7 May 2013

Loggers Will Own Victoria's Forests

By Nicholas Croggon

The Victorian Government is on the verge of handing over control of the state's forests to an unprofitable, poorly-regulated logging corporation - potentially for decades, writes Nicholas Croggon

In recent weeks, we have heard a lot about Tasmania’s new Forest Agreement, and the struggles to adequately protect Tasmania’s native forests from logging.

However, what you might not realise is that in Victoria, things are also about to change. The State Government has put forward a new bill, to be debated in Parliament today, to provide "security" for Victoria’s logging industry – which, in other words, means giving away our native forests to be logged for the foreseeable future.

These are the biggest changes to Victoria’s logging laws since the laws were enacted in 2004. They are very worrying. Why?

In Victoria, the government owns all state forests, and permits logging in certain parts of the native forest estate by VicForests, a state-owned enterprise. As you would expect, the government has responsibilities to manage Victoria’s native forests in the public interest, and the interests of the environment.

This is important, as Victoria’s native forests are not only belong to the public, but also to around 150 flora and fauna species listed as threatened, or extinct — including the state's faunal emblem, the Fairy Possum. VicForests has different responsibilities: it must operate as a commercial business, logging and selling timber to companies to turn it into paper, furniture and other wood products.

Because of this difference in objectives, government supervision of VicForests’ practices is crucial, but the new bill removes just that.

Under the current law, the government flags forests for VicForests to log in an Allocation Order. Then, VicForests must every five years submit a plan listing each of the forest coupes within this area that it wishes to log, which government can approve or reject. Only after this second step does the timber become the property of VicForests.

Under the new law, the government will no longer have the power to review these plans. Instead, they will simply approve the Allocation Order, and the large areas of forest stands mentioned in the order will belong to VicForests. VicForests will be left to decide which coupes within these stands to log, and when.

The government has said that this abdication of its supervisory role will not explicitly remove any environmental controls, but they will no longer have the power to regularly review VicForests’ choice of coupes to log, because these coupes will belong to VicForests. It will instead have to rely on monitoring VicForests’ performance against existing environmental controls.

This is a problem. Existing environmental controls are inadequate, and out of date. For example, the Leadbeater’s Possum Action Statement, which supposedly protects Victoria’s faunal emblem (which experts say faces extinction in the near future) has not been updated since 1995, despite the lost of almost half its habitat in the 2009 bushfires. Sadly, the Possum is better off than most – more than half of Victoria’s threatened species don’t have Action Statements at all.

The government’s enforcement of these laws is also poor. A report by Victoria’s Auditor General last year found no adequate policies or frameworks to guide environmental enforcement.

Even more concerning, the bill proposes to allow the government to lock these unsupervised logging practices in for the indefinite future.

Under the current law, the government can only transfer coupes to VicForests every 5 years. The bill contains no such limit. This means that the government can give VicForests native forests for the indefinite future, allowing VicForests to enter contracts to log and sell native forests timber 20, 30 or 50 years into the future. The bill also makes sure that if VicForests sells on the timber to third parties, the government cannot claim the timber back.

So if the government learns that logging is no longer feasible – because of environmental reasons, or because the forests are simply running out (for example, due to bushfires) – the current and future government will find it very difficult and expensive to do anything about it.

The government is about to make a very long-term commitment on behalf of all Victorians. Given, this, you would think VicForests must at least be making lots of money, right? Wrong.

VicForests’ Annual Reports show that in five of the past seven years, VicForests has made cash losses, which it has borrowed money to cover. So in fact, VicForests’ logging of native forests is losing them cash.

Logging also prevents other viable uses for these forests. Victoria’s Central Highlands forests constitute of one of world’s richest carbon stores, and they also perform an important tourism role.

Victoria’s wood industry has a long history, and has been an important source of jobs. However, there is a good argument that, with some inspired political leadership and investment, wood and jobs could be provided by already existing timber plantation industry.

In reviewing Victoria’s logging laws, the Government had an opportunity to envisage a brighter future for Victoria. The bill currently before Parliament moves us in the opposite direction – locking current and future generations of Victorians in to decades more of native forest logging. It is hard to the see any social, economic or environmental reasons why.

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Posted Tuesday, May 7, 2013 - 15:53

Excellent article. The South  Eastern  Australian Eucalyptus forests are World’s best forest carbon sinks, this involvi ga total of  14 M ha, 25.5 Gt CO2 stored,  460 Mt CO2/yr avoided for next 100 years if these forests are retained (see Brendan Mackey, Heather Keith, Sandra Berry, David Lindenmeyer (ANU), “Green Carbon. The role of natural forests in carbon storage”: http://epress.anu.edu.au/green_carbon/pdf/whole_book.pdf  and section H, “2011 climate change course”:   https://sites.google.com/site/300orgsite/2011-climate-change-course ).

 Sir Nicholas Stern estimated that  it would cost only $20 billion pa in payments to impoverished Third World forest  owners to halve annual global deforestation.

The world is badly running out oif time to deal with man-made climate change (see Gideon Polya, "Doha climate change inaction. Only 5 years left to act", MWC News : http://mwcnews.net/focus/analysis/23373-gideonpolya-climate-change.html ). 

The atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration did not exceed 300 parts per million (ppm) in the last million years until thre last century in the post-1750 Industrial Revolution era.  The US Mauna Loa Observatory has determined that the CO2 concentration reached 397 ppm in March 2013 and is increasing at about 2.5 ppm per year. Top climate scientists and biologists say that we must reduce atmospheric CO2 to about 300 ppm CO2 for a safe planet for all peoples and all species. Coral started dying off when CO2 reached 320 ppm. (see  "300.org - return atmosphere CO2 r 300 ppm", 300.org: https://sites.google.com/site/300orgsite/300-org---return-atmosphere-co2-to-300-ppm ).

Return  to about 300 ppm CO2 requires cessation of greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution coupled with re-afforestation, massive CO2 sequestration via biochar and 100% renewable energy. Destroying  the World's best forest carbon sink is heading in the wrong direction.




Posted Tuesday, May 7, 2013 - 19:42

"the government owns all state forests"

Do they, or do the people of Victoria own the Crown Land?! Not to quibble with your point, Tom, but the fact the people own the forests strengthens it.

I worked in forestry assessment in NSW and have heard all the lines. This sounds forestry industry wet dream stuff, under the guise of the trick of feigned reasonableness in 'resource security' (just like 'forest waste' for a woodchip - driven industry).

Usually the aim is c. 25 years. Indefinite is ridiculous in public forests.

There are many problems with long term allocation, not least the typical deliberate or inept over-estimating of timber volumes. It isn't easy to do (but is getting easier), but I don't think any public forestry agency has ever been appropriately conservative, nor take enough into account risks such as fire (huge in the 'Ash' forests of Victoria) and drought. Over-allocation, like with irrigation water, is the norm.

In NSW, the industry is scrabbling into forests it shouldn't be yet in to meet log supply, set on some guess and a wink before the fact. The manure ends up hitting the fan. This is a big risk for Victoria - can the Auditor-General be triggered to assess the future financial risk? Quite apart from the natural heritage, carbon storage, water catchment etc issues.

Also, is the public third party right to scrutinise and challenge operations removed? This is another serious  industry wet dream, and outrageous in publicly-owned forests.



Posted Wednesday, May 8, 2013 - 10:45

As a long-standing Victorian forester I can say that this article is largely a beat-up. The process outlined of sections of forest being transferred to VicForests has been in place since 2004.

The current revision of the enabling legislation is largely to take account of changed responsibilities whereby the Department of Primary Industries takes over commercial forestry from the Department of Sustainability and Environment, although this will probably have to change again given that the Govt recently announced that these two Departments will merge. 

The process gives VicForests responsibility for allocated sections of public forest while they harvest and regenerate it, at which time management responsibility is then transferred back to DSE after they have checked that regeneration is adequate. This is hardly a case of giving forests to the '' logging industry' to do as they wish as it has been portrayed, as the allocated forests are part of wood production zones outlined in Forest Management Plans which specify conservation reserves and require harvesting to meet the Forest Practices Code. This is administered by VicForests which is also a Govt agency and so is seperate from the industry.

Discussion about this needs to be put in context in that only 10% of Victoria's public forests are in wood production zones and are suitable for timber production. The other 90% is either already formally reserved for conservation, is contained in management reserves or is unsuited for this use.

Discussion about changes to the legislation to give greater security to the industry must also be considered in the context of the past decade under Labor where parts of the productive forests were routinely turned into new national parks to attract Green votes prior to elections. During this period, timber industries located in the Otways, Portland, Murray Valley,Wombat and parts of East Gippsland were forced to close largely due to political expediency. Understandably, the remaining industry wants to avoid this happening again.

I take Nicko's points about the difficulty of accurate resource allocation to industry. Over-alloaction has been a problem in the past in Victoria, partly driven by sudden conservation reservations of forest out of step with contractual arrangements with the industry. However, I would say that this is not an environmental issue (as it is usually portrayed) because it simply means the available production forests are harvested earlier than planned. Unless rectified the problem will rest with the industry which will suddenly run out of wood until the regrowth matures, and there is a need for constant revision of the resource to prevent this and ensure industry has access to an even flow of wood in perpetuity. This is difficult when Govts are continually taking areas out of production for new national parks, but VicForests have resource modellers continually working on this. 

Claims about VicForests losses are a bit rich given the 2009 bushfires, the Global Finacial Crisis, and the fact that in 2011 the diffference between a small loss and a profit was the $2 million that they had to spend on legal fees to defend themselves in largely mischievous court actions instigated by anti-logging activists.