AS of January 1, Gippsland’s hardwood industry is now largely gone, with harvesting of timber from native forests on Crown land no longer permitted.

Gippsland’s native forest is part of the vast swathe of forest that stretches along the Great Dividing Range from the Dandenongs to behind Brisbane.

It’s integral to Australia having the seventh biggest forest estate in the world after Russia, Brazil, Canada, the US, China and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Victoria is still one third forest, even after land clearing for agriculture and towns and cities.

These hardwood forests have provided Victorians with high quality timber for housing, such as framing, flooring and windows, and furniture – beds, dining tables, chairs, sideboards and kitchen fit-outs.

Victorian Ash has been used in engineered wood as huge columns and beams that are as strong as steel.

Lower quality hardwood timber has become fences, garden stakes and pallets while traditionally; pulp was turned into white copy paper at Australian Paper’s Maryvale Mill – most of these products were from timber processed in Gippsland.

The timber was largely harvested under the forestry science and sustainable practices that were developed in Germany in the 18th Century and then spread throughout much of the Western world. These practises were adapted to Australian conditions.

The former Andrews Government’s decision to close Victoria’s native forest industry, taken behind closed doors, is the culmination of successive cutbacks in the timber available to industry over the past 50 years. It was a process of attrition. Gippsland bore the brunt of this development.

Initially, the reductions in native timber were based on sound public policy but they became increasingly driven by ideology and a shabby desire for ‘green’ votes at state elections.

Key drivers were the huge expansion of national parks and other reserves that exclude timber harvesting; increasing environmental protection in state forest available for timber production in federal-state agreements; relentless pressure from green groups; dubious political decisions; the massive fires of the past two decades; and new harvesting techniques.

The 1939 Black Friday bushfires had a massive impact; the Central and East Gippsland forests were opened to harvesting to provide timber for the post-war building boom due to the damaged hardwood forest close to Melbourne.

The then Forests Commission realised that the relentless use of the hardwood forests in the housing boom, particularly as post-war immigration grew rapidly, was unsustainable.

Forest researchers pushed to develop a softwood resource for use in general house framing; the upshot was the dramatic expansion in the 1960s of pine plantations over the next 20 years based on interest-free Commonwealth loans.

From the 1950s to the early 1970s, quality native hardwood saw log production was 1.2 to 1.5 million cubic metres per year (m3/yr), according to a paper by the former chief executive of the then Victorian Association of Forest Industries, the late Graeme Gooding, who grew up in Seaspray.

In 1970, only 205,267 hectares of national parks had been created in Victoria’s native forests. In that year, the State Coalition Government formed the Land Conservation Council, which over the next three decades established an extensive reserve system founded on sound science.

The studies included special investigations into wilderness, rivers and streams. Out of that process, an extensive reserve system was created, including the Alpine National Park and other national parks in East Gippsland.

In 1985, at the instigation of the Cain Labor Government, the Professor of Forestry at Melbourne University, Ian Ferguson, conducted a Timber Industry Inquiry -the first public forestry inquiry since 1897 – that was described as an “excellent report” by the responsible Minister.

Out of that inquiry came the highly praised 1986 Victorian Timber Industry Strategy (TIS), which introduced detailed forest management plans; the Code of Forest Practice, where harvesting was prohibited in streamside buffers and steep slopes; water catchment management; audits of compliance; action for endangered species; coupe plans; saw log traceability; and 15-year licences for industry.

Under TIS, sustainable yield was calculated on a regional basis by foresters who had an intimate, first-hand knowledge of the forests, with help from aerial photography. Areas of forest were to be harvested on a rotation of 80 years. ‘Sustainable yield’ basically means that trees must be regrown to replace those cut down to guarantee a long-term timber supply.

The Federal Government then took a hand in what had been a state responsibility; the Commonwealth produced a national forest policy statement in 1992 that aimed to create a long-term consistent approach to forest conservation and management.

It had been inspired by the 1992 Rio Earth conference and the subsequent action by leading timber nations, who met in Montreal, Canada and drew up recommendations for sustainable forestry. Out of that came the Keating Labor Government’s ground-breaking regional forest agreements (RFAs), described by Mr Gooding as a “ground-breaking process”.

“Few if any countries around the world … attempted such a detailed national systematic analysis with a view to establishing a CAR (comprehensive, adequate and representative) forest reserve system,” he said.

The RFAs were about balancing conservation, biodiversity and socio-economic outcomes.
Each RFA involved at least 50 assessments of projects in disciplines ranging from biology and zoology to economics and sociology.

Specific targets were set for the reservation of each vegetation type, old growth forests and wilderness, while at the same time encouraging a secure 20-year resource for industry and encouragement for value-adding.

The five RFAs in Victoria (1998-2000) – three in Gippsland – increased reserves by 36.5 per cent, establishing a comprehensive reserve system of 2.86 million hectares – more than 50 per cent of the total public land in the regions.

The Central Highlands RFA added 116,000ha to the reserve system, an increase of 64 per cent, to 297,000ha, including a specific plan for the vulnerable Leadbeater’s Possum. The sustainable yield was calculated at 345,000m3/yr.

The Gippsland RFA added an extra 266,000ha to reserves to 780,000ha – about half of all public land in the RFA region – with a sustainable yield of 115,000m3/yr.

All up, from the 1990s to 2000, about 800,000m3/yr of quality saw logs on average were sold, with less than 10,000 ha of forest annually harvested.

After the RFAs, the sustainable yield was calculated at 828,500 m3 of timber to be harvested annually.

However, new satellite data altered the sustainable yield figures; it became increasingly clear that yield estimates were overstated.

The situation was evaluated by Professor Jerry Vanclay of Southern Cross University in Lismore and Dr Brian Turner, who produced an overall report with a tentative estimated sustainable yield of 737,800 m3/year, a reduction of 11 per cent on the RFAs.

However, the Bracks Labor Government went ahead and instigated logging cuts without any outside expert opinion. Professor Vanclay, speaking on Radio National on March 10, 2002, said the cuts were premature as more data was needed to better calculate the resource estimate. There was also some contention about the analysis from other experts, such as Professor Ferguson.

The Bracks cuts became the landmark policy, Our Forests Our Future (OFOF), in 2002, which reduced saw log supply levels by 31 per cent to 567,500 m3/yr and promised industry access to 10 per cent of the state’s timber. However, no allowance was made to leave ‘fat in the system’ to cater for fires.

Key events since OFOF included:

  • At the 2003 election, the Bracks Government unilaterally created a National Park in the Otways, effectively tearing up the West RFA that it signed in March 2000 promising industry 20 years’ timber supply. The Vanclay report had deemed Otways’ logging sustainable. Industry received no replacement forest, apart from a small, ineffective plantation. The investment climate was badly dented. A Latrobe Valley logging contractor stood as an independent in the safe Labor seat of Morwell, where the sitting Labor MP scraped home;
  • VicForests was created in 2004 with the task of selling native forest timber at auction and rehabilitating forest coupes;
  • In 2006-07, the Bracks Government, backed by the Liberal Opposition, put 45,000 hectares in East Gippsland in reserves, with no replacement forest for industry;
  • Over a decade, massive fires burnt out about four million hectares of forest, most in Gippsland and much in reserves areas, leading to huge cutbacks in the timber resource.
  • Billions of animals died in the bushfires, and;
  • By 2013, VicForests’ medium-term resource outlook was for 132,000m3 a year of D+ ash sawlogs and 100,000m3 per year of mixed species D+ sawlog – about 230,000m3 per year.

The fires prompted the Leadbeater’s Possum to be officially designated as ‘critically endangered’. To protect the possum, environmentalists campaigned for a Great Forest National Park that would stretch east of Melbourne to north of the Latrobe Valley.

In 2013, an advisory group of Zoos Victoria and industry recommended a plan to support the possum and a sustainable timber industry. This included improved fire management, excluding timber harvesting within 200 metres of known colonies and within 100 metres of old growth forests, deferring harvesting from high-quality potential habitat, and doing surveys to identify new colonies.

A 2016 report by the Victorian Environment Assessment Council (VEAC) found that causes of the Ash saw log decline included 22,000m3 due to the impact of measures to protect the possum and 43,000m3 due to expected future impact of possum protected measures.

VEAC warned about the impact of climate change but said VicForests’ wood supply modelling was sound and the sustainable harvest levels were reasonable.

Surveys subsequently showed thousands of possums had been found in the Central Highlands, with 688 known colonies detected – 535 since the more intense surveys started – mainly in production areas.

Little surveying was done in protected areas, but possums were found in post-harvest regrowth. A peer-reviewed study found the possum further east than previously detected.

A review by the Department of the Environment of the surveys argued that changing to forest landscape planning – the approach taken in Europe – was the best way to manage endangered species such as the possum.

Policy should be based on an assessment of the species in the broader forest context, not on an individual coupe basis.

This report disappeared into the bowels of the environmental bureaucracy and was never acted upon.

The ignoring of the landscape context, and rigid separation of production and reserved forest areas, was to have a devastating impact on timber availability.

VicForests was “squeezed” for forest and forced to harvest near small towns such as Mirboo North and Noojee, sparking opposition to its plans. Industry figures also did not want to harvest near these towns.

A report by Deloitte showed that in 2015-16, Gippsland’s native forest industry generated a direct $770 million in revenue and supported more than 2500 jobs, most in the regions.

This study did not include downstream processing in areas such as furniture and cabinet making in Melbourne.

The RFAs became a focal point for green activists, who launched several legal actions through the High Court, the Federal court and state courts in bid to close the native forest industry.

VicForests lost several cases but won them on appeal.

Data for the update of the RFAs showed that the Victorian RFAs had not lived up to their original expectations. A total of 657,000ha of native forest had been added to conservation areas, raising the total to well above more than half of public forest. The volume of saw log and pulp logs in state forests had been halved from about 2.2 million m3 in 2000-01 to 1.2m m3 in 2015-16.

Retention harvesting, where clumps of habitat trees are retained in logging coupes, began to replace clear-felling. This further lowered harvested log volumes as previous sustainable yield figures were based on harvesting the entire coupe.

However, the government dropped a bombshell announcement in November 2019 that the native forest industry would close in 2030 with step downs from 2024. The Minister for the Environment, Lily D’Ambrosio, was pictured celebrating with environmentalists in the Strathbogie Ranges.

Then, the immediate summer after the announcement featured the devastating 2019-20 bushfires that burnt 650,000 hectares of native forest set aside for the timber industry in Gippsland, the Yarra Valley and Victoria’s north-east.

The fires affected nearly 760,000 ha of Victoria’s CAR reserve system, which totals 4.3 million ha. Of this, 2.9 million ha are in the RFAs.

A major state and federal review of the 2019-20 bushfires, released in January, made 37 recommendations, chief of which was that forest and fire management should be done on a landscape scale, with active management over long time frames.”The forests are sick because we are not managing them properly,” said panel member Tony Bartlett, a decorated bushfire expert. “The fires affect all values in reserves. Logging is not the enemy of these forests. Uncontrolled wildfire … is having the biggest impact.”

The review concluded that Victoria’s annual timber supply commitments could still be met and support ecologically sustainable forest management.

Environmentalists maintained that the Greater Glider was the biggest victim of the fires, and stricter controls on timber harvesting were introduced to protect the glider.

Two green groups won a case in the Supreme Court, which found that VicForests had failed to adequately survey for protected glider species. Harvesting of native timber effectively ceased; mills began to run out of wood, which eventually led to Australian Paper ceasing production of white copy paper at its Latrobe Valley Maryvale mill. Between 150-200 workers lost their jobs.

Debate centred on the wording in the code of timber practice, particularly the interpretation of the ‘precautionary principle’; the Opposition maintained that a tweaking of the wording in the Act would stop the legal action.

However, another bombshell occurred in the state budget, when the government decreed that the native timber industry would close in January 2024. It blamed the continuation of legal action.

The industry’s dire outlook was compounded when the Supreme Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal by VicForests against the court’s earlier decision. The Court of Appeal held that the trial judge had correctly interpreted the requirements of the code and that the declarations and injunctions were lawful. There was no consideration of the landscape context.

Forestry Australia, a professional forestry body, fears that the court decision means that the future of Victoria’s forests has been captured by political ideology and complex legalities rather than being determined by science and professional expertise.

On August 2021, the Department of Jobs said the maximum potential harvest levels of D+ saw log were 172,000m3 for Ash and 144,000m3 for Mixed Species, with about 4.6 per cent of Victoria’s 7.9 million ha available for harvesting annually. In Europe, industry has access to 80 per cent of the mixed softwood and hardwood native forest, with about 12 per cent in parks and reserves.

Subsequently, DEECA completed ‘risk assessments’ for 142 threatened species and communities, placing another 100,000 hectares-plus of forest in protection zones and protections for 37 ‘threatened species’.

Apart from isolated specialist timbers, harvesting of native forest in Victoria is now gone.