The Victorian government announced on July 3 it had made an in-principle deal to buy the Australian Sustainable Hardwoods (ASH) timber mill. The deal to save Australia's largest hardwood mill could cost taxpayers up to $50 million.
But Friends of the Earth forests spokesperson Ed Hill said the continued operation of the mill would come at a massive cost to the environment. “Wood supplied to the ASH mill comes from the Mountain Ash forests of the central highlands,” he said. “These forests are listed as a critically endangered ecosystem on the International Union for Conservation and Nature red list.
“The government’s move to hand over tens of millions of taxpayers’ dollars to prop up an environmentally and economically unsustainable business is short sighted. The jobs at the mill cannot be sustained into the long term because Victoria’s forests are running out of wood. The mill’s continued operation will hasten the decline of endangered wildlife and ecosystems while failing to provide long-term job certainty in the region.
About 260 people are directly employed by the mill, making it the biggest employer in Heyfield, a small town about 200 kilometres east of Melbourne in the Latrobe Valley. About 750 people in the valley lost their jobs when the Hazelwood power station closed in March.
Jane Calvert, the national president of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), said the agreement to buy the mill from the Hermal Group had removed the threat of forced redundancies, which were scheduled to begin in August with a view to closing the mill by 2018.
But she said the future of the mill depended on the long-term security of its timber supply, which was reduced by almost half in January by state-owned VicForests in response to environmental pressures on the central highlands mountain ash forests.
Agriculture Minister Jaala Pulford said the details of the agreement, which will be finalised at the end of July, were yet to be worked out but that the government would “save every job we possibly can”.
Pulford said the reduced timber supply, caused in part by the creation of more habitat protections for Leadbeater’s possum and in part by the loss of 40% of the state’s production forests in the 2009 Black Saturday bushfire, had created a “unique set of circumstances” that prompted the government to step in.
“We have pressure on the resource that is very real. But we believe we can have environmental factors protecting it the way they want and have a strong and viable timber industry,” she said.
But workers say scores of jobs remain at risk even with the government buying the mill. Maurice McCarthy, 60, who has worked at the mill for 25 years, said news of the government takeover was no reason to celebrate.
“There’s worry for everyone, because there will be job losses,” he said. It’s just a matter of who goes and who doesn’t. It won’t go back to what it was.”
Hill said: “There are solid arguments that would see a progressive government bring core infrastructure like public transport, energy production or transport infrastructure back into public hands. But it is a very different matter to prop up an industry that is clearly unsustainable in its current form.
“While it might save jobs in the short term, it will not resolve the structural problems with the current forestry system. Propping up an industry that has not proven to be economically viable only pushes today’s problem onto a future government.”
The Wilderness Society’s Victorian Campaigns Manager Amelia Young agreed. She said: “The best way to develop a sustainable Victorian wood and paper industry is to complete the transition to plantations, and to stop logging critically endangered forests and permanently protect them in national parks. Genuine solutions need to involve the creation of new national parks, and the creation of other regional jobs.
“Regional communities and local business are leading the call for the creation of the Great Forest National Park, which would generate new economic opportunities, exciting visitor experiences and at least 760 full-time, sustainable jobs.
“The Andrews government needs to get on with the job of protecting eastern Victoria’s forests and create the Great Forest National Park.”