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Pretty much everyone is sick of the slogans used by the major parties in the election. But jobs, growth and fairness remain pertinent to the current situation in the native forests of Victoria's Central Highlands. There, the reality is that native forest logging provides few jobs; it is not a growth industry – its resource availability is shrinking. It is not fair that taxpayers have to subsidise an industry worth far less to the economy than alternative uses of the forest.
A new approach to native forest management in Victoria is overdue. The need for a comprehensive rethink – both for economic return and environmental benefits – is underscored by rapidly declining sawlog resources, the marginal profitability of the industry, declining employment, rising numbers of threatened species, increasing susceptibility to extreme fires, and an entire forest ecosystem at risk of collapse.
Some key statistics emphasise the myriad issues associated with native forest logging in Victoria. Employment in native forest logging represents 0.006 per cent of the state's workforce. Each full-time equivalent job in native forest logging costs a staggering $5,041,000 in infrastructure investment. That is 12 times the average for a job in Victoria and 10 times that of a job in the plantation sector (which provides more than 77 per cent of all forestry jobs in Victoria). An Environmental and Economic Accounting Analysis of the Central Highland forest region shows that the value-added value of paper and timber products (that is, the contribution to state GDP) is $29 a hectare a year. Water is worth 72 times that ($2033), and tourism worth 12 times ($353).
But there are yet deeper problems. At present harvest rates, sawlogs from the Central Highlands region will be available for, at best, only 15 to 20 more years. This assumes no loss of sawlogs to forest fires in the next two decades, even though 4.3 million hectares of Victoria's forests have burned since 2003 – as much as burned in the preceding 50 years.Incredibly, the arm of government that schedules native forest logging (VicForests) makes no provision for the loss of forest resources due to fire. Overcutting is therefore inherently locked in and leaves little environmental margin to protect other forest values. Indeed, now only 1.16 per cent of the 170,000 hectares of mountain ash forest in the Central Highlands is old growth (it used to be 30-60 times more).
The mountain ash ecosystem is now formally classified as critically endangered on international assessment criteria. One of Victoria's faunal emblems, Leadbeater's possum – virtually confined to these wet forests – is also classified as critically endangered. Production of paper and timber from critically endangered forests through practices that threaten the survival of a critically endangered animal cannot be considered "sustainable".
Part of the solution lies in the rapid transition of the industry into plantations. This will be essential anyway to protect the few remaining jobs, given how little forest suitable for cutting sawlogs is left. Already more than 80 per cent of Victoria's timber comes from plantations. Almost all of the native forest harvested in the Central Highlands is used to make paper, and plantation timber can easily suffice for that purpose (and is in fact the preferred source of fibre for paper manufacturing).
The other part of the solution is to change the land tenure in the Central Highlands region to national park. I have been an advocate for the proposed Great Forest National Park because the science shows that a large reserve is needed to protect threatened biodiversity and threatened ecosystems. This reserve is essential to protect the water supply for Melbourne and for water users north of the Great Divide. Exclusion of industrial scale logging will also help reduce the current fire burden. A national park also offers significant opportunities for employment and economic growth, if managed properly.
If the federal government wants to drive new areas of economic growth, nature-based tourism should be part of the plan. Evidence from around the world shows definitively that, when done appropriately, nature-based tourism leads to more jobs, better jobs and longer-lasting jobs than extractive industries. "Done appropriately" means creating infrastructure to make parts of a Great Forest National Park accessible – to bring visitors from around Victoria, Australia and the world and take advantage of a stunningly beautiful area just an hour from the heart of Melbourne.
The economic benefits of doing this are not unfamiliar; one of many examples is the regional economic renewal in the Otway region – which former premier Steve Bracks claims was his greatest achievement in office. New Zealand has made nature-based tourism a highly successful art form. Tasmania is working similarly hard in that space.
Victoria needs to catch up. A restructure of the native forest industry, land tenure change in the Central Highlands and subsequent enlightened investment have enormous potential to increase the economic value of the resource, and improve the environmental well-being of these forests – surely a win for sustainable jobs, old growth and fairness.
David Lindenmayer is Australian Research Council Laureate Professor of Ecology and Conservation Science at The Australian National University. He has written more than 1025 scientific articles and 40 books on the biodiversity and management of forests and woodlands.