HARDWARE giant Bunnings' decision to discontinue sourcing timber from VicForests is being widely condemned in Gippsland, at a time when the region is reeling from the triple hit of drought, fires and COVID-19.
The decision follows a Federal Court ruling that the state government-owned forestry agency breached conservation laws in relation to the production of greater glider and Leadbeater's possum habitat. That decision will be appealed.
Bunnings merchandise director Phil Bishop said the company had a "zero-tolerance approach" to illegally logged timber for the past two decades.
"Our commitment is to only source timber products from legal and well-managed forest operations," he said.
"We have long supported VicForests' efforts to pursue FSC Controlled Wood certification by 2020 and its roadmap to get there.
"However, in light of the recent legal finding that VicForests has breached the Code of Practice for Timber Production 2014, we will be discontinuing all sourcing of timber from VicForests and will no longer be accepting raw material input into our supply chain from VicForests as of June 30.
"While we only sell a small portion of VicForests' total harvest, we acknowledge this decision may have an impact on the industry, and we are working closely with affected suppliers on a transition plan.
"Ultimately, we believe that customers and team members have the right to expect that the timber they purchase is sourced from responsible and lawful forestry operations."
VicForests said it was disappointed and deeply concerned by Bunnings' decision.
"This decision has put up to 170 regional jobs in jeopardy, many of which had already been impacted by this summer's disastrous bushfires, Coronavirus (COVID-19) and illegal protest action," it said in a statement.
Bunnings says its decision is based on the initial ruling of the Federal Court on the Friends of the Leadbeater's Possum case, but VicForests will appeal this verdict once final orders are issued by the court.
VicForests reiterated that its management of native timber harvesting, in conjunction with Victoria's strict environmental regulations, ensured that it met the highest standards of forest management.
"Bunnings' claim that it is "working closely with affected suppliers on a transition plan" is disingenuous, given their decision is effective immediately", VicForests' statement read.
Australian Forest Products Association chief executive Ross Hampton described Bunnings' decision as "short-sighted" and "a knee-jerk reaction to pander to extremist activist groups" that would lead to more imported timber from less sustainably-managed forests overseas.
"This decision puts at risk tens of thousands of Australian manufacturing jobs at a time when our country can least afford to lose them, especially in regional communities," he said.
Mr Hampton said he was disappointed that Bunnings had been "duped by anti-forestry disinformation campaigns that misrepresented the sustainability of Victoria's native hardwood timber industry", warning it would have the perverse consequence of driving more deforestation in South-East Asia.
"The truth is that Victoria has one of the most regulated, sustainably managed native forestry industries in the world, harvesting the equivalent of just four trees out of 10,000," he said.
"No old growth trees are used, and every area harvested is reseeded and regenerated by law. "All Victorian native forest hardwood is harvested according to the highest standards under the world's largest forestry certification scheme - PEFC, known in Australia as Responsible Wood.
"Bunnings and its customers should be under no illusion that green groups will stop at Victoria - they are hellbent on ending all native forestry in Australia, which will mean even more imported timber from countries at high risk of deforestation and illegal logging, and it will be manufactured in countries with poor working conditions," Mr Hampton concluded.
The Victorian Hardwood Sawmillers Association, which represents Heyfield's Australian Sustainable Hardwoods, Yarram's Radial Timber and every other hardwood sawmiller in Victoria, has condemned Bunnings' decision.
In a statement, the association said immediately cancelling orders for Victorian hardwood timber was a blow to Victorian manufacturing jobs that would do nothing for the environment.
Association spokesman Leonard Fenning said the decision was premature, given VicForests had confirmed it would be appealing May's Federal Court decision.
"Bunnings should allow for the due legal process to conclude before making such a drastic and immediate decision that threatens thousands of local jobs that depend on Victoria's sustainably managed native timber industry," Mr Fenning said.
"Anti-forestry groups have been aggressively targeting Bunnings for years with misinformation campaigns about Victoria's hardwood timber industry, and it is disappointing that Bunnings has succumbed to these extreme activist groups.
"This is a lose-lose result for Aussie workers and the environment.
"Bunnings knows all too well that the sustainably sourced Victorian timber currently on their shelves will be replaced with imported timber from countries with poor environmental records and poor working conditions."
Mr Fenning said the Victorian and Commonwealth governments must provide certainty to the Victorian timber industry and immediately secure the future of the Victorian Regional Forest Agreements.
"Now is the time to back local manufacturing jobs in a sustainable, renewable industry - we urge all Australians to insist on Aussie grown and Aussie made.
"It's good for jobs, the environment and our regional communities."
Gippsland East MLA Tim Bull slammed Bunnings' decision, saying it would have a significant effect on Victorian timber towns, including those in east Gippsland.
"This woeful decision from Bunnings could not have come at a worse time," he said.
"Our communities have been impacted by drought, fire and now COVID-19, and the local economy is really struggling.
"For Bunnings' management to come in on the back of that and make this announcement shows no understanding of our plight."
Mr Bull said the announcement was based on a decision that would be reconsidered, with VicForests set to appeal.
"To discontinue sourcing all timber from VicForests is a massive over-reaction and one that will hurt our local communities," he said.
"On top of this Bunnings could not tell me where it will source its hardwood from in the future.
"They could only agree it will not come from Victoria as there is no hardwood plantation, so it will likely come from interstate or overseas.
Mr Bull said he had explained the impact this will have on towns like Heyfield, but had received responses like "we will work with suppliers to achieve the best outcomes for them".
"Well that does not help our mill workers and their families," he said.
Gippsland South MLA Danny O'Brien also weighed in, saying it was "a slap in the face for Gippsland and the Victorian timber industry more generally," especially in the current climate.
"Victoria's native timber industry is sustainable, renewable and creates jobs for our Gippsland community in places like Yarram, Heyfield, Bairnsdale and Orbost.
"Forestry stores carbon and utilising Victorian native timber is more environmentally friendly than other non-renewable products like steel or plastic, or those sourced overseas.
"When Bunnings told me of this decision, I asked where they would source future timber supply?
"They couldn't tell me, but it's clear this decision will result in more imports of timber from countries where harvesting is less sustainable.
"That's not good for the environment, it's not good for our balance of trade and it's not good for Gippsland timber towns and workers.
"Given this decision is based on a court case that VicForests plans to appeal, Bunnings should commit now to reversing the decision if that appeal is upheld."
Gippsland MHR Darren Chester described it as "extraordinary" that Bunnings would make "this premature decision without any genuine consultation with its local suppliers and jeopardise the financial futures of dozens of timber workers and their families in Gippsland".
"Management should reconsider its decision, particularly while legal challenges are still pending in relation to the case involving VicForests that Bunnings is concerned about.
"We have a world-class timber industry in Victoria where 94 per cent of forest is protected and a small proportion of native forests are harvested each year under VicForests' control, then forests are allowed to regenerate in a sustainable cycle over 80 years.
"It's the ultimate renewable industry with young growing trees absorbing more carbon dioxide, compared to mature forests, and timber harvested according to the strictest standards in the world.
"Gippsland timber mills have invested in new technology to add value to the trees harvested with manufactured products that are in high demand.
"Wood that used to end up as waste or low value wood chips, is now joined and glued to make high value products that are available for home handymen and the construction sector to purchase."
Mr Chester said the Bunnings decision showed a disregard for suppliers and hard-working timber industry families, with the premature decision "about virtue signalling and nothing about the environmental sustainability of the industry".
"The VicForests issue is still subject to appeal in the courts system and I fear that Bunnings will replace the Australian-made product on those shelves with imported timber which is harvested with less environmental scrutiny."
Victoria's native timber sector generates about 2500 direct jobs and thousands more indirect jobs.
It generates about $770 million in revenue annually, with $297 million value added in regional communities.