The timber industry has experienced a bizarre month in Western Australia.
The Forest Industries Federation of WA (FIFWA) exploded, sending a tirade claiming betrayal by the government.
They had previously played ball with the government for two years even though unsympathetic ministers had trashed their industry.
FIFWA CEO and former ALP parliamentarian Adele Farina has lashed out at the plan to abandon the remaining sawmill industry, claiming promises by former Premier Mark McGowan are being ignored.
McGowan was a firm supporter of fuel reduction burning and would not listen to the activists and academics trying to curtail it. He appreciated the science and how essential it was.
Reports say the Forestry Products Commission (FPC) has instructed harvesting contractors only to produce firewood and told sawmillers not to expect further deliveries, even though thousands of tonnes remain on their contracts.
Ms Farina’s statement has been countered with claims that there is no obligation to honour contracts despite the former Premier and Minister having made a commitment.
What will happen to the saw logs?
Could this mean that wood suited to produce fine furniture and flooring will end up as firewood?
According to WA Furniture Manufacturers Association Secretary Frank Parker, that’s exactly what is happening: “Minister Jackie Jarvis promised our association that the contracted supply of sawlogs would continue until the end of the year; now that’s in limbo,” he said.
Without continuity of supply, sawmills will close, and we will no longer be able to produce furniture with beautiful local timber.”
The minister’s response, as reported in the Manjimup Bridgetown Times, dated August 2, dismissed these concerns but quickly deflected to unrelated talking points about investing $350 million in pine trees.
The statements by Jarvis are undermined by the evidence from firewood yards where sawlogs are already being received and harvesting coupes where sawlogs are mixed into firewood stacks.
It contradicts all good forest management principles to downgrade high-value sawlogs into firewood.
Not long ago, there was outrage in the media when a sawmiller only partly processed sawlogs at his Nannup sawmill.
Today we have the government not selling good logs as sawlogs … just letting them burn as firewood.
Roundtable convenor slams WA Government for ‘knee jerk decisions.’
David Utting, the convenor of the Sustainable Forest Industries Roundtable, was disheartened by the government’s reversal.
“We are seeing careless and callous decisions lacking integrity and playing to green politics instead of supporting small businesses through this time of great uncertainty,” he said.
“There has been no communication with these businesses or the industry.”
But isn’t this good news, at least for the firewood sector?
The FPC is apparently responding to a request from the minister to produce 120,000 tonnes of firewood.
Last year there were severe firewood shortages when they only produced 59,000 tonnes.
Adele Farina believes this order is to build sufficient stocks to avoid the likely drought of firewood next year before the state election.
Firewood stockpiles are already being assembled at Manjimup and Harvey.
At this stage, this seems unnecessary when there are firewood contracts which have yet to be satisfied, and stockpiling will mean additional costs through double handling.
The minister’s request will be difficult to achieve as logging crews are rapidly leaving the industry.
For the past six months, the FPC has put out the call around Australia for additional crews, but these are likely to go unheeded; it cannot offer any work beyond December 31.
With this poor production capacity, it has been decided to favour firewood and abandon the sawmillers.
This approach does not reassure firewood merchants, as Diana Babis of Kingsway Firewood explained: “We have been seeking assurances as to future wood supply, but it’s been like talking to a brick wall. Now out of the blue, we hear that firewood stockpiles are being built. If they need to stockpile, then it makes me wonder if they have lost confidence in the future.”
Why do we need a stockpile?
Can’t they produce the firewood next year?
Stockpiles will only be needed if no wood is produced under the new forest plan starting next January 1.
This now seems a significant risk of a delay to the plan as the EPA is still considering the environmental implications of an untested ecological thinning.
It could take months into next year before the dust settles, and the industry will know what wood will be available.
Jackie Jarvis has steadfastly refused to give any commitments on future wood supply.
The sight of stockpiles being built now confirms that the government has misjudged the impact of its policy changes and has no clear plan for the future.
There have been calls for an industry plan for months. Unfortunately, the minister is doing nothing to promote its future.
The lack of planning is coming back to bite her.
The FPC seems to be abandoning the sawmills and panicking to shore up firewood stocks before the election, and confidence to remain in the timber industry is evaporating.
David Utting concluded: “There is no need for all this uncertainty. It has been manufactured through incompetence. Everyone knows that mining will clear about 1000 ha of forest each year, producing around 200,000 tonnes of wood. This should be reserved for local industries in the first instance.
“If the minister would make that commitment, a lot of the angst would go away.