The following article appears as published in The Australian, 12:00AM 11 March 2017. By Graham Lloyd
The last stand in a two-decade forest war is here. A shrunken pool of timber housing a slumping population of endangered possums is the final battleground. The death throes are being played out in hand-to-hand combat with clipboards and measuring tapes as conservationists divide out possum habitat in already restricted logging coupes, making them uneconomic to exploit.
“Critter creep, they call it in logger land,” Wilderness Society national campaign director Lyndon Schneiders says. “We call it enforcement of existing laws and regulations.”
When a possum group is spotted, a 200m exclusion zone for logging is imposed. Strategic sightings quickly can quarantine a theoretically productive timber area. Things have finally come to a head because the long-term timber supply contract to Australia’s largest hardwood mill at Heyfield in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley expires in June.
Earlier negotiations for decades’ more wood for the Heyfield mill were dishonoured and it remains to be seen whether a last-minute political fix now in the offing finally takes the axe to jobs — or to dreams of a great forest park in Victoria to rival the Blue Mountains National Park on the outskirts of Sydney.
At stake are 250 jobs at the Heyfield mill, several hundred jobs regionally and several thousand in greater Melbourne. Last-minute bargaining has become a contest of big ideas for a world-ranking forest park and, with it, a tourism-driven reawakening.
Against this is the bleak immediate reality of further job losses in the Latrobe Valley, which is set to shudder this month when the Hazelwood brown coal-fired electricity plant is shut. The proposed Great Forest National Park would take in the existing Yarra Ranges, Kinglake, Lake Eildon and Baw Baw national parks and other state forest parks, expanding the forest reserve from 184,000ha to create a continuous forest reserve of 537,000ha.
Research for The Wilderness Society says the proposed national park could attract an extra 400,000 visitors a year, add more than $70 million to the local economy and create 750 jobs.
Industry disputes the rosy outlook and says voters reject it too if they are given the full picture.
Polling for the Victorian Association of Forest Industries last month showed, on first assessment, Victorians were more in favour (47 per cent) than opposed (17 per cent) to establishing the proposed Great Forest National Park, and even more so when protection of the Leadbeater’s possum was considered.
However, when people were informed of the impact on timber harvesting, attitudes swing around dramatically, the association says.
Learning of job losses at the Heyfield mill in Gippsland, opposition turned two to one against support for the park, 47 per cent to 25 per cent. Half did not believe significantly more jobs would be created by tourism (51 per cent) and even more (63 per cent) did not believe there would be enough new jobs to offset the potential 7500 lost as a result of the Heyfield mill closure.
In many ways, however, the forest park is the solution to a more challenging ecological problem. Environment groups claim the wood is just not there for harvesting licences to continue at historic levels. They say the 2009 bushfires were devastating for the target timber species, compounding years of mismanagement and over-allocation by VicForests.
But it is the lifting of the conservation status for the Leadbeater’s possum by former environment minister Greg Hunt that is having the biggest impact.
Forest managers are anticipating “tighter prescriptions around other species in the future”, including gliders and frogs.
And they are under strong pressure from parts of the industry that sees its only future in securing Forest Stewardship Council certification to gain access to national and global markets that increasingly are concerned about ethical and environmental standards.
Protecting the Leadbeater’s possum is therefore a key challenge all around. And the timber industry is clearly frustrated.
“When people got the possum survey kits from the Environment Department, they were also given the co-ordinates of where logging was proposed,” an industry insider says. The charge is disputed but there is no doubt that “critter creep” is causing havoc with harvesting plans and shrinking the prospects for industry.
Environment groups make no secret of the fact they are putting hundreds of people into the forest to find evidence of endangered animals. And managers of the Heyfield mill want a cap imposed on the number of exclusion zones in the commercial areas.
“I don’t see any other way they are going to get the supply,” a mill official says. “And that is a tough call for them.”
Industry is fighting back hard with a “Leadbeater’s possum myth-buster”.
Conservation groups have said there are between 2000 and 4000 possums left. But the timber industry quotes figures from the Victorian Environment Department that estimates the number of possums from 3945 to 10,960 individuals in ash and snow gum areas.
Industry says increasing detection rates for Leadbeater’s possum colonies, particularly those in regrowth forest, “suggest that the population of the possum is not in severe decline as originally assumed, that the habitat and home range assumptions used to arrive at the critically endangered listing are overly conservative”.
Whatever industry may think, however, a revision of the critically endangered listing is difficult to imagine so soon after it was made.
Just how the forest conflict plays out and the plight of the Leadbeater’s possum is of great national significance.
It has become a proxy against which to judge whether the Regional Forest Agreements put in place by the Keating government have worked. The RFAs were introduced in the mid-1980s to balance the competing demands of conservation and resource security. Industry successfully argued that without resource security there would be no downstream industry and they would be addicted to woodchips and other low-price, high-volume products.
A key concession was that RFA areas would be exempt from the federal government’s Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. Now the RFAs are expiring nationally. Victoria was supposed to be the first but the agreement was extended for a further year. During the next two years RFAs across Victoria, NSW and South Australia will come up for review. Environment groups are pushing for the federal government to reassert itself.
“RFAs were supposed to be a surrogate for species conservation but it is clear they haven’t worked because in Victoria and Tasmania there are a number of high-profile creatures that are continuing to go backwards,” Schneiders says.
“The Leadbeater’s is on the critically endangered list, the greater glider is losing about 9 per cent of its population a year, the swift parrots are being managed almost bird by bird. From our perspective, what the RFAs tried to do hasn’t worked.”
It hasn’t worked from the industry perspective either. The promise of resource security and downstream investment hasn’t come to bear.
Woodchip markets largely have collapsed and there has been no replacement.
State forestry commissions and corporatised bodies have been losing money and increasingly can’t get timber out of the forest at an economic price because the remaining most valuable stands are the most difficult to reach.
Schneiders says the first step is to review the RFAs properly to see if they are working.
“If they are found not to be working for the environment or industry there needs to be a new approach,” he says
Just what that may be is left unsaid.
The Heyfield mill sees its long-term future in plantations but it is a 20-year journey that involves tens of millions of dollars from government to retool for lower-grade timbers in the interim.
“If we could do it tomorrow we would,” a senior Heyfield manager says. “But to keep us going the government has to find 450,000cu m over the next three years.”
For those involved in the original forest wars that culminated in the RFA regime, it is a case of deja vu all over again.