VicForests finally admits – the logs aren’t there

Forests are not a Magic Pudding and this fact finally caught up with the government and VicForests in January 2017.  Knocking down forests faster than they can regrow has been the management standard for decades by every logging agency and overseen and excused by every government (Liberal and Labor). After such cut-throat management, the industry and workers are now screaming that their throats have been cut because the limit has been reached; forests can no longer provide the sawlogs demanded.

Heyfield and Orbost mills threaten closure

Both the Australian Sustainable Hardwoods mill (ASH) at Heyfield and Auswest (owned by Brickworks – of ICAC/political donations fame) at Orbost have been told they can’t have the logs they want – the forests just can’t be squeezed any harder. ASH is threatening to close if they can’t get their allocation of logs, as previously promised by VicForests. Is this possible closure true or just political bullying and bluster to get what they want – or a massive payout funded by tax-payers – again.

We understand that ASH took legal action against VicForests around 18 months ago and finally came to a confidential settlement out of court. This was apparently over VicForests’ inability to honour the contract to supply at least 150,000m3 a year. ASH also wants another 10-20 year contract for 150,000m3/pa or they claim they’ll have to sack their 230 workers in September. ASH knows that the jobs threat is a big one for a government already hurting from Hazelwood’s closure. This is a classic industry bullying strategy.   

Historic overcutting – a hard reality to swallow

In the past, any hint of a reduction in log volumes and mill owners threaten job losses, claim that whole towns will close down, families will starve, the footy club will collapse and so on. The bosses then receive massive tax-payer funded payouts and nothing changed for forests as overcutting continued. Is this their strategy yet again? The problem this time is there’s little left to over-cut.  

Nathan Trushall, General Manager of VicForests, stated publicly (audio file) that there are simply not the logs there to supply their customers. This is a serious admission of a major calculation goof-up and/or years of lying. Incompetent wood supply modelling can’t be blamed on possums or bushfires. The writing has been on the wall for years with every report and enquiry pointing to ongoing over-logging. That future is now here. The bosses have geed up workers to blame ‘the greenies inside Labor’ and ‘the latte-sipping greenies in the city’. They are of course reluctant to admit their industry’s criminal waste and abuse of forests for 5 decades.  

Why aren’t the logs there?

Along with the historic malpractice of unrestricted clearfell logging, another industry crime is the illegal downgrading and chipping of good quality sawlogs for a quick buck. This has helped drain the landscape of forests that can provide sawlogs. Today we also see VicForests selling whole logs to China, a practice that was illegal not long ago. Logs needed to be ‘processed’ before being exported, so the ends were simply cut off to fit them into the containers – hey presto, processed log!

What about Australian Paper?

The AP mill at Maryvale (makers of Reflex paper) has been a favoured political donor with considerable influence. Decades ago it was granted long-term access to the beautiful Mountain Ash forests of the Central Highlands with their contract for Mountain Ash logs secure until 2030. They are VicForests biggest customer alongside ASH. But to cut trees down to put through a shredder to make paper, they have to be deemed ‘waste’.  For this they need a token sawmill as the fig-leaf to hide behind that takes the odd sawlog. Then the rest of the forest can be defined as logging ‘waste’. Without a sawmill, VicForests will find it hard to justify clearfelling solely for woodchips.

But even with all the millions this paper mill receives as ‘industry assistance’, various other handouts and dirt cheap quality logs, it still hasn’t made a profit for four years.  It is up against cheap imported paper, a boycott campaign and increasing demand for certified forest-friendly paper by customers. Its owner Nippon paper in Japan, has been considering the mill’s viability for some time.  

What was their solution?

The result of all this is that the industry has finally hit the brick wall. VicForests has been buying logs from NSW forests to meet its contracts with the bigger customers like Auswest and ASH to stave off the inevitable. Smaller mills have closed after being starved of logs needed to feed the bigger mills. VicForests has also been caught smashing down rainforests and key habitats regularly; it has been desperate to find every extra tonne of wood it can glean – legally or illegally.

But now VicForests finally admits (audio file) there are far fewer logs out there. It has been caught illegally logging more times than we have changed our socks. The government can’t pretend to not notice or act. So VicForests is now fessing up and offering contracts of ‘only’ 80,000 m3 next year and 60,000 for each of the two following years. But ASH states that it would not be commercially viable at that reduced level. We understand there is also a bit of haggling over VicForests wanting higher prices for the fewer logs. The industry appears to be in a terminal mess.

What is the real solution?

Since the early 1970s woodchipping has driven this industry. If it is to continue it would be at a vastly reduced size with a vastly different product output. As the forests have been scraped to the bone and left struggling to regrow as healthy forests, what is taken now should only be used for very high-value end products using selective logging. However even this is unlikely to be viable, as markets, products and competitors have changed. Plantations meet about 85% of all our building and furniture needs and this proportion is growing as technology finds ways to create stronger and better appearance timbers from pine.   

Our forebears were resilient tough people and moved with the times – maybe this should be something the logging industry aspires to as well. The future is in nature tourism, outdoor recreation, the foodie trails, agriculture, enviro land management and who knows what else.

As Professor David Lindenmayer explained in a recent article, crunch time has come. The only solution is a very rapid transition to plantation timber processing. The plantations are there, ready and waiting. We can’t stall this shift any longer while certain players position themselves for a massive payout in the next year or two. In the Central Highlands, water and tourism (sustainable products our forests provide) are worth $260M value-added contribution to the economy. The equivalent value of logging is just $9M at best. These are the kinds of economic data government needs to look at to make sensible decisions. It must maximise our forests’ assets and benefits, to get the best value for the people of Victoria who own these forests and create long-term, secure and conflict-free employment. 

Where does the state Taskforce fit in?

The Victorian Forest Taskforce was set up in late 2015 to sort out how forests should be managed for timber and conservation into the future. It comprises reps from industry and the enviro movement, but no government reps are in the room. The Andrews government would have been aware of this looming cliff. Or maybe it wanted to deflect our campaign time and resources into a useless process while the industry constantly spat the dummy and the carnage continued.

The criticism that there have been delays with the Taskforce reaching an outcome is interesting. One concession we received was that no new log contracts can be signed before there is an outcome as it would undermine any decisions. It’s true there have been delays but we would say it is not due to the environment reps throwing spanners. The most useful agreement to date has been to have VEAC assess both the environmental values of the forests of eastern Victoria and also the remaining wood volumes. This will be the first time in ages that an independent assessment will give a true picture of what loggable forest is really left out there. VEAC’s report is due late Feb.

The ball is in the government’s court

With the above realities and when the VEAC reports are handed to government, we look forward to seeing Daniel Andrews assist – not the bosses and mill owners – but towns and workers to transition into new growth areas; outdoor work to put in walking trails, picnic areas, maintain park facilities, revegetation, catchment management, feral animal control – there is endless work to be done repairing and maintaining the environment. If $50M a year can be found to pay VicForests to knock down forests with immense natural values, surely it can find $50M a year to assist the dawning of a new era for Gippsland’s forests.


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