Native forest transition plan ‘won’t work’, timber industry says

Sawmill workers face an uncertain future as native timber supply declines. Photo supplied.
SHARE:
Timber industry groups say a transition plan aimed to support business and workers through an end to native forest logging is already out of date, just months after it was announced. Lachlan Abbott reports.

Sawmill owners and forestry groups believe the Victorian government’s $120 million plan to support the forestry industry through the end of native timber logging in 2030 is insufficient.

Australian Forestry Contractors Association general manager Stacey Gardiner said the industry group did not accept the transition plan “or that the industry should transition out of the native estate”.

Powelltown Sawmill owner Harold Fox agreed, saying the plan to move into a plantation-only industry “can’t happen”.

“There can’t be a transition because there is nothing to transition into,” Mr Fox said.

Powelltown Sawmill owner Harold Fox. Photo supplied.

“If you’re talking about shutting down the whole native timber industry, how does $120 million go into thousands and thousands of jobs?”

Mr Gardiner said the package did not address new industry challenges.

“I think there is some immediate support required in light of the bushfires, regardless of the Government’s transition plan,” she said.

The Victorian government signed off on 10-year Regional Forestry Agreements (RFAs) in early April, extending the areas available for logging.

However, the State Government announced a review of the plan in late July after the Federal Court ruled state-owned logging company VicForests had illegally felled timber under the new RFAs. It ruled exemptions to national environmental laws in relation to threatened species were invalid.

As a result, major hardware chain Bunnings announced they would end sales of Victorian native timber, a move praised by environmentalists and criticised by timber industry businesses and unions.

A government spokesperson said its transition plan “provides a pathway – and support – for business and workers to transition to sustainable plantation timber”.

The plan – announced in November last year – will not provide the majority of its $120 million payments to affected workers until native logging begins to scale down in 2024.

During a February State Parliament sitting, Greens MP Sam Hibbins said payments from the package should be brought forward in response to last Summer’s extensive bushfires.

However, Premier Daniel Andrews said in response that he did not “necessarily accept” the proposal and said the Government understood the new challenges to the timber industry.

“We have no changes to that policy to announce, but we are aware, as I think most people of common sense are, that these fires have had an impact,” Mr Andrews said.

A government spokesperson said the Victorian Government would “continue to assess the impact of the bushfires”.

A major event review will start in the coming months, likely taking a year to complete. Timber harvesting can continue while the review is conducted, however unburnt areas in fire affected regions will not be harvested in 2020.

Mr Hibbins said the Government should bring forward its plan to “enable an immediate transition out of native forest logging”.

The Greens and environmental groups support ending native logging, although Australian Conservation Foundation campaigner Jess Abrahams said the 10-year timeline was “just too slow for the critically endangered Leadbeater’s possum”.

The Shadow Assistant Minister for Forestry, Gary Blackwood, said the Government’s plan was “a political decision not based on science, but rather emotional Green rhetoric”.

“The $120 million allocated to the Forestry Industry Plan is nowhere near enough,” he said.

Mr Blackwood said the plan should “be reviewed given the economic impact of COVID-19”.

“The economy will be desperately trying to recover from the virus and to throw thousands of jobs on the scrap heap at the same time is just stupid,” he said.

Mr Fox said the Powelltown Sawmill had been affected by COVID-19.

“We have been classed as an essential service, but the sales are dropping. People aren’t building as much,” said Fox.

“We are not there yet, but I’m sort of sitting back hoping that we can continue to employ all our staff.”

Mr Fox’s sawmill employs 35 people, making it the largest employer in the Yarra Ranges town of Powelltown, home to 217 people.

“Once the mill stops, where do people go to work? It’ll be very hard on a lot of people in the town,” said Fox.

Mr Fox said native logging could help the economy recover from coronavirus.

“After COVID is over, Australia will need to get back into production again, and what better way than to use our native forest timber,” he said.

In Parliament, the Premier did not rule out changes, but said the Government plan was “fair and balanced”.