Yurangalo Inc

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Newspaper Clippings

Canberra Times article 26 June 2010 - by Rosslyn Beeby, Science and Environment Reporter.

With plans to keep logging rare rainforest near the South Coast, ROSSLYN BEEBY asks if the tree changes will make a difference

When the bush goes green for forests

Green activists with long political memories may be wondering, a little uneasily, whether Julia Gillard’s elevation to Prime Minister is good news for the future of the nation’s native forests. In her first speech to Federal Parliament after being elected in 1998, Gillard thanked friends from her Australian Union of Students activist era, paying tribute ‘‘especially to the most committed of them all, Michael O’Connor, who has been my closest confidant since those heady days’’. She also acknowledged a political debt to O’Connor, currently national secretary of the forestry and furnishing division of the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union and a leading party room powerbroker who influences Labor pre-selections. ‘‘I would not have reached this place without his support,’’ Gillard said.

Eight years later, in a profile filmed by the ABC’s Australian Story, Gillard revealed they had been more than student chums with a mutual interest in left-wing politics. ‘‘One of my first big relationships was with Michael O’Connor,’’ she said. In her book Forest Wars, Australian National University forest economist Judith Adjani traces the history of O’Connor’s influence in shaping Labor’s forestry policy. She also examines Gillard’s role in a political policy network that includes Federal Resources Minister Martin Ferguson (also thanked in Gillard’s first parliamentary speech), CFMEU national secretary John Sutton and O’Connor’s brother, Federal Home Affairs minister Brendan O’Connor (who thanked Gillard in his first parliamentary speech in 2002).

Adjani points out that in Gillard’s Australian Story profile, filmed in 2006, O’Connor praised her as articulate, intelligent and ‘‘serious about winning’’. Gillard repaid the praise by saying she was ‘‘devastated’’ by dumped Federal Labor leader Mark Latham’s pre-election promise to protect Tasmania’s old growth forests from logging. It was a ‘‘dreadful policy’’ and a ‘‘shocking, shocking mistake,’’ she said.

In the days before Latham’s ill-fated forestry policy was announced Gillard told Australian Story she began ‘‘trying to call Mark to get through to say, you know, ‘What’s going on with the timber policy?’ ’’ After finally reaching him , she realised Latham was ‘‘going to announce this big bad policy and I knew it was going to be a fiasco’’. ‘‘Obviously I was concerned about Michael O’Connor, and personally concerned about him and his reaction, but my political instincts too were just saying to me this is, this is a fiasco. This is going to cost us seats . . . it’s bad policy, stupid policy.’’ The pressure it put on O’Connor was ‘‘shocking,’’ she said. ‘‘It’s like one of those worst nightmares you have where you know something dreadful’s going to happen, but somehow you can’t get there to stop it.’’

Fast forward to 2010 and the debate over burning wood waste from native forests to produce ‘‘green electricity’’ and O’Connor pops up as a key player. His union is arguing that it will give a new lease of life to an industry hit by a downturn in the global woodchip market. Under the Federal Government’s recently passed Renewable Energy Target regulations, wood waste from native forests can be burnt to produce electricity if trees are logged for a ‘‘higher value purpose’’ such as saw logs or export woodchips. The regulations also require wood waste to be certified as conforming to ‘‘existing legal and regulatory frameworks in place to ensure the environmental sustainability of forest management’’.

Earlier this week, Australian Greens deputy leader Christine Milne lost a Senate motion to exclude native ‘‘forest furnaces’’ from being classed as renewable energy under the bill’s provisions. ‘‘I believe Australians would be shocked to learn that the Government and Opposition are using a popular and positive bill to support renewable energy as cover to drive the destruction of our native forests. ‘‘Burning native forests for energy is neither renewable nor zero emissions. It drives the destruction of habitat and sends our huge carbon stores up in smoke. It does not belong in the renewable energy target,’’ Senator Milne said.

A report by the Clean Energy Council – the peak body for solar, wind and renewable energy producers – estimates 7 per cent (3000 gigawatt hours) of Australia’s 20 per cent renewable energy target could be generated from native forests wood waste by 2020. It claims ‘‘maximising the use of wood waste resources that are currently available’’ could potentially cut Australia’s carbon emissions by 3 million tonnes, ‘‘create over 2300 new jobs and deliver over $800 million of direct investment in renewable energy facilities.’’ The report estimates 2.2 million tonnes of native forest wood waste, or roughly 25 per cent of total native forest logged annually, could be used. It also suggests state government laws may be hindering the uptake of biomass by preventing the use of native forest wood waste for renewable energy generators over 200 kw.

But the face of rural Australia is changing – a trend apparent to Federal independent MP Rob Oakeshott when the former NSW National Party member won the mid-north coast seat of Lyne by a landslide majority. He ran on a strong environmental agenda, recognising that the seat has changed from its former conservative farming demographic to an electorate that appealed to tree-changers, retirees and small businesses that valued the region’s environmental assets.

A younger generation of farmers are embracing environmental stewardship schemes that reward them for biodiversity plantings to bring back native wildlife, store carbon and improve soil health. Regional tourism, based on the conservation values of local landscapes, is also playing a role.

At the Wyndham General Store, just 20 minutes drive from the NSW south coast’s beaches, they brew a slow, smooth cup of coffee. And it arrives on the table without the frenetic ‘‘king of crema’’ attitude (banging of saucers, rapid fire orders, and arty doodling in the froth) that’s all the go with the big city baristas. Sitting on the store’s front verandah, blinking in bright winter sunlight while taking in a view panning across lushly green farm paddocks and up to the rainforest ridges of Yurammie State Forest, it’s easy to imagine Sydney and Canberra are worlds away. But they’re not, and neither are the federal and state political systems that are variously responsible for forestry policy or biodiversity protection. And in these days of cyber-commuting, small country towns no longer lack the education and employment opportunities that once required rural people to pack up and move to the city.

Wyndham is three hours drive from Canberra and about five hours from Sydney, but it’s only a mouse click and email away. It’s also just 20 minutes from the local airport, two hours from the snow and just up the road from the South East Forest National Park and the spectacular Genoa wilderness. According to a recent RP Data property report, the average Canberra house price is $511,000 – the country’s highest, and well beyond the reach of most young first-home buyers. The median price of a Canberra home unit is $421,500, which isn’t good news either for retirees hoping to downsize to smaller, cheaper housing with a cash nest egg to boost their superannuation.

But a modest country house, or block of land, just a few hours drive beyond the national capital’s hobby farm commuter belt, is attractively affordable. Real estate websites put Wyndham’s median house price at $160,000 (no, that’s not a typo), and a quick scan of current property listings reveals that for the price of a Canberra brick veneer, you can buy a truffle farm, an historic guest house, a sizeable farm or beachside house in Pambula.

Earlier this year, Forests NSW held a public meeting at the Wyndham town hall to address local concerns about plans to log an area of Yurammie State Forest designated as special prescription zone. This means logging isn’t excluded, but timber harvesting must be modified to protect the conservation values of the site, and pre-logging surveys must be undertaken to determine the width of buffer zones, retention of habitat and seed trees, minimal soil compaction and protection of rainforest gullies.

NSW Forests was reluctant to email a copy of the presentation to The Canberra Times, arguing it was complex and ‘‘you’d need to be a scientist to understand it’’. Fortunately, a copy had been obtained by local community group Yurangalo Inc and posted on their website. An exchange of emails between Forests NSW regional manager Kevin Petty and the Wyndham Community Water Users Group has also been posted online.

Water users group spokeswoman Sue Gibson says local are concerned that logging will affect the town’s water supply, leaving residents vulnerable to drought and increased bushfire risk.  ‘‘ It affects the swamps that act as the town’s water tanks. It affects stream flow, run-off and soil moisture,’’ she says.  ‘When you look at the impacts of climate change that are starting to be felt across this region, the NSW Government needs to take a long, hard look at the longer term impacts of harvesting timber in a water catchment. Those effects will be felt in 20 to 30 years time, so it’s a legacy issue for the town.’’

During the email exchange with Petty, the group questions the methods used by NSW Forests to assess the impact of logging on local stream flow. Petty argues the group has overstated the importance of streams within Yurammie forest and says their claims ‘‘are not backed by any evidence other than anecdotal’’. He says surveys show ‘‘all but one of the streams draining the area proposed for logging’’ in one section of the prescription zone were dry. He also rejects the argument that swamps in the logging zone are ‘‘particularly valuable in producing sustained baseflow’’.

Josh Dorrough moved from Canberra to Wyndham to run a cattle farm and grow produce for regional markets, while also working as a consultant ecologist. He has written to Forests NSW chief executive Nick Roberts suggesting timber harvesting will increase fire risk in western Yurammie. Dorrough is also concerned that the logging exclusion zone for the giant burrowing frog – listed as a threatened species under NSW and Federal environment laws – is chiefly on cleared farmland. He argues that the frog is forest dependent, breeding in forest streams and living in shallow burrows on the the forest floor. There have been no records of these frogs being found on cleared land, he says.

Bob Harris, an environmental science teacher who moved to Wyndham in the 1980s, says the Eden region is being promoted by Tourism Australia as ‘‘Australia’s coastal wilderness’’. He points out that the map posted on the organisation’s website includes Wyndham and Yurammie forest.  ‘‘How does the Government reconcile this wilderness tourism campaign with the visual impact that logging will have on our town?’’ he asks. Harris points out that spectacular rainforest gullies, some with trees estimated to be 700 years old, are less than a five minute walk from a dirt road winding through the forest. ‘‘The rainforests in Yurammie are probably the most accessible in the region because they’re on relatively gentle terrain and easily accessible.They’re potentially worth more to local communities as tourism assets than they are for sawlogs and export woodchips.’’

A report by CSIRO Forestry to the Federal Government on native forests in the Eden area recommended ‘‘greater utilisation of wood’’ to reduce the amount of forest waste, known as slash, remaining after harvesting. The report said post-harvest burning of slash dumps inhibited forest regeneration, reduced the water-holding capacity of soils, destroyed seed banks in soils and discarded trees crowns, killed soil microbes and increased fire risk by encouraging the regrowth of dense shrub layers. It suggested slash should be mulched and postlogging burns be modified to protect soils and habitat trees.

Last year, the NSW Auditor General Peter Achterstraat conducted a performance audit of Forest NSW, and found its native forests operations ‘ran at a loss of $14.4 million in 2007-08’’. This raised concerns about ‘‘how much worse this financial burden may get.’’ The report recommended Forests NSW ‘‘investigate the potential for developing commercial markets for forests waste’’ and also review its yield estimates for native forests in the NSW south coast region by the end of this month.

Achterstraat called for improvements in the management of NSW native forests and warned an increase in future financial losses seemed inevitable.  ‘‘I can only see this loss increasing as Forests NSW continues to look for new sources of hardwood timber and the costs of harvest and haulage increase. This will be very difficult to manage,’’ he said.  When Gillard faced her first press conference on Thursday after wresting the Labor leadership and role of prime minister from Kevin Rudd, she promised to ‘‘lead a Government that does more to harness the wind and the sun and the new emerging technologies’’ to tackle climate change.

‘‘ I will do this because I believe in climate change. I believe human beings contribute to climate change,’’ she said.  But if she also believes in loyalty to her old friend Mark O’Connor, burning native forest waste – the 300 tonnes of tree crowns, branches and logs discarded as slash in the average Eden region logging coupe – may be one of those emerging technologies.

Rosslyn Beeby is Science and Environment Reporter

Published 3.3.2010