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Opinion Piece - Common Water, Common Risk


The mist is clearing, it’s 9.00 a.m. in my office in the Yarra Valley on a bitterly cold Sunday morning. The faithful are praying, the farmers are selling in the markets and the coffee revellers are emerging from their cosy country Bed and Breakfasts to take in the majesty of Victoria’s Central Highlands, the mountains that cradle Melbourne.

Traffic is building in a procession of tourists with many continuing their passage over the Black Spur to find places to ride, tracks to drive and quiet spots to fish. It’s like every other Sunday morning but these days there exists a deeper industrial base note; amidst the hum of cars there can be heard the deep rumble of log trucks: jinkers, quad-dogs and B-doubles. The log trucks roar through the mountains, the main street of Healesville and every incoming and outgoing road through this blossoming tourist town. Engine brakes vibrate the heavy glass of my office windows. Mount St Leonard in the north remains hidden in clouds and even the birds are reluctant to move on this cold morning, but not the trucks, never the trucks, they do not stop.

On February 20, 2009, thirteen days after the day our country experienced the most horrific fires since European settlement, the log trucks moved in. Rumours abound in local pubs as to how many loggers and their rigs were shuttled into the Central Highlands forests after Black Saturday, but current ‘guesstimates’ put it at 165 trucks and men. They have come in droves from as far as Eden, Cann River, Trafalgar, Orbost, Bruthen and other such remote places. Rumours are also whispered of the fixed tenders for our trees that brought so many from so far.

big logs on truck

 We were told by the government that the trucks were part of an important social response to fires, that logging the forests would aid in retrieving the economic losses suffered by the state's forestry company, VicForests. It was about local jobs and helping towns get back on their feet. Michael Ryan, scientist from VicForests, even claimed that it was part of the ‘greater good’ - that logging our damaged ecosystems meant that they were not logging in healthy ecosystems. Somehow we were to take comfort from this.

But the ‘greater good’ has manifested as a major risk. Logging after Black Saturday has damaged very delicate ecosystems still in recovery. Salvage logging has cut 2000 hectares of ecosystems supplying water. In addition, hundreds of previously logged coupes have been burnt back to the ground as have green forest coupes now logged and burnt. Clearfell logging on such a scale is impairing a recovering ecosystem that Victorians need in order to live. This is placing our forests at risk from further fire, water loss and ecosystem collapse. The government are the risk managers and they are not managing risk likelihood they are escalating the likelihood of risk. A major breach in catchment management.

Water yield is directly linked to forest age. Young forests use and transpire more water than mature forests so a heavily-logged landscape, in regeneration, will drink more than a burnt forest left undisturbed. Salvage logging has made worse a deteriorated forest estate by further degrading an impaired system. To gauge how much forest has been salvage logged in Black Saturday’s forests, picture Melbourne’s heritage park lands. A single salvage logging operation clears the hectare (ha) equivalent of the Flagstaff Gardens (7.2 ha ), Royal Botanical Gardens (35.4 ha), Kings Domain Gardens (36 ha) and the MCG’s Yarra Park (35.4 ha). That’s just one salvage logging coupe. They have now salvage logged forests equal to 285 x Treasury Gardens or an area four times the size of the City of Melbourne, clearfelling the places where regional towns and Melbourne communities collect drinking water.

After Black Saturday, the government sanctioned logging in drinking water catchments normally ‘closed’ to protect water quality; the Armstrong catchment. Soil on this steep, south-facing and burnt forest was unstable. Add tonnes of machinery and movement, human faeces and log dragging and you get a dirty water risk rating increase. Why would a government with a strong water policy do this? It does seem an odd gesture by a Labor government that boasted an election policy in 1999 to ‘Strongly protect(ing) Victorian water catchment areas and exclude(ing) logging in "closed" catchments’.

supply chain 2
burnt forest

The Labor Minister responsible for authorising the 1999 water policy was Minister John Lenders, the same Minister, 10 years on, who has set VicForests loose into the smoking catchments despite warnings, by members of the scientific community, of the hazardous consequences of further forest disturbance.

The Labor government overrode Commonwealth clean water regulations, allowing unstable, damaged forests to be cut for cheap pulp logs from Melbourne’s drinking water. The financial justification for the huge haul, if it resembles any other year, will yield another deficit in fiscal return to consolidated revenue. Only this financial year, there should read a small line that discloses a $12 million dollar bushfire grant given to mills to cover salvaged pulp logs traveling as far as 700 kilometres to their door.

Equally as concerning, is that the wood is being delivered to some mills under a ‘deferred payment’ scheme with mills promising to pay the state in due course. No doubt this ‘never never’ scheme will add to the mounting debt amassed by VicForests each year. Last year there were no logging royalties returned to consolidated revenue. The debt from this supply chain is squarely borne by the taxpayer so to commit to deferred payments in this financial climate is an unacceptable risk.

Every native forest coupe that is logged, VicForests makes a financial loss of approx. $10,000 (VicForests Annual Report 2009).

Since 2003, the Our Forest, Our Future policy has delivered at least $88 million to the logging industry to exit, with small grants to improve ‘efficiency’. At least $37 million has been awarded to forestry management research, unaccountable millions have been spent by DSE/DPI forestry support with the annual figure for forest management in Victoria somewhere between $419 and $640 million per year (SOFR 2008). 

VicForests sells our forests for $130 million but the costs to run VicForests equal $135 million so it’s legitimate to argue that VicForests is operating an insolvent business, certainly in contravention of the Federal Competitive Neutrality Policy. The policy states: Government businesses should not enjoy any net competitive advantage simply as a result of their public sector ownership. Banks can only float faulty businesses for so long un-aided.

loggers wives lock on
anger around logging

VicForests has run at a loss every year of operation since their inception in 2004. Take out the grants, government department prop-ups and royalties unpaid and you have a business that should have closed after its first year. Born from the Our Forest Our Future policy, VicForests remains a murky hybrid of under-priced wood and consolidated debt.

The  Our Forest Our Future policy moved the forestry debt across from the loggers to the state-owned VicForests. The result: a falsely inflated GBE that cannot respond in line with demand or market change, is government funded to improve efficiency in cutting, so it logs more resources with less employment faster than the forests regenerate and to the detriment of commercial commitments to provide sustainable wood.

The implications for Victorians is that we are forfeiting our free, naturally clean water for low, commodity priced wood that causes Melbourne’s air and water quality to drop, emits major levels of greenhouse gas and damages regional economies.

These rich native forests, being sold for less money per metre than 15 year old plantation trees, grew in these catchments whilst Sir Henry Parkes delivered his famous oration in 1889 on the sensible conduct of government business. 3.5 million people filled Australia then, now we have reached 5.5 million in Victoria alone with 4 million dependent on the Central Highlands forests for water. The question now might be asked: is our forest policy protecting the interests of the common good?

The legislated business contract that continues to bind our drinking water to wood chips is the Forests (Wood Pulp Agreement) Act 1996.  It was first drafted in 1935 and works rather like a vice around any well-intentioned Victorian water policy, conspicuously tightened by union heavies at the first sign of political withdrawal from the agreement. This perverse contract has woven Victoria’s water fate into wood supply for pulp until 2030.

However, for the first time in history, a legal window has opened for our government to responsibly exit this contract without compensatory duty and immune from election politicking. The agreement allows for a cessation of the contract if a major disturbance has rendered the continuation of forest supply unsustainable.

With the largest state forest reserve for timber gutted from the fires, the Central Highlands, an opportunity exists for the government to re-think it’s relationship with Australian Paper, to respond to the needs of its' constituents and to comply with competition policy by aligning plantation stock with the pulp needs of Australian Paper. This would end commercial pulp logging in the damaged headwaters of the Murray/Goulburn, Yarra, LaTrobe and Thomson Rivers.

Each day that logging is further sanctioned means a debt is cut ever deeper into tomorrow’s water supply. The 1939 fire-affected forests are now reaching maturity where they are releasing a great deal more water into our system, but logging is reversing this positive water cycle . The science is clear, but the politics are as muddy and unstable as a burnt logging coupe.

All of our water supply falls in regional, fairly marginal electorates. Wherever there are water catchments, there too are forestry union votes. The lion’s share of Melbourne’s water supply is in the federal seat of McEwen, which covers much of the Murray/Goulburn headwaters and the Yarra basin; 36 votes decide its leadership.

Logging issues have historically rocked these regional seats. Forestry union, bannered log trucks have trawled the seat of Gembrook threatening leaders not to challenge wood chip arrangements. Equally, the Wilderness Society’s stump truck has done it’s rounds in the seat of Seymour espousing the virtues of healthy, unlogged forests. Labor MP Tammy Lobato has faced extremely threatening behaviour from industry and yet her senior ministers permitted it to occur. Ms Lobato is one of the few Victorian members of parliament courageous enough to defy union pressure and to ask for the logging to be stopped. The lack of government response to logging in regional zones has suffocated opportunities to increase water supply in Victoria.

x trees

As the clouds start to lift and the sage lustre of the forests emerge beneath the morning sun, I am moved, as always, by the majesty of our mighty Central Highlands forests; freely pumping oxygen for us to live and breathe, percolating rainwater for us to drink and storing carbon to maintain our atmosphere.

I wonder if voters will continue to bear silent witness to the tragedy in forfeiting our forests for wood chips? Wood chipping our catchments is sacrificing our basic human rights to affordable, clean water, our rights to a viable regional economy - and good risk management of our common assets for the common good. Unsustainable native forestry has, for decades, enjoyed a rare commercial refuge, with no competition and no opposition.

This year, perhaps the clouds will lift on this systemic swindle and a responsible leader will emerge, to legitimately act for the social welfare of all Victorians; a strong leader who values the health of our communities over business subsidies that enable cheap copy paper. In the words of Sir Henry Parkes: ‘We must unite to protect our common interests, our common privileges’ - or shall we galvanize a common fate, permitting unions and industry hacks to line the pockets of the wood chip corporations and ultimately bind us all to a state of water scarcity and water debt? John Cain assigned these forests to chips, so it must be Labor who extinguishes the flame of poor business contracts and now save our forests.

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Opinion Piece - Common Water Common Risk

A very well written & informative piece, I find it incredible that only 13 days after the bushfires that logging commenced. The damage to the plant and animal habitats in already decimated environments is outrageous, shame on Vicforests. The effects to water supplies and catchment areas and increasing need of water for young saplings is devastating. The effects on ecosystems & water sustainability is shocking, ignoring the science is even more shocking. Typical knee jerk reaction. If the concerns are over too much timber = potential for further fires, perhaps the local Indigenous Peoples could be consulted in fire management practices.
Whilst I do not live in Victoria, I do love Victoria. Increasing sustainable ecotourism would be of more benefit, than paying loggers to destroy these amazing environments.
Janine Farrell

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