Timber closure leaving impact

Timber towns such as Heyfield are counting down the days until the state government's decision to end native timber harvesting is reached at the end of the year. Photo: File

Philip Hopkins

THE closure of Gippsland’s native forest industry will be economically and socially devastating for many towns, breaking the deep symbiosis between these communities and the native sector, according to Timber Towns Victoria (TTV).

TTV, in a position paper, said the state government’s original decision to phase out native timber harvesting by 2030 was difficult for communities to understand and harder to adapt.

“The dismantling of that undertaking with a closure date of 1 January, 2024 makes adaptation almost impossible. The acceleration means a ‘normal’ and orderly transition is unachievable, the financial and emotional stresses…dramatically compounded” said TTV president, Cr Karen Stephens.

“For many timber towns, the people and the businesses in them, the consequences of the closure of native forests will be devastating. Their livelihood and lifeblood is being ripped from them, with the risk some towns will decline.”

Wellington Shire, Latrobe City and the Shires of East Gippsland and Baw Baw are four of the 12-member municipalities that make up TTV. The others are Ballarat, Colac-Otway, Gannawarra, Glenelg, Golden Plains, Moorabool, Moyne and Pyrenees, where plantations are dominant.

“The deep symbiosis between these communities and the timber industry cannot be overstated. Fire fighting efforts, for instance, are heavily dependent on the resources and expertise provided by the industry. Communities will lose their primary fire fighting capability: the industry’s workforce and its equipment, knowledge and commitment,” TTV said.

“The earnings from these towns are often reinvested locally, significantly bolstering their community’s social and economic vitality. Additionally, these communities have a profound connection with their forests, which provide them with a plethora of social, conservation and recreational benefits.”

Job losses are expected to be substantial, with about 2650 jobs (both direct and indirect) slated to disappear based on independent 2021 TTV modelling. TTV said regional economic output was likely to decline by about $714 million. Far beyond its role as supplier of timber for housing, flooring, furniture and other products – sawmilling operations maintain community assets like piers and bridges – the closure of native forest harvesting would have other impacts:

-Loss of tens of thousands of cubic metres of clean, dry, bacteria-free sawdust for bedding used by the broiler industry likely to be replaced by products with bio-security implications;

-Loss of residual forest material to provide biomass heating to regional hospitals;

-Loss of access to sustainably harvested firewood, with increased illegal firewood theft;

-Loss of renewable heat energy sources from biomass to provide heat for protective cropping hot houses for horticulture;

-Loss of generational knowledge of regenerative timber harvesting and native vegetation/land management;

-Loss of connection with the bush. Foresters know the bush and care for it as they have done so for many generations, and;

-Road maintenance may be deeply problematic in the future, as native forest royalty payments have historically funded roads.

TTV said these job losses would lead to broader socio-economic upheaval. It would spread to community services indirectly tied to the industry, such as transport support services, rest stops, motels as well as other manufacturing businesses.

“Community health care and schooling will suffer. Declining school numbers may lead to consolidations or closures, and reduced health care support will complicate community health management,” TTV said.

“Similarly, the sustainability of sporting and community groups will be threatened. Further, the tourism, hospitality and accommodation sectors face the risk of reduced patronage and a limited workforce. A decrease in volunteerism for crucial community safety roles is also expected.”

TTV said timber towns had no choice but to embrace plantation forestry, either broadacre or integrated with other farm activities for their economic foundation. The government should ensure legislative and regulatory support for plantations, an ‘as of right’ access to existing and future plantations, their harvesting, with the option to replant when commercially viable.

Needed is “state taxation and fee concessions, including foregone rate support to councils, to encourage further plantation establishment”.

TTV emphasised the need for comprehensive and ongoing state-funded programs for effective fire risk management and firefighting capabilities after the loss of the towns’ primary fire-fighting capabilities. The maintenance of road and rail networks was also crucial for sustaining communities.

“Relying solely on tourism is not sustainable for the future of all timber towns. Communities should place greater value on land management and the interface between land use and manufacturing, including food production, packaging and transport services, to create a more diverse economic base,” TTV said.

“Timber towns should focus on improving digital infrastructure to become future digital work hubs, as location need not be a barrier, and regional Victoria can offer great places to live and work.”