The hard men and women in Victoria’s Powelltown Sawmill have shed a few tears this week.
In an interview with the Australian, chief executive Dan Pote, said that the first they heard that the state’s native timber logging industry would be shut down six years ahead of schedule was on Tuesday, when everyone else in the state found out.
They had a tough team meeting at the site, about 85km east of Melbourne’s CBD, straight after the announcement. His staff were “disheartened”, Mr Pote said.
“This mill, I believe, is one of the oldest Victorian hardwood sawmills in the state. We have some workers that have been here for 30 years,” he said.
“To see grown men and women shed a tear or two on Tuesday after that announcement – they know their livelihoods are going to change and change big time. It’s really sad.”
The massive mountain ash logs that line the muddy yards of the historic sawmill smell earthy. And the sound of machinery turning wood chunks into chips rings throughout the yard.
A few hundred metres away is a wooden sign welcoming visitors to “Timber Town”, where just over 200 people live.
When the workers heard the government released a statement titled “Delivering certainty for timber workers” – whom the government said had suffered because of years of litigation and bushfires that halted operations and limited the harvesting coupe – Mr Pote said they felt insulted.
“It has created so much uncertainty. The team you know, some of them had a future here beyond that six years (to 2030) because we would have been able to transition. Now it’s very difficult,” he said.
Mr Pote said he had invested millions of dollars in transitioning to plantation timber, buying new equipment and retraining staff but on Friday said it was “an unfathomable task to try to transition in six to seven months”.
“I wish I had a magic wand,” he said. “We will try to maximise the resources we have got and look at alternatives, but it doesn’t look great, I’ve got to be honest.
“At the moment, this mill will probably shut its doors for the first time in over 100 years.”
Over the weekend, Victoria’s leading mastheads – the Age and the Herald Sun – spoke to workers, residents, and employers, many of who found out that the industry will be shut down over via radio or by word of mouth and are concerned about whether they will find employment in their hometowns.
Ang Savage: “I found out on Facebook”
“It’s like we don’t even exist,” explains Ang Savage, a single mother of two, who works with beams and columns at Australian Sustainable Hardwood in Heyfield.
“I found out on Facebook.”
Warren Fenner: ‘It distresses me not to follow our family plan’
In Orbost, Director of W&J Fenner Logging, Warren Fenner, has been in the business for 25 years and is now resigned to moving.
“Moving will mean I need to separate from my family. We have built a strong family business in Orbost and it distresses me greatly not to follow my plan to live a happy life altogether.”
Mr. Fenner said the end of native harvesting is already having a major impact on the town.
“You used to be able to meet someone down the street and have a good conversation about work, but lately, it has been very depressing, and it’s always doom and gloom.”
The decision has impacted the whole community, with the sporting and community clubs expected to go with the ban.
“I have three boys who play senior football, and all the other logging boys who play will have no team.”
He also said the firefighting services would be severely impacted.
“If we all move interstate, there will be no one left to help with bushfires,” Mr Fenner said.
Robert Booth: ‘If the timber industry goes, what’s next?’
For Robert Booth, Workshop Manager and father of three, this is the first time he has considered whether it was worth sticking around.
“I don’t know. The problem is, if the timber industry goes, is there going to be any other industry to go to?”
“Have you thought about the people at the supermarket? Have you thought about the local tyre service?”
“The local school and the construction industry? It just spreads so far and wide. Tourism, hospitality, everybody will be affected by it because no one will be left here.”
Robert Pelz: ‘You’d think they’d have the balls and tell us personally‘
Richard Pelz – a hauler subcontracted to collect wood chips and sawdust from sawmills – has not received government help since logging paused in November. He does not know if his family-run business and 30 staff, which includes Robert Booth, will be supported.
“That’s a bitter pill to swallow. I don’t want to swallow it, I want to get compensated like everybody else, and I don’t think it’s too much to ask,” Pelz, in his 60s, said.
“You’d think they’d have the balls to come up and see you.”
Julie Leatham: ‘Orbost is becoming a retirement town‘
Orbost cafe owner Julie Leatham said the impact has already been felt on her business as native harvesting has been held up with protracted legal battles.
“The main street is already empty, and it’s only going to get quieter.”
“My staff counted about 90 families that will have to move to find new jobs; that is 90 fewer families coming in for a coffee.”
“It’s sad to see so many families leaving; Orbost is becoming a retirement town,” Ms. Leatham said.
The Native Forest Ban directly impacts more than 4,000 workers
According to estimates provided by the Victorian Forest Products Association, 21,000 people are employed in the Victorian forest and wood products industry, with more than 4,000 working directly across the native forestry supply chain.
Many of these are in forest contracting business arrangements.
Median incomes in Orbost are almost half the state average, census data shows.
This abrupt decision presents significant challenges for businesses and workers in the sector.
Among those impacted include Chris Stafford, a third-generation business owner of Stafford Logging, a harvest and haulage business operating in the native harvesting sector for VicForests.
Chris Stafford is also a Board Director of the Australian Forest Contractors Association (AFCA) and attended meetings with the Victorian Government before the announcement.
Responding to the decision, Chris said, “It is tough to sit across the table and be told that the decision has been made. However, commitments were made in this morning’s meeting assuring us that forest contracting businesses will be provided the same options to determine whether to opt-out or transition their businesses.”
To soften the blow, the Victorian Government has proposed an $875m transition package support workers moving out of state native forest harvesting. However, the early closure has already had profound impacts on local communities.
Chris McEvoy: ‘They didn’t put a single tree in the ground’
Chris McEvoy, Managing Director of Radial Timber, has been frustrated with the lack of action by the Victorian Government over the last decade.
Radial Timbers is a Dandedong-based business that grows, mills, and distributes Victorian hardwoods. They are Responsible Wood and PEFC certified, which uses the Australian Standard for Sustainable Forest Management.
“In 2016, they said we’re going to spend $110m in plantations in Gippsland…they didn’t put a single tree in the ground.”
Mr. McEvoy said hardwood timber was in high demand for schools, hospitals, furniture, and popular house builds, but it takes 30 years to grow.
Bridget Westaway: ‘We’ve got not answers, no resolutions, and no way forward’
Owners of MWM Logging, Bridget and Andrew Westaway, are still waiting for answers on how they can adapt.
Ms. Westaway said that the announcement made their 13 pieces of equipment worthless as the machinery is specific to the Victorian bush.
“We are so invested in trying every avenue to keep our employees going but the lack of information for these plans makes it difficult for any of us to know what is going on.”
“We’ve got no answers, no resolutions, and no way to move forward. The future looks bleak,” Ms Westaway said.
Devastating impact in regional Victoria
Forestry consultant Garry Squires, based in East Gippsland, where approximately 25% of jobs are linked to native logging, voiced concerns about the accelerated timeline.
Garry Squires, a semi-retired forestry consultant who once worked at the now Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action (DEECA), said available work would be an hour’s commute each way and expected the small population of about 2200 would be diminished.
“The community’s never been happy about the fact we’re closing the industry down but at least we had that warning [for 2030].”
“The community’s been looking at other options in terms of employment for the town but many of those things were going to take a while,” he told the Age.
Speaking to ABC Radio on the day the ban was announced, Squires voiced concerns about the accelerated timeframe.
“There’s been a lot of work going into planning for 2030 close down, trying to look at new options for the future,” he told ABC Radio Victoria.
“If this is actually brought forward… that will be devastating because we’re just not ready.”
‘There are no jobs around – there is no use going to TAFE’
Last week the Guardian reported that the decision impacts more than 4,500 employees, including Kerry Chivers, a 51-year-old reluctant to pursue further education.
Residing in Heyfield, Chivers has already faced a reduction in her working hours as native forestry logging has largely come to a standstill.
“There are no jobs around,” Chivers says. “So there’s no use going to TAFE to do a course if there are no jobs at the end of it.”
“I’ll just wait now. I’ll wait a couple of weeks and see what [my boss] has to offer. And whether he thinks he can survive.”
Chivers, who has been operating a forklift at the sawmill for half a dozen years, notes that legal disputes have resulted in only 3% of the timber processed this year being local hardwood.
The sawmill’s owner has sought alternative sources of timber, importing from Tasmania, New South Wales, and the United States. However, the diminished supply inevitably leads to fewer working shifts.
“We used to work two shifts, and now we only work one,” Chivers says, “because basically we haven’t had a timber supply for the last three years.”
She lives off $300 a week after paying her mortgage – and, like many Australians, she worries about rising interest rates, the cost of food, and, now, what she will do if she loses her job.
It’s not just about the forest workers, it’s the mechanics and the cafes
The mayor of Wellington shire, Ian Bye, says more than 600 families will be directly impacted in his shire alone.
“When you look at it, it’s the transport operators, the people in the mills, the people that are in the co-ops,” he says.
“There are over 600 families just directly in the timber industry without the subsidiaries – the mechanics, the cafes or others that are affected. The direct impact is over 600 families.
‘It doesn’t give us enough time as an industry to transition to something else’
Last week, Powelltown Sawmill workers were interviewed by ABC News – Victoria.
Powelltown Sawmill is owned and operated by Steven Bedggood and Harold Fox, who joined 4 families in running the sawmill. The sawmill has been in continuous operation since the early 1900’s – more than 120 years – and has a log supply agreement with Vicforests until the end of 2023.
“I left school at 17 on Friday, and on Monday, I got a job in a sawmill; that was 43 years ago,” Bedggood said.
Bedggood is concerned for his young colleagues.
“I feel for the guys that are 25 or 30 years old, their job is sawmilling and they are part of the furniture here; they are the ones that will suffer.”
The ABC reported that the sawmill established the local football and netball club, but the club’s future is uncertain with the closure.
Dan Pote, CEO of Powelltown Sawmills, said the mill was already working on a tight deadline under the 2030 Forestry Plan.
“It was devastating news; it doesn’t give us enough time as an industry to transition to something else.”
AFCA is working with the Victorian Government to protect forest contracting businesses
The Australian Forest Contractors Association (AFCA), which represents forestry businesses and workers directly impacted by the recent decision from the Victorian Government, has voiced its concerns about the accelerated closure of Native Forest Harvesting.
In the face of these concerns, AFCA announced that it would engage with the Department of Energy, Environment, and Climate Action.
The aim is to clarify the process for forest contracting businesses, ensuring owners can make informed decisions and adequately support their employees during this transition.
“AFCA has been advocating tirelessly for the industry since the 2019 policy decision was announced,” explained Carlie Porteous, General Manager of AFCA. Expressing her disappointment at the far-reaching impacts of this outcome, she emphasiSed, “After today’s announcement, we are now focusing on supporting them through the transition.”
- Wood Central will update the story with responses from workers and businesses impacted by the closure.