Minister on future of timber in Gippsland: ‘More to say shortly’

Victorian Agriculture Minister Mary-Anne Thomas, pictured touring Heyfield's Australian Sustainable Hardwoods manufacturing facility with managing director Vince Hurley last Wednesday, will have "more to say shortly" to timber workers and their families about plantation in Victoria. Photo: Sarah Luke

Sarah Luke

IT seems the state government will have “more to say shortly” on a range of questions timber workers and their families have been waiting to hear answered since the state government announced in 2019 it would close the native timber industry by 2030.
Several concerns, including why the government will not provide the science the decision was based on, and whether there is even enough plantation in the ground to transition to, have mostly gone unaddressed, but Ms Thomas hinted at an imminent announcement last week during her visit to Heyfield’s Australian Sustainable Hardwoods manufacturing facility.
Agriculture Minister Mary-Anne Thomas said the government was committed to a “strong, vibrant timber industry”, but added it would be a plantation-based future.
“When the Victorian Forestry Plan was announced in 2019, we made a commitment to set aside $110 million for the Gippsland Plantation Program,” she said.
“Now that program went to market in October, we have received a lot of interest in the program, and are currently working with six international investors.
“I look forward to having more to say about this program very soon, but I will say this — there is a lot of interest with some big global companies in really expanding our plantation footprint here in Victoria.”
The $110 million was re-announced in 2019 as part of the forestry plan, after the state government pledged the money in the 2017 budget to establish plantations in the Latrobe Valley.
The minister was unable to answer the Gippsland Times’ questions on how many hectares of plantation the state government had planted over the past few years.
“We have some plantation timbers in the ground, we’re certainly working to develop up our nurseries, but the real game changer here will be the Gippsland Plantation Investment plan, and I’ll have more to say on that shortly,” she said.
When prompted again on specific hectares, Ms Thomas cited a number of constraints to planting the number of trees the government would like to see planted, including the global pandemic and the 2019-20 bushfires.
“Despite these setbacks, we’re well on the way to landing some really exciting announcements as a result of the Gippsland Plantation Investment program,” she said.
The minister’s staffers were able to confirm 500 hectares have been planted since 2018 on ground that was previously plantation.
Ms Thomas also had “more to say shortly” again when asked to confirm the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee’s finding no plantation timber would be planted before winter 2022.
When the Gippsland Times asked why the state government won’t release the science behind the decision to close the native timber industry, the minister again said she would “have more to say on that shortly”.
“But I will say that the available native timber for harvesting has been in decline for many decades, and as a consequence, not only of bushfire but also environment protections that have been put in place, we are proactively working towards an orderly transition from native timber harvesting to plantation timber harvesting so we have a strong, vibrant timber industry here in Victoria,” she said.
The minister directed any line of questioning regarding the decision to use imported German timber for the Metro Tunnel project’s Anzac station instead of timber manufactured at Heyfield to the Victorian Rail Projects, but added 88 per cent of materials at the station had been sourced locally.
Last week, a line of questioning from Gippsland South MLA Danny O’Brien during a state parliament Public Accounts and Estimates Committee hearing revealed new plantations promised by the state government in 2017 won’t be in the ground until winter 2022.
“This $110 million has been sitting in a bank vault somewhere doing nothing while the government continues to drag its feet,” Mr O’Brien said.
“Questions asked to the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions last week highlighted that a market-led process that began last year is still not complete, and there will be no new plantations until winter of 2022.
“That will be a full five years after the government fist allocated this money and way too late to assist with the government’s so-called transition out of native hardwood harvesting.”