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Matt Ruchel, member of the Forest Industry Task Force and our executive director, explains why sawmills and the pulp and paper industry don’t understand how forests work.
Forests are living ecosystems, not magic puddings, and cannot supply something that doesn’t exist.
The recent declaration by VicForests, the state government’s logging agency, that there is insufficient wood to supply Gippsland sawmills, is hardly surprising – the writing has been on the wall for decades, made worse by the Black Saturday fires.
The blame for the shortfall should not be laid at the feet of the two-year old Andrews Government or the workers; regional jobs are important and workers should be supported and not misled or given false hope.
The blame should be squarely laid at the feet of sawmills and the pulp and paper industry. Their failure to change and innovate their use of feedstock has driven the collapse of the forests, the decline of native wildlife and a shortage of wood.
The controversy is over the feedstock, the ash forests of the Central Highlands and the tall forests of eastern Victoria.
Successive governments of all political colours have failed to grapple with the fundamental constraints of this living ecosystem. Their failure has been encouraged by an industry dependent on special treatment – either through government handouts, subsidised wood supply or exclusive legal arrangements – and shielded from real world economics.
The Andrews Government needs to stand firm and break the cycle of jobs being dependent on unsustainable environmental practices, poor planning and special treatment.
In 2014, Victorian Labor’s election commitment in this policy area was to establish a Forest Industry Taskforce. This forced the main protagonists, industry, union and conservationists – who have been in a 30-year battle over the future of forests – to try and reach consensus.
Over the past months Australian Sustainable Hardwoods, Australia’s biggest sawmill, has run a sustained campaign to get special treatment for more wood and for a $40-million handout to re-tool after VicForests offered it less wood in future contracts. A rich ask when the 2012 purchase price of the mill was reportedly just $28 million.
Almost all of the feedstock for the Heyfield sawmill comes from publicly-owned ash forests, and close to half-a-million tonnes of trees are needed each year to feed Australian Paper’s contract for the Maryvale pulp mill. A significant percentage of wood is also trucked to Geelong Port for export to Asia. A large volume is used to make pallets and, unbelievably, some is sent in shipping containers to China as whole logs with no value added in Australia.
Incredibly, VicForests not only provides the wood, it also covers the costs of logging and hauling. It’s a profitably cosy arrangement for the industry, especially when it convinces governments to pay compensation when the forests cannot supply the wood.
Last year in the taskforce process, the industry agreed that there is wood ‘uncertainty’ and that native forest resource has ‘reduced over time, remains under pressure and constrained’. Nevertheless, the industry resists change.
A report by the Land Conservation Council in 1994 warned the amount of ash forest available ‘may decrease if wildfire or disease affects substantial forest areas’. In 2009, the devastating Black Saturday bushfires burnt at least 72,000 hectares of the ash forest.
In 2013, VicForests provided a briefing on future resource outlook to all of its customers: by 2017 there would be at least a 25% reduction in ash sawlog.
For all these reasons, the wood reductions now being proposed should hardly be a surprise to anybody in the industry. The real picture of where the wood comes from is bleak.
After decades of logging, plus the impacts of fire, the health of the forest and the animals which rely on it – such as possums, gliders and owls – are in free fall.
The entire mountain ash forest was listed as critically endangered on International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Ecosystems in 2015. That same year one of the key species occurring nowhere else on Earth, the Leadbeater’s (fairy) possum, was classified as critically endangered under Australian federal environmental law. This is the last classification before extinction in the wild.
As a matter of urgency the discussion needs to move from behind closed doors. Hopefully, the two initial Victorian Environmental Assessment Council (VEAC) investigations already underway – the first into the conservation values of Victoria’s eastern forests was released in early March and is available on the VEAC website, the second into the capacity of these forests to continue to supply wood and fibre to industry is expected in May – will bring sense and clarity to the debate.
What’s needed now is a full independent assessment by VEAC to determine the best use of the forest in eastern Victoria to allow all forest users and local communities to have a say, and ensure we get the best use of unique natural areas for people, the economy and for nature.
Continued logging at the same rates will likely drive the Leadbeater’s possum to extinction. But even if you don’t like possums, gliders or owls, there’s no getting away from the fact that the wood supply for industry is largely gone, and the magic pudding never existed.
There have been enough warnings. The time for industry reform and supported change is now.