Victoria swings axe to fell native logging industry

·3-min read

The end of native timber logging in Victoria will be fast-tracked because legal action is making the sector unviable, the state government says. 

The industry has slammed the early closure, announced in Tuesday's budget, while environmental groups have applauded the decision.

The government originally planned to phase out native logging in 2030, but the sector will now phase out in 2024.

Logging activity has been hamstrung in recent months following legal action against state-owned forestry company VicForests for failing to protect endangered possums.

Treasurer Tim Pallas cited court decisions and the sustained risk of continued third-party litigation as reasons for the date being pushed forward.

"We're going to deal with this sensitively," Mr Pallas said on Tuesday.

"We don't take any satisfaction in this.

"The advice we've got is that legally there is no way through this if the courts are used the way that they have been to frustrate the industry."

The government has allocated $50 million in 2023/24 for timber harvesting transition support, with a further $50m set aside each financial year until June 2027.

It also allocated $7.5m in 2023/24 for what it called timber worker and industry support, with another $7.5m in the following financial year.

About 900 workers will be directly affected by the changes, including 366 sawmill workers.

Up to 560 will be supported into new employment in other industries such as land management, bushfire response, or renewable energy, Mr Pallas said.

Workers and families will also receive financial and mental health support.

The Victorian Forest Alliance has backed the quicker timeline, saying the government should go even further to ensure forests are permanently protected.

Australian Conservation Foundation campaigner and former forestry industry task force member Jess Abrahams said the decision reflected the work of conservationists and concerned Victorians.

Australian National University forestry ecology professor David Lindenmayer said the end of Victorian native logging was the equivalent of preventing emissions from more than 700,000 cars and would be positive for jobs.

"A major workforce will be needed to build new tourism infrastructure, protect and then boost carbon stocks, tackle problems with exploding numbers of feral deer and develop elite firefighting crews to make rural communities safe," he said.

But the Australian Forest Products Association said it was an unnecessary surrender to environment activists that would result in more hardwood being imported from Tasmania and NSW.

"That's no way to protect and conserve Australia's native forest estate or to halt global deforestation," chief executive Joel Fitzgibbon said.

CFMEU manufacturing division national secretary Michael O'Connor said unions were not consulted on the changes, leading to potentially worse outcomes for workers.

Federal Nationals MP Darren Chester told parliament he was "disgusted" by the Victorian government's decision which would devastate Gippsland communities.

"The Andrews Labor government has kicked every hard working native timber industry family in the guts today," he said.

Victorian Nationals Leader Peter Walsh echoed the comments, saying the government was borrowing money to cut jobs in the sector.

"We are not going to stop using timber in Victoria," he said.

"It's a sad day for orangutans in Asia because that's where the timber is going to come from."

VicForests noted the decision, saying it was pleased the government wanted to retain the skills and capabilities of its foresters and contractors.

The company had posted a loss of $52.4m in the 2021/22 financial year as it navigated legal challenges, stand-down payments and compensation for failing to supply customers.

Forestry Australia president Michelle Freeman said strategies for managing the nation's forests had largely failed to secure the promised balance between environmental, social and economic values.