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Up in smoke: Workers scramble for answers following closure of Victoria’s timber industry

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Max Davies
Max Davies
Max is a journalist for the North Central Review. He joined the paper as a cadet journalist in 2021 and graduated from La Trobe University in 2023. He takes a keen interest in motorsport and the automotive industry.

For many of Victoria’s timber workers and businesses, employment in the industry was a generational staple.

Many involved have been vocal in their appreciation for the deep-seated connection and historical significance of the industry across the state, while also thankful for the ongoing employment and memories created over its years of operation.

But as January 1 rolled around this year, the State Government’s plan to shut down Victoria’s native timber industry came into effect – six years earlier than originally anticipated.

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The closure has ushered in shared confusion and frustration, as the livelihoods of countless workers and businesses have been uprooted with little guidance or reassurance from State Government officials.

The end of an era

The native timber industry was thrown into uncertainty in November 2022, when government-owned agency VicForests stopped harvesting after an adverse Supreme Court ruling.

The ABC reported that the court found VicForests had broken the law by failing to adequately protect the yellow-bellied glider and endangered great glider during logging operations in Gippsland and Central Victoria.

The company was ordered to ‘undertake more rigorous surveys for the two species in logging coupes, expand protected areas, and maintain minimum levels of eucalypts in identified glider habitats’.

The ruling, alongside ongoing issues with bushfires and environmental no-logging zones, had limited the available harvest supply and forced multiple sawmills to close in the years leading up to 2023.

In May last year, the State Government used the budget announcement to bring forward the closure of the native timber industry – six years earlier than the original 2019 announcement of 2030.

The Review was told the core driver behind the decision was the need to put a clear end date in place to provide the industry – which had not been working at capacity since mid-2022 – clarity about its future and compensation pathways.

A Victorian Government spokesperson said $1.2 billion was being provided to support the timber industry through various streams.

“We continue to provide long-term programs and assistance for ex-native timber workers and businesses through the Forestry Transition Program as Victoria transitions,” they said.

“We’ve also dedicated more than $6 million over the next four years for eucalyptus seed collection, upgrades to facilities and seed viability testing, to deliver forest re-seeding after bushfires  – supporting employment opportunities for forestry contractors while retaining vital knowledge of seed collection and management into the future.”

Nationals Member for Northern Victoria Gaelle Broad however was critical of the decision and called for the State Government to reverse its plan to shut down the native timber industry, or at least provide fair compensation to the people whose lives have been impacted.

“The government seems to be treating my business as though it holds no value. I am at a loss as to what we have done to deserve this treatment.”

Brendon Clark, arborist

Environmental concerns

Broadford-raised arborist Brendon Clark has been involved in the timber industry for more than 20 years, working as a seed collector to assist in reforestation after significant bushfires.

He said while he understood some had celebrated the end of the industry, there was a ‘legitimate concern’ that a further reduction in timber workers would accelerate the decline of old growth forests and put communities in further danger.

Forestry Australia has estimated that during the 2019-20 bushfires alone, 15 per cent of Victoria’s old growth forest was lost.

Old growth forests are defined by the Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action, DEECA, as forests that have developed over a long period of time and have been ‘relatively undisturbed by fire, logging or grazing’.

These conditions create less densely packed areas with ecologically diverse landscapes that can effectively hold water – making them more fire-resilient.

According to Mr Clark, logging had created significant areas of young forest that were characterised by reduced ecological diversity and overcrowded trees vying for water and sunlight, which were generally more prone to burning due to insufficient internal water storage.

Mr Clark said the timber industry had a role to play in forest management, rehabilitation, and bushfire prevention, however current circumstances made it difficult to accomplish.

“If we do not address this issue by removing these surplus trees, we are likely to witness more massive and destructive bushfires, as we did in the past and as predicted with the escalating impact of climate change,” he said.

“Sadly, moving forward without the timber industry makes it impossible for the government to afford the necessary funding for our forestry.”

AT A LOSS: Arborist Brendon Clark has been left with an uncertain future following the closure of Victoria’s native timber industry. ​

Undue hardship

Mr Clark, who was also the managing director of Healesville seed regeneration business Clark Generations, said it was time for the State Government to ‘listen to the voices of these timber workers, to acknowledge their struggles, and to work towards a new and prosperous future that takes into account the needs and aspirations of those affected’.

Clark Generations has helped to replenish millions of trees and in recent years has collected more than 5500 tonnes of Alpine Ash seed to make up more than 90 per cent of DEECA’s seed bank.

In a statement published on the Clark Generations website, Mr Clark said that during his 20 years of service in the industry, he had never cut down a single tree for VicForests’ timber production and found himself in the same boat as industry safety and haulage workers – having gone without pay since June last year.

Loggers, however, had been paid to the end of 2023.

“As our government officials will stand on the steps of Parliament, with ash falling around them, and blame climate change, realise this is only part of the truth on why our Alpine forests burn,” he said.

“The real truth lies in negligence and ignorance, which have led to the downfall of our beautiful one-of-a-kind backyards.”

Neither Mr Clark nor his wife – who herself has worked 17 years in the industry – have received any substantial support from the State Government and, with a young family, were in a ‘dire financial situation’.

“I am desperate to speak to someone who can understand and address the damages that have been inflicted upon businesses like mine,” he said.

“The situation has become so critical that I am on the verge of losing my home.”

Mr Clark said the lack of support had exacerbated feelings of neglect from workers in rural communities, whose sacrifices and commitment to the industry appeared to have been ‘forgotten’ by the State Government.

His wife had applied for around $50,000 under the Forestry Transition Program – but was last week told she would only be paid for half that value.

The requested amount was calculated from average yearly income figures, but the decision was made based on an anomalous low-earning year within the last three years, which was caused by the court-induced industry downturn.

Mr Clark, his family, and his business have all still been left with mounting bills and machinery fees.

Ms Broad said under the current plan, machinery values were capped at $1 million, which was inadequate for many businesses, while the labour of seed collectors had not been considered in compensation packages.

“This industry shutdown has been devastating for thousands of workers across the state, including timber workers, seed collectors and haulage contractors,” she said.

“The absence of a fair compensation program has caused extreme distress for many families.”

Mr Clark said his business was pursuing alternative options for an income but was still faced with difficult decisions regarding his staff and other entitlements.

“Our finances were drained very quickly as we ensured we paid final tax, super and insurance bills. We had no funds left to pay out thousands of dollars to our workers in redundancy,” he said.

“This situation is incredibly difficult. I am a proud individual who takes immense pride in the work I have done within this industry.”

To read his full statement, visit clarkgen.com.au.

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