The Age (article), January 24, 2011
VICTORIA'S new forestry minister has challenged scientific warnings that the timber industry is putting endangered species at risk of extinction, arguing that only a fraction of the state's forest habitat is logged.
Agriculture Minister Peter Walsh, whose portfolio includes responsibility for state forests, denied claims the forest industry was in crisis, but said it was ailing, after years of gradual cuts to timber allocation from state forests stymied investment. The Coalition has promised to restore industry confidence by guaranteeing access to current levels of state forest timber for up to 20 years.
The commitment comes amid warnings from scientists led by David Lindenmayer, an Australian National University ecologist who has worked in Victorian forests since the 1980s, that the combination of bushfires and aggressive logging in the central highlands is putting threatened species such as Leadbeater's Possum, the state faunal emblem, at risk. But Mr Walsh said he was not persuaded the timber industry was a significant threat.
"I find it hard to understand how such a small area of logging can have such a big impact as some people are saying when you consider the totality of the forest area that's never ever touched,'' he said.
''The Department of Sustainability and Environment has never carried out any survey work on threatened species outside of these small areas of production forest. It's difficult to quantify the impacts of the timber industry if you don't actually know against what you are making a comparison. We have asked the department to do this work.''
Professor Lindenmayer said Mr Walsh's comments were those of a minister still getting on top of his brief, and offered to give him a briefing and a tour of central highlands forests.
He said dozens of books and hundreds of scientific papers had been written showing the threat that clear-fell logging in the state's 171,000 hectares of mountain ash forest posed to endangered species.
''We're logging in a way that is very intense and sets back the forest many centuries,'' he said.
Coalition support for state forests logging was a point of difference with Labor, which had promised to sponsor Tasmanian-style "peace talks" between the industry, unions and environmental groups.
Environmentalists say logging in state forests is economically unviable and being propped up by government subsidies.
Mr Walsh said he had no problem with talks being held over the industry's future, but the government should not be involved.
"If the unions and the industry and whatever want to sit down and have discussions I think that's appropriate that they do it, but by government being in there when we've said what we want to do would not necessarily be the most productive thing,'' he said.
He said his office was considering results of a Treasury review into the state's logging agency VicForests, which received a multimillion dollar bailout from taxpayers last financial year. But he was dismissive of a Brumby government plan to replace the agency with a body that had a broader remit also to allocate water and carbon rights.
"I really think they [Labor] were trying to be all things to all people and I really don't know how it was going to actually have a meaningful role - it just seems such a broad brush thing with no detail," he said.