While state MPs keep backing the destruction of native forest for woodchips and paper pulp, a once-divided timber region is getting out of native logging. By Katherine Wilson.

Timber town’s change of heart on native logging

A conservationist blocks vehicular access to the forests in Errinundra in 2021.
A conservationist blocks vehicular access to the forests in Errinundra in 2021.
Credit: Goongerah Environment Centre

A timber town on Victoria’s Snowy River, Orbost was once so divided that Lonely Planet reportedly deemed it “the most unfriendly town in Victoria” in 2002. Locals faced off in famously hostile stoushes. Jill Redwood recalls antagonists who “tried to run over my dogs … run you off the road … had my Clydesdale shot … an explosive device let off down here near the gate … shop window posters saying, ‘Run this woman out of town’.”

Courts granted her three intervention orders but, she says, “I did keep a loaded gun by the door.”

For decades, a mutinous political class had governed the shire. In 1991 its council, rankled by environment policy, passed a unanimous motion to attempt to secede from the state.

Orbost retailers closed in solidarity with a 1995 “siege of Canberra” when 300 logging trucks “blocked all entrances” to parliamentary buildings for five days. According to a report in New Scientist, this ended only when then prime minister Paul Keating “agreed to speed up an inquiry into whether woodchipping can go ahead”.

Yet today Orbost Shire – expanded to East Gippsland Shire, spanning 21,000 square kilometres of Gunaikurnai, Ngarigo Monero and Bidawel Country – has had “a complete backflip”, says forest campaigner Tuffy Morwitzer.

Last month it unanimously passed a position paper against clear-fell logging, with approval from traditional custodians, timber businesses, environmentalists and farmers.

“For a region defined by decades of conflict over forests,” Morwitzer says, “the paper calls for an end to clear-felling, protection of biodiversity, investment in nature-based tourism and recreation, protection of the unburnt, and a just transition for affected communities.”

Marjorie Thorpe, from the Gunaikurnai Elders’ Council, says: “It’s an amazing outcome. This has been a conservative area, always a National Party seat. There’s been a shift.”

Supporters include members of the Treasure family, one of Gippsland’s oldest cattle-grazing dynasties, who have a land reserve named after them and who held broadacre leases for more than 140 years in Dargo’s high country. “We have more in common with environmentalists than differences,” Ray Treasure says.

In Yarram, Radial Timber is among Gippsland’s remaining mills divesting from native timber. In Wiseleigh, apiarist Ian Cane says clear-felling threatens Australia’s food security. “Bees and bee-dependent agriculture and horticulture industries are 70-80 per cent reliant on healthy forests,” he says. “When you clear-fell, you remove reproductive capacity. Just a partial failure to supply honeybees this year cost the almond industry hundreds of millions of dollars, lost jobs and all the flow-on effects.”

The 2019-2020 bushfires made protection of unburnt wildlife refuges urgent. “Forests are burnt, mills have closed, everybody agrees that the future is in nature-based tourism,” Redwood says. “In Bendoc, one of the big loggers is now building a caravan park.”

Councillor Tom Crook, a forest scientist, believes councils’ legal obligation to address climate change is inconsistent with clear-felling, which emits carbon and increases bushfire risk, whereas old forests store carbon.

“I don’t want to end the timber industry,” Crook says. “I want an industry we can all be proud of. That’s not what we’ve got now.” He says “timber industry” is a “romantic” misnomer that wedges politicians and hides a pulp-industry reality. Nearly all clear-felled logs become export woodchips or paper pulp at Maryvale’s Japanese-owned Opal mill. Construction timber comes mostly from plantations.

The shire supports “low-volume, high-value timber products produced from selective logging where it doesn’t conflict with the maintenance of other values”, Crook says. “But it’s become bulk supply of fibre.”

He says Victoria “squandered the resource through poor forest management”, making transition “now inevitable”.

Despite the state’s 2019 commitment to transition to plantations by 2030, this hasn’t been legislated – although the Forests (Wood Pulp Agreement) Act 1996 expires then. Radial Timber managing director Chris McEvoy says there’s “not really a viable transition program in place”. He says, “In 2017 the state promised $110 million towards Gippsland plantations. That hasn’t happened.”

McEvoy’s company planted a thousand hectares, but delayed the next thousand. “Carbon offset promises have actually slowed things. When carrots are dangled and nothing’s done, people are waiting for the government to end uncertainty before putting trees in the ground.”

At least 350,000 cubic metres of native pulplog is guaranteed to Maryvale Mill yearly under the act. But as forests decline, good timber goes to pulp instead of to sawmills, says McEvoy, causing building and timber industry shortages. Under the act, the government can suspend pulp supply after bushfires. Scientists and environmental lawyers are urging it to.

In 2020, when Bunnings announced it would stop sourcing native timber, Victoria’s then agriculture minister, Jaclyn Symes, said the move would “hurt local jobs and businesses”. CFMEU national secretary manufacturing division Michael O’Connor said: “Workers and communities that depend on the timber industry are sick and tired of being victimised.”

Crook says this “misrepresents what the industry is”. Times have changed, he says. “Orbost in its heyday was Victoria’s premier timber town, but they’re talking about an industry 25, 50 or 100 years ago.”

Agriculture, forestry and fishing collectively account for only 7.6 per cent of Gippsland’s jobs. According to industry data, native logging generates only 11 per cent of state timber jobs. Industry spin, says Crook, is “all staircases and violins” – but that is not what is being made. “We don’t really have a timber industry in Gippsland anymore,” he says. “Some mills do produce wood products, but it’s a tiny percentage of where native trees go.”

The shires of Strathbogie, Murrindindi, Yarra Ranges and South Gippsland have now passed motions to end logging, but are ignored, Thorpe says. “It’s horrifying going into clear-felled forests. You can’t hear anything: no insects, no birds. They say they’re regenerating but they’re slashed to smithereens.”

“They’ve torn the bejesus out of our forests,” Treasure says. “It’s a wasteland, totally destroyed.”

Tim Bull, the Nationals’ state member for Gippsland East, says that from “the outcry from green groups you would think the countryside is being pillaged, but it is 0.04 per cent per year”.

He tells The Saturday Paper that “much of the forest has recovered brilliantly” from fires that impacted two-thirds of the region’s forest. “I would be taking the advice of the forest experts rather than the East Gippsland council, which has limited knowledge in this area.” He supports the multi-use of forest “that is presently occurring”.

Last month, when Victorian National Parks Association campaigner Jordan Crook tweeted that New South Wales protected areas surpass those of Victoria, state Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio responded: “You really are pathetic. Never mind that Victoria’s land mass is a quarter that of NSW.”

Official rancour and numbers signify “a lot of smoke and mirrors in the industry”, Tom Crook says. The Victoria Government Gazette reports an allocation of 1.8 million hectares “available for harvest” – about 8 per cent of Victoria, the most-cleared state in Australia.

Last month, 66 citizen scientists documented 60 greater gliders in areas scheduled for logging, according to the Victorian Forest Alliance. “Our once-common greater glider is now facing extinction,” Crook says. “There’s very little forest here that hasn’t been logged. They’re fighting over the scraps.” Ian Cane says the loss of resources “will be felt for probably a century or more”.

A spokesperson for D’Ambrosio said: “We’re making record investments in protecting our precious biodiversity because we know Victorians love our native animals and want to see them thrive in the wild.”

The hundreds of millions in grants and resources to state logging company VicForests and partly state-owned Heyfield mill have undercut smaller mills and have overcut forests, critics say. A 2016 PwC audit found each native forest industry job costs Victorians more than $5 million and brings at best 14 cents return for every dollar invested.

Last month, the Greens released a costed plan to end logging next year and employ loggers “to deploy their skills and experience to respond to fire, storm, flood and other emergencies”. Transitioning immediately, rather than in 2030, would save taxpayers $205 million, according to Victoria’s Parliamentary Budget Office.

Giant logs once accompanied a roadside sign: Orbost Premier Timber Town. The town rebranded itself “Orbost on the Snowy” 15 years ago, Tom Crook says. “They didn’t remove the logs: they planted shrubs in front of them.”

By increments the logs were obscured as timber towns contracted. “Replenish the soul in East Gippsland” is now the shire’s ambiguous tourist campaign.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 15, 2022 as "Logging out".

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