Timber transition plan slammed

Philip Hopkins

THE state government’s $240 million timber transition plan has been labelled “a sham” by The Nationals Member for Morwell, Martin Cameron, after it was confirmed just 4000 of a promised 30 million trees had been planted.

Under questioning in a Public Accounts and Estimates Committee (PAEC) hearing last week by The Nationals MP and Member for Gippsland South, Danny O’Brien, it was revealed that just 0.013 per cent of trees promised under the Gippsland Plantation Investment Program (GPIP) have been planted.

Mr Cameron said that at the current rate of 2000 trees per year, it would take 15,000 years to reach the 30 million target.

“It has been six years since the GPIP was announced as a way to expand the state’s timber supply, but the state government has failed dismally to deliver on its own promise,” he said.

“The GPIP – which was welcomed by the industry and region more broadly – became even more important when Labor disastrously decided to shut down the native timber industry, but it has sat on its hands for six years.”

Mr Cameron said the lack of planting and forward planning on Labor’s part was alarming and another snub for the hardworking people of Gippsland.

“The native hardwood sector should never have been shut down, but Labor has even failed when it comes to a replacement plantation sector,” he said.

GPIP, first announced in 2017, involves a state government agreement with Hancock Victorian Plantations to spend $120 million on new softwood (Radiata Pine) plantations. HVP will contribute a similar amount to acquire the lands, prepare the sites and plant and care for the trees. The program operates alongside a farm forestry initiative led by VicForests.

The formal contract to plant the trees was only awarded to HVP last September, after repeated delays exacerbated by the constant turnover of agriculture ministers – five in seven years, the Weekly Times reported.

During last week’s PASEC hearings, Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action bureaucrats responded to Mr O’Brien’s questions on HVP’s efforts, by stating just 4000 trees had been planted to date, the Weekly Times reported.

DEECA’S Acting Deputy Secretary, Forestry Transition, Phoung Tram, said HVP was continuing to work closely with Traditional Owners to address cultural heritage matters, so planting cold be accelerated in 2024.

An HVP spokeswoman confirmed planting had only begun the past winter and it would take 10 years to complete the contract to establish 14,000 hectares of softwood forestry plantations.

“Typically, timber grows well on land which has less productive farm value, and this is where the focus will be. Freehold land purchase, leasehold arrangements and farm forestry arrangements are all eligible approaches to plantation development under the agreement,” she said.

“It does not make commercial sense to acquire prime agricultural land for timber production. The usual due diligence of any site entering the program takes into consideration environmental, cultural heritage, safety, and legal aspects.”

GPIP requires HVP to establish about 14,450 hectares of new pine softwood forestry plantations over the next 10 years. The 14,450ha will be acquired between 2022 and 2029. At least 80 per cent of the land will be bought in Gippsland.

Land purchases must be acquired across a large geographical area and not be concentrated in just a few local government areas. GPIP also has restrictions on acquisitions within the Macalister Irrigation District and Murray Darling Basin Catchment Area.

HVP calculates that 14,450ha means that 16 million more trees will be planted – a 15 per cent increase in HVP’s plantation estate in Gippsland. All trees planted will be sourced from HVP’s expanded Gelliondale nursery near Yarram.

The new plantations will supply Opal’s Australian Paper Mill at Maryvale from 2037. The GPIP commitment is to supply pulp log to Opal for 14 years until 2050. The pulp log will be supplied from thinnings and residue at final harvest. The new plantations will also produce saw logs that will be available to local sawmills about 25 years after they have been planted.