28 September, 2011

More to logs than jobs

Prue Acton
ABC Environment, 28 SEP 2011

Logging the forests of south east Australia releases three per cent of our carbon dioxide emissions, and destroys precious biodiversity. Yet this activity is subsidised by our governments.

FORTY YEARS AGO, the NSW Government agreed to supply 5,000 tons of waste from saw logs to the newly established export woodchip mill at Eden. A Japanese and an Australian company, Harris Daishowa, then jointly owned the mill.

By 2008, the Eden chip mill had become South East Fibre Exports and was wholly owned by Nippon Paper and Itochu, exporting around 200 times the original quantity, one million tonnes of woodchips.

Make no mistake, these days woodchips are not waste from saw logging, woodchips are the main game. From logging operations that are close to clear felling in many compartments, 80 per cent of all logs along the Far South Coast of NSW are woodchipped, and 90 per cent of logs taken from the Eden region.

Forty years of heavy industrial logging has taken its toll on the forests, their water catchments, their wildlife and soils. Threatened and endangered species numbers have dropped alarmingly. Even once common species like the koala are in danger of imminent regional extinction.

Logging has changed the character of the southeast forests - from wet to dry schlerophyll, with dangerously wildfire-prone regrowth. And climate change will exacerbate the dangers. Under the NSW Forestry Act, the State government is charged with protecting the character of forests. But in the face of plummeting yields it is condoning short logging rotations, even though we know that it takes 180 years to restore water and carbon levels and more than 400 years to restore forests to their former glory - if the complex interrelationships of species from higher order, koalas, greater gliders, powerful owls, down to soil microbes can ever be recovered.

In recent years consumer preferences for plantation chips and the global financial crisis have reduced demand for Australian native forest chips from the Japanese paper-makers by around 30 per cent.

This should be good news for our native forests. However the industry now seeks a new income stream supplying native forests for electricity generation, in Australia and abroad. South East Fibre Exports currently has an application before the NSW Government to build a wood-fired power station, and its wood pellet plant approved by local government is close to completion. Both projects will use mainly native forest inputs.

As part of its Clean Energy Futures package, the Commonwealth ruled out native forest biomass as a renewable energy fuel that was eligible to earn Renewable Energy Credits. However this welcome decision does not necessarily reduce the threat to our southeast forests.

The chipmill says it intends to go ahead with constructing the power plant once it is approved, regardless of losing the economic benefit of earning RECs.

Moreover there is nothing to stop the Eden chipmill exporting chips or pellets for electricity generation overseas.

The group to which I belong, South East Region Conservation Alliance represents around 12 groups and is affiliated with Environment East Gippsland. It is also a founding member of Australian Forests and Climate Alliance. SERCA led the way in alerting the public and campaigning against burning native forest wood for electricity. SERCA applauds the Federal Government for ruling out eligibility to earn RECs, the inclusion of native forests in the Carbon Farming Initiative and the Biodiversity Fund. However none of these initiatives will force the much needed restructuring of the industry in this region.

The Eden chipmill claims its exports are now back to pre-GFC levels. Currently Forests NSW is seeking to recruit more logging contractors on long term contracts, including from Victoria as numbers there are cut by 30 per cent; already we have seen a crew from Tasmania relocated in SE NSW, despite its having received a $830,000 payout for exiting the industry in Tasmania.

It looks as if both Forests NSW and the Eden chipmill intend to intensify their logging/ chipping/pelletising.

The forests of southeast Australia are now acknowledged to be the most carbon dense in the world. Their value as carbon and water stores is vastly greater than the value of the logs produced.

Who is winning here? Not the environment, and not the taxpayer. Last year NSW Forests lost $15 million from its native forest sector, and across the border Vic Forests made a small profit only because of a grant for its bushfire recovery services. Taxpayers are effectively subsidising the industry and workers' jobs.

The logging industry provides 214 direct jobs in SE NSW and 138 in East Gippsland, including logging crews, truck drivers and chip mill workers - a minute proportion of jobs in the southeast region.

Logging for the Eden chip mill alone produces the equivalent of around three per cent of Australia's annual greenhouse gas emissions - similar in extent to the emissions from the brown coal fired Hazelwood power station in Victoria, that the Commonwealth considers to be unacceptably high.

Natural forests are resilient, diverse - evolutionary masterpieces - it is time we changed from mining eco systems such as forests to valuing them in the 21st Century for climate, water, wildlife and beauty.

Prue Acton is an Australian fashion designer who has received an OBE for her work. She has a passion for the forests of south east NSW. To celebrate 2011 UN International Year of the Forests, SERCA has put together a travelling photographic exhibition: Natural Forests - Australia's wilderness coast. It opens in Cyclone Gallery, 399 Clarendon Street, South Melbourne, 6-28 October before moving to Gallery Bodalla, NSW, 5 November to 5 December 2011.

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