The right to treat trees as if they were a paddock crop is at the centre of debate this week between farm forestry advocates and the environmental lobby, as both eagerly scribe responses to the state government’s request for feedback on its new vegetation laws.
Lobbyists for the timber industry, like Dr Kevin Harding, president Australian Forest Growers, worry that the current push is away from silviculture – or the technique of growing commercial trees – and more towards environmental science in order to appease green groups that already hold the balance of power.
At the root of this issue is a general lack of knowledge on behalf of the voter when it comes to the value – ecological as well as commercial – of regenerating a timber forest.
Earl and Marilyn Grundy, Capeen via Old Bonalbo on the Upper Clarence, invested in forestry at a time when it looked lucrative compared to cattle prices.
Tokyo Electric Power Company were the original instigators of their scheme, made real through the forestry Corporation of NSW. Some 500ha were planted to spotted gum, flooded gum and radiata pine on volcanic country that once supported dairy but had fallen into disrepair. The Grundys were offered a $50,000 annuity until harvest, by which time they would have been looking for a nursing home.
But when foreign investment lost confidence in the future of carbon credits as an actual commodity, TEPCO pulled the pin and in the end the Grundys were handed back all the trees, but their income was taken away.
It now seems that with existing vegetation agreements in place, and load bearing bridges built to connect their property with the outside world – the couple have already spent $80,000 of their own money on one creek crossing and have convinced local government to build another over nearby Duck Creek – they will see the benefits of timber income before they die. But will they plant trees again? No way.
Ironically forestry on farms has this week been given a red hot thumbs up from every state forestry minister in the country, but the future of NSW producers of native grown timber remains unclear in a week when industry advocates were head down bum up trying to work out the new details, released last week as part of the state vegetation act overhaul.
Grafton sawmiller John Kroehnert and his father Max have historically logged their own property with the view to maintaining a crop into the future.
At the moment regulations are manageable. In fact, Mr Kroehnert said he probably wouldn’t do much different if there were no rules at all.
Of course there’s other landowners who don’t farm trees like that, and that is why new regulations are being forced upon graziers who want to harvest some timber.
Central to debate is what sort of silviculture the new regulations will allow.
Wauchope contractor Mick Casey said the removal of shade trees in some instances promoted the growth of younger straight eucalypts growing underneath.
Environmentalists label this practice of efficient sawlog promotion as bush vandalism. Meanwhile, Australia imports much of its timber often from unsustainable sources.
Ministers see woods for trees?
While Australia continues to import $2.5 billion worth of timber into this country every year, according to ABARE figures, and local councils use timber bridge decking from places that have far less protection of forests than Australia, the state of New South Wales is currently intent on a future of regulation that is like a giant on tip toes. Landowners blame the Green lobby and no one is arguing.
The eastern escarpment of the dividing range grows a wealth of renewable timber that could, if actively managed, reduce carbon in the atmosphere and provide building materials that don’t require the polluting efforts of a coal-burning blast furnace.
On Tuesday night the Australian Forests Products Association (AFPA) held their annual awards in Canberra and a highlight of the dinner was a talk from Malcolm Turnbull spruiking the benefits of a correctly managed timber industry – with trees planted ‘in the right places’.
AFPA Chairman Greg McCormack was optimistic saying: “The new Government National Forest Industries Plan will, we trust, outline actions to support the industry to establish new plantations,” he said. “Guiding policy used by Government to frame responses to our industries were delivered last century. Our industries have changed dramatically since then.”
Assistant Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, Senator Anne Ruston has been tasked with steering a bold new course in renewable timber, backed by every state forestry minister in the country, but with some stipulations.
“We, the Commonwealth, state and territory forestry ministers, strongly support Australia's forestry industries,” said Senator Ruston. “We believe that they have an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable and prosperous future.”
“We support the sustainable management of Australia’s native forests, and through this providing timber resources for industry while protecting high value native forests.
“We strongly support the Forest Industry Advisory Council's objectives of having the right trees in the right place at the right scale.”
Where does that leave the owners of private native forestry? Still in a cloud, it seems.