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Opinion: Bairnsdale Advertiser – East Gippsland Council’s insipid response to native forestry

East Gippsland Shire councillors

East Gippsland Shire Council has turned its back on the municipality’s important native forest industry with its insipid response to the Andrews Government’s plan to phase out the industry by 2030.

The council partnered Wellington Shire in commissioning a consultant’s study that showed the native forest industry still has a huge regional economic impact. It is worth more than $400 million to the local community in direct and value-added production, and directly and indirectly employs 1785 people. This industry, and the jobs it creates are not easily replaced.

With these facts in hand, Wellington attacked the Government’s position and urged the retention of the industry. It has also challenged the Government to provide the scientific research that justifies the decision.

In contrast, East Gippsland, while acknowledging the industry’s significance and importance for regional identity, has meekly accepted the Government’s position. It talks of supporting pilot transition programs and promising that “no one is left behind” but has no clue as to what would replace forestry.

Yet it is only 17 months since the devastating bushfires of East Gippsland. The talk then was of supporting the economic regeneration of the region. In East Gippsland, that means support for the native timber industry.

This need has been underlined by the Covid crisis. Forestry, as a recognised emergency sector, has continued to operate despite the huge economic impact of the lockdowns. In contrast, tourism, an important regional industry, has been mauled during this period.

The Covid crisis has also brought recognition of the importance of local manufacturing. Timber imports have dropped significantly as international supply chains have been hit and international demand has taken away timber that normally would come to Australia. This has led to big timber price increases.

The council does not realise the dynamism of the local native forest industry. For example, Parkside, which owns timber centres in Orbost and Bairnsdale, is the largest timber processing company in Australia. Its acquisition of the Auswest assets in 2019 was a vote of confidence in East Gippsland’s forestry sector. Parkside has plans to upgrade the Orbost mill, whose products include prized timber for furniture and flooring, decking and outdoors,  and the highly popular natural feature grade.

Fenning Timbers has spent more than $60 million on its Bairnsdale sawmill since buying the business in 2000. The property in the past 20 years has been changing every year in some form. The Government’s paltry transition offers are an insult to the company.

Fennings also aims to build an intermodal freight terminal next to its processing centre to send its own and other East Gippsland products by rail to the Port of Melbourne and beyond. The project would act as a catalyst for regional economic growth and the establishment of new businesses while dramatically cutting the number of trucks using the Princes Highway to Melbourne and beyond.

The local native forestry industry also has a big role to play in managing bushfires, climate issues and threats to ecosystems. The industry, through VicForests, pays for forest roads that are not only used for timber harvesting, but also fire-fighting. The council itself acknowledged that timber workers have the skills, expertise and equipment to fight fires, but its suggestion that contractors could be retained in some way within the industry will go nowhere.

Active forestry management is an integral part of a sustainable native forestry sector. Properly organised cool fuel reduction burns and thinning reduce fuel loads that feed bushfires. One study shows that thinning forests to wider spacings can allow native tree species to survive a drying climate.

A properly organised native forest industry does not endanger any threatened species. Timber harvesting should be organised on a landscape basis and not be governed by short-term reactions to fauna sightings on a coupe-by-coupe basis as it currently is under Victorian Government policy.

The forestry science that governs timber harvesting in Victoria is sophisticated and draws on 250 years of theory and practice that originated in Europe. East Gippsland – and Victorian – forestry practices are certified for sustainable forestry management by PEFC (the Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification), which is the world’s leading forest certification body.

A sustainable forestry industry can be an important part of East Gippsland’s climate change strategy. As forests grow, they store carbon dioxide, which is retained in any forest product made from the trees. The trees are regrown, and the whole cycle starts again. Using more timber in construction and everyday products to fight climate change is recognised by groups as diverse as Planet Ark and the World Green Building Council.

East Gippsland and Wellington Shires together form an important timber hub, home to innovative companies that make Gippsland one of Australia’s leading forestry regions.

East Gippsland Shire Council needs to recast its position and support the industry for its economic, social and environmental importance.