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#AceNewsDesk – Native logging ban leaves ‘bitter taste’ in mouth of forestry families, amid timber supply concerns
A decision to end native logging in Western Australia is “bitterly disappointing” for the Dawson family, who are facing what could be the end of their business after 40 years in forestry.
Bernie Dawson says he has tried to “insulate” his dad from the stress his family has experienced since the WA government last year announced a ban on native logging from 2024.
“[My brother] Daryl and I have had to sit down and have a real man-to-man discussion with our families,” Mr Dawson said.
“What are we going to do? What will there be for us come 2024?”
The Dawson family’s Donnybrook business is one of multiple WA companies facing the end of an era when the last jarrah and marri logs are felled commercially in 2023.
The state government says it is investing in a new future for forestry, with Premier Mark McGowan pledging $350 million for the expansion of softwood forestry — primarily pine plantations — to address looming timber shortages in the future.
It has also set aside $80 million to help affected businesses.
But questions remain about the viability of expanding the softwood industry, and the supply of timber to WA — and the rest of Australia – since both native hardwoods and softwoods are in increasingly short supply.
“Native forestry and plantations are not interchangeable,” said Adele Farina, Forest Industries Federation of WA chief executive.
“There’s a whole lot of different equipment, different technology, different skills that are required.”
Business owners say the government hasn’t provided essential information they need to decide between a future in softwood or leaving the industry altogether.
For Mr Dawson, uncertainty about the future has led to sleepless nights and heated discussions within his family.
“It has put a lot of pressure on working relationships, I suppose,” Mr Dawson said.
“Daryl and I have been in business together for 40-odd years and we would love to continue that, but I can’t see it happening.
“It leaves a bitter taste in your mouth. But look, it’s pretty hard to fight government.”
Protecting native forests
Announcing the ban last September, Mr McGowan said it would preserve at least 400,000 hectares of karri, jarrah and wandoo forests, protect native forests, maintain biodiversity and forest health and meet the need for carbon capture and storage.
More recently, the state government said only 8 per cent of WA’s forestry industry was native hardwood, and that native forestry accounted for a multi-million-dollar loss in operating profit from the government’s own Forest Products Commission (FPC), which oversees WA forestry and trade from state-owned plantations.
Environmental groups have long called for an end to the native timber industry, saying logging has an enormous impact on wildlife, water, climate and communities.
But the forestry industry said it was “blindsided” by the decision, with businesses given just over two years’ notice.
The upcoming ban has already spelt the end for some businesses, with Queensland-based company Parkside announcing the closure of its Greenbushes sawmill earlier this month.
A ‘betrayal’ without warning
Carlo Gosatti, who owns Inglewood Products Group, said he “grew up in the sawdust” of his family business.
He said the government decision felt like a betrayal.
Mr Gosatti said businesses had worked to meet government and conservation requirements, thinking it would sustain the hardwood industry long into the future.
“No once in the last 20 years has [anyone] thought to themselves, ‘We’re raping and pillaging the native forest in the South West,” said Mr Gosatti, whose family started their timber processing business in 1958.
“I thought we were doing a good job.
“Everyone was telling us [that] the science was there and the sustainability component was there, [for us] only to be told that it’s not.”
‘Native forestry was sustainable’
Adele Farina, a former Labor MLC for the South West region, now with the Forest Industries Federation WA, said the industry received no warning that a ban was being considered.
“The decision is clearly a political decision and it’s not one based on science,” she said.
“The government seems to have ignored the fact that a lot of [replacement] timber might be imported from unsustainably managed forests from overseas, and they’re not looking at the environmental equation at a global level.”
Ms Farina argued the decision defied the state government’s own science and literature on the matter, pointing to FPC data.
According to the FPC’s annual report for 2020-2021, from 2014-2020 only 538,000 cubic metres of first and second-grade jarrah and karri sawlogs were harvested, while the sustainable limit set by the government was 924,000 cubic metres.
Harvesting of lower-grade timber was also below the state government’s own limits, partly due to variations in market demand, Ms Farina said.
“The management of native forestry was sustainable,” she said.
“It was on track with all the indicators in the forest management plan. And the government ticked off on that report.”
The impact of climate change
A state government spokesperson said its reports noted that sustainability would be affected by climate change through declining rainfall and increasing temperatures.
They said the reduced yields were also attributable to climate change, with slower than expected regrowth of native timbers.
“Declining yields of native timber … means that larger areas of forest must be cut down in order to fulfil contracts,” the spokesperson said.
For these reasons, and economic concerns, the government argues softwood plantations are the future for WA.
“The expansion plan will create 60 new direct jobs, 80 new indirect jobs and also protect 860 direct jobs and 1,120 indirect jobs, mostly in the South West timber industry,” the spokesperson said.
“It will also support the many thousands of jobs in the state’s construction industry that depend upon the reliable supply of softwood timber.”
But those already working in softwood say the opportunities are limited.
Pine trees in short supply
It is a cool but sunny day as Brad Barr’s four-wheel drive rattles down the dirt roads of a pine plantation about an hour’s drive south east of Perth.
His dog, Murphy, whines in the back seat as kangaroos bound into the pines along the way, and the hum of tree-cutting machinery can be heard in the distance.
Mr Barr, Forestry Australia’s WA chairman, is a proud forestry worker of more than two decades with a focus on the softwood industry.
But he says pine trees — like the ones towering over the road at this plantation — are in increasingly short supply.
“A lot of countries have had a COVID response, and they’ve stimulated their housing construction industry and so there’s been a worldwide boost in demand for timber products,” Mr Barr said.
In addition, Australia was facing a worsening shortage of pine due to insufficient plantings over the years due to poor economic return from plantations historically, bushfire concerns, and mistrust after the collapse of managed investment schemes, he said.
Mr Barr said that shortage was only expected to get worse into the 2030s.
In 2020 the FPC was managing 78,000 hectares of softwood plantations, but expected that number to drop to 40,000 hectares within 20 years without significant investment.
But even with additional plantings, Mr Barr said the softwood industry wouldn’t have enough room for new players transitioning from native forestry for at least another 20 years, until any seedlings planted now were ready to harvest.
“The economics haven’t been flash and so that’s going to take some time to address,” Mr Barr said.
“You can’t fix a 20-year problem overnight, so imports will need to come in and fill that gap.”
He said WA companies were already importing pine, but that had its own challenges.
For example, much of the imported timber came from Russia, but that supply was cut off after the invasion of Ukraine.
Ms Farina said it was her understanding that the state government was also experiencing some challenges buying land to expand softwood plantations due to a heated property market.
It is yet to purchase any land since the softwood expansion program was announced last September.
Andrew Lyon, FPC’s director of business services, said it was the FPC’s preference to purchase land rather than lease during the early stages of the softwood expansion program.
But the laws to do so are not even in place yet.
“Prior to any purchases of land for plantation establishment, it is necessary to amend the Forest Products Act 2000. Proposed changes to the act are currently with parliament,” Mr Lyon said.
The proposed changes would also allow the FPC to trade in carbon as well as timber.
“The FPC is currently investigating suitable parcels of land and has progressed with several options,” Mr Lyon said.
Where will we get hardwood?
Despite the end to large-scale harvesting, some timber will still be taken from forests.
Native timber that is a by-product of “forest management activities” — such as thinning for fire protection or clearing for energy and mining projects — will still be logged.
But exactly how much timber that will leave to meet demand for furniture and firewood is not yet known.
Those details will be part of the state government’s 10-year Forest Management Plan, expected to be released in October.
Ms Farina said planning for many businesses had stalled while they waited for the report.
“We can’t get a clear indication from government as to what its commitment is with respect to ensuring there is sufficient [native] product going forward,” she said.
There is expected demand for 100,000 tonnes of firewood per year, and another 150,000 tonnes is needed to power manufacturing plants that rely on it, Ms Farina says.
“It’s difficult to see where that’s going to come from if we’re only thinning small-diameter trees and only doing small-scale thinning,” she said.
‘The end is probably near’
Mr Dawson and his brother are among the business owners waiting to see those numbers before they decide whether to adapt to the change — or consider leaving the forestry industry altogether.
Mr Gosatti, too, is “holding” to see what is in the plan.
“We’re obviously bitterly disappointed,” he said.
“The end is probably near, but we’re going to give it a good crack and see what we can make out of it.”
But even with the details in the plan, he said he would be cautious to act on information provided by the FPC.
“Because the stroke of a pen can dictate otherwise,” he said.
“The trust is definitely broken.”
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