The state government’s $120 million plan to transition from native forestry to softwood plantations in Gippsland has been debunked by the workers at the coálface’ – the forest contractors. Source: Philip Hopkins for Timberbiz
“The plan does not add up,” said Carlie Porteous, the general manager of the Australian Forest Contractors Association. Under the government’s policy, Victorian taxpayers will fund a $120 million program that aims to plant 14,000 hectares of softwood plantations.
Hancock Victorian Plantations is to co-invest to buy, lease and manage the plantations as part of the transition the native forest industry into plantations by 2030.
Planting is meant to start next year, subject to approvals, and will continue for 10 years. Yet Ms Porteous said the Victorian government promised to spend $110 million for 50,000 ha of productive plantation estate.
“That means the Labor Government is spending $10 million more to deliver 36,000ha less than its original promise,” she said. “How does that make sense?”
Ms Porteous queried where the 14,000ha of plantations were going to come from.
“Farmland is Gippsland is currently selling for record high values of $33,000 per hectare, meaning it would cost half a billion dollars to purchase this land, provided you could find farmers willing to sell up,” she said.
Clarification was also needed about the government’s claim that the policy would support 2000 new and existing jobs.
“Planting of this estate will take a number of years so any employment benefits won’t be realised until at least 2035 when a small portion of the plantation estate will be available for thinning harvest, haulage and processing,” she said.
“In the meantime, forest contractors, their crews, sawmills and their workers as well as forest communities will be devastated.”
Traralgon forestry consultant John Cameron said finding high quality land for new plantations was problematic. The plantations had to be established on good sites that produced quality timber with minimum degrade.
“This means relatively deep soils with moderate to high rainfall to produce quality timber with minimum degrade. Marginal sites have proved unacceptable even with special silviculture. Special silviculture includes planting at relatively high initial stocking and early non-commercially thinning and pruning,” he said.
Despite Gippsland’s 1.23 million hectares of cleared farmland, Mr Cameron also pointed to the high cost of that land.
“Most of Gippsland’s dairy country is overpriced (overcapitalised) for plantations, and most of the sheep and cropping country is too dry,” he said. “Most Gippsland farmland is now mostly over-priced for plantation development.”
Regulatory impediments included planning restrictions, native vegetation clearing guidelines that prevent the removal of a few trees scattered trees and road construction restrictions.
Under the state government’s forestry plan, harvesting of Gippsland’s native forest will be halved in 2024 and fully closed in 2030. A consultant’s report for the federally funded Gippsland Forestry Hub found that more than one million hectares of land was suitable for plantations in Gippsland.
However, it warned that few plantations had been established on farms in the past. Despite positive cash flows, prefer not to have pine trees in their paddocks. Also, farmers are put off by complex regulations to plant and manage plantations, with little information available.
The report said the Andrews government’s policy to end native harvesting, despite a growing demand for timber, would reduce local processing capacity.