The Victorian Government earlier this month said it would minimise job impacts from the timber shortage and accelerate the Opal Maryvale mills transition away from native timber harvesting.
Is this fact or fantasy?
The state’s Forestry Plan announced three years ago was trumpeted as a way to transition the timber industry from native forests to plantations within 10 years. Apart from ignoring the biological fact that it would take 25-30 years for the new plantations to mature, the plan was always a fantasy divorced from reality.
It ignored the challenges associated with plantation expansion in Gippsland, including insufficient suitable and affordable land within economic distance of mills and the poorer wood quality making a plantation-based resource unsuitable for many existing mills.
Over three years of the Forestry Plan, the government has delivered little more than announcements, coupe closures, declining plantation area, reduced log supply, timber shortages, mill shuts, stand-down of timber workers and job losses.
Opal’s Maryvale mill has shut its M5 paper machine because it says it has run out of hardwood logs, threatening 200 jobs of which 35 have already been made redundant.
In 2019, the Victorian government announced the Victorian ‘Forestry Plan, a plan to transition the timber industry, reliant on logs from native forest, into logs supplied from new plantations.
On July 27, the Premier Daniel Andrews announced a “review to protect Victoria’s forests, jobs and timber industry” and the following statements were in that announcement:
• “The Victorian government has commissioned a broad-ranging review to safeguard the Forestry Plan – and the regional jobs and environmental protections it will deliver”.
• “The 30-year plan sets out a long-term and sustainable future for Victoria’s forestry industry”.
• “Opal Australian Paper will also be supported to transition to a full plantation-based supply, ensuring it operates until at least 2050”.
• “The plan is backed by $120 million … for re-employment and re-training impacted workers, funding for community projects that support local businesses and help create local jobs”.
• “Legal challenges have highlighted a range of issues that put the future of the plan at risk”.
In December last year the Victorian government said it was actively engaging with Opal’s Maryvale Mill to minimise job impacts from the timber shortage and accelerate the mill’s transition away from native timber. The government says it is getting on with the job of delivering the Forestry Plan with more than $200 million in transition and investment support to timber businesses, workers and communities:
• Spending $85 million on local strategies, community development, business transition and innovation; and
• Investing $120 million in a new plantation estate in Gippsland to support the sustainable future of forestry.
The Andrews governments Forestry Plan has delivered 50,000 less ha of plantation rather than more plantation area. It has also delivered a huge 30% reduction in log supply from Victorian forests and plantations over the last few years (Figure 1), mostly embracing the period since the Forestry Plan was announced in 2019.
So the facts are:
• Total Victorian log supply from native forest, hardwood plantation and softwood plantation has declined by about 3 million cub m per annum over the last few years.
• This has already contributed to the loss of about 3300 direct jobs and 10,000 type 2 jobs.
• In the governments initial ‘fantasy supply’, Victorian plantation hardwood (eucalypt) log supply has declined by about 2 million cub m 3 pa.
• In the governments ‘backup fantasy supply’, Victorian softwood log supply has declined by about 570,000 cub m pa.
• Victorian plantation area has shrunk by 50,000 ha over the last five years of which 22,000 ha is in Central Gippsland.
• The 14,000 ha promised on the eve of the November 2022 election, if implemented, will only deliver about 250,000 cub m pa and only in about 25-30 years’ time. It will only replace about a quarter of the area of plantation lost over the last five years … and nor will the Forestry Plan replace the 1 million cub m of logs supplied from the native forests.
• The number of jobs in the Latrobe Local Government Area have decline by 6% over the last four years (Fig. 3) and unemployment in the LGA is about 8% or twice the national average
Decline in 2 million m3 pa decline in plantation log supply (Fig.1) and the 50,000ha loss of net planted area (Figure 2), the closure of M5 paper machine, and the Latrobe Valleys declining job numbers (Fig. 3) is an indictment on the Andrews governments Forestry Plan.
So far, the plan has delivered less (not more) plantation area and log supply and fewer jobs in the region.
• John Cameron (Dip Hort. Burnley, MBA Monash, and tertiary units in economics, mathematics and statistics) is a forestry and business consultant previously holding positions in general management, corporate development and research in forestry and forest products. Former roles include chair, Private Forestry Gippsland, chair, Southern Tree Breeding Association, chair, Australian Research Group on Forest Genetics, board member CRC for Forestry Hobart and CRC for Pulp and Paper Science Monash.