By Alex Messina, General Manager Corporate Affairs
Unfortunately, many VicForests’ staff and contractors missed your article, “Policy Doesn’t Hold Water”, - because they and their machines are on multiple Victorian fire grounds helping stop bushfires, the real massive threat to our water supplies.
Your item missed this dramatic and devastating link, which relegates to relative insignificance the very limited and, quite properly, tightly regulated catchment harvesting.
Let’s consider some context.
Over a decade, VicForests on average harvested around 132 hectares of Ash and 14 hectares of Mixed Species annually in the Thomson Catchment - the concern of Messrs Lindenmayer and Taylor. This is 0.3 per cent of the 44,000 hectares of forest in the catchment - nominally three trees in every 1000 harvested under rigorous regulation by the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning.
These regulations are monitored and audited independently by Melbourne Water. Neither authority is sounding an alarm.
The cited authors say harvesting since 1940 reduced the catchment water yield by nine per cent. But they seem to omit other expert research by Russell Mein, in 2008, which found that stopping harvesting in Victoria would see a marginal increase in water yield of three per cent over 30 years to 2050.
You also assert that VicForests makes a loss, despite the audited fact that over the past six years, VicForests has generated over $10 million in after-tax profits. We do that by harvesting 3000 hectares a year from the 7.1 million hectares of public native forest. Nominally, that is 0.04 per cent - or four trees in 10,000 - harvested sensitively, with respect to species and habitat and under onerous regulation and scrutiny.
That’s not to say we are complacent, and we believe we can improve our systems and practices.
Contrary to your claim that only 660 people are employed, our activity provides 2500 regional and rural jobs for families with mortgages, education costs, children to raise and business loans to pay. If you can look to the small eastern Victorian community of Orbost, you would notice that, locally, that means about 214 or one in 10 jobs – stopping harvesting would shred the town.
In Morwell, we help support a paper industry that employs 1400 people, or one in five jobs in that town. In total, including the revenues of our contractors and customers, we generate about $770 million each year in remote, rural and regional economies. In fact, Deloitte Access Economics found there would be a $5.2 billion negative impact over 10 years from 2016 if VicForests did not exist.
For the people who rely on us, it’s a big deal.
And there are no government grants, as you claim. The “grants” are offsets for foregone sales for allocated areas that VicForests does not harvest in order to protect species. These are openly outlined in our Annual Report each year, and we agree with this process of protecting habitat and species, and actively supporting government ecological objectives.
What’s clear is the most significant impact on native forests and water supply is catastrophic wildfire. In fact, in the decade or so after the 2002-03 bushfire, about three million hectares have been burnt across Victoria - equivalent to 1000 years of Victorian native timber harvesting.
VicForests is in furious agreement with the report’s authors on one area – harvesting in catchments must be intensively managed, and it is. It is, however, vital that when these issues are discussed that we allow readers and audiences to understand the full picture, not just a sliver.
By Alex Messina, General Manager Corporate Affairs
Surprise must have struck Sunday Age readers last week after innuendos, assertions and claims were fired at VicForests in these pages.
Certainly, reasonable belief would have been tested by apparent revelations that Victoria’s native forests sector – perhaps our most intensely regulated industry – was left unbridled to defile all manner of harvesting codes and provisions.
In fact, the native timber industry in Victoria makes a sustainable social and economic contribution through a record of compliance. VicForests harvests and regrows a renewable, carbon friendly product that is superior to the carbon footprints of alternate manufactured materials and of many imported timbers.
Victoria enjoys 7.9 million hectares of Crown land, of which 7.1 million hectares is State Forest, Parks and conservation reserves and other reserves.
About 94 per cent of this cannot be harvested; and of the 7.1 million hectares, in a year, VicForests harvests about 0.04 per cent or 3000 hectares – nominally equivalent to four trees in 10,000.
We calibrate this sustainably and regenerate and regrow areas on a 50 to 120-year cycle.
This is the factual base from which a few claim that VicForests is unleashing an environmental Armageddon.
Let’s consider briefly an alternative perspective.
VicForests is actively and heavily regulated, rightly so and as people would expect for an organisation that manages a public resource owned by all Victorians.
Last week, it was asserted that a current case against VicForests by the Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum is “based on” failures and breaches by VicForests.
In fact, it is “based on” on a second set of claims by FoLBP after their first set failed to pass a legal threshold to get to first base. We respect the court process and will defend our record.
One little-considered factor in the claims against native forestry is the questions of alternatives.
These timber resources are not easily substituted by plantations; especially the highly demanded appearance grade timbers produced from Victorian native forests.
Substituting imports carries its own impacts if, as is likely, wood is sourced from developing countries with less developed ecological controls.
VicForests is intensely aware of our responsibilities. We employ biodiversity experts who guide us in that responsibility.
We know our work protects and preserves habitat ranges.
Under strict regulations, we seek out habitats of the critically endangered Leadbeater’s possum. Where a colony is detected, we encircle it with the equivalent to six MCG fields, connect it to thousands of hectares of continuous forest and do not harvest nearby.
In East Gippsland, where the Greater Glider needs protection, if we find more than 10 in a one-kilometre line, we wrap a 100ha protection zone around the habitat.
In the Central Highlands, where regulation has not been completed, we voluntarily preserve Greater Glider habitat trees (unless they are unsafe), in some cases voluntarily retaining roughly 60 per cent of trees in a coupe and around 80 per cent of Glider habitat trees.
Beyond that, VicForests contributes to regional Victoria. We create 2500 direct jobs for real people in regional townships from Morwell to Orbost, and generate hundreds of millions of dollars in regional economic activity
In may not seem much on Collins Street, but livelihoods and communities depend on us.
Few who attack VicForests mention the impacts of alternative wood sources, or alternative materials, and how they will substitute for our social and economic contribution in Gippsland.
We all need to accept responsibility for answering the hard questions: if not native timber from Victoria, then from where, or what will substitute, and who will suffer?
Katherine Wilson’s assertion that smoke drifting into Melbourne from planned burns in Victoria’s central highlands is “mostly due to logging industry burnoffs” (Fires and fury, 12 May 2018) is incorrect. Ms Wilson did not present the facts completely.
In 2018, planned burns have been carried out on 50,700 hectares of Victorian forest, mostly in autumn. This includes just 1,600 hectares of timber harvest coupe burns, or about 3 percent of the total. Ms Wilson also made no attempt to quantify CFA authorised burns on private land, which may also have contributed. There is no argument that the recent smoke drift over Melbourne and the central highlands was thick and smelly, or that timber coupe controlled burns to regenerate new ash forest do produce some smoke, but the relativity is important. Fuel reduction burns in Victoria's state forests and national parks are necessary to increase community safety and, unfortunately, sometimes cause public inconvenience.
-Alex Messina, VicForests General Manager, Corporate Affairs
Each year Forest Fire Management Victoria (FFMVic) undertakes planned burns in Victoria’s forests, but focussing on the small percentage of burns done to help regrow the forest after VicForests’ timber harvesting operations (Planned burns a hazard, 11/4) is misleading.
The burns related to VicForests’ operations make up just 1.7% of the total area burned by across the State by FFMVic so far this year.
Regeneration burns are a critical part of regrowing the forest after timber harvesting as they create a seedbed that allows eucalypt seeds to germinate and grow.
Favourable weather conditions last week meant a large number of planned burns could be undertaken safely with regeneration burns only a small part of the overall burning program.
We understand the community’s concern about smoke but overemphasising the impact of regeneration burns is unhelpful.
An opinion piece in The Age (13/11/2017) ‘Mature trees at the root of forest fire management’ re-hashes claims that timber harvesting increases risk during a major bushfire.
A study undertaken by the University of Melbourne (Attiwill et al, 2013), in conjunction with scientists and specialists in fire management, found that there is no evidence from recent major bushfires in Victoria to suggest that younger forest burn with greater severity than older forest.
Findings from this study show that bushfires did not burn any more intensely in forests where timber harvesting takes place than they did in National Parks and reserves where there is no timber harvesting.
In fact, aerial imagery taken after the 2009 bushfires in Victoria shows that areas of young forest regrowing after timber harvesting were some of the only areas unburnt during the high-intensity stages of the wildfire.
The 2009 bushfires burnt under the most catastrophic conditions and this awful tragedy affected many communities and people.
More than 100 VicForests staff and contractors were involved in combating the 2009 fires, many of whom were recently recognised with the presentation of a National Emergency Medal.
Many of our staff are highly skilled fire managers and during a bushfire they are able to apply their experience and knowledge of the forest that they operate in every day.
VicForests harvests less than 0.05% of Victoria’s forests for timber each year.
We have an important responsibility to meet the high demand for locally sourced, sustainable native timber that plantations cannot meet alone.
As the population continues to grow, so does the demand for timber and wood products and without native timber harvesting in Australia we would add further pressure on developing nations to supply our timber needs.
We continue to work closely with all fire management agencies during the high risk fire season to help reduce the risk of another major bushfire occurring.
A letter in the Euroa Gazette (Taking hollows from forest, 30 November 2016) suggested that all of the timber coming from the current VicForests operation in the Strathbogies is going to firewood.
While it is true some of the timber will be used as firewood, timber from this operation will also be used to produce many other different types of wood products including quality flooring and furniture and structural products.
The timber that is derived from a log has various uses and different parts of the same tree is turned into a range of products.
Firewood is one example of how the timber from this site will be utilised in the local community. But higher grade wood from the Strathbogies is also being sought by mills across the State for the durable and beautiful timber products it makes.
Not all of this wood can come from plantations because they often contain different species and are not grown to produce higher quality logs.
The single-tree selection operation that VicForests is conducting in the Strathbogies will leave behind more trees than are taken with a focus on providing habitat for now and into the future.
The operation will ensure trees of various ages remain onsite so the area can again be available for timber harvesting at some point by the next generation.
An opinion piece in The Age yesterday (Native forests are worth more unlogged, so why are we still cutting them down?) repeated a number of often-raised inaccuracies about the native timber industry in Australia.
In particular, it dismissed the economic contribution of the industry and questioned the profitability of the Government agencies that manage timber resources including VicForests.
As we have pointed out previously, VicForests has posted combined profits of $20 million during the 11 years of our operations and have been profitable in all but three years during this time. In addition to this we expect to again post a profit for the 2015/16 year.
But the reality is, our operations are only a small part of the overall economic contribution made by the industry in Victoria.
A 2015 study by Deloitte Access Economics showed that harvesting operations from 1600 hectares of forest in the Central Highlands contributed almost $600 million to the Victorian economy.
Even more economic activity is generated through downstream processing of this timber by the manufacturing sector. The magnitude of these flow on effects dwarf any over inflated value that may be derived from hypothetical markets not accessible to VicForests.
We understand the focus on our finances and the viability of the industry but a balanced view would recognise that looking at only one component of a broader industry does not give readers a full understanding of the issue.
The Australian Forest Products Association has submitted a letter to The Age to provide an industry perspective following yesterday's article. Click here if you would like to read a copy of the AFPA letter.
People connect to trees and forests on an emotional level. Beyond the fundamental role they play in providing the air we breathe, forests are often viewed as the gateway to nature and we feel the need to protect them from threats both man-made and natural.
This emotional connection can led to misconceptions about our native timber industry and the important roles forests also play in meeting our demand for wood products.
Wood and wood products are very much connected to our everyday lives. They are a part of the homes we live in, the floors we walk on, the newspapers we read and many more products that we ultimately couldn’t live without.
A recent report by PwC questioned the value of the native timber industry in providing these products to Victorians.
The headlining claim of this report is that each native forestry job costs $5m. It is difficult to take this claim seriously when the authors of the report at no point made an attempt to contact anyone from the native timber industry in either the formulation or the conclusion of this report.
Even more surprising is the fact that the report looks at our industry through a key hole and only considers the jobs associated with ‘the cultivation of trees and forestry support services’. As a result, the regionally-based mills who process this timber are ignored despite being responsible for the majority of the employment and economic benefits provided by our industry.
Without these mills, and without the significant demand for our local timber, there would be no need to cultivate trees or engage forestry support services.
Another recently released study by Deloitte Access Economics looked at the primary processing of native timber as well as the forest-based activities and found that $573m of economic activity was generated in 2013/14 from VicForests timber harvesting operations in just one region of the State.
It can be easy to also forget how vital this industry is to the people living in small Victorian communities.
Further, according to Deloitte, this activity resulted in 2117 direct equivalent full time jobs from less than 0.3% of the public land in the Central Highlands Regional Forest Agreement area. We don’t generate this income, and provide this social benefit, indiscriminately. In any year, we harvest and regrow less than 0.1% (one thousandth) of Victoria’s forests.
We carry a serious responsibility to ensure the social sustainability of thousands of regional Victorians and their families who are directly employed by the industry. These regional families are the ones we read about in the city whose young people have less opportunities, and whose older people have fewer chances to reskill and transform.
It continues to be suggested that we can meet the demand for high quality local timber by moving to an entirely plantation based model. Expert studies looking at the reality of this ‘transition’ model have shown it is not straight forward and presents different challenges.
High quality sawlogs are grown over 60 to 80 years. Native timber could be cultivated over a shorter period of time but it would not be of as high quality and it would still take at least 40 years as there is no current established market.
A ‘rapid transition’ into plantations, meaning establishing hardwood plantations of timber that is not native to Australia, would still take 25 years before achieving any results.
More plantations also mean acquiring more land, which comes at a great cost to the agriculture and farming industries.
The only other immediate alternative is to replace our local hardwoods with imported wood from South-East Asia, where sustainable harvesting may be in a completely different league.
Our focus remains on the long term economic returns to Victoria that include maintaining thousands of regional jobs and the associated businesses that generate hundreds of millions of revenue dollars annually. We agree it would be great to further improve the industry’s profitability, but not at the expense of the future sustainability of our forests.
But profitability aside, we need timber as a fundamental part of a long-term renewable economy.
We believe it is far better to source timber from our sustainably managed local forests than to push the pressure to meet our demand for wood onto developing nations.
August 2014 marks ten years since the Victorian Government created VicForests to manage the sale, harvesting and regrowing of timber from just 6% of Victoria's native forests.
While there is often not a lot of time available to us for reflection, there is much to celebrate and recognise about the work done during the last decade.
Ten years is an important milestone for our business and the timber industry, and is one which follows a period where we have had to adapt our practices and implement significant changes.
These changes include a number of important achievements for VicForests and the industry such as certification to the Australian Forestry Standard, substantially reducing the number of forestry workplace injuries and our contribution to firefighting efforts during a period of unprecedented wildfires in Victoria.
We have all faced major challenges – from bushfire to global economic conditions, increased competition and the need to dramatically re-assess the sustainable yield from our forests due to the impact of various events on the available timber resource.
Along with these difficulties we have also enjoyed the rewards which come from working with such a beautiful, natural resource.
VicForests is now Australia's largest supplier of native forest hardwood timber and, in this time we have generated over $1 billion in revenue.
But more importantly we have supported the employment of thousands of people in regional Victorian as well as in metropolitan Melbourne - a fact not lost on the Victorian Auditor General's Office who noted in its 2013 report that: "VicForests has demonstrated that it balances the need to operate profitably with the need to support industry and socio-economic sustainability".
Through all of this we have endured and we continue to have a native timber industry for one very good reason - we need to source native hardwood.
While it has been suggested by some activists that we can simply rely on our plantation estate to provide our timber, the reality is the different sources of timber complement each other, rather than compete.
The contribution we all make to strength of the economy is often overlooked in the noise that can surround our industry. And while the plantation sector and the native sector make compelling cases on their own, together the impact of our contribution is even more powerful.
In Victoria alone, the timber industry directly employs 21 000 people with tens of thousands more involved in downstream manufacturing and secondary processing jobs.
And while there remain some differences, there are many ways in which the practices of the plantation and native forest sectors of our industry are becoming more and more aligned.
The last ten years have presented challenges and opportunities, but even a quick glance forward highlights why we need to continue to play a vital role in the future.
The Victorian State Government recently released the ‘Victoria in Future 2014’ which provided some projections around the future population of Victoria including Greater Melbourne.
The figures are startling.
The report suggests Victoria’s population will grow to 10 million in the next 30 – 40 years with Melbourne to swell to size of London over the same period.
This poses all kinds of questions about how the city will look, how people will move about and where they will live. It also poses important questions about what they will live in with more than two million additional dwellings required to house our population by 2051.
People need houses and, crucially for our industry, they need timber products.
And our industry is perfectly placed to meet these needs from our responsibly managed forests and plantations which support local jobs and economies.
Wood remains the most environmentally friendly building material and as an industry we need to keep selling the virtues of what we do and the products we provide.
With technology advancements in the areas of cross-laminated timber, veneers and other engineered wood products it’s not hard to envisage a future where timber from the different parts of our industry is utilised to make a broader range of products through a combined value adding process.
It’s a great thought to picture the industry working even more closely together to supply as much of our local timber needs as possible from local sources.
VicForests is testament to the fact that a lot can change in ten years.
We look forward to the next ten and continuing to support you as we work together to supply a beautiful, natural and renewable product which has a vital role to play in a sustainable future for all of us.
Recent discussion (Axe VicForests or chop off the public money, 29/5) has provided an incorrect and simplified overview of the challenges facing our native timber industry.
But ironically, it has failed to grasp the most simple point of all - we have a native timber industry because we need to source native hardwood.
Whether we realise it or not, 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.
The world loves our unique native timber. And it’s not hard to see why. It’s a beautiful, natural and renewable product which is highly sought after locally and internationally.
With the population of Melbourne estimated to grow to the size of London over the next 30–40 years, the demand for renewable materials will continue to increase. People need houses and they need timber products.
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 who 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 the fact 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 last 10 years. The majority of this money is reinvested back into regional communities through contracts with local businesses and stimulating economic activity.
Rather than relying on biased, flawed and poorly researched reports we would point to the Auditor General’s comments from December last year:
VicForests balances the need to operate profitably with the need to support industry and socio-economic sustainability
The native forest timber industry is important to many regional communities, providing direct and indirect employment
It also generates opportunities for business and service providers, as well as demand for social infrastructure such as schools and medical facilities
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 like 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 – 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 that is 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.
As an industry we’re all too familiar with the knowledge that fire is an ever present threat in our forests.
This has been particularly evident over recent months with bushfires burning across Victoria on the back of the most extreme weather conditions we’ve seen since the horrific events of Black Saturday in 2009.
While the fires themselves have received widespread media coverage, what does not always make the headlines is the contribution made by forestry workers to the efforts to contain and control these fires.
Already this fire season, VicForests’ staff and contractors have been involved in fire fighting efforts across the State including fires in the Grampians, Frenchman's Creek/Matlock and East Gippsland.
The work done by this dedicated group of people is not always as eye catching as images of helicopters dropping water on fires from high up in the sky. However, as those of you who have been involved in fire fighting campaigns are well aware, it’s bulldozers and containment lines that are fundamental to stopping bushfires.
VicForests is a member of the Networked Emergency Organisation which includes the Department of Environment and Primary Industries, Parks Victoria and Melbourne Water.
Our staff and contracting force have been working alongside these organisations and others, including the CFA and Metropolitan Fire Brigade, providing specialised equipment and local knowledge that is invaluable to fire suppression efforts in Victoria.
The provision of harvesting machinery, familiarity with the bush, and the in-depth understanding of access roads and fuel loads make the contribution of our staff and contractors a key part of fire suppression.
As an industry we can all be proud that forestry workers provide this crucial support and without hesitation will stop their normal work to dedicate their resources to fire suppression, sometimes spending large amounts of time away from their families.
Some of our contractors working to contain the fires still burning in East Gippsland have not been home in weeks or been able to fulfill their normal work duties. But these individuals and businesses continue to commit themselves to protecting our forests and nearby local communities, no questions asked.
VicForests’ staff have undertaken a variety of tasks from on ground suppression roles such as division and sector commanders, crew leaders, crew members to Incident Management Team roles coordinating resources and analysing fire behaviour.
Another crucial part of the response to bushfire is determining what the impact has been on timber resources.
In some areas work has already begun to assess what effects the fires have had on the forests that sustain our industry. Thankfully the Ash forests so badly affected during Black Saturday have remained relatively unscathed so far this summer with the majority of fires burning in our mixed species forests.
While we expect there will be some impact on the areas available for timber production our hope this has been limited and will not significantly hinder future operations.
We will make more information about the impact of this year’s fires on our valuable forest resources available in the coming months once this assessment work has been completed.
While times of crisis are not times for chest beating, we should take great pride in contribution our industry makes in helping to keep communities safe from fires.
As I write the danger is not over as many of these fires continue to burn and conditions are still threatening in large parts of the State.
Thank you to all those involved so far in these fire fighting campaigns.
Please continue to look after yourselves, your colleagues and your communities, and know that the vital work you continue to do does not go unrecognised.
We know there has been ongoing discussion in some parts of the community regarding VicForests’ financial performance.
This is understandable and we believe it’s healthy to have an appropriate level of scrutiny around an organisation such as ours.
Some of you might be aware that the Victorian Auditor General’s Office recently went through a comprehensive audit process looking at VicForests’ operations and the management of native forest timber resources in Victoria.
This audit focussed heavily on VicForests’ finances and the socio-economic contribution the native timber industry makes in Victoria.
Some of the comments found in the Auditor General’s report address a number of claims which continue to be made about us and our industry.
I’d like to share some direct quotes from this report with you:
VicForests does not receive any government subsidies.
Since it was established in 2004, VicForests has made $13.5 million net profit after tax, returning a profit in all but three years.
Its profitability has been affected in particular by the 2006–07 and 2009 fires. VicForests paid dividends totalling $5.1 million in 2005–06 and 2006–07, and is proposing to pay $250 000 in 2013–14.
Although the government reimburses VicForests for the additional costs incurred by its fire salvage efforts – totalling $24.6 million between 2007 and 2011 – the fires led to the loss of future timber sale value – estimated as being worth $600 million in 2009.
These aren’t our words, they’re straight from the Auditor General’s report, but hopefully they are helpful in providing an independent view of these issues.
Regardless of this, we’re not out to maximise short term commercial profits. Our role is to act in a sustainable and commercially prudent manner while ensuring long-term economic returns to the State.
In performing this role, VicForests has directly injected more than $900 million into the Victorian economy over the last nine and a half years, generating economic activity across regional and metropolitan areas. This activity creates employment and stimulates billions of dollars worth of downstream timber processing – something that can’t be forgotten.
Our staff and contractors are part of this community and many others like it across eastern Victoria. In the words of the Auditor General:
The native forest timber industry is important to many regional communities, providing direct and indirect employment.
It also generates opportunities for business and service providers, as well as demand for social infrastructure such as schools and medical facilities.
A full copy of the Victorian Auditor General’s Report – Managing Victoria’s Native Timber Resources can be found on our website – www.vicforests.com.au
The Victorian forestry industry is one of the most vibrant in Australia and we’re committed to continuing to supply highly valued, unique timber – a renewable, recyclable and sustainable material used by all of us each and everyday.
Charismatic, shy and notoriously hard to find, the Leadbeater’s Possum was declared the faunal emblem of Victoria 43 years ago this month.
The tiny marsupial was thought to be extinct following the devastating Black Friday bushfires of 1939 which burnt vast areas of forest throughout central and north eastern Victoria.
But the species was discovered again in the 1960s and re-established itself before the 2009 Black Saturday fires had another significant impact on its habitat and population.
While fire remains the most significant threat to the Leadbeater’s Possum, much recent public discussion has centred on the timber industry, particularly on VicForests as we are responsible for sustainably harvesting and regrowing the areas of our forests available for timber production.
Based on recent commentary, people could be under the impression that all remaining Leadbeater’s Possum habitat is about to be cut down for timber.
But in reality, no prime habitat for the Leadbeater’s Possum will ever be harvested and two-thirds of the forest which is suitable as habitat for the species is totally off-limits to timber harvesting.
Large areas of Leadbeater’s Possum habitat are found in national parks and reserves across its 480,000 hectare range north-east of Melbourne. However, it’s not only this formal reserve system which contains protected habitat.
Our state forests – set aside in part for forestry purposes - include large areas reserved for conservation, including the protection of Leadbeater’s Possum habitat. Despite a third of the potential habitat for this fire sensitive species being burnt in 2009, the majority of suitable forest within the possum’s range remains unaffected.
A recent analysis found approximately 100,000 hectares of ash forest and other suitable forest types across the Leadbeater’s Possum’s range that are unburnt by recent bushfire and excluded from timber harvesting.
In 2013, the Victorian Government commissioned the Arthur Rylah Institute to undertake a population assessment using modern survey techniques.
This most recent survey work estimates there are between 3250 and 11 000 Possums in the wild, significantly higher than the figure of 500 which had been suggested at times post the 2009 fires.
Listening to some public comments on this issue the community could also easily be forgiven for thinking VicForests has no regard for future of this important species. However, this is simply not the case.
A critical part of our role is to ensure we protect areas of scientifically agreed potential habitat for the Leadbeater’s Possum that are found outside the reserve system.
Before harvesting operations begin, our trained foresters scour every area planned for harvest to identify a range of environmental values. A specific focus of this on-ground survey work is to identify potential habitat for the Leadbeater’s Possum.
Every time high quality potential habitat is found, it is excluded from harvesting and protected.
As well as protecting potential habitat, a three-hectare buffer is placed around the location of every Leadbeater’s Possum detected in the last 15 years. No timber harvesting takes place within these buffers to protect the colony.
While VicForests’ practices have been questioned in recent times, both the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal have found the detailed survey work we do prior to harvest ensures we comply with the measures in place to protect habitat for the Leadbeater’s Possum.
VicForests has also significantly changed its harvesting operations to take into account the effects of the recent fires.
The level of harvesting in the ash forests the Leadbeater’s Possum calls home has been reduced by more than 30 per cent since the 2009 bushfires and harvest levels in these forests are now at their lowest point in 20 years.
Harvest levels in our forests have almost halved since 2003/04, the year before VicForests was created, and further reductions are forecast over the next three years in direct response to the impact of these fires.
We have also been an active and committed part of the Leadbeater’s Possum Advisory Group, working with Government, industry and environmental advocates to find ways in which to assist with the recovery of the possum and help ensure its long term survival.
If there are further changes we can make that will assist the recovery of the possum while maintaining our sustainable timber industry, then we will make them.
While a high level of emotion rightly surrounds the issue of threatened species, it is clear that the most effective way to solve the challenges faced by the Leadbeater’s Possum is for all stakeholders to collaborate and work together.
There challenges are in front of all of us but VicForests firmly believes we can be part of a solution which creates a better future for Victoria’s faunal emblem.
The emotional rhetoric found in “Vic government timber business just chasing its tail” (05/03) completely ignores the primary purpose of VicForests – supplying timber.
The article uses an inaccurate and offensive analogy regarding the demolition of schools, displaying a lack of understanding of sustainable forest management.
Demand for local, naturally grown timber remains strong.
However, VicForests’ responsibility isn’t to maximise short term commercial profit but instead to balance environmental, social and economic values in a way that ensures long-term economic returns to the State.
We were established to create competitive neutrality through an open, market-based timber allocation model, paying tax and markets rates for capital. We face constraints and additional costs the private sector does not typically experience – it’s not a one way street.
Despite this, our net profit after tax was in the black last year in a subdued but improving trading environment and we have improved our working capital position by around $15 million since 2012.
All of this on the back of two major bushfires which have required a significant reduction of harvest levels.
Further improvement is expected after recent efforts to realign some of our fixed cost base – hard decisions made in the interest of longer term returns.
Importantly, VicForests has also directly injected more than $800 million into the Victorian economy over the last nine years, generating economic activity across regional and metropolitan areas.
Another key question ignored is how we meet our timber needs if we don’t utilise our own well-managed forests?
Contrary to some views, our main competition isn’t plantations, but the $4 billion worth of wood and wood products imported into Australia each year – much from the tropical rainforests of developing nations.
Not supplying timber locally would simply place more pressure on others not as well placed to manage their forests responsibly.
The article ‘VicForests in the middle of battle over possums and timber’ (Sunday, 23/2) raises a number of age-old questions about how we manage a small portion of State forest for timber production.
Any discussion around the challenges faced by the Leadbeater's Possum can't simply be ‘conservation versus jobs’.
Sustainable forest management globally is about balancing a range of social, economic and environmental values.
Demand for naturally grown timber is strong with our main competition not plantation timber but imported tropical wood, mostly from developing countries.
An Auditor General’s report tabled in parliament last year noted that our financial situation is sound and stated categorically that VicForests is not subsidised.
But more than that, VicForests has directly injected three quarters of a billion dollars into the Victorian economy over the last nine years, generating economic activity across both regional and metropolitan areas.
We also spend millions of dollars annually on maintaining forest roads, roads available to the public but which also provide access for vital activities including fire fighting.
Our staff and contracting force have used their specialised equipment and local knowledge in fighting bushfires across the State this year, from the Grampians fire through to the large scale fires still burning in East Gippsland.
Playing down the value of this important local industry threatens jobs but also ignores the fact we continue to modify our practices including significantly reducing harvest levels in response to large scale wildfires over the last decade.
Since VicForests recently announced it plans to reduce timber harvesting in Victoria’s Ash forests, Professor David Lindenmayer and some conservationists have repeated their understandable concern for the future of the Leadbeater’s Possum.
We acknowledge this concern, as it is one shared by VicForests.
But the continued focus on the impact of timber harvesting overlooks the key point - the major threat to the Leadbeater’s Possum and its habitat is not harvesting, but bushfire.
The 2009 bushfires burnt around 40% of the forest reserved specifically to provide habitat for the emblematic and endangered possum in Victoria’s Ash Forests.
And bushfire is indiscriminate. As Professor Lindenmayer points out, the Black Saturday fires burnt the equivalent of 60 years worth of timber harvesting overnight, with no regard for the protection of habitat for native species.
However, we are not indiscriminate. We harvest responsibly, and only in the areas where we are permitted to operate. We protect habitat as we go, and we carefully manage the harvested areas to ensure they regrow.
These facts are sometimes easily overlooked in the emotion which rightly surrounds threatened and endangered species.
So what has VicForests done in the face of concern from conservationists and the impacts of the bushfires?
A recent analysis has shown current harvest levels in Victoria’s Ash forests are lower than at any point in the last 20 years. The amount of Ash forest harvested in the last year is approximately half of that which was harvested in 2003/04, the year before VicForests was created.
But in addition to this, we go to painstaking lengths before we harvest to identify scientifically defined Leadbeater’s Possum habitat. Our trained foresters scour the bush. They seek out the best habitat for the Possum, the large old trees it uses for nesting and the wattle understory it needs as a food source.
We then exclude these areas from our operations, regardless of whether the Possum lives there or not, to ensure they are available as potential habitat.
These areas excluded from harvesting, when combined with the forest set aside in National Parks and conservation reserves, mean almost 100 000 hectares of Ash forest in the Leadbeater’s Possum’s broad habitat range is unburnt by recent fires and will never be harvested.
As Professor Lindenmayer correctly states, only a small proportion of our Ash forest is currently classified as old growth. We share his concerns around this issue but, importantly, the overwhelming cause of this is bushfire.
Professor Lindenmayer's comments have overlooked the fact that none of this old growth Ash forest is harvested by VicForests. None. VicForests assesses all areas prior to harvesting to identify Ash trees approaching the oldest stage of their growth cycle, and protects them.
Almost 95% of Victoria’s native forest is unavailable or unsuitable for timber production. This includes Ash forest and a range of other species which are left to become old growth over time – if not affected by bushfire.
All of this means the area harvested and regrown by VicForests in any year is less than 0.1% (one thousandth) of our total native forest.
And when faced by a challenge, we alter our plans to ensure continued sustainability. This includes significantly reducing the level of harvesting Ash forest following the 2009 bushfires.
As a responsible forest manager, VicForests is required to do this with balance.
We balance the concerns of conservationists, the danger to the possum and to other species. But we carry a duty that goes even further. We also balance the welfare and livelihood of an industry that employs 3000 Victorian workers. It sustains communities, bind families, and helps send children to schools and training.
Focusing on the small area harvested and regrown for timber production each year won’t solve the problems faced by the Leadbeater’s Possum.
The real challenge for all of us; conservationists, the forestry industry and Government is to work together.
Ensuring suitable habitat for Leadbeater’s Possum is enhanced in the 100 000 hectares of recently unburnt Ash forest which will never be harvested, including the areas in National Parks and conservation reserves, must be the start. And while there has been an immediate impact in the areas burnt by recent bushfires, these forests are not gone forever. As they recover and the wattle understory returns they will also become potential habitat for the Leadbeater’s Possum.
We look forward to the opportunity of meeting with Professor Lindenmayer so we can share our understanding and continue working towards solutions that deliver the multiple benefits that responsible forest management provides.
It was disappointing to read a story in The Age this week regarding VicForests’ financial performance.
The article was based on a report developed by the Australian Conservation Foundation on behalf of another conservation group who is publicly opposed to native timber harvesting operations.
The ACF report showed little understanding of our operations or our financial reporting, and it was astonishing we were not contacted at any point to provide the clarification clearly needed by the report’s authors to properly understand our business.
This lack of balance and lack of knowledge is reflected in the report’s summary which included recommendations regarding issues which were not even analysed.
While we recognise there has been a net cash outflow from our operations to date, this is something which is not uncommon for start up businesses.
However, these outgoings have played an important role in allowing us to deliver crucial elements of our remit including the creation of a competitive sales platform as part of the move to a Mill Door Sales model of business. This change in particular required working capital to fund inventory and accounts receivable.
The report neglects to mention VicForests’ profit and loss statements which show we have accumulated Earning before Interest and Tax of $17.5 million and recorded a Net Profit after Tax of $11.6 million since being created in 2004.
The report also chose to question VicForests’ valuation of its assets despite our organisation having its financial reporting audited by the Victorian Auditor General’s Office each year.
As many of you would be aware, a large volume of logs is kept in storage over winter to ensure a supply to customers during wetter months when limited harvesting takes place for environmental reasons. These storages are at their highest at the end of each Financial Year but then run down as deliveries are made to customers over winter.
We have also taken advantage of recent favourable conditions to build up stores of Eucalyptus seed. This seed is used to regrow the forest in harvested areas following our operations as well as being made available to the Department of Environment and Primary Industries to regenerate forests damaged by landscape fires.
The timber supplied from our operations ensures a sustainable hardwood timber industry is able to exist in Victoria.
In nine years we have delivered just under $1 billion worth of timber to domestic timber processors. Even using a conservative economic multiplier these operations have generated approximately $4 billion worth of much needed economic activity in regional Victoria.
The authors again chose to overlook these facts.
These operations also help to reduce Australia’s reliance on timber imported from developing nations to meet our growing demand for wood and wood products.
Times remain tough for a range of manufacturing industries in Victoria but we believe our operations and the native timber industry remain a key part of Victoria’s economy.
We look forward to continuing to provide much needed timber to our valuable and sustainable industry.