Western Australia ends logging in native forests and Premier McGowan reckons "this is a great thing to do"

Protesters at McCorkhill Forest between Nannup and Margaret River in September last year. Photo by Ray Swarts.
Protesters at McCorkhill Forest between Nannup and Margaret River in September last year. Photo by Ray Swarts.

The state government heard loud and clear when Western Australians responded to a recent survey about the future of the state's native forests.

Nearly 17,000 people responded to the survey, with 95 per cent of respondents saying more should be done to protect the forests and 73 per cent agreeing that native forest harvesting should not occur at all.

And the government listened.

Last week, the WA Government announced that it would end logging from 2024, limiting timber taken from WA's native forests to forest management activities that improved forest health and clearing for approved mining operations.

This would leave nearly two million hectares of native forests protected for future generations.

Nannas for Native Forests, a group of women from the Margaret River and Busselton area, at a blockade in Nannup last year. Photo by Mike Wylie.

Nannas for Native Forests, a group of women from the Margaret River and Busselton area, at a blockade in Nannup last year. Photo by Mike Wylie.

To compensate the industry the state government committed $350 million to expand WA's softwood timber plantations and support sustainable jobs.

About 140 timber industry jobs would be created and 1,980 existing jobs protected, mostly in the South-West timber industry. It would also support thousands of jobs in the state's construction industry that depended on the reliable supply of softwood timber.

Workers, businesses and communities in the South-West with links to the forestry industry would also be supported by a $50 million Just Transition Plan.

The South West is home to 2.5 million hectares of land vested in the Conservation and Parks Commission in WA.

According to the Forest Product Commission, about 62 per cent of this land is set aside for national parks, reserves, old-growth forests and other areas for the community to use under the current Forest Management Plan which is set to expire in 2023.

Under the FMP 2014-2023, around 10 football fields a day are being logged in South West forests.

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A state government spokesperson said the results of the survey demonstrated Western Australians valued the state's native forests and supported their actions.

"Given the impact of climate change on South West native forests, the lower than predicted timber yield, and the importance of retaining existing forest systems for carbon storage and biodiversity, the Government has been forced to act," the spokesperson said.

"The announcement establishes the policy framework for the next FMP. All stakeholders will participate in the normal consultation process in the development of the next FMP."

For Busselton business Whiteland Milling, the announcement has created a high level of uncertainty and believe the government has under-estimated the ramifications to cut timber supply in 2023.

The mill was established in 1981, it uses hardwood from WA's state managed forests to produce flooring, decking, furniture components, mouldings and other products.

The family business employs around 40 people and injects millions of dollars into the state's economy each year.

Owner Neil Whiteland said he was concerned about the future of their workers and all the industries that worked with them directly and indirectly.

"Last week was a real shock," he said. "Our customers and staff found out through the media, at the same time as us. We had no chance to prepare them for this shock announcement.

"All we have been told so far is that there will be a $50 million Just Transition Plan, and the transition group will include industry representation. Does that mean we are meant to carry out business as usual? We don't know."

Hardwood mills like Whiteland Milling cannot simply transfer to cutting softwood, the machinery is different.

Mr Whiteland's son Marc said he did not know where their customers would source timber in the future.

"The plan to replace hardwood with pinewood is flawed. Pine is not suitable for flooring, decking, high-grade furniture or outdoor usage without the addition of poisonous chemicals," he said.

The Australia Institute economist and research director Rod Campbell said the Forest Product Commission lost $1.7 million on native forestry in 2020.

"Just the latest of many poor financial results," he said. "WA Governments have pumped far more money into native forestry than they were ever likely to get out of it.

"The same pattern is seen across Australia - state governments spending millions to subsidise native forestry while better options are available in plantation forestry and conservation.

"The end of native forest logging represents not just good environmental policy, but good economic policy."

Mr Campbell said it was time for a full independent audit of native forestry operations in NSW, Victoria and Tasmania where the same pattern of government subsidies resulted in 'rotten' economic and environmental outcomes.

"Western Australia should be proud in leading the nation out of this damaging industry," he said.

"Importantly, the WA Government has also put money into community development and plantation forestry to assist with the phase out of the industry.

"But if governments are serious about developing and maintaining regional towns, they need to look beyond capital and land intensive industries like forestry. Investment in services not only delivers more jobs per dollar spent, but provides services like health and education that will attract people to regional areas."

Marc Whiteland at his family's business Whiteland Milling in Busselton said in the future Western Australians could be sourcing timber from countries without sustainable forest management practices, which was likely to have a greater impact on climate change. Image supplied.

Marc Whiteland at his family's business Whiteland Milling in Busselton said in the future Western Australians could be sourcing timber from countries without sustainable forest management practices, which was likely to have a greater impact on climate change. Image supplied.

Neil Whiteland said he was frustrated by the government's ad hoc approach which would allow the continuation of mining operations to take place in the forests.

"If the government was serious about climate change, why are they continuing to support the disturbance activities like mining of non-renewable resources, but sustainable timber harvesting operations are going to be restricted? It makes no sense," he said.

"WA does not lose forests because of timber production.

"Forests are being lost because the government supports clearing for mining, farming, expanding suburbs and towns to house people.

"It is not because small family businesses like Whiteland Milling are producing timber."

Miners such as Alcoa operate under existing State Agreements that are separate to the FMP, which will see the state government continue to honour the terms of those agreements.

Alcoa has a mining lease that provides exclusive rights to mine bauxite found in the South West's jarrah forests subject to the Environmental Protection Act.

An Alcoa spokesperson said less than 4 per cent of their mineral lease has been cleared to date and they expected less than 8 per cent of the lease area to be cleared over the life of their operations.

"The aluminium production process starts with bauxite," the spokesperson said. "We operate two bauxite mines in WA - Huntly and Willowdale.

"Bauxite is an ore rich in aluminium oxide formed in pockets usually four to five metres below the surface.

"It is mined in individual pits using excavators, trucked to a crusher and then transported via conveyor or train for processing at our nearby alumina refineries. Bauxite mining is followed by rehabilitation.

"The shallow, pod-like nature of bauxite mining allows for ongoing rehabilitation."

The spokesperson said some advantages of operating in the South West to produce this resource included being close to ports and major infrastructure; population centres; a well-trained and stable workforce; and key global export markets.

"We acknowledge and respect the privilege of operating in an area of WA characterised by jarrah forest, native flora and fauna and waterways," the spokesperson said.

"Our aim after bauxite mining is to re-establish all pre-existing land uses of the forest including conservation, water catchment and recreation.

"We pride ourselves on a rehabilitation program acknowledged globally as leading practice and are proud that self-sustaining jarrah forest ecosystems thrive where we once mined.

"To date, 77 per cent of cleared areas have been rehabilitated."

Kemmerton based Simcoa relies on jarrah from South West state forests to supply silicon to a global market.

Simcoa vice president David Miles said when jarrah was converted into charcoal it contained very little ash. and that the ash contained chemical impurities.

"So when we use charcoal produced from jarrah, we are adding very little unwanted impurities into our chemical process," he said.

"This enables Simcoa to produce a consistent higher purity silicon. High purity silicon attracts a premium price. This price premium helps us to overcome our remoteness from global markets."

Mr Miles said low ash coal could be used instead, but it was a scare resource globally and not produced within Australia.

"We currently are using some 50,000 mt of low ash coal which we source from Columbia, South America via Europe. We are paying a lot of money for freight," he said.

"The issue with using coal is that it is a diminishing resource. Environmentally nobody wants to use coal as it adds to global carbon dioxide emissions. 1 tonne of coal will produce 2.4 tonnes of carbon dioxide."

Mr Miles said the government's decision to end logging in native forest would have an impact on their operations.

"We have to find another viable source of carbon if we are to continue our operation . You cannot produce silicon without using carbon," he said.

"This announcement has come as a very big surprise to so many. We are uncertain what the future will bring but for now we must work with the relevant government authorities and companies to find a viable solution.

"What we do know is that there is strong demand globally for silicon as it is an essential raw material in the fight against global warming . Simcoa wants to continue to be part of the global solution."

WA Forest Alliance have been campaigning for many years to end logging in the South West's native forests.

WAFA campaign director Jess Beckerling said the state government's announcement was huge.

"This is a historic moment, and we applaud the Premier, and ministers Sanderson and Kelly, for their leadership and thank them for this major and long-awaited breakthrough," she said.

"The South West forests are incredibly precious and they're vital to climate and to wildlife, water and culture.

"This new direction to end native forest logging in just over two years' time, is profoundly important and will be heartily welcomed by the West Australian community.

"But this is not the end.

"We still have two years ahead of us until the next Forest Management Plan is signed and sealed and we must maintain our focus to ensure that this very welcome new direction, results in the forest protection that we so desperately need.

"The Premier's announcement doesn't address all of the threats facing the forests. It doesn't end clearing of jarrah forests for bauxite mining or deal with issues surrounding thinning of degraded regrowth forests.

"It also doesn't address fire management.

"There will, however, be plenty of opportunity coming up for the community to have an effect on these other major issues facing the forests during the development of the next Forest Management Plan, and through other processes and we will be facing them with the same determination that we have faced logging with.

"We also look forward to the development of expanded farm forestry and a fair transition in employment for those currently engaged in native forest logging.

"Western Australia will become the first state in the country to finally, after all of these decades, stop the logging of our precious native forests and see them protected for their climate, biodiversity, water and cultural values."

South West MLC Steve Thomas said he thought the decision was devastating and that the compensation package to industry was inadequate.

"$50 million for industry re-training but the company that bought Nannup mills have bought that in upgrades alone," he said.

"The money for plantations is catching up on pine plantations, so not transition that is catch up money. It will be very tough, this has effectively killed off the timber industries. We won't be able to resurrect it after this.

"Coal has a transition of 15 years but they just announced the scrapping of timber in a year. It will be hard for the opposition to do anything now."

Around 300 people gathered in Manjimup to protest the WA Government's decision to end native forest logging. Image supplied.

Around 300 people gathered in Manjimup to protest the WA Government's decision to end native forest logging. Image supplied.

On Monday, September 13, more than 300 people gathered in South West timber town Manjimup to rally against the decision.

Forest Industries Federation WA executive director Melissa Haslam said people were upset, and they had every right to be.

Ms Haslam said the $50 million Just Transition Plan offered by the State Government was inadequate, and industry would be pushing for more.

"The lack of detail behind the announcement causes terrible uncertainty for our businesses," she said.

"This current State Government signed off on the sustainability of the current forest management plan through the mid-term audit in 2018.

"In the lead up to the last election both major parties supported the sustainable native timber sector, so this backflip by government has shocked everyone."

At a press conference, Premier Mark McGowan said they would work with the communities and businesses which were impacted by the decision to help them transition into other jobs across the community.

"You have to remember we have huge labour shortages in some parts of the economy, particularly in the mining industry. You will see report after report which says they are 30,000 to 40,000 employees short," he said.

"I want to make one thing really clear, saving the forests is important. This is a great thing to do, this is important for future generations.

"These are beautiful areas and they should not be lost, they should not be lost in the short-term.

"These are the lungs of the Earth, they are amazing habitat and great carbon stores which are part of our heritage and we need to save them."

This story WA to end native forest logging, and the Premier is pleased first appeared on Busselton-Dunsborough Mail.