global perspectives

Will native logging in Australia finally draw to a close?

30 June 2023 / WORDS BY Rebecca Lake

In a surprising announcement last month, the government of the Australian state of Victoria brought forward the planned closure of the native timber industry from 2030 to the end of this year. While widely celebrated, this decision reveals the challenges that lie ahead, and raises the important question: will other governments follow suit?

Native logging involves the removal of native vegetation, leaving a bare, highly disturbed site that is vulnerable to erosion and invasive species. It also displaces the homes of countless native wildlife. While business and government leaders discuss the increasing importance of nature, and in the wake of extreme biodiversity loss that many are calling the sixth extinction, this longstanding practice seems starkly out of place. What’s more, the carbon storage potential of old growth forests is immense, and the forests of south-eastern Australia are among the most carbon-dense in the world. The Victorian announcement therefore brought much relief to many, especially environmental activists and conservationists who have long campaigned for the preservation of Victoria’s rare and majestic old growth forests.

The end to native forest logging in Victoria is also good news for taxpayers who have been shouldering the burden of subsidising an industry heavily reliant on public funding. A report published by think tank Blueprint Institute late last year found that immediately ending native forest logging across Victoria’s Central Highlands, one of the world’s most intense carbon sinks, would generate an extra $59 million in benefits for the state this decade alone.

While the news is a great start, Victoria now faces new challenges. Decades of clear felling and burning have left the forest that is responsible for filtering the majority of Melbourne’s water supply in a severely degraded state. Restoration efforts are long overdue, particularly around communities that are subject to enhanced fire risk due to nearby logging. Meanwhile, despite promises of financial aid, training programs, and support for a just transition, there are lingering concerns and mistrust among local workers and businesses who claim consultation has been limited. The Australian states still continuing to log native forests will be watching closely as Victoria paves the way to recovery. The state’s success at managing this transition is likely to influence if, when, and how other governments respond.

Australia is the only ‘developed’ economy/nation on the deforestation hotspot list. Until we are able to demonstrate transitioning from native forest logging is possible, how can we expect Brazil, Indonesia and others to do the same?

The Tasmanian native logging industry has faced increased scrutiny following Victoria's announcement. Images by Chris Taylor and Sarah Rees (supplied).

How do we proceed from here?

1 – Invest in forest restoration, informed and co-managed by First Nations land management practices.

The logging may be soon over, but the restoration effort is vast and only just beginning. Over the course of several decades, crucial habitats such as large old trees, which provide vital nesting hollows, have become increasingly scarce. Significant areas of what was once dense temperate rainforest have not been restored adequately and are now dominated by scrub, wattles and other trees which are unsuitable food sources for koalas and greater gliders. The restoration bill will run into the billions.

The good news is that the world is increasingly recognising the importance of preserving and restoring vital ecosystems like Victoria’s forest highlands. Following the recent COP15 negotiations in Montreal, there is growing global momentum to stop and reverse the loss of biodiversity by 2030. While nascent, Australia’s emerging environmental and biodiversity markets present opportunities to generate and channel much needed investment for this restoration. However, it’s critical that this process is managed well, informed, and led by the people who know the land best. Local Traditional Owners have strong aspirations to reintroduce cultural burning in Victoria’s natural landscapes. This traditional practice, which helps to generate patchy habitats preferred by small animals and prevents lightning and wildfires from consuming the land, will help to heal country and simultaneously bring community together in this collective pursuit.

2 – Swiftly implement legal protection measures through the formal establishment of a Great Forest National Park

Nature positive commitments and the promise of environmental markets alone will not be enough to ensure the protection of Victoria’s old growth forests. Legal protection in the form of a national park is essential. Without the legal safeguards provided by a national park designation, Victoria’s old growth forests would remain vulnerable to various threats such as logging, habitat destruction, and unsustainable land use practices. Establishing a national park will not only secure the ecological integrity of these forests but also demonstrate a firm commitment to their protection, ensuring that they are managed sustainably and enjoyed responsibly by both present and future generations.

Fortunately, due to the tireless efforts of local activists and scientists, significant progress has already been made in mapping and socialising a proposed national park for the region. Supported by the world’s biggest names in conservation, including Sir David Attenborough and Dr. Jane Goodall, the Great Forest National Park proposes an additional 355,000 hectares of protected forests to the existing 170,000 hectares of parks and protected areas in the Central Highlands of Victoria. The region encompasses vital habitats, including the world’s tallest flowering plant, the Mountain Ash, and serves as a refuge for endangered and threatened wildlife, such as the iconic Leadbeater’s possum.

"I think we’ve turned a corner and the Andrews government has taken the first real steps to arresting decline of species and remedying the collapse of ecosystems such as the Mountain Ash forests. There is time pressure to secure strong tenure to prevent future governments from re-opening and logging this vital environmental asset.” - Sarah Rees, Forest Advisor and Director of the Great Forest National Park

3 – Prioritise community upskilling, engagement, and co-design of new industries

While numbers vary, it is estimated some 500 full-time jobs to 4,000 jobs will be impacted due to the early closure of the native logging industry. In some regions, including Gippsland’s Wellington shire, the local government claims some 600 families will be directly impacted.

And although the Victorian Government has pledged an extra $200 million in the budget for the transition to plantation timber, the abrupt decision to close the native timber industry six years ahead of schedule has caught many local businesses and workers off guard. This serves as a cautionary tale to other states, including New South Wales and Tasmania. The importance of engaging local stakeholders and effectively preparing them for the inevitable shift away from native logging cannot be overstated.

With that said, while the transition will be an economic challenge in the short-term, the long-term opportunities for job creation and sustainable economic development are abundant. To harness these opportunities and facilitate further job growth, it is crucial to prioritise strategic long-term investments in various areas. Upskilling programmes can equip workers with the necessary skills to adapt to changing industry needs. Meanwhile investments in tourism infrastructure can leverage the natural beauty and attractions of the region.   

It’s estimated one third of forestry employees, are already in roles focused on growing and managing forests, and could potentially retain sustainable employment opportunities in the sector. This includes employment in the plantation sector which could be enhanced through the expansion of downstream processing, as well as in firefighting and carbon stock management.

ANU professor David Lindenmayer, a renowned forest ecologist and staunch advocate for conservation in the Victorian Highlands, is quick to counter the sceptics. He points out that a staggering 86 percent of valuable native forests are currently being harvested for low-value products like woodchips, paper pulp, and box liners. Moreover, approximately 80 percent of the sawn timber used in housing construction already comes from sustainable plantations. In short, the employment opportunities in the native timber logging industry are limited and drying up.

“Preserving our native forests is worth much more in carbon storage, water production and tourism than they ever were as woodchips." - ANU Professor David Lindenmayer

4 – Reconnect people with nature

Despite their uniqueness, many Australians, including Victorians, are unaware of the old growth forests in Victoria’s highlands. Those fortunate enough to venture into the traditional lands of the Bunurong, Gunaikurnai, Taungurung, the Yorta Yorta and Wurundjeri people are often transported back in time. Oral histories, Dreaming stories, and cultural practices provide insights into the deep-rooted connections between these communities and the land. The fresh air and vast space alone are often enough to provide perspective and revitalise the weary and stressed out.

Simon Harris, co-founder of Wild Allies retreats, is on a mission to reconnect Australians with nature. By creating opportunities for people to immerse themselves in nature, he believes we can tap into a wellspring of inspiration and uncover novel solutions to today’s pressing climate and conservation challenges.

“A true appreciation and understanding of why our wild places must be protected can only be found by directly experiencing them. Now with the end of native forest logging, Victoria’s old growth forests will forever serve as a place of inspiration and a reminder of the priceless value that nature provides.” - Simon Harris, Wild Allies. Images by Majell Backhausen and Simon Harris.

Pressure is now mounting on the Federal Government, as well as in New South Wales and Tasmania, to follow Victoria’s lead in ending native forest logging. Victoria has an opportunity to pave the way and set an example for sustainable forest management, demonstrating that transitioning away from this unviable extractive industry is not only ecologically necessary but also economically beneficial.

By investing in First Nations-led restoration and in innovative industries such as the eco-tourism, sustainable timber farming, and the development of value-added forest products, Victoria can establish itself as a leader in environmental stewardship and responsible resource management. This transition will not only protect and preserve precious forest ecosystems but also create truly sustainable opportunities for employment and economic growth long into the future. Pollination looks forward to continuing our work with First Nations groups, investors, policymakers, scientists, and local stakeholders in this pursuit.


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