The Age, March 23, 2007
THE recently announced closure of the Black Forest Timbers (BFT) sawmill at Woodend is far more than just another story about yet another small business shutting its gates. It's the story of the end of a myth that has underpinned the state's logging industry for three decades: the myth of sustainable logging.
Black Forest Timber was established in 1974 at a time when the logging industry was struggling with low profits, dropping demand and a dwindling log supply caused by decades of overlogging and poor forest management. Loggers were being hammered by imports and competition from domestic pine.
Out of this crisis sprang a new industry model. BFT was both a creation of and an ardent practitioner of the then new business model. The new approach changed fundamentally the way state forests have been managed as well as the relationships between government, industry, bureaucracy and the community.
In the 1980s the new logging industry plan gained momentum and was embraced by governments at all levels, by the unions and the bureaucrats. An essential change was the move to intensive logging. Selective logging all but disappeared in favour of clear-felling. At the same time the areas of logging also dramatically increased.
In turn, this required the introduction of export woodchipping as a convenient way to profit from and practically deal with the huge mountain of trees being felled.
Herein lay a troublesome hurdle. Woodchipping has never been accepted by Victorians. Many polls have been carried out over many years. They all register a very high disapproval level. In an effort to sell the new approach to government and the community, a PR campaign was mounted and vigorously maintained, often using government grants.
The plan became more than a plan; it became a dogma. A new vocabulary was consciously developed to distinguish old "unsustainable logging" from the new "sustainable logging". "Logging" became "harvesting". The "logging industry" became the "timber industry". "Woodchips" weren't chipped trees, but rather the "waste from the forest floor that would otherwise be burnt". From dogma to mythology, criticism was incomprehensible to believers.
The industry needed huge subsidies, and they got them; again and again. They sold the idea of "sustainability" at every opportunity. It justified the enormous injection of taxpayer support because it carried with it the notion of building something for the future, something permanent.
In this new era, loggers were not only successful business managers, they were environmental stewards. This was an important part of the message.
There have been many industry restructures and rescue plans over the past 30 years.
As industry target after target failed, new plans substituted for old as quickly they failed. "Value adding" has arguably been used by no industry as successfully as Victoria's hardwood loggers for raiding the public purse. There have been export grants and product development grants. There were grants to "prove up" the viability of kiln-dried beams. There were grants to improve efficiency of kiln drying and steaming. There have been transport subsidies, marketing subsidies and several adjustment packages.
For a small sawmill with limited prospects of expansion, BFT's access to government support has been extraordinary. In just the past four years it has received about $1 million a year in transport subsidies and has also received several $1 million-plus industry development grants. Distributed over the
14 sawmill worker jobs disappearing with the closing of the sawmill, this equates to subsidies and grants of $150,000 a worker a year over the past four years.
The amounts of money thrown at hardwood loggers in recent times is sobering. In 2000, Steve Bracks signed an agreement with the Howard Government that locked in a further 20 years of export woodchipping and clear-felling in western Victoria; $63 million was set aside for more industry adjustments and to ensure this was a final helping hand from government. BFT was overjoyed. Two years later the Bracks Government determined that the local forests upon which BFT depended were logged out and it decided to end all native hardwood logging west of the Hume Highway. It introduced yet another "new plan": Our Forests, Our Future. Bracks threw another $80 million in industry adjustment at the loggers and reduced sawlogging by about 30 per cent but did not reduce the area of state forest being logged. Instead, less went to sawmills and more to woodchips. They continue to believe and invest.
Good myths are potent and often endure against the odds. So it was with the sustainable logging myth. Because Labor and Liberal governments had invested so heavily, they ignored the obvious warning signs of failure. Instead, they became more desperate to "make it work". Clear-felling and woodchipping were rapidly killing the hardwood sawmilling industry. Because failures were always met with new adjustment plans, failures were hidden by the "good news" of new grants and investments.
In 2000 an alternative industry plan was developed by conservation groups and Treasury. It offered a no job loss, no woodchipping, transition into plantations for western Victoria. Initially, the state's peak industry body and some sawmills received it positively.
It was the veto of BFT and the CFMEU forestry division that scuttled any hope of a secure future in plantations. Instead, BFT opted for a continued future in native forests, and hoped for the impossible.
New Zealand, with an economy about the size of Victoria's, and facing the same postwar logging industry structural problems, took another path:
it diversified and eventually completely made the transition into purpose-planted plantations. It ended all logging in public native forests in 2000.
By 2004 the NZ logging industry directly employed 23,000 people and accounted for 4 per cent of gross domestic product. It had annual sales of $5 billion, with $3.5 billion of that earned in export. It was NZ's third-biggest export earner. In Orbost, long viewed as the logging capital of Victoria, the signs along the highway proudly identifying Orbost as Victoria's timber town have recently been removed. Expect another round of industry adjustment packages soon.
Marcus Ward is forestry spokesman for the Victorian Greens