During 2020, 96% of trees felled in the NSW region of Eden were turned into woodchips, with 1.5% for firewood. Elizabeth Minter and Harriet Swift report on the potentially illegal activity and the huge amount of taxpayers’ money being handed out to the timber industry.
In the 12 months following the catastrophic “black summer” bushfires, almost every tree logged in the region of Eden, in coastal NSW, was turned into woodchips or chopped up for firewood. This is potentially illegal.
The legal framework that regulates logging in coastal NSW states that:
“an operation must not be conducted for the primary purpose of producing low quality logs (including salvage and firewood) and pulp logs”.
In other words, woodchipping cannot be the primary purpose of logging operations.
However, in figures provided in answer to a Question on Notice by Greens MP David Shoebridge, it was revealed that during 2020, 96% of trees felled were turned into woodchips, with 1.5% for firewood.
The figures are revealing because they do not represent a single operation, but the total year’s output from all logging operations in the region. It appears that woodchipping is the driving force for NSW’s forestry industry.
Government line on woodchipping
The core principle of south east NSW’s woodchipping industry is that it only uses “waste” wood – parts of the tree that a sawmill cannot use.
For 50 years governments and industry have maintained this line. This fiction was helped along by government providing millions of dollars of taxpayer funds to build and support the Blue Ridge sawmill in Eden.
Maintaining a functioning sawmill in the Eden region was essential to maintain the illusion that woodchipping uses predominantly the residues of a sawmilling industry.
However, Eden’s Blue Ridge sawmill lost a key sawlog contract and closed in 2020.
Despite having given the forestry industry large amounts of money over recent decades, taxpayers have once again come to the rescue.
Taxpayer largesse for timber industry
As revealed by Michael West Media earlier this year, the $177 million of Bushfire Local Economic Recovery grants was announced in November 2020 was heavily skewed to Coalition and Independent seats. Labor electorates received just 1% of the funding and that was for two timber projects. Nearly $40 million (more than 20%) was handed out to the timber industry.
The billionaire Anthony Pratt, who owns manufacturing giant Visy, was given a $10 million grant for its Snowy Valleys Pulp and Paper mill.
Some $2 million also went to Eden’s timber industry, with nearly $1 million for South East Fibre Exports to repair its wood chip facility, after it was damaged in the bushfires along with its entire stockpile of approximately 1 million tonnes of woodchips.
More largesse was to come. Seven weeks after the announcement of the controversial Bushfire Recovery grants, as the country was winding down for the Christmas break, Agriculture Minister David Littleproud quietly announced on December 22 the grant recipients of another $40 million “to help the forestry industry to recover from the devastating bushfires last summer” – the Forestry Recovery Development Fund.
South East Fibre Exports got another $2.24 million, to help construct that all-important sawmill for Eden. The sawmill, being built on site at the wood chip facility, is due to open in the middle of the year.
Pratt was given another $3.1 million for Visy’s pulp and paper mill. Meanwhile, AKD scored another $5.5 million for its Snowy Valleys Tumut Mill on top of the $10 million it was given in November.
Logging resumes in burnt forests
Some 80 per cent of the forest available for logging on the South Coast was burnt in the bushfires. Logging stopped at the end of September 2020 following a stand-off between NSW’s Environment Protection Authority and the Forestry Corporation.
As Michael West Media has reported, the EPA had requested site specific approvals for each logging operation – imposing a tougher condition given the extensive amount of forest burnt.
However, the Forestry Corporation called the EPA’s bluff by refusing to accept the need for site specific approvals and logging resumed this month. At least one compartment approved for logging, Yambulla 309A, is scheduled to yield 100% woodchips, again raising questions about the legality of the logging.
Classified as ‘thinnings’
Over the years there have been numerous examples of logging operations that have yielded 100% woodchips. In 2019, for example, at least six logging operations on the South Coast yielded between 98% and 100% woodchips.
The Forestry Corporation validates such operations by classifying them as “thinnings” – the selective removal of trees to improve the growth rate or health of the remaining trees.
The State Forest south of Eden to the Victorian border was one of the most heavily logged forest areas in the country. In the devastating 2019-20 bushfires, the area from the Victorian border to the chip mill burnt in a day.
Scientists have advised strongly against logging burnt forest. Professor David Lindenmayer advised that if a forest is logged soon after it is burnt, this could add 200 years to the time needed for ecological recovery.
It appears that just as important as the scientific advice will be legal arguments about whether certain logging operations are “thinnings” or whether their primary purpose is for woodchips.
Harriett Swift is the Deputy Convener of the South East Region Conservation Alliance. An ANU graduate, she lives on the NSW far south coast in the forest where she has observed the logging industry at close range.