlimited wildlife protection regulations which were forcing the industry out of the available forests designated as its timber resource.
The Victorian timber industry operates on an 80 to 100-year cycle of harvest and regrowth within scattered wood production zones throughout central and eastern Victoria. Collectively these forests that are available and suitable for wood production, comprise just a 6% portion of the state’s 7 million hectares of public native forests. Given this proportionally small zone of activity, alongside the fact that 94% of the forests are acting as conservation reserves, it is almost inconceivable that timber production poses a significant threat to the survival of any species of fauna or flora.
Nevertheless, wildlife protection regulations had been developed to protect rare or endangered species if they were detected in wood production zones. While this is a reasonable concept, the size of the protection buffers being automatically generated around any verified detection sites – varying from three to several hundred hectares depending on the species – are unreasonable for zones that are primarily meant to supply wood. Indeed, over just four years, automatic 12.6 hectare protection buffers established around over 600 verified Leadbeater’s Possum sightings, had substantially reduced and fragmented the available ash forest resource. This was a perverse situation where the industry was being effectively shut out of its most productive forests because there were too many, rather than too few, rare possums.
The government had refused to alleviate this situation by ignoring a pre-determined upper limit of Leadbeater’s Possum protection buffers which acknowledged that wood production zones should be primarily serving that purpose, rather than acting as wildlife preserves. This meant that the government sanctioned unlimited wildlife protection in zones that have long been designated as the industry’s timber resource. A new focus on Greater Gliders at the behest of environmental groups and ecologists was set to further exacerbate this problem.
Despite these significant impediments, the state’s commercial forestry agency, VicForests, had made a good fist of dealing with the challenge and was reportedly close to meeting another Government demand to attain FSC certification, again at some significant cost to the available timber resource. But last year, the Victorian Government heaped further pain on the industry by inexplicably delaying the signing of the annual Allocation Order for 8 months (from September 2018 to May 2019), thereby preventing most of the timber harvesting which normally occurs during the peak summer and autumn season. The resultant sawlog scarcity inflicted substantial hardship to the industry and heightened concerns that the government was actively engineering its demise.
Accordingly, the Andrews Government’s claim that the industry needed to close because it was running out of resource is quite disingenuous given its role in creating the timber shortage. Arguably though, it is the government’s deceitful claims about the supposed environmental benefits of ending native forest harvesting that has poured insult onto injury for forestry and timber workers.
In her media release announcing the planned industry closure, Victorian Environment Minister, Lily D’Ambrosio, said that taking this action would end “… the destruction of our old growth forests” and that her Government will immediately move to protect “90,000 hectares of Victoria’s remaining rare and precious old growth forest – aged up to 600 years old….”.
This is dishonest because there basically hasn’t been any timber harvesting in such forests for many years. All of Victoria’s contiguous areas of old growth forest had been placed into the formal reserve system by 2009, and harvesting had stopped much earlier in many places eg. in the early 1980s in the Central Highlands. In East Gippsland, the younger forests outside the reserves contain some scattered individual old trees and small patches of old trees (of insufficient size to be classed as forests), but, with some exceptions, these are also largely protected by harvesting prescriptions. According to an industry insider, just 5 – 10% of the claimed 90,000 hectares of ‘old growth’ to be immediately protected, would be actually comprised of old growth trees, and most of this would not have been harvested anyway.
Minister D’Ambrosio went on to claim that closing the native forest timber industry “… will reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere by 1.71 million tonnes of carbon-dioxide-equivalent each year for 25 years – the equivalent of taking 730,000 cars off the road annually”.
It would be fascinating to see the logic that underpins this incredible claim. Most people would appreciate that timber products are renewable and store carbon. Accordingly, timber harvesting is not a carbon emission, but a transference of stored carbon from the forest to the community within usable products. While there are some carbon emissions in machinery use and post-harvest burning associated with timber production, these are being simultaneously recouped by trees regrowing after previous harvesting. If the annual harvesting rate is sustainable, timber protection is effectively carbon neutral.