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VicForests hits back

Recent discussion in The Age (“Axe VicForests or chop off the public money”, May 29) has provided a simplified overview of the challenges facing our native timber industry. Source: The Canberra Times, David Walsh author

We have a native timber industry because we need to source native hardwood.

Almost all of us use hardwood timber products in some shape or form every day. It might be the floor we stand on, the furniture we sit on, the house we live in or the paper we write or print on.

It’s a beautiful, natural and renewable product that is highly sought after locally and internationally.

With the population of Melbourne estimated to grow to the size of London over the next 30 to 40 years, the demand for renewable materials will continue to increase.

To ensure we can supply this timber, the state government established VicForests in 2004 to manage the sale, harvesting and regrowing of timber from just 6% of our native forests.

Talk of subsidies is grist for the mill but it’s wrong.

The Victorian Auditor-General made this point clear in a 2013 report, which specifically stated “VicForests does not receive any government subsidies”.

Our business model is typical of a state-owned entity managing an asset on behalf of government and seeks to replicate elements of the private sector.

We have an independent board, operate a market-based timber sales system, we pay tax and publicly report our financial results.

Our shareholder is the state government, which contributes the asset it owns – trees.

Our role is to be commercially prudent but to also balance environmental, social and economic values, ensuring long-term economic returns to the state.

No one wants to see our native forests exploited for short-term profit.

We don’t pay rates, but we face a raft of other constraints and additional costs to achieve a balance between competing values.

We don’t simply farm trees. Our operations manage different values including the protection of native flora and fauna, water and the future health of our forests.

What’s not often well understood is that we grow back the same mix of species on every site after harvesting to ensure the forest returns for future generations.

And while we contribute financial dividends to the state from our profits, we also provide other, non-financial, dividends and benefits to the broader community through local manufacturing and value adding.

VicForests has generated $1 billion in timber sales over the past 10 years. The majority of this money is reinvested back into regional communities through contracts with local businesses and stimulating economic activity.

While plantations play an important role in our timber industry, our main competition is the $4 billion worth of wood and wood products imported into Australia each year – much from the tropical rainforests of developing nations.

There are no local large-scale plantations supplying the high-quality hardwood timber used to make products such as flooring, furniture, cabinetry or windows and doorframes. And for good reason.

The timber needed to make these products takes long periods to develop the strength and appearance properties required.

There aren’t many investors prepared to wait 60 to 120 years for a return on their money as well as living with the risk of bushfire or disease wiping out their resource.

Plantations also require fertile soil and good rainfall levels – exactly the same sort of land needed to provide food for our expanding population.

There are challenges ahead and discussion about the role of VicForests’ business is healthy. But let’s not be under any illusions – calls to axe VicForests are calls to kill off our native timber industry.

This leads to the fundamental question: how do we meet our increasing demand for timber?

We can shut down a proven, established and important industry in Victoria, lose thousands of jobs and place even more pressure on the forests of developing nations to meet our timber needs.

Or we can supply this timber from our own, responsibly managed state forests and support our local industry.

When you look at the equation at its most basic level the choice seems fairly obvious. David Walsh is the manager of corporate communications at VicForests.