14 December, 2011

Timber gets long-term commitment

Adam Morton and Tom Arup
The Age, December 14, 2011

THE government has moved to guarantee the long-term future of Victoria's timber industry, ending decades of protection of native forests from logging.

A new timber industry plan substantially boosts the power of VicForests, the government-owned commercial timber agency that the previous Labor government planned to abolish.

VicForests will take over sole responsibility for calculating the amount of timber that can be sustainably harvested, and will determine when and where logging takes place.

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Forestry companies will be offered native timber contracts lasting 20 years, up from the current maximum of five - a step to encourage investment in new mills and equipment.

The government will also indemnify VicForests against the cost if a contract is broken due to changes in policy, potentially leaving the state with the legal bill should a future government want to reduce native timber logging.

Other proposed changes include allowing ''ecological thinning'' of forests in reserves, parks and water catchments, and a review of timber legislation.

Agriculture Minister Peter Walsh said there were no plans for the amount of native forest harvested to increase, and that ecological thinning would be restricted to existing logging areas. He said Victoria's native forest timber was a ''magnificent and renewable resource'' with the potential to support a vibrant long-term industry.

''There is absolutely nothing sinister in this,'' he said. ''It is about, in the areas that were going to be logged, giving certainty to the industry and making sure forests are managed appropriately.''

The plan fulfils a Coalition election commitment. It comes two months after the release of proposed regulation changes that would give the head of the Department of Sustainability and Environment the power to grant loggers an exemption from endangered species laws.

Mr Walsh said yesterday that it was no secret VicForests had problems in the past, but it had undergone substantial change.

He said the Department of Sustainability and Environment would continue to watch VicForests' work.

Australian Conservation Foundation campaigner Lindsay Hesketh said there was a conflict between giving VicForests greater power and protecting the environment. ''It appears this is the same thing that happened with Forestry Tasmania and led to the disaster Tasmania has become,'' he said.

Wilderness Society campaigner Luke Chamberlain said the plan to lock in compensation payments if a future government changed policy was ''agricultural socialism from the Soviet era''.

Opposition agriculture spokesman John Lenders said the plan failed to balance the need to protect the environment and secure jobs.

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