After three years as the new semi-corporate arm of the government logging agency, VicForests was going down the economic gurgler.
For the first two years after its creation, VicForests was given an easy run with DSE picking up the tab for many costs, but year three was to see it ‘off the dole’ and making a profit. To balance their books we saw Vic-Forests planning to cut corners and costs. Unfortunately, this also meant cutting their obligations to look after public lands.
VicForests oversees the logging of public forests and is meant to make a profit. In the past, forest agencies (of various names) have relied on hand-outs to operate. Now VicForests’ plans to reduce overheads to stay in business could cost the environment dearly.
Auctioning sawlogs brings in some revenue, especially now it asks for a half-decent price for them. But sawmills aren’t needing as many logs these days as there is decreasing demand for hardwood timber. However, thousands of tonnes of smoke-damaged ash forests were being knocked down as ‘salvage’ at ten times the normal rate. Solid logs were split to sell as woodchip fodder at a reduced price. Despite this ‘fire sale’, the bills were still mounting.
One of those bills was for $2 million in roading charges. DSE build and maintain logging roads then send the bill to VicForests. VicForests denies this is an unpaid debt, and seemed to say it was just a ‘dispute over access fees’.
Besides debt avoidance, VicForests announced another clever cost-cutting measure: they shut down offices across Victoria. Their 17 offices were reduced to just five, with two in Gippsland being at Healesville and Orbost. The 143 regional employees had to apply for their jobs again if they wanted to move. This cut jobs by stealth, without sacking anyone. VicForests admits that this would mean less monitoring and management of logging operations-leaving it to loggers to ‘self-monitor’! This was clearly in breach of their legal obligations. VicForests are to monitor and ensure environmental codes ‘…operate in accordance with the Sustainability Charter for Victoria’s State forests’. If they leave this up to the loggers, the Police Department might as well stop patrolling the roads to save a bit of money as well.
The union covering VicForests’ staff, the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU), reckons their workers got a raw deal, without time to consider such drastic workplace shifts. They took their case to the Industrial Relations Commission to complain about the hasty and poorly-executed movement of staff and offices.
What has helped keep VicForests afloat for years has been the generous hand-outs given for fire recovery and salvage logging ($22M plus). They have been major beneficiaries of the fires (echoes of the fires in Greece?), although they claim that it was the fires that forced them to downsize.
It’s not just an Australian phenomenon. The only way native forest logging can ever be economic is by cheating, destroying the environment and/or having snouts planted securely in the public trough to pay for the costs. The Resource Assessment Commission of the 1980s came to this conclusion.
Just how much longer can VicForests and their business mates, the woodchip industry, pretend that annihilating native forests is an economically viable enterprise?