As stakeholders in the timber and paper products industry in Victoria start to brawl over the reducing supply of sawlogs and pulp logs, the blame game has started. Instead of asking "why is there a not enough supply, and what could we have done better?", the questions have generally been "who can we blame?"
Such was the response after Australian Sustainable Hardwoods announced that it would be shutting its Heyfield Mill, following a halving of their supply from 135,000 cubic metres of saw logs, to 80,000 then 60,000 cubic metres for the following years. Politicians from the National Party and the Liberal Party, representatives from the CFMEU's Forestry Division and industry advocates have had to find a common enemy.
The crosshairs have settled on a target: Victoria's State faunal emblem, the Leadbeater's Possum (Gymnobelideus Leadbeateri).
This all has its history back in 2013. Under pressure from the Greens and environmental groups, the Liberal-National Napthine Government announced it would introduce a protection program to try and save the possum from certain extinction. This included a 'buffer zone' around all sighted colonies of possums in State Forests (a colony comprises one or more individuals). Scientists said the buffer should be at least 1000m to give the Leadbeater's Possum the best chance and ensure retention of the colony's natural range, but this was reduced to 200m after lobbying from the forestry industry.
VicForests was tasked with comprehensive surveys of areas slated for logging (called coupes) to find possum colonies and other vulnerable species. They have generally done a poor job. Citizen scientists stepped in, and provided hard evidence of colonies wherever they could find them.
Following the announcement of the impending closure of Heyfield Mill, There have been a lot of spurious claims as to how much of impact these buffer zones have had on the supply of logs. A union representative said on live radio that 20,000 to 30,000 possums had actually been found (no studies have ever stated there are anywhere near that many possums), such that many hundreds of thousands of hectares of economically viable state forest was 'locked up'. The Nationals cried that it was high time the possum was delisted as critically endangered, the buffer zones scrapped, and the chainsaws fired up.
In a knee-jerk reaction, so common in forestry policy in Victoria, the Andrews Government announced it would review the protection buffers assigned to Leadbeater's Possum colonies and determine how much forest was being 'locked up'. The Victorian Environmental Assessment Council (VEAC) was directed to report on the projected timber resource and reductions due to bushfire, , climate change and vulnerable species protection.
VEAC reported that the volume reduction in ash sawlogs due to the buffer zones and other protections for the possum was 43,000 cubic metres per year, or about a third of the total volume of 132,000 cubic metres per year.
This hung a lot of blame on the possum, far more than that applied to climate change or bushfires.
VEAC faithfully depended on VicForests, the State Government-owned logging company, to calculate this impact. As can be seen from the image below, VicForests used some pretty dodgy mathematics.
The basic error by VicForests was that they calculated the volume reduction over differing time periods (7 or 15 years) and then reported this total reduction incorrectly as an annual reduction. You can see this on the corrected image below.
This confusion of a total impact with an annual impact led to the volume reduction to be exaggerated by a factor of eight. The reduction in sawlog volumes due to the protections for the possum is actually 4%, not 35%.
This is important. The fiction of "it's the mill or the possum" stands on dodgy statistics such as those calculated by VicForests. If that 4% were wiped out, it wouldn't make a dint in the shortfall faced by Heyfield Mill.
The possum is not responsible for the decline of the timber and paper products industry. The driving factors include loss of forest stands due to bush fire and, increasingly, climate change, the voracious appetite of the industry, and VicForests who have been massively overcutting our forest.
I've written to the Minister for Environment, Lily D'Ambrosio MP, correcting this error and calling on her to re-issue the VEAC Report with the correct figures. I've also asked the Leader of the Government in the upper house, Gavin Jennings, to acknowledge this error and make sure it is corrected.
I have yet to hear a response.