New economic era for East Gippsland

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The call by the Auswest sawmill and Tim Bull for long term log contracts to be renewed (EGN/SRM 2 Nov) is a misguided ‘Magic Pudding’ mindset, according to Environment East Gippsland.

“Long term contracts are not being signed because there has been serious uncertainty of resource availability for quite a while”, said Jill Redwood from EEG. “The government initiated Forest Taskforce is currently looking into whether native forests can keep providing logs into the future. It appears this could now be very limited and so would be fiscally irresponsible to keep promising logs that might not be there.”

“Other sawmills are finding there is a shortfall in their promised volumes that VicForests is unable to honour. This can’t be blamed on the Taskforce.” 

“VicForests admits in its 2013-16 Corporate Business Plan that its operations in this region are unprofitable, with a $5.5M loss a year. Could this be why the Coalition also refused to sign long term log contracts when it was in government; there is a legal liability for not meeting licence contracts to mills. 

“This relatively small region has hosted clearfelling since the early 70s and we need to realise that native forests are not a magic pudding. Many areas aren’t growing back, and those that are, resemble tree crops suited more for chip logs than sawlogs”, said Ms Redwood.

“With the demise of the export woodchip industry, which has been the backbone of the logging industry, clearfelling forests only for sawlogs is looking even more costly and unviable.  

“Add to this the ongoing discovery of protected rare wildlife and rainforests in the remaining pockets of unlogged forests and the future of logging at high levels in East Gippsland does not look good.

“EEG is part of the environmental caucus whose representatives sit on the Taskforce. Its deliberations have been far more complex that the picture Tim Bull is painting. 

Rather than blaming a government or the Forest Taskforce process, creative ideas are now needed. The reality is that it’s near crunch time and options for the region need to be investigated as soon as possible.

“The new VEAC investigation into available wood and fibre resource from both native forests and plantations has just been agreed to help inform solutions.

“We need to investigate new directions for East Gippsland. It is already moving on and we find the industry accounts for less than 1% of direct employment. The logging industry here has been shrinking year by year as plantation pine is dominating all areas of home building and furniture production.

“Like coal, industries change with time and logging is no different. We need to plan for the transition so that workers are supported. It’s clearly uneconomic to keep propping-up a declining industry by $5.5M a year.  The growth areas of the local economy which could benefit from more assistance include:

  • managing forests as economically valuable banks for generating huge carbon credits, for conservation, to invest in pest, weed and restoration management
  • nature-based tourism and the infrastructure needed. The shire recently detailed the need to attract more international visitors. It’s an economic windfall waiting to happen and would require more facilities like campgrounds, walking trails, accommodation, interpretation boards and local information. In 2014 we saw $3.6M in tourism income for EG with almost $5M invested locally.
  • fire management – investigating and restoring the natural fire-proofing of forests in suitable areas as well as concentrated fire protection immediately around towns and on properties.   

The Taskforce that comprises industry, union and environment reps, produced an agreed statement months ago which acknowledges that ‘business-as-usual’ is not the answer. 

The Victorian Forest Industry Taskforce agrees that “the current ‘business-­as-usual’ response to the many complex issues facing Victoria’s forests is insufficient, and that to continue in this way will be of detriment to all stakeholders and the broader community.”

“As time moves on different industries become less viable while others take their place. The choice is not between jobs or forests – we can have both and look forward to a new growth economy for the region. The 65 people that currently work for Auswest could be transitioned with the help of the $5.5M currently being used to subsidise logging.

“As well, the Turnbull government has a budget of over $5 Billion allocated for rural and regional development in the 2016-17 year. Possibly our political representatives could develop a viable and creative plan to be funded and help encourage these and other new economic directions for East Gippsland. 

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