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Strzelecki Ranges

Nature  for Sale

Forest/Plantation privatisation in Victoria, Australia (Aug 2004).

Anthony Amis - Friends of the Earth Melbourne

Susie Zent - Friends of Gippsland Bush

Neo-liberal policies supporting the privatisation of state assets have been the fashion in Australia for the past two decades.  An example of this has been the privatisation and sale of 180,000 hectares of ex government controlled plantation/native forest lands in Victoria and the up and coming sale of 270,000 hectares of plantations in New South Wales.  These sales are occurring despite very significant management issues that remain unresolved, meaning that corporate buyers inherit the same problems as their government predecessors. Corporate control does not necessarily mean an improvement in management practices.

In basic terms privatisation has delivered;

a) less accountability

b) less legislative control

c) less community participation in the decision making processes

d) less public disclosure of assets, wood volume and contractual arrangements.

Industry at every opportunity, has attempted to undermine any critical analysis of their operations using all manner of bullying tactics and the use of Public Relations to mitigate for any disasters. It is very rare that the broad community has any substantial gains as far as conservation and environmental outcomes are concerned.

In 1990 the Victorian Labor State Government embarked on an agenda to corporatise the State’s Plantation Assets.  This policy accelerated when the right wing Kennett Liberal Government was elected in 1992. In 1993 the Kennett Government 'relinquished' control of the states plantations and created the Victorian Plantation Corporation (VPC). This corporation was granted its own legislation and also came under the State Owned Enterprises Act 1992.

The VPC controlled about 170,000 hectares of land throughout Victoria.  About 98,000 hectares was pinus radiata plantation, with an additional 7,000 hectares being hardwood /plantations/reafforestation in the Strzelecki Ranges in south east Victoria.  The remaining 65,000 hectares of VPC land contained road reserves, dams, infrastructure and native forests. VPC land also contained old growth forest and cool temperate rainforests in the Strzelecki Ranges.

The VPC legislation allowed the forests to be excised from the land and the leasehold, held in perpetuity, allows for harvesting and establishing of plantations on that land. That is what the legislation requires so any other use requires a change in legislation.

VPC also benefitted from the Victorian Code of Forest Practices which was redrafted in the mid-1990's.  The Code essentially was designed to make it very difficult to enforce. This was done largely to placate the interests of the major paper company operating in Australia, Amcor (now called PaperlinX) who had established approximately 55,000 ha of plantations and controlled 27,000 hectares of non-plantation land in the Strzelecki and Gippsland regions of Victoria.

The Code is only enforceable through;

a)VCAT (Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal). A loss at VCAT could set community groups back $50,000 per hearing as legal costs are very likely to be awarded against the party that loses.

b)a strong committed council which is willing to demand that the environmental care principles- the basis of the code be implemented, and c) voluntary negotiated outcomes between industry and the authority. Occasionally these include full community participation when it suits the company. Once it encroaches on industry's economic assets, the mood of the industry changes markedly. The ecological and economic costs to the local and regional communities is never assessed. This relates to water quality, roading degradation, impact on local communities etc.

Alterations to the State’s Planning Scheme in 1993 meant that local councils and not the state government were made responsible for enforcing the Code of Forest Practice on private land. Several Local Councils do the best that they can with extremely limited resources, but many do very little. One legal battle which Friends of the Earth won in 1995 concerning private land logging in a domestic water supply catchment, revealed that the local council had not even been on site for 10 years! Private land is essentially exempt from any due process where full community participation is accepted as part of the process.

The Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act (FFG) supposedly protects threatened species and communities throughout Victoria, however the FFG Act does not apply to private land unless the minister declares it be "critical habitat" essential for the survival of a particular species/community. To date this has not occurred in any location in the State.

VPC activities through most of Victoria had been confined to their pine plantations.  Unseen and unknown, very little public scrutiny or interest had been invested in understanding the plantation industry. From the 1960’s until the mid 1980's pine plantations had been controversial, due largely to the State Government and companies clearing native vegetation for plantation establishment. This practice was largely stopped by State Government laws in 1988.

VPC activities in the Strzelecki Ranges were also under little public scrutiny.  There had been protests in the region against clearance of native vegetation for plantation establishment up until the late 1980's.

There had also been controversy in the South Gippsland town of Yarram in the late 1970's where a cluster of birth deformities had been associated with the herbicide 2,4,5-T and its use as a weed control by the Lands Department and the Forests Commission.  Locals had also successfully stopped the use of 1080 baits (sodium monofluoroacetate)in 1990.

In 1997 locals found that VPC had been expanding their hardwood plantations by logging high conservation value old growth forests and cool temperate rainforest buffers. This came as a shock to the community who thought that the VPC was a plantation based operation.  Complicating  this again, was the confusion in clarification of hardwood plantations.

Between 1950 and 1990, Indigenous reforestation had taken place in the Strzeleckis in areas that were surrounded by existing native forest. For all intents and purposes much of the supposed hardwood plantation appeared to be native forests.  The logging of non-plantation trees, under the guise of plantation logging, infuriated locals and it was this act that was one of the catalysts for community monitoring taking place in the Strzeleckis.  The VPC act did not clarify what was planted forest and what was not.  The VPC Act actually allowed VPC to log everything within their land boundaries.

The most highly controversial development however were plans by Amcor to clear 2000 hectares of native forest to establish plantations in the northern Strzelecki and Gippsland regions.  This development raised the ire of state and national groups and was eventually defeated largely through the efforts of Friends of Gippsland Bush by an agreement negotiated with Amcor in 1997.

The tragedy of the Strzelecki’s is that it is well recognised that past clearing practices have left the entire Bioregion depleted of its original vegetation cover and less than 2% remains protected in reserve status. On public land the Comprehensive Regional Assessment system requires a minimum of 16%.

Much of the VPC hardwood areas in the Strzeleckis contained remnant areas of cool temperate rainforest, which faces an uncertain future on mainland Australia.  This forest type is extremely susceptible to wildfire and the disease Myrtle Wilt.  If wildfire burns a stand of  rainforest, that stand will not regenerate as rainforest.  Rainforest therefore requires large buffer zones of eucalypt forest to protect it from the effects of wildfire.

Cool Temperate Rainforest also requires large buffer zones to minimize impacts of tree fall which can wound Beech trees, allowing the wilt pathogen, which is air (and water) borne, to enter wounds in the trees.  Buffer zones for cool temperate rainforest on private land are not mandatory.  This loophole written into the Code of Forest Practice, therefore offers very limited protection for cool temperate rainforest in the Strzeleckis.

Complicating matters again is that past mis-management of rainforests in the Strzeleckis has meant that in some areas plantations have been established right up to the edge of rainforest stands, meaning that when plantation logging occurs, the risks of wounding beech trees and stirring up the Myrtle Wilt spores are increased substantially.  These plantations are also open to the effects of windthrow, where high winds can whip through a recently cleared plantation, and knock over remnant trees.  We have documented instances where radiata pine trees have fallen into cool temperate rainforest, destroying that rainforest.

The Strzeleckis is also home to the Strzelecki Koala, a genetically diverse strain of Koala from which other koala populations throughout south east Victoria have been sourced.  Other populations of koala are suffering from the impacts of low genetic diversity which in turn has led to inbreeding and genetic weakness.  The Strzelecki Koala does not suffer from these traits.  As the Strzeleckis were replanted with indigenous trees between 1950 and 1980 (after massive clearing between 1880 & 1930) the Koalas in many instances have moved back into many planted areas.

With all of these problems, a subsidiary of John Hancock Financial Services, the Hancock Timber Resource Group, purchased rights to log the assets of VPC in October 1998. Hancock Victorian Plantations was therefore established and given rights to log under a 99 year old leasehold agreement.  Ownership of the land was retained by the State, but for intents and purposes the land was privately owned.  Hancock also inherited the problems that had confronted VPC.  Locals launched the news that they were unhappy with this privatisation by launching an international campaign against the role of Hancock in purchasing the assets of a poorly operating company. (See Hancock Watch http://www.hancock.forests.org.au)

In August 2001, with many issues of Strzelecki forest management left unresolved, Hancock purchased the 80,000 hectare assets of Australian Paper Plantations (APP). All of APP's land were based in the Gippsland and Strzelecki regions of Victoria. APP also had bad relations with environmentalists. Most of the areas in the northern Strzeleckis that were not under the control of VPC, now came under the private ownership of Hancock.  These lands were not leased but purchased as private land.  About 20,000 hectares of native forest was included in the sale, now meaning that Hancock purchased or leased about 250,000 hectares of land throughout Victoria, of which 80,000 was native forest.

Thanks to the efforts of local Strzelecki campaigners, Hancock embarked on a voluntary moratorium of not logging native forests within its land base, however this moratorium did not extend into areas of indigenous plantations that had the appearance of 30-40 year old native forest. It also meant planted areas located in close proximity to cool temperate rainforest would continue to be a headache for the company and conservationists alike.

In 2000 Hancock announced that they would be embarking of Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification of the assets that were priorly owned by VPC.  Smartwood, an FSC certifier took on the task.  Many people felt that the certification was premature in that many management issues had not been resolved.  Due to the APP takeover in August 2001, this delayed the certification again, as some of the managers Hancock inherited from APP were not too supportive of FSC initiatives. 

Some forest campaigners also took the view that FSC would be a breathe of fresh air, in that Hancock would have to lift their game significantly and this in turn could lead to more positive outcomes in the Strzeleckis. Complicating this agenda was that the Australian Government had set up their own certification scheme ( The Australian Forestry Standard ) which had been dismissed by the Australian environment movement as being a sham. FSC was seen as a way to undermine the AFS. Hancock was awarded FSC certification in February 2004, the first FSC certification awarded in Australia. Forest campaigners are still waiting for the improved management and community relations which are supposed to be the hallmark of FSC. Many campaigners remain sceptical that Hancock will be able to retain the certification due to their stubborn refusal to acknowledge community concerns.

It should also be pointed out that privatisation of the plantation base in Victoria, practically means that the purchaser of such an asset does not have to pay for the water that these plantations consume.  Estimates from Friends of the Earth Melbourne, suggest that Hancock plantations may be using in the vicinity of 1.3 million million litres of water per year. Water prices were not factored into the sale price and prices of water, where the plantations are located, fluctuate between $20 ML (ML=1 million litres) to $800 ML.  Effectively, Hancock over 99 years, will be granted billions of dollars worth of water subsidies in the driest continent on earth. Much of Victoria has been in drought since 1992 and further rainfall decreases of 30% per annum are expected under greenhouse effect scenarios.

Plantations established prior to Native Vegetation Retention legislation or Code of Forest Practice do not require a plantation establishment notice to be lodged with the responsible authority. Therefore 2nd and 3rd rotation plantation establishment means business as usual for the industry. Monocultures originally established in the wrong locations such as on unstable highly erodible soils adjacent to watercourses and sensitive vegetation including critical habitat are therefore exempt from environmental constraints forever. Such clearing leads to massive soil erosion which in turn impacts on rivers and creeks that drain the plantations.

The other effect of plantation management is that plantations are logged on short rotations of approximately 30 years.  Logging can create soil erosion problems, which in turn can create very turbid waterways.  The biggest threat facing native fish in Australia is habitat loss and sedimentation of waterways.  Friends of the Earth has determined that at least 15 species of native fish lie downstream of Hancock operations in Victoria.  Many of these species are threatened and logging and spraying activities will not improve this situation. 

The other major worry for freshwater ecosystems is the application of herbicides post logging.  The plantation industry in Victoria is heavily reliant on aerial spraying. The plantation herbicide of choice in Victoria is the triazine Hexazinone which is a known groundwater contaminant.  Other herbicides used include; Glyphosate, Metsulfuron Methyl, Sulfmeturon Methyl, Terbacil, Clopyralid, Triclopyr and the fungicide Copper Oxychloride. This is a concern for human health as about 1 million people in rural Victoria have plantations located in their domestic water supplies, which are sprayed post logging by Hancock. These people have few rights in opposing aerial and ground application of pesticides in their drinking water catchments.