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Forestry operations under microscope

The controversy surrounding the harvesting of a coupe at a traditional timber town, Noojee in West Gippsland, highlights the issues facing the native forest industry. By Philip Hopkins for Timberbiz.

A full hearing of the Federal Court, likely in February, will hear a claim by the Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum (FLP).  FLP maintains that VicForests’ operations in the Noojee coupe are not in accordance with the Regional Forest Agreement and have not fully complied with state-based regulation.

Four coupes in the Central Highlands closer to Melbourne are also part of the same claim. VicForests is confident that its operations are compliant.

The Leadbeater’s Possum is officially classed as critically endangered. FLP maintains the possum’s existence is threated by the timber industry.

A social impact study by VicForests sets out the issues. Noojee, a town of 160 people, is 38 kilometres north of Warragul and 129km east of Melbourne.

Noojee began its life in the 1860s as a gold mining and native forest logging town. At one stage in the 1930s, there were more than 30 sawmills in the immediate district, with Noojee’s population about 400.

The town’s fortunes have been shaped by wild bushfires, having been almost completely destroyed by bushfires in 1926 and 1939, and severely threatened in 1983.

“Noojee has therefore had a long and deep connection with forestry – evident in the historic sites, museum and heritage features in and around the town,” according to the VicForests study.

Over the years, however, the industry has declined as mills were destroyed, closed down or consolidated into more efficient businesses.

Today, only one log and timber processing operation remains, AG Brown – a fifth generation company with seven of the current 55 staff members of the Brown family.

About 75% of the 1800 cubic metres of timber the sawmill processes each month produces high quality furniture, flooring, staircases and decking.

The owner, Graeme Brown, maintains that due to the unique length of the Highland Oak (Mountain Ash) timber, there is no other sawmill in Australia that can produce the same high quality product.

The remaining 25% of the timber is used in structural timber, firewood, pallets, woodchips, wood savings and sawdust.

AG Brown is spread over three sites, with only two Noojee residents working at their Noojee branch out of a staff of 20. Most of the workers commute from other parts of West Gippsland.

Staff from a well-furbished government office in Noojee, where VicForests is located, also commute from outside the town.

Today, hospitality and tourism are the main economic mainstay of the town, with visitors drawn to the area by the beauty of the forest, rivers, and the timber and railway heritage.

Noojee’s population has declined from 261 in 2006 to about 157 in 2016, when there were 36 families in Noojee.

“Locals suggest that elderly permanent residents are slowly being replaced by semi-permanent ‘weekenders’,” according to the VicForests study.

“Some note that most permanent and semi-permanent residents are people seeking a change in lifestyle by moving to a forested rural area, or ‘tree-changers’.”

A few of these residents, many of whom come from Melbourne, are part of the claim in the Federal Court.