By Wendy Robertson
MELBOURNE — Despite being signatory to an agreement which protects forests of high conservation value, the Victorian government announced on October 27 that it was giving the go-ahead to large-scale woodchipping in the old growth forests of East Gippsland.
The ACTU has applauded the plan, describing it as "welcome and logical", but conservation groups have responded angrily, accusing the Kennett government of being in breach of the National Forests Policy.
State natural resources minister Geoff Coleman has threatened legislation to prevent protesters from entering the logging zone.
According to Louise Matthiesson of Friends of the Earth, the government intends to allow logging in approximately 50 sites within the National Estate forests, rainforest sites of significance, pristine catchment areas, known endangered species habitats, wilderness nominated areas and other old growth forests.
At least 5000 hectares of unlogged mature and old growth forests are scheduled for clear-felling this season.
The logging plans include allowing the Japanese firm Harris Daishowa to woodchip Victorian forests for the first time. Previously it was allowed only to obtain a limited wood supply, largely from sawmill by-products. Harris Daishowa will now be able to obtain 20,000 cubic metres of woodchips a year directly from the area. Existing sawmills will also be granted a 15-year licence extension in East Gippsland.
FoE is lobbying the Keating government to halt the logging in East Gippsland. "We are calling on the Federal government to use their powers to end export woodchipping this year and to push the state government to provide proper protection for old-growth and wilderness forests as intended by the National Forest Policy", said Matthiesson.
In an interview with the Age, Coleman cited jobs as the main reason for the logging changes. He estimated that the plan would provide continued employment for the 40% of East Gippslanders who work in the industry. In an attempt to set forest workers against conservationists, he said, "There are some who really don't want to see this industry continue".
According to Matthiesson, the "allowable cut" of 174,000 cubic metres of sawlogs per year is unsustainable, and this and high regeneration failure rates (as much as 79% in some areas) pose a significant threat to jobs.
"The industry must face up to the necessity of restructuring if it and local jobs are to survive into the next decade.
"By allowing increased woodchipping of native forests in East Gippsland for export to Japan the Kennett government is stabbing timber workers in the back — woodchipping costs jobs", Matthiesson said.
In supporting the Kennett government, the ACTU is calling on unions to actively oppose conservationists' plans. According Bob Richardson, the ACTU's industrial officer in charge of resources issues, "If the green groups are going to be protesting, we'd encourage people who support growth in the state's economy to make their presence felt".
FoE and the Wilderness Society are calling on everyone concerned with the protection of both old growth forests and join in the campaigning and direct action protests. "Victorians cannot stand by while more and more of these irreplaceable forests are sacrificed to prop up an unsustainable, publicly subsidised industry", concluded Matthiesson. To contact FoE's Forest Network, ring (03) 419 8700.