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We can have a true sustainable wood products industry for the future

Speeches in Parliament
Janet Rice 1 Dec 2016

As we head into summer, many people are sitting at work or at home, picturing what exciting things they might get up to in their holidays. If you are like me, you are going to want to spend as much time as possible with friends and family, and then get out to the many natural wonders that we have in Australia. The possibilities are endless, but we just need to realise the potential that we have.

Imagine crystal-clear streams, majestic towering trees, and ferns and flowers in the undergrowth. Imagine a place where our most threatened species are protected: critically endangered Leadbeater's possums and swift parrots; endangered koalas, long-footed potoroos, greater gliders and giant freshwater crayfish; birds like Carnaby's cockatoos and wedge-tailed eagles soaring overhead. Imagine forests soaking up and storing carbon in the most dense form known biologically, and keeping it there for hundreds of years, helping to combat global warming. Imagine these forests purifying water and maximising its production without the need for expensive desalination plants. Imagine reducing the risk of wildfire without the need for extensive fuel reduction burns. Imagine beekeepers, custodians of some of the healthiest bee populations in the world, producing the finest honey in the world. Imagine walking tracks, horse trails and cycling routes through, and connecting, towns and forests.

We do not have to imagine; this could be a reality. All we need to do is stop the destruction of our precious forests by logging, I use the word 'destruction' knowingly and advisedly. Native forest logging advocates like to say 'harvesting'. They say it regrows. Let us unpack that. First up, let us remember that this matters. Our forests are one of the fundamental building blocks of life on our one and only planet. Our lives depend upon their lives and the services they provide to us, whether that be soaking up carbon dioxide, pumping out oxygen or providing clean water.

For most of the forests logged in Australia, 'harvesting' means 'clear-felling', where 95 per cent of the trees, of all types, are cut down, whether they are wanted for their wood products or not. Animals asleep in those trees crash to the ground or scramble for their lives to try to find new homes where there almost certainly are none. The understorey is crushed, or ripped out of the ground by machinery. Roads, bridges and log landings spread out across the land. There are narrow strips of forest left along creeks, and random habitat trees left as lonesome sentinels. And then it is burnt. More often than not, the habitat trees die in the fire. Any understorey which survives the logging is burnt to a crisp. If the fire does not get the habitat trees, then being exposed to the strong winds usually does. Then, on this blackened moonscape, re-seeding is usually necessary, with a seed mix that favours a small number of tree species    that are valued for their wood production, but sometimes even that re-seeding fails. The streams gradually settle, but siltation from the logging is often enough to destroy its value for species like freshwater crayfish, which cannot cope with sand filling up all the cracks between the pebbles and rocks where they live. And the plan is to do it all over again when the forest is 50 to 70 years old—no time for hollows to reform, which usually need over a hundred years. Funnily enough, the animals that need these hollows are not able to hang around for a hundred years! So, yes, I use the word 'destruction' advisedly.

As for the wood, about 20 per cent of the timber-yielding trees end up as sawlogs. Eighty per cent goes straight to the chip mill to be turned into paper pulp, either here or overseas. Of those 20 per cent sawlogs, only a fifth end up as long-lasting wood products, storing carbon as the floors, doors and window frames so promoted by the native forest logging industry. Yes, that is just 4 per cent of the timber removed. That is how they try to justify this destruction. And every hectare of forest that is logged is subsidised by us, the taxpayers. We get less money for the wood removed than it costs to log it. It is not an economically viable operation.

The other telling fact about logging in our native forests is that not one logging operation of public native forest in Australia meets the standards of the international certification system—the Forest Stewardship Council Certification system, known as FSC—not one. Forestry Tasmania and VicForests have applied for certification but have not succeeded, because they are still logging high-conservation-value forest and forest that is home to threatened and endangered species. All they commit to is the much weaker Australian Forestry Standard where they need to monitor operations and 'take action to address threatening processes'—but success of those actions is not required—and to 'minimize any adverse impacts of forest operations on significant biodiversity values', monitoring and minimising, in the case of Leadbeater's possums and swift parrots, from endangered to critically endangered.

It is a complete furphy that logging native forests is good for our climate. The evidence is unequivocal. The most comprehensive science about this is summarised in a paper by Heather Keith that was published last year, where she concludes:

… the greatest mitigation benefit from native forest management, over the critical decades within the next 50 years, is achieved by protecting existing native forests.

'But we need wood,' I hear you say. 'We love wood. Wood is natural.' Yes, yes and yes! Here is the good news story: we do not need to log our precious forests to supply wood. Eighty-five per cent of wood and paper products produced in Australia and the majority of jobs in the industry are in plantations. They produce reliable, high-quality and uniform timber and paper pulp.

The Greens want to end the forest wars. There is an easy way of doing this: commit to shifting all logging out of native forests, plan the transition, set a timeline for each region, work out what additional plantation resource is needed—if any—do the research to maximise the value from plantations and work out the sawing technologies for sawn timber from eucalypt plantations. We can also make much better use of recycled paper. Australian made, 100 per cent recycled paper ticks all the boxes as being ecologically sustainable and good for local jobs, but it is hard to fully support it when the company making it is also logging our precious mountain ash forests. The time is now. The legal framework that has enabled the destruction over the last 20 years is the federal-state Regional Forest Agreements. The first of these, the East Gippsland RFA, expires on 3 February, before we return to this place next year. It and the other agreements must not be renewed or rolled over. They do not protect threatened species. In fact, the controls of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 do not apply to logging undertaken under an RFA. All that is required is preparation of threatened-species recovery plans, which provide no legal protection for some of the most endangered species in the country.

I call upon the government to see some sense, to halt the rollover and to start the planning to protect, not destroy, our native forests. I can tell you something: the community will cheer. We recently commissioned a survey of residents of the suburbs of Brunswick, Northcote and Richmond in Melbourne. Over 90 per cent supported the protection of our magnificent mountain ash forests in the Great Forest National Park, and 96 per cent said that we have a moral obligation to protect Victoria's native forests for future generations. Until we move to a new future for forestry where the Regional Forest Agreements are consigned to the dustbin of history, where they belong, having failed to protect both native forests and jobs, we are destined to continue the conflict that is as destructive to our society as clear-fell logging is to our forests.

After 35 years of working on this, I am so frustrated that we are still warring over forestry. It would be so straightforward to transition out of native forest. Forestry could stop being controversial and we could have a real, true and sustainable industry for the future. 

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