The federal government's capitulation to the timber industry on the pretext of "protecting jobs" has come under increasing criticism. One respected researcher, Dr Clive Hamilton, argues that protection of the 509 coupes would not result in job losses. Jobs would be lost, he says, only if the state forest management agencies refused to reschedule their logging operations for 1995.
According to Hamilton, executive director of the Canberra-based think-tank, the Australia Institute, and former head of research at the Resource Assessment Commission, the reservation of the 509 areas would not necessarily result in any job losses in 1995.
He said that job losses in the timber industry over the last 20 years are the result of the commercial decisions by timber companies rather than environmental decisions by governments and that "employment in most timber towns depends much less on continued access to native forests than is generally believed".
In his paper, "The Employment Impact of the Decision to Reserve 509 Forest Coupes", released in early February, Hamilton argues, "In the longer term, the employment impact of this 509 decision will be significantly less than redundancies due to continuing structural change in the industry".
He said that the regional forest agreements, set out in the 1992 Forestry Policy Statement (signed by the federal government and all states except Tasmania), is key to establishing a transition to a sustainable industry.
According to Hamilton, the rescheduling of logging operations to take the 509 decision into account — "a relatively straightforward process" — would involve only about 25% of the coupes. State forest management agencies frequently have to reschedule their operating plans in response to bad weather and bush fires. Moreover, "The NSW government applied for permission to log in many more areas than it needed to meet the 1995 quotas, thus making rescheduling easier".
Hamilton argues that rescheduling would permit the same volume of timber to be taken.
But he warned that if the rescheduling was carried out without the necessary industry adjustments, employment would decline by around 5-8% after several years. This eventuality, he added, is more a reflection of "the proportional decline in native forest resource available for woodchipping" than anything else. In other words, the woodchippers are using up forest faster than it can be replaced and therefore destroying both woodchipping jobs and the jobs of other timber workers.
Hamilton says that the original plans for the timber industry, drawn up by state forest agencies in the early 1970, have not been modified to accommodate a decline in resource availability since then.
"The assumption ... that after 40 years there would be sufficient regrowth in the industry have proven to be incorrect as regrowth has been well below expectations." He adds that the original management plan based on clear-felling over a 40-year period is inadequate. A much longer rotation plan — 140-160 years — is needed to meet environmentally sustainable development standards.
While the industry blames its decline on the reservation of areas for environment protection, Hamilton says this is contradicted by the evidence on labour shedding. Citing Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Research Economics statistics, he said, "The output volume of the forest and wood products industry has been increasing while employment has been falling".
Employment in forest and hardwood products industries fell by 20,000 over the 20 years since 1971-72. They now employ about 32,000; of these around 30% are engaged in forestry and logging, 50% in the wood and wood products industry and 20% in the pulp and paper industry. "Any employment impact of the 509 decision would be significantly less than the redundancies due to continuing structural change in the industry."
The conclusion Hamilton draws from this is, "The decline in the forest and timber industry over the last 20 years has overwhelmingly been due to commercial decisions by timber companies rather than environmental decisions by governments".
Hamilton also debunked the timber companies' propaganda which has dominated news bulletins during — and since — the blockade of Parliament House. He said that while wood and forest product industries account for "a substantial share of total employment" in many towns, "in all cases there are other industries that account for a greater share of employment".
"The 1986 Australian Bureau of Statistics Census shows that only four towns (Nannup and Manjimup in WA, Spring Bay in Tasmania and Penola in SA) had more than 20% of employees in the forest and timber industries. (Penola is entirely dependent on pine plantations.) The percentages in most towns have fallen significantly since then."
Most timber towns already rely more on plantation timber than on native forests, Hamilton says. The four main timber towns of NSW (Oberon, Bombala, Tumut and Tumbarumba), for instance, rely primarily on plantation softwoods.
Sections of the timber industry are already preparing for the imminent decline in the native hardwood resource. For instance, CSR's decision to locate its big softwood sawmill in Bombala, NSW, will mean a boom in employment for that town. "It is likely that the new facility and associated activities will provide the alternative employment in the region as the Harris-Daishowa chip mill declines with the decline in the hardwood resource."
Three facts, Hamilton says — the inevitability of rescheduling, the fact that no timber town relies on the forest and forest products industry for more than a quarter of its employment, and the importance of plantations as the main resource in many of these towns — indicate that claims that the 509 decision will create ghost towns are "gross exaggerations".