VicForests ‘hamstrung’

Philip Hopkins

AS VicForests begins a new role as a plantation developer, a senior forestry expert and consultant claims it has been hampered by government operational restrictions and malicious media attacks.

Gary Featherston, registered to assess both Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification and Forest Stewardship Council certification systems, was part of the founding team that set up VicForests in 2004.

The aim was to replace the previous regime, where sawmills received long-term licences for timber with a system where mills had to bid for timber in a competitive market.

“It was in response to the late 1990s national forestry policy that recommended the harvesting part of forests be separated from the conservation land management side,” Mr Featherston said.

The states took different models: Tasmania and New South Wales kept an integrated organisation, while Western Australia and Victoria split into two organisations.

Thus, VicForests was born to harvest and sell the timber and regenerate forest coupes.

“VicForests has operated commercially, but has always had one hand tied behind its back,” Mr Featherston said.

“The state government is the shareholder, but it will often not allow it to optimise its business.

“The auction system was set up to get more money through higher prices.

“They got the higher prices, then the timber industry went to the government and asked for concessions and got them.

“That made it a bit hard.”

Industry complained it could not afford the higher prices, but was desperate for wood because of the uncertainty of future supply.

“There is no point in paying a higher price if you have no security and sovereign risk, which has been borne out in recent times, with the debacle over the (Heyfield) ASH mill,” Mr Featherston said.

“People complain when VicForests is not making a lot of profit, but if VicForests made a lot of profit, people would complain they are ripping off their natural capital.”

In the public arena, Mr Featherston said the ABC had run a campaign against VicForests, with claims that were often blatantly untrue.

“VicForests can’t fight back, because a lot of the criticism would be criticism of government,” he said.

“If it was a proper corporation, it could defend itself, but because the shareholder is the Treasurer, he won’t let them speak out and he is ambivalent about whether they exist or not.

“It has a board, but it cannot act in the best interest of the organisation, because the shareholder has competing interests.”

Mr Featherston said all the claims against VicForests had been disproved.

“Yet the ABC continues to claim they were doing illegal logging, when it has proven they were not doing illegal logging,” he said.

“If that was any private organisation, they would defend themselves and become proactive and promote the good things they are doing, but VicForests can’t.

“It’s been a failure of public policy rather than a failure of the corporation.”

Mr Featherston said the government set a policy that VicForests should get FSC certification.

“But then they did the analysis, they couldn’t because a lot of the requirements for the standard are provided by DELWP, not VicForests,” he said.

“VicForests is just a glorified harvesting and regeneration contractor. They don’t own the land; they only manage it for five years then hand it back.

“To demonstrate sustainable management, you’ve got to have the landowner and the land manager involved. That’s the Crown and DELWP.

“They (VicForests) could only then go for Controlled Wood. The campaign against that has been successful. It has been a pretty sorry saga.”

Mr Featherston said he thought VicForests would have received the FSC Controlled Wood certification by now.

“In the last Controlled Wood audit, one finding is they had a pending court case, so they could not demonstrate legality,” he said.

“That’s guilty until proven innocent.

“The Greens can put in a false accusation and while there is an accusation standing, until it goes to court and it is resolved, VicForests can never prove legality.

“People will do that because they don’t want VicForests to get FSC, because they don’t want VicForests to exist.

“Technically they are doing everything right.

“They are trying to get away from clear felling – one of the sticking points.

“New South Wales does not do clear felling, but they haven’t got FSC either. They have got different trees and silviculture.”

Mr Featherston said VicForests had done everything right, but still could not be FSC certified because they were not an integrated body, not responsible for weed control, recreation or native title – “all the other things you have to do. DELWP is responsible for all that”.

“My suggestion was to get certified for the whole timber allocation area, but they decided only to get certified for the timber harvesting plan,” he said.

“It’s harder to demonstrate holistic management on a smaller area.

“Ideally, it should be the state of Victoria that gets certified because they are the owner of the land.

“The other irony is that national parks are not certified.”

Mr Featherston said VicForests now had to develop plantations to replace native forest.

“The government does not trust or support VicForests, but when it has a need to establish plantations, it calls on VicForests to do that work,” he said.

“It’s cleverer than creating another organisation, which they could have done.”