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Vic Gov’t ignores forestry contractors in favour of construction companies

Victorian Government bureaucrats are handing out contracts worth between $100,000 and $461,200 to civil construction companies to clear strategic fuel breaks, rather than using out-of-work VicForests harvest & haulage contractors. Source: The Weekly Times

Twenty-five of VicForests’ 27 harvest and haulage crews are already receiving stand-down payments from VicForests, worth anywhere from 67% to 90% of their contracted amount, after last November’s Supreme Court ruling locked them out of the state’s native forests.

But rather than using those crews to build strategic fire breaks, the Department of Environment, Energy and Climate Action is awarding limited taxpayer funds to civil construction companies.

The Buying Victoria website shows DEECA (previously DELWP) has awarded 14 contracts, worth a total $2.5 million, to mainly civil construction companies, to build strategic fire breaks in forests and along roads, from Gippsland to the Upper Murray River catchment.

Just last month DEECA released another request for tender (T2023-0006) to clear 20m-wide fire breaks on either side of 8.1km of road in forests north of Woodside in Gippsland.

Australian Forest Contractors Association general manager Carlie Porteous said the lobby group had “raised concerns with the Victorian Labor Government as early as February 2021 regarding the use of non-forestry contractors completing land-based activities”.

“We have been made aware on numerous occasions that, not only are experienced forestry contractors overlooked, but Victorians themselves. In some instances, work is being awarded to contracting businesses in other states.”

But a Government spokesman rejected the claim, stating “numerous forest contractors have been engaged to deliver strategic fuel breaks, including those that also undertake work for VicForests” and “forest contractors are actively engaged across DEECA’s land and fire management programs”.

Yet the Buying Victoria website shows contracts are not being awarded to VicForests crews, who are reporting that without work they are losing highly skilled crews to other industries.

Oddly, Forest Fire Management Victoria, which sits within DEECA, is desperate to retain the skills and machinery of harvest and haulage contractors who have been called on to help fight every major fire, build emergency fuel breaks, and clear roads of fallen timber and dangerous standing trees.

Orbost forestry consultant Garry Squires said the government was way behind in delivering strategic fuel breaks and should be using out-of-work harvest and haulage crews to get back on track.

“Basically, you have contractors on 70% to 90% of what they would have earned, sitting at home,” Mr Squires said. “The government should say ‘how about we take you all up to 100% to catch up on our strategic fire breaks?’.”

One government insider said the relationship between DEECA and VicForests was “so toxic” no agreement to engage harvest and haulage contractors to build breaks would go anywhere.