Victorian Native Forest Ban: Guided by Myths, Misinformation

Opinion: Environmental groups profit from fear

Mon 29 May 23


Generating outrage and fear with misinformation is a great way for anti-forestry activists to generate tax-free funds. But when it goes on so long that an entire generation believes the misinformation as fact, it’s time to hold them to account.

A lot has been said about native forestry in the last 20 years. The timber industry’s way of dealing with misinformation is to ‘not add fuel to the fire and let it go away’.

Generating outrage is a great business model for ENGO’s. So, it makes sense to ignore it and not give it fuel. Why correct the deliberately controversial content about VicForests only to associate your company with the negativity? After all, attacks don’t mention you, and few people make the connection.

The problem with this mentality was that no one responded

The public expects you to defend yourself from damaging misinformation – failing to respond is assumed by the public to be an admission of guilt. The other thing silence does is allows gaps to be filled with assumptions. And that’s the activist intent.

Native forestry can, often is, and should be ‘arguably’ the most sustainable building material and way of sourcing timber. This is how it’s done in many of the ‘verified-sustainable-forests’ throughout the developed world. The intention is to balance all forest values with timber production. It’s impossible to avoid scrutiny but it’s the right thing to do.

In Australia, activists want to blankety ‘end native forestry’ and move to plantation timber. A plantation, amongst other things, is about maximising timber production and not creating habitat. As a result, the plantation is designed to have no diversity and, therefore no habitat. It’s a concept that works but the reality is we only have so much land and neither forest type exists in a vacuum.

I’ve long asked myself – which would people prefer we do more of… monocultures with no diversity? Or diverse landscapes with intermittent interruption under strict protocols?

I am a huge fan of plantations – especially in relation to framing timbers. I just need to set the context.

After growing tired of politicians and willing media reporting forestry in only a negative light, a few of us ran a pilot programme to show the whole story.

Honest. A little chaotic. Transparent.

The Forest Field Tour pilot programme

I’m talking plantations, native forests, a producer, and the difference between quality from plantation and regrowth native forests.

The idea was to have the people who manage forests or produce the timber show a selection of concerned individuals we knew would be ‘on the fence about native forestry.’ To let them see for themselves and ask all the questions they wanted as the day progressed.

We visited the 450 hectares of plantation forest purchased by the State. As an aside, the Victorian Government ‘promised’ to establish 25,000 hectares as a ‘transition’ – not one tree has been planted yet.

We inspected the difference between timber from plantations and regrowth forests. We also walked through several post-harvest native forest sites.

The observations from the field tours were startling

The physical and emotional reaction people have when walking through a native forest instead of a plantation is clear.

I took the opportunity to ask people their responses to each and it was obvious in some that they were grappling with their preconceived perception compared with the reality they were immersed in.

We’ve been campaigned to believe plantation is the only answer but when you’re within each forest type, you know that just isn’t true.

I observed one conversation progress from ‘we need to move toward plantation’ to ‘why aren’t we increasing native forest cover for all the benefits this creates while sourcing timber from those forests to pay for adaptive management?”

(As if this was some new solution).

This is a question I have asked myself for decades.

One of our tour guides from VicForests took us through several sites – ‘thinned’ forest to increase growth in remaining trees while still supplying timber to contracts; retention harvest – where much of the forest area remains untouched; clear fell – where whole coupes are cleared.

We stopped at a coupe near Noojee where they explained the surveys that must occur pre-harvest, the findings for this specific site, record taking and validation of data, and what informed harvest methods were used (and why).

More than 60% of this ‘coupe’ had been retained for various values and the harvested 40% was smaller than we expected but still provoked emotion in most – it’s hard not to. The background knowledge, however, of knowing what you are looking at and its history provides a clearer lens to form an opinion.

A deliberate act from activists is to denigrate the industry as ‘loggers’ and to show freshly harvested forests.

‘Logged’ as they call it. It’s as if the only thing the ‘loggers’ care about is removing trees without any other consideration, planning, or foresight.

Across the gullies, you could see diverse and established forests – thriving with biodiversity. Like it or not, this was a testament to the regrowth forestry process, informed by forest scientists.

Myths and Misconceptions about ecological values in state forests

The values that exist do not need protecting against ‘loggers’. They exist because of the efforts of previous forest scientists who had planning and foresight when they informed the harvest and regeneration previously.

There was a mosaic of varying harvest types over multiple decades – each prioritising the silvicultural outcomes prioritised in their respective dates – an example of VicForests’ evolution. Good and bad.

One group asked our tour guide, “Why the ash species needed sunlight for growth, and what would happen in an established forest… would species not grow if a larger canopy sheltered it?”

Conversations changed to what the forest could be if these forests were to avoid fire for over 200 years.

“In all likelihood,” said our guide, “rainforest species might begin to emerge and take over as the dominant species”.

What is a ‘healthy forest?’

This discussion reminded me of a field trip I attended late last year with opposing groups and where a question was posed that I’ll never forget – ‘What is a healthy forest’? A simple question, perhaps, but a surprisingly complicated answer…

In this context imposed on us while immersed in these forests, you could argue that the ash-type forest that existed before European settlement is the healthy benchmark.

After all, the fauna dependent on this mix of forests wouldn’t be here if it evolved into a rainforest.

How could it?

They depend on a mix of tree species and understory not common in older, wet forests. However, is it even possible for a rainforest to exist in this location?

Previous harvest and regeneration sites across the gully

Vast amounts were destroyed in the 1850s fires. More than 98% were killed again and regenerated in the fires of 1939. And again, in many places at varying points throughout the last 80 years.

So, what forest type and species mix is the benchmark we target for a ‘healthy forest’? What point in time is the goal? Which habitat do you prefer? Why? Does a healthy forest depend on a plantation existing elsewhere to supply human basic needs? Does it harvest timber to achieve a balance? If so, where and why?

The day proved a success in transparency. It was open and helpful. If I were to cut the story there, you might say the pilot programme was a worthy effort. If I had my way, we’d do these weekly to create an open dialogue with anyone interested in actual forest management… this was a pilot after all.

The Andrews Government bombshell occurred halfway through the Field Trip

Ironically, mid-way through the trip the Victorian government announced an unjustifiable end to native forestry. This caught every member of the timber community by surprise and visibly took the passion out of our guides.

The media statement, ‘Security for timber communities,’ was anything but.

I trowelled the news gritting my teeth, working through the blatant disregard for honesty. Looking for signs of someone holding Andrew’s to account for this blatant contempt for affected communities. The title was in stark contrast to the content. It was disgusting.

On that note, so far, no one has held Andrew’s accountable for his promise of a ‘transition to plantation.’ This media release clearly admitted that there will be no ‘transition.’

Footage courtesy of @abcnewsaustralia

Still, it was the promise of ‘transition’ that kept the average consumer from demanding Andrews’ answer about where our timber will come from.

And why should we be pushing our timber needs onto other countries? Was this a deliberate ‘soft launch’ of his master plan?

There never was a ‘transition to plantation.’ Andrews made it up. Now they call it a ‘transition out of native’ instead of a ‘transition to plantation.’

We need mature trees in the ground for a realistic transition. We are amidst a timber shortage already. There is no magical, unused plantation hidden away out there, let alone suitable to replace native forest timber products.

We are more than 30 years away from that reality if we wanted it. It does not exist unless you include the forests we have been regrowing for the last 80 years. They refuse to let us have access to those forests.

Why? If it’s as bad as activists try to make out, why can’t we continue harvesting those? Would they have had the same opinion if they’d been replanted as monocultures instead?

Andrews finally admitted there is no transition, but not without spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer funds trying to ram an impossible reality down our throats. Pretty big move for something so unrealistic. Why is he not held accountable for this? Where will the timber come from?

The decision is going to impact all Australians

I read an article a few months back that regurgitated all the textbook activist rhetoric and then posed the question of why their seemingly obvious conclusion hadn’t been reached by us ‘loggers’ in the industry.

 It still infuriates me, but I’ll tell you why – you’ve been told a lie. Had the journalists tried to ask anyone working in the industry instead of an activist intent on killing an industry, they might have been exposed to some critical information to inform the decision.

Timber mills, forestry contractors, and the 20,000 workers in the supply chain had been promised a transition by 2030.

While we knew the transition was physically impossible with Victoria’s existing plantation estate, we had spent tens of millions – if not hundreds of millions collectively – in equipment and processes to transition to materials from elsewhere around the globe.

 As recently as March 2022, the Andrew’s government doubled down on its promise that they were committed to 2030. This commitment promoted more investment to facilitate the transition.

Footage courtesy of @VicGovDJSIR_YT

There are plantations from outside of Victoria coming into maturity in 2027. If we invest, develop, plan, and prepare, we can make it work. There’s a long way to go but we have a chance.

What Andrews did was force us to invest only to pull the rug from under us completely. That is a disgusting way to govern.

The decision makes a transition impossible

In other words, if we had a chance of making it, Andrews has taken away two critical elements. Cash flow and time for development. This supplies the engine room of a $7.6b local industry. Is it any surprise that Victoria is struggling with the budget?

The government cites litigation from activists forcing their hand.

That’s not true, either. This is firmly in Andrews’ control. Victoria is the only state where these loopholes exist. Any anti-forestry activist can use crowd-funding to take VicForests to court and the court will halt all harvesting for months until a case can be heard. How is it fair to end all legal operations without a trial?  

The definition of ‘precaution’ in relation to harvesting potential habitat is another issue that Andrews’ can control.

The government can clearly define both of these without changing the law or unfairly prejudicing legal harvesting operations.

This is what has halted the industry.

Let me be clear about this. Despite what is promoted by activists, Vicforests have not been illegally logged. VicForests have almost exclusively won cases or are yet to be decided. But you wouldn’t know it.

Claims of illegal logging are factually incorrect

These are PR statements from agenda-driven activists who do not have third-party accreditation to lose if they are caught spreading misinformation.

Activists distribute media statements when they’re heading into a court case. It’s a method used to get great exposure without paying for advertising. They sometimes get the front page of a paper without spending a cent on advertising fees.

Footage courtesy of @abcnewsaustralia

This has a huge impact on public opinion. When VicForests win the case, nothing is said. You might argue that trail-by-media was the intention all along.

The major case we’re waiting on is coming to a verdict in September. It is expected that Vicforests will win, and the supply of timber contracts will begin flowing from these forests again. This would have put the government in a predicament.

They’d be forced to define what ‘precaution’ means and upset activists in marginal seats or decide to cease native forestry. Either way, it would be their decision this time and they can’t claim to be snookered by the courts.

The government has not released any science justifying its position. The Labor government has rejected three Freedom of Information requests. They won’t cough it up. This makes it impossible to hold them to account for the ‘transition.’

The Greens, however, have. They cite selected papers by activists loaded with misinformation, contested by the scientists in each topic of discussion, and are quite easy to pick apart.

If these papers were true, we should change native forestry. But they just aren’t.

The question for me is whether a deal was done between the Greens and Labor.

 Or was this a legacy policy by a soon-to-be retiring Andrews? The answer would be good to know because we might be able to hold them to account if they’d just give us an explanation.  

Terrible for the climate, bushfire mitigation, and our remote communities

This decision will be terrible for the environment. Active and adaptive forest management is needed now more than ever.

This will be terrible for Victoria’s climate targets. More locked-up, underfunded, and under-managed national parks will be a nightmare for bushfire mitigation.

And, arguably worst for many, this could be the end for some regional communities in a time of severe financial strain.

There needs to be an inquest into this government and the decision. What have they done it for?

Popularity in marginal seats? I don’t know about you, but I’m not prepared to lose all of this without an answer.

  • The article was originally published on LinkedIn.



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