12 September, 2010

Victoria no longer in Gunns' sights

Melissa Fyfe
The Age (article), September 12, 2010

Timber giant Gunns, a major player in Victoria's $3billion native forest industry, has confirmed it will move out of logging operations in state-owned forests.

Gunns chief executive officer Greg L'Estrange - responsible for 40 per cent of Victoria's native forest industry - told The Sunday Age that while moving out of Tasmania's native forests was the priority, the principle also applied long-term to Victoria.

The Victorian Greens have seized on the move and called on the Brumby Government to immediately end native forest logging and transfer the industry into plantations. The party will be campaigning on the issue in the lead-up to November's state poll. ''It should have stopped ages ago,'' said Greens candidate for Melbourne Brian Walters. ''There's no reason it can't stop immediately.''

But the Victorian Association of Forest Industries vowed to fight the Greens on native forest logging, making the issue a key battleground in the lead-up to November. Executive director Philip Dalidakis conceded that the Gunns decision had ''the potential to establish a precedent in the public mind''.

But he said the company was pursuing its own corporate strategy, which had little to do with a broader industry strategy, appropriate government policy or responsible forest management.

Shutting down Victoria's native forest logging would increase imports of timber products harvested under irresponsible environmental regimes, he said. ''This is environmental hypocrisy at its worst. The Greens have argued against native forestry and recently against plantation development, which makes me wonder which magic potion will appear to produce the wood and paper products consumers demand,'' said Mr Dalidakis.

The Sunday Age understands the Brumby Government is keen to bolster its environmental credentials before the state election by announcing a small reduction in native forest logging. Party strategists are believed to be currently looking at some of the controversial logging operations in Melbourne's water catchments.

Both Labor and the Coalition back Victoria's native forest industry, which is managed, on behalf of the taxpayer, by VicForests and provides one third of the state's timber. Government spokeswoman Emma Tyner said yesterday that any bans on the industry would mean unsustainable options such as ''steel, aluminium or illegal timber from overseas'' and that was ''unacceptable''.

Opposition environment spokeswoman Mary Wooldridge said the Coalition supported a vibrant logging industry. She said the party believed it was not possible for native forest logging operations to move entirely into plantations because there were simply not enough plantations to support the industry.

In the past few years, Tasmanian-based Gunns has built up its stake in Victoria's logging industry, with large sawmilling assets at Heyfield and Alexandra. Mr L'Estrange said it was difficult in Victoria to transfer to plantations because the plantation trees are mostly in the state's south-west, far from its sawmills.

Nevertheless, the company had taken on a broad policy of removing itself from native forests. ''There are no immediate plans for Victoria, but what we are saying is that we are progressively moving out of native forest logging. The first thing on the agenda, however, is to deal with what is happening in Tasmania,'' he said.

Mr L'Estrange stressed that no decision had been taken on Gunns' Victorian assets, and the broader fate of native forest logging would remain in the hands of the community and the government. Mr L'Estrange shocked the Australian logging industry last week when he announced that ''native forest is not part of our future''.

The new-look Gunns, following the departure of controversial leader John Gay, is keen to reduce the conflict around its operations in Tasmania to satisfy overseas investors and customers and to ensure its controversial pulp mill goes ahead.

The environment movement have long argued that woodchips for paper - and not the high-quality sawlog products - drive the Victorian industry. The industry says that while woodchips make up 65 per cent of products from the state's forests, sawlogs drive the industry and woodchips are largely a by-product.

Plantations in Victoria are growing every year, but the industry says there are not enough sawlog plantations - as opposed to woodchip plantations for paper production - to allow the move out of native forests into plantations. According to the government's timber strategy, about 730,000 hectares in eastern Victoria, or 9 per cent of the public native forests estate, is available for timber production.

There are 229,000 hectares of hardwood plantations in Victoria for short-rotation, high-quality woodchips and 222,000 hectares of plantation for sawlogs and woodchips.


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