After wiping the smile of the face of the Jolly Green Giant, the good timber folk at ‘Fort Clarence’ have turned their guns towards the ugly Goliath.
“It’s good to have a victory for a change,” said jubilant Grafton sawmiller Donna Layton after the NSW Northern Rivers Council on Tuesday voted 7-1 against a motion to ban native forest harvesting.
“That was a triumph for commonsense,” Donna said. “And for the few anti-forest councillors, well, bad move.”
“But Chris Minns and his Labor government will be tougher opponents,” admits the CEO of Marshall Notaras Hardwoods, a family business that has operated at South Grafton for more than 70 years.
“Strategically, we have some time, but very little time,” Donna said.
“The government is all over the place with this, undecided on the makeup and timeline for the proposed Great National Koala Park and wondering how the heck it can replace native hardwood forests with plantation hardwoods – all ploys to show Greens supporters it is doing something when in fact it is doing nothing.
“So, Labor now says let’s form a committee, and bat some ideas around for a while. Let’s bring the environment and heritage guys in and invite sawmillers, conservationists and Indigenous leaders to the table. We’ll get it sorted in 12 months.”
But an aching fear persists.
“We have watched Labor governments put industry to the sword in Victoria and Western Australia,” Donna said.
In NSW, Premier Chris Minns will again rely on Greens and independent MPs to give him the assurance he needs for a return to office in 2027. And with the ghost of Nevill Wran hovering, he is unlikely to hand out any favours to the native forest sector.
Wran created 20 national parks in the 1980s, including the Washpool park inland from Grafton, which saw more than 58,500 hectares closed to a lot of sustainable forest harvesting, the bitter decimation of communities and the loss of hundreds of jobs with many families left destitute.
Forty years ago, you could count 200 sawmills operating from Coffs Harbour up to Kyogle, with others further west. More than 60 of them have gone.
Today, Labor’s ‘solution’ to replace the native forest industry is to plant thousands of hectares of hardwoods on farms.
Donna Layton questions whether much of this land will be suitable for these plantings, even if cattle and grain growers were willing to give up a rich slice of their paddocks and wait 50-60 years before they can cut a log.
Values for agricultural land are soaring to record heights across Australia, with year-on-year growth of more than 30% in Western Australia, 31% in Queensland and 30.4% in Victoria, according to a Rural Bank Australian farmland values report.
Tasmania has the highest median price in the nation at $14,730 per hectare, followed by Victoria at $10,583 and Queensland at $6827.
Agriculture financial consultants say they have never seen this market “so buoyant in four decades”.
And land prices continue to rise at an alarming rate, with commodity prices rising with it.
“Then there is the species issue,” says Donna Layton.
“In the transition plan – from native forests to plantation forests – they must recognise the importance of the right species for the right soil for the right tree,” she said.
“We already have softwood plantations and there are plantation hardwoods in some areas, but not enough and certainly not as durable as the natives.
“The durable species we have and will need include blackbutt, spotted gum, iron bark, tallowwood and grey box and so on. Private stands of these species exist, but they are just a drop in the ocean when it comes to supply.”
An Ernst + Young report in February, commissioned by the North East NSW and South East NSW Regional Forestry Hubs, showed the native hardwood timber industry was critical to the NSW economy.
The report pointed out that ‘transitioning’ native forestry to plantations was unnecessary and unworkable, “threatening the livelihood of thousands of timber workers in the state”. It also showed the northeast NSW hardwood timber industry contributed $1.8 billion in revenue each year, adding $700 million to NSW GDP and employing 5700 people.
Amid rising demand for nation-building timber supplies, the region provides more than two-thirds of the state’s hardwood timber supply.
“Sawmilling is getting tougher with ever-changing government regulations, habitat corridors to work out and problems with forest protestors who still continually obstruct harvest operations,” Donna Layton said.
“But we are here for the long haul.”
On a brighter note, Marshall Notaras Hardwoods and others in North NSW are filling their yards with logs after two years recovering from bushfires and floods with limited access.
“We’re back to some form of normality, if not at full capacity, perhaps just over 60%,” she said.
“Generations of family sawmillers have been working the forests here because they care for the forests. They take only what they need and leave the rest for regeneration.”
PM Anthony Albanese says Chris Minns is “a leader whose vision is one that always has people at its heart”.