At the end of 2019 Victoria's Premier Dan Andrews announced that logging for sawn timber production will cease in 2030 – despite 23 years of change, restructure and improvement in forest management since the first Regional Forest Agreements
In a way this no surprise. Labour finds rural seats – including those with a forest industry base - hard to win. They are fiercely defending inner-city seats from the Greens – a party with narrow interests. The environment - including forestry – is a key platform for the Greens to take these seats and it requires a calibrated response from Labor, a party with a broad support base, to hold them.
For a considerable time, the state forestry agency, VicForests, has been the focus of sustained attack in the media. A boilerplate view has emerged of an untrustworthy, unsustainable and unprofitable institution. This slant has been pushed by environmental activists to a sympathetic press corp. The campaign has been monotonous, repetitive and simplistic – but tenacious. An adverse view of Vic Forest now seems accepted, a weary acquiescence that has smoothed the way for the Premier's announcement to suspend logging in 2030.
That tide may turn. Post-virus a faint hope glimmers for those who believe sustainable forestry in the state is possible. With a realigned global vision, things will be different after the pandemic. Australians are already planning a return to self-sufficiency in strategic products. Practical and concerned voices could urge Victorian Labour to revisit their calculated end game in forestry. Self-reliance is one compelling argument in favour of a local forest industry. A tradition of competency and reform is another. More worrying about the alternative future is the lack of any substance in the vision presented by environmentalists in advocating a shift from harvesting regrowth forests to plantation forests.
If we embarked upon RFAs in the belief that sustainable native forestry is possible, and it is – then why chuck it in now? What has changed in essential concerns about our State Forests for Victorians? There might have to be a trade-off in some localities where forestry has outlived its time – but why abandon a valuable and traditional industry like hardwood forestry in these present and difficult circumstances.
With no one in government wanting the unpopular task of defending them, VicForests should itself offer clarity to the public on their work and processes. It would help their image – possibly prove their survival - to promote understanding of the size and scope of the State Forest estate. Many people – clever and thoughtful in life - still make the mistake of believing harvesting occurs within National Parks. It is what the anti-logging campaign has led them to think. Advice from the environmental lobby to their academics and pollies is to employ the blanket term logging native forests in statements when the specific phrase logging State Forests should be required for accuracy. If the public could be shown a map of State Forests, their extent and size mapped against National Parks or other restricted areas, they might be less convinced by activist-fed media reports of forest and habitat destruction on an industrial scale.
James Neville-Smith from Neville-Smith Timbers gives an accurate insight into the size of the hardwood timber industry in a recent open letter to industry.
In Victoria, the Andrews Government wants to close the last remaining industry which today sustainably manages under world's best practice just 6% (yes, 94% are in a reserve of some kind) of the entire forest estate. Indeed, that area is almost halved after the code of forest practice is implemented (removing areas from harvest, like stream side reserves, eagle nest buffers, habitat tree buffers etc), leaving about 3% of the forest areas, which is managed on a 60 year sustainable rotation, meaning what's cut down today and regrown won't need to be cut again for another 60 years.
A successful but vexatious strategy of environmentalists is their assertion that hardwood plantations can supply all our hardwood sawlog needs. The claim is deceitful. Hardwood plantations cannot presently supply high quality sawlog, but they supply a lot of pulp logs. Logs for fibre for paper manufacturing - a different industry to sawmilling for timber. Environmentalists know this – and they know that the public does not know. The edict to their contingent of journos and professors is to keep it vague, make it a general claim – plantations can supply all our timber needs. Say it as often as you can.
Viable broadacre hardwood plantations in common native sawlog species may happen. The essential mechanisms of plantation forestry are productive now at farm level in private forestry. In relative terms, pulplogs are harvested at 10 to 12 years and the ideal sawlogs from regrowth forests are 60-80 years of age. In a plantation, pruning and thinning can produce sawlogs at 35 to 45 years. The plantation estate will still need to be logged. It will still look bare for a while afterwards. Regrowth of most southern eucalypt species requires a cleared open space and competing reach of new stems. Not much might change in the plan of harvest after a switch to plantations.
Good management of plantation forests grown from seedling is comparable to management of forests regenerated from lignotuber and fallen seed. If the support for plantation forestry in the green activist world is genuine then how does this difference in methodology spark hostility against State Forestry regrowth harvesting?
Closure of sawlog harvesting in Victoria will simply result in more imports. Massive importation of exotic species is the only alternative to meet local demand in Appearance Grade Hardwoods once logging has ceased. American Oak, Scandinavian Birch, West Papuan Kwila, Southeast Asian and South American species will dominate timber stock lists.
Environmental concerns about Victorian forestry practice were legitimate at the time of the first RFAs – and they are still valid. Activism, however, has become a negative and trivialising counter to progress. If your primary mission is to stop logging of native forests then logically your efforts would be engaged in strenuously resisting, negating or denying reform or improvement in State forestry. Nothing could be a worse outcome for this stripe of forest activism than truly sustainable forestry. Hence the need to suggest there is a better world beyond State Forest hardwood logging – albeit a fanciful one.
On the other side of this tension are people with both a concern for native landscapes and a belief in forestry. They want forest assessments to continue, they too require provision for old-growth stands, protection of threatened species, watercourse protection and soil retention. If sawlog harvesting from State Forests continues in an agreed and viable form, then we can retain the cultures of independent sawmilling and kiln-drying that will be lost forever if logging ceases. The way forward - if higher altitude Mountain Ash forests are returned to reserves - may not be broadacre monocultures. It may be a mix of private farm forestry and State forestry – particularly of foothill species like Silvertop Ash, Messmate and other sawlog-suitable Stringybarks. In a climate of siege and disruption, of mistrust and uncertainty in belief, and of shifting political disposition, there has been little investment or planning for any of these possible futures.