A report that recommends turning forested areas of central west Victoria into national parks has been met with silence by the Andrews government, prompting fears of a return to logging. By Rick Morton.

The fight to save Victoria’s last forests

Logging on Victoria’s Mount Cole.
Credit: Victorian National Parks Association

Swaths of native forests, which represent some of the nation’s most valuable carbon sinks, could be targeted for logging if the Victorian government refuses recommendations from its independent environmental agency to turn them into national parks.

In June this year, a report from the Victorian Environmental Assessment Council (VEAC) was handed to the state’s Energy, Environment and Climate Change minister, Lily D’Ambrosio. The report, commissioned two years earlier, investigated the use of tens of thousands of hectares of forest in the state’s central west. Since its release, the Andrews government has remained quiet.

The lethargic response to VEAC’s recommendations is in part due to the re-emergence of fractious community politics, inertia and, as ever, money. The report recommends, among other things, turning the Wombat State Forest near Mount Macedon into a national park, as well as parts of the Pyrenees State Forest further west, along with the creation or expansion of four other national or regional parks. Without these protections, the areas are open to logging.

“It’s frightening what they plan to do,” Gayle Osborne, convenor of Wombat Forestcare, tells The Saturday Paper.

“If the government do not legislate this, we will see a return to logging by VicForests.”

While other state agencies recommend protecting the valuable carbon sinks of the central west forests, VicForests, a government business, is poised for an expansion of the industry.

In the Wombat Forest, for example, VicForests’ submission to the VEAC investigation makes it clear it wants to immediately restart logging in the area before increasing the yield of sawlogs. This would mark some of the first timber harvesting in the area since 2002.

“Over time, VicForests would be interested to explore a sustainable harvest of high-quality sawlogs from the Wombat State Forest – within limits acceptable to the community,” VicForests wrote.

Victoria is already the most cleared state in the country and successive governments have a poor history of gazetting new national parks. The report’s recommendations would represent the single biggest contribution to national parks in the state in a decade.

However, as the environment assessment agency conducted its investigation, the Victorian government signed a memorandum of understanding with the Commonwealth in May last year, which extended a regional forestry agreement (RFA) covering the area for another 20 years.

The west Victoria RFA extension is due to be legislated in March next year, a month after the government’s final deadline to respond to the VEAC report.

Until a decision is made, the scale of logging in these forests – if any is allowed – cannot be known.

One of the distinct features of these forestry agreements is that they remove federal oversight of native forest logging and approvals, reducing assessments for threatened species. An independent review of the statewide RFAs recommended the agreement covering the western region be cancelled altogether.

Questions have also been raised about the economic viability of the industry in the west of the state.

The 2017-18 accounts for VicForests show the total revenue from western forests was $700,000. Of this, the state government provided $678,000 in funding for “community forestry” management.

“On paper, they want logging of some shape or form in almost 40,000 hectares of what are the most cleared landscapes in the state, under the guise of community forestry. However, in reality, there is very little native forest industry left in the west of Victoria,” Matt Ruchel, the executive director of the Victorian National Parks Association, tells The Saturday Paper.

“The native forest industry in western Victoria is virtually finished and is not really economically viable, though state and federal government keep propping it up and try and revive it through signing a new ‘zombie’ regional forest agreement.

“No Victorian government over the past 60 years has a worse record when it comes to park creation than the Andrews government,” says Ruchel.

“Not the Kennett government, not the Bolte government. Not even the Baillieu–Napthine government, so criticised for its inaction.”

In its submission, VicForests says it could log more than 10,000 cubic metres of high-value timber in a “sustainable” way in the Wombat Forest alone. Ruchel notes this “would equate to approximately 3500 large trees each year”. The “high-quality sawlogs” identified by VicForests, the largest and oldest trees in the forest, are highly effective at absorbing and storing carbon.

And so in addition to concern about water and habitat, there are fears further logging would jeopardise the role of the Wombat Forest as a carbon sink.

Professor Stefan Arndt, an ecophysiologist based at the University of Melbourne, has been measuring carbon input and output in the Wombat Forest for almost a decade.

Recently he and his team made an interesting discovery. Unlike many other forests across southern Australia, trees in this area experience stem growth almost year-round, even in winter. This means they act as a carbon sink full-time, with rare moments where carbon is released back into the atmosphere.

The Wombat Forest was “almost completely wiped out” during the gold rush, Arndt tells The Saturday Paper, but it has since regrown and is now “a very resilient ecosystem and functions pretty much always as a carbon sink”. Taking just the averages measured by Arndt’s team, the Wombat–Lerderderg National Park area proposed by VEAC currently stores about 7.5 million tonnes of carbon and adds to this figure each year. This is more than the total emissions of Australia’s liquid natural gas export industry – 4.3 million tonnes – and a significant fraction of the nation’s total carbon emissions, which sits at 540 million tonnes.

Losing these trees would be a blow to both Victoria and the Commonwealth’s chances to achieve their climate change targets.

The type of harvest proposed by VicForests in Wombat, for example, is a return to the days when the most mature trees were ripped out for sawlog. And this, Arndt says, is concerning.

Removing smaller trees – ones with a diameter less than 20 centimetres, typically collected in a “thinning” harvest for firewood – would “only remove around 9 per cent of the stored carbon and have little or no impact on sequestration”.

Arndt says the temperate forests in the investigation zone are even more valuable when compared with the dramatic loss of cover in tropical climates, especially as developing nations close to the equator slash and burn some of the most efficient carbon sinks on the planet.

Signs suggest the Andrews government is aware of the carbon capture value of its forests: since late 2016, it has been lobbying the Commonwealth to co-design a methodology to put a price on “avoided” harvesting or better management through the Emissions Reduction Fund.

Lily D’Ambrosio wrote again to the federal government in October last year to press her state’s case.

In a letter to the federal agriculture and water minister, David Littleproud, she said avoided harvesting would enable the generation of carbon credits under the Emissions Reduction Fund and would encourage greenhouse gas sequestration. “This would have broad benefits for our environment, our economy and for communities not only in Victoria, but across Australia,” she said.

The forestry industry has lobbied intensely against this model and the Commonwealth has consistently told Victoria it is “not a priority”.

Arndt says there are provisions in the Climate Solutions Fund to pay farmers carbon credits for sites that are not harvested or cleared. But he said this calculation is difficult. “Designing a methodology for native forests is not trivial. Victoria has the most extensive monitoring system of any state I’m aware of, so making it national would require a lot of work,” he says.

Political opposition also stems from concern about job losses.

The Andrews government had modelled an exit package for the state’s timber industry to shift entirely to plantation trees by the end of the next decade – at a cost of $500 million – but the plan was axed after it was leaked to the Herald Sun. According to VEAC, logging in Victoria’s west directly employs just 61 full-time-equivalent people.

After deferring the VEAC report past last year’s state election, local MPs were saturated with angry emails, phone calls and public meetings from bush user groups, incensed at the idea of “their” parks being “locked up”.

Throughout that election, the Shooting Industry Foundation Australia ran a campaign solely targeting Daniel Andrews, titled “Not Happy Dan”, based on research that it says “revealed 90 per cent of those surveyed want no further restrictions on public access to public lands”.

An organisation named the Bush User Groups United organised marches on the steps of Victoria’s Parliament House in August and released a flyer demanding the government “stop giving full control to Aboriginal organisations to make rules and regulations that restrict or ban other people and their activities”.

Ruchel says the complicated politics of this issue is commonplace when it comes to protecting public land from logging.

“There are often vested interests, such as commercial users, which oppose change,” he says. “And in lots of cases misinformation about what you can and can’t do in national parks. There is also some fringe ideological opposition.”

The VEAC report made clear that most recreational activities – including four-wheel-driving on formed roads in national parks – would continue without change, even if all of its recommendations were accepted.

Minister D’Ambrosio has been at pains to make this clear. In her only media release about the report, in August last year, she was preoccupied with calming bush user groups and made only one mention of conserving the parks for their ecological value.

She followed a similar line in her response to detailed questions from The Saturday Paper.

“We know these forests and reserves have been loved over many years for walking, camping, and other recreational pursuits,” D’Ambrosio said in a statement.

“It’s important to note that VEAC report recommends that four-wheel driving, trail bike and horse riding, mountain biking, bushwalking and camping should continue – something the government strongly supports.

“This investigation is about ensuring we achieve the most appropriate management arrangements to conserve, protect and enhance the natural and cultural values of the Wombat, Wellsford, Mount Cole and Pyrenees Range forests.”

D’Ambrosio was asked what she considers to be an appropriate yield from logging in the forests now commended for protection. She did not say.

Nor is it clear which decision, internally, will be made first between the creation of new parks or the extension of the regional forestry agreements in those same areas.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 26, 2019 as "Forest or the trees".

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Rick Morton
is The Saturday Paper’s senior reporter.

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