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Opinion: Mark Poynter – VicForests’ latest failed bid for FSC certification deserves deeper scrutiny

Mark Poynter

The recent announcement of VicForests’ latest failed attempt to attain FSC Controlled Wood certification yet again spawned public recriminations that irrationally equate Victorian native forest timber production with corrupt, illegal, poorly regulated and unsustainable practices that are apparently not uncommon in the rainforests of our Asia-Pacific neighbours.

The tropical rainforests of Indonesia are a long way from and are vastly different to the drier eucalypt forests of Victoria and south-eastern Australia. However, it is instructive to compare VicForests’ non-FSC certification with the FSC certification of Jakarta-based company, PT Wijaya Sentosa, which draws hardwood logs from rainforests in the province of West Papua for processing into plywood and decking. Australian hardware retailer, Bunnings, is the major purchaser of its merbau decking products.

Since 2016, PT Wijaya Sentosa has been FSC certified to harvest lowland rainforests within a 130,755-hectare concession area at Wondama Bay. It harvests in accordance with the Indonesian Selective Logging silvicultural system which removes trees of commercial species that exceed 40 cm in diameter. The company’s certification is conditional on this harvesting complying with the ‘Reduced Impact Logging’ (RIL) system.

According to the International Tropical Timber Organisation (the ITTO), ‘Reduced Impact Logging’ involves “intensively planned and carefully controlled operations to minimize environmental impacts”.

This is achieved through practical measures, such as: pre-harvest inventory and mapping; pre-harvest planning of road, extraction track and landing locations to protect waterways; construction of harvesting coupe infrastructure using environmentally-friendly design principles; directional tree felling; low stumps to reduce waste; optimal log cross-cutting to maximize wood recovery; use of ground protection systems to minimise soil disturbance; and post-harvest coupe monitoring to evaluate environmental performance.

While ‘Reduced Impact Logging’ is widely acknowledged as a substantial improvement on the past ‘conventional logging’ of tropical forests, it essentially represents what has been standard practice for decades in SE Australian eucalypt forests, at least since the introduction of formal Forest Practices Codes in the late 1980s.

Forests cover 90% of West Papua’s land area, and their importance was formally recognised by the provincial government in 2015 when it declared that the region would be a ‘Conservation Province’. Amongst other things, this committed the province to an 80% reduction in the rate of deforestation; to 50% of forests being managed sustainably within 20-years; and to the protection of at least 80% of important habitats and 50% of all ecosystem types.

However, while conservation policy is advancing quickly in West Papua, the on-ground reality remains problematic given the endemic poverty of its inhabitants and the consequent need for economic development. In the face of such development, the inadequacy of regulatory enforcement to safeguard conservation commitments is exemplified by recent major policy breaches, such as massive deforestation for palm oil development in 2018, including in a protected area; and 30,000 hectares of West Papuan forest cleared and burnt by a palm oil company from 2013 – 16 in contravention of laws that prohibit burning as a means of clearing land. Such uncontrolled incursions are likely to continue given that the country’s conservation management is under-resourced and poorly staffed.

By comparison, VicForests operates within just a minor portion of a state-owned forested landscape in which 94% of the tree cover is either formally or informally reserved for conservation or is incidentally reserved by being unsuitable or inaccessible for commercial use. Within these forests there is no deforestation and virtually no serious breaching of laws that protect parks and reserves from commercial use.

This comparison is not intended to question the validity of PT Wijaya Sentosa’s FSC certification. There are clearly benefits in certifying operations in a tropical forestry concession to set an appropriate regional benchmark that encourages wider regional adoption of improved practices.

However, such a comparison does raise questions about why forestry practices in the vast majority of SE Australia’s native forests have – despite repeated attempts – been unable to attain FSC certification given over 30 years of using similar ‘reduced impact’ harvest planning and management practices; the restriction of timber production to a much smaller portion of forested landscapes that are already overwhelmingly set aside for biodiversity conservation; a comparatively drier and more stable operating environment with less potential for serious soil and water degradation; and a far stronger regulatory framework that is rarely, if ever, breached.

There is a point of difference in the more intensive harvesting systems generally employed in SE Australian eucalypt forests compared to this West Papuan rainforest example. However, FSC has in the past certified intensive clearfell harvesting in Canadian boreal forests where it is accepted to be the most appropriate silvicultural technique, as it is in SE Australia’s ash-type forests. Nevertheless, over at least five years of striving for FSC certification, VicForests has modified its clearfall harvesting system into a ‘variable retention system’ that is more environmentally-friendly but is significantly reducing the volume of wood that can be harvested from an already limited available resource.

In any case, the latest FSC audit of VicForests’ operations made it clear that the agency’s failure to attain Controlled Wood certification is largely due to far more pedantic concerns revolving around supposedly insufficient transparency, engagement and collaboration with environmental groups, citizen scientists, and the broader scientific community. These environmental stakeholders are constantly registering concerns about VicForests operations primarily as part of an obvious and uncompromising agenda to end native forest timber production, with some also mounting legal challenges designed to achieve that end.

The FSC auditors seem oblivious to this anti-logging agenda and the impossibility of ever overcoming it through open dialogue, as exemplified by the forced cancellation of a recent VicForests’ community meeting due to threats and intimidation by environmental activist ‘stakeholders’. Some leaders of uncompromising activist stakeholders are even FSC Australia board members, and three were recently stood down for signing an open letter calling for an end to native forest timber production in Victoria. One subsequently resigned, but the other two were eventually reinstated in spite of justifiable concerns by FSC International about the incongruity of an entity which strives to improve industry practices being guided by local directors hell-bent on industry destruction.

Other inadequacies raised by the latest FSC audit, were:

  • VicForests’ unsatisfactory treatment of old growth forests; and
  • many incidences where ‘citizen scientists’ find threatened species on coupes where VicForests’ pre-harvest surveys have found nothing. The former should not be a significant issue because the state’s old growth forests are already reserved, with VicForests dealing only with occasional small groups or individual old trees (as distinct from ‘forests’) that are generally protected by management prescription.

While the latter relies on claims by activist wildlife surveyors potentially reporting animal detections to advance an agenda, and in any case could only ever be rectified by VicForests engaging in cost-prohibitive levels of pre-harvest surveying.

Overall, the FSC audit process seems to ignore the wider perspective of forest conservation and use that has already been achieved through state government land use policy and planning initiatives since the 1970s. This has progressively created the current situation where around 94% of Victoria’s 7.1 million hectares of public native forests are already excluded from commercial use. Because forest biodiversity is already being overwhelming conserved in this large majority area, the small portion of Victorian forest being sustainably managed primarily for timber has never been meant to provide almost equivalent conservation benefits to the extent that the FSC and its ‘environmental stakeholders’ are demanding.

Accordingly, despite at least 10 years of trying, very little Australian native forest has been FSC certified. In SE Australia, this amounts to just a few small private forests in NSW, one in Victoria, and one in Tasmania. Meanwhile, the alternative Responsible Wood standard (formerly the Australian Forestry Standard) developed in accordance with the PEFC – the world’s largest forest certification program – has certified hundreds of thousands of hectares of publicly-owned native forests in SE Australia. Arguably this is because the PEFC standard takes account of the level of biodiversity conservation being already achieved outside designated wood production zones, and more appropriately recognises that the primary role of commercial forestry agencies is to sustainably supply logs to industry from these zones rather than to manage them as wildlife preserves.

Over the past decade, millions of dollars have been spent by Australian public forest management agencies on multiple failed attempts to attain FSC certification. However, in the karri forests of south western WA, these efforts finally bore fruit late last year when FSC certification was awarded to the WA Forest Products Commission.

According to the rhetoric of its ‘environmental stakeholders’, FSC is the only acceptable commercial forestry standard. The natural presumption is that its attainment by native forest timber producers would effectively end anti-logging campaigns. Yet in WA, almost a year after the karri forests were FSC certified, the state’s leading forest activist group has not even acknowledged it and continues campaigning to end native hardwood timber production.

Forest certification has unquestionably been a positive force in developing countries with weak regulatory capability. However, in Australia’s public native forests, it seems that getting the FSC’s tick of approval is disproportionately difficult given the comparatively lower environmental threat, and even if attained, is unlikely to curb the incessant public misrepresentations by ‘environmental stakeholders’ that have for several decades undermined the timber industry’s community standing.

Mark Poynter is a professional forester with over 40 years’ experience, and is a Fellow of the Institute of Foresters of Australia.