It’s been a tough year for the regional communities we work with given the impact of the bushfires and COVID-19.
Despite these challenges, these communities, and the forestry industry embedded within them, are showing incredible resilience on their road to recovery.
Since the bushfires, our crews have assisted in roadside recovery efforts and bushfire recovery harvesting was carried out in areas outside of the East Gippsland Forest Management Area.
We have also commenced consultations on proposed changes to the Timber Release Plan (TRP). This involves VicForests engaging with local communities and stakeholders regarding our TRP Amendment. Stakeholder feedback is essential to our TRP planning process as it provides an opportunity for local communities to let us know what is important to them.
In addition, we have commenced bushfire recovery harvesting operations that will bring much needed economic stability to affected communities and used our large bank of seeds to begin regenerating damaged forests unlikely to recover unassisted.
Despite recent challenges, our crews elsewhere continue working hard to keep customers supplied with high quality, responsibly harvested timber. Harvesting responsibly is still our core business, and the heart of our community and regional involvement.
Our operations are vital to livelihoods and support social cohesiveness in so many towns and small communities. It is especially important now, as VicForests is among the organisations helping to buffer the impacts of COVID-19 in regional communities.
Invitation to comment on VicForests’ proposed changes to Timber Release Plan
VicForests is currently seeking input from local community members and organisations on proposed changes to our Timber Release Plan (TRP).
The TRP change proposes an additional 59 new coupes in the Benalla-Mansfield, North-East and Tambo Forest Management Areas.
The TRP lists the areas available for timber harvesting, their locations, the type of forest and the method of harvesting. Following harvesting, we regrow the areas with the same species originally there. The format of the TRP will also be changed to align with the information requirements in Section 38 of the Sustainable Forests (Timber) Act 2004.
The proposed coupes are all in fire impacted areas and have been prioritised as they contain areas of fire killed Ash forest. Any harvesting of these fire killed areas would be done in compliance with the fire salvage harvesting requirements contained within the Management Standards and Procedures for timber harvesting operations in Victoria’s State forests (2014) as well as VicForests’ own adaptive management procedures.
In doing so, VicForests’ adaptive management approach to harvesting provides for the protection of habitat and forest regeneration.
Up to 5pm on 10 July 2020, VicForests is conducting its public consultation process, to ensure suitable input and comment from affected and interested parties, including the community, regarding the proposed TRP change.
We are seeking feedback on specific operational aspects of our proposed harvesting, such as:
timing of harvesting operations
proximity of proposed harvesting to private property or public use areas
identification and protection of forest values within specific harvesting sites.
Large and devastating fires have impacted Victoria’s native forests for much of the state’s known history, including major fires in 1928, 1939, 1944, 1965, 1969, 1983, 2003, 2007 and 2009 that ranged between 200,000 and 2 million hectares in size.
Most recent were the 2019/20 fires that impacted 1.6 million hectares of Victoria’s national parks, reserves and state forests. VicForests’ careful and sustainable management of Victoria’s public native forests is crucial, especially following major bushfires.
Our bushfire recovery harvesting program, or salvage harvesting, will focus on areas where the mature trees have been killed or severely damaged by fire. It limits timber harvesting on any unburnt patches of forest within the fire impacted areas and helps ensure the protection of habitat and forest regeneration.
Over the next few years, recovery harvesting will occur in around 0.2 per cent (3500 ha) of the fire-affected forest within areas available to harvest. No harvesting occurs in national parks or special reserves. Recovery harvesting is subject to very strict rules and regulatory scrutiny to protect critical wildlife habitat, new seedlings, and to avoid erosion and water pollution.
“Recovery harvesting has occurred in Australian forests for more than 80 years,” says VicForests’ Manager Environmental Performance Bill Paul. “Fire-affected trees may die, but if they are harvested in a timely way, the timber can still be used to produce high-quality structural timber for public infrastructure such as bridges and homes.”
Recovery harvesting is an important part of Victoria’s bushfire recovery process. Through careful management it reserves habitat refuges, allowing less severely burnt forest to recover; maintains timber supply to the processing and manufacturing businesses, supporting regional economies and meeting community demand for valuable timber products; and, improves public safety by removing dead, unstable trees from roads, tracks and visited areas.
Recovery harvesting is sustainable and subject to the rules and regulations outlined in the Code of Practice for Timber Production (2014) and the associated Management Standards and Procedures for timber harvesting operations in Victoria’s state forests (2014).
The decision to implement recovery harvesting following the 2019/20 fires was made by VicForests using the best information available, including an assessment of threatened species conducted by the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP).
“Before harvesting we consider landscape-wide planning and the need to protect high conservation values,” says Bill. “For the current bushfire recovery program, we will also retain all unburnt trees and maintain corridors to the forests outside of the harvest area.”
“We have a team of expert ecologists and foresters who identify and protect surviving biodiversity habitat and, where possible, ensure plants and animals are connected to healthy forest.”
VicForests is also supporting a larger forest recovery project by collecting additional seed to complement existing seed stocks and assisting in the reseeding of severely burnt forests.
VicForests’ response to the Victorian fires
VicForests staff and contractors carry out strategic firebreak operations between Cowwarr and Bruthen.
The 2019/20 fire season severely impacted communities across Australia, recording destruction of life and property on a scale that hasn’t been seen since the 2009 Black Saturday fires.
VicForests also felt the effects of this terrible fire season, with substantial repercussions to both our operations and staff.
During this period, VicForests stood tall to lend a hand in the state’s time of need by deploying all available equipment and personnel with operational, planning and fire-fighting expertise to the recovery effort.
Since the fires took hold, our staff and contractors provided onsite supplies such as hay and water to fire-affected farmers, vital road-clearing operations including the reopening of the Princes Highway, the construction of strategic firebreaks and dangerous tree removal.
Our staff also assumed technical support roles at the Incident Control Centre (ICC) and assisted the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning in their bushfire management processes.
VicForests CEO Monique Dawson said there was significant fire relief input from members of the timber industry.
“The staff and contractors partnered with Forest Fire Management Victoria firefighting services to really bolster the fight against the fires,” she said.
“From providing safe passage routes into isolated communities to boarding HMAS Choules to heading straight to the fire fronts to lend a hand. The lengths these people will go to in order to help those around them is incredible.”
Immediately following the fires, our staff and contractors continued to support the recovery effort by using their expertise to clear roads and remove unsafe trees.
Close to 100 VicForests staff and contractors responded, alongside Forest Fire Management Victoria staff – with VicForests representatives sought after for their extensive local knowledge of the state forest environment.
VicForests crews have been heavily involved in fire relief support in the north-east parts of the state and East Gippsland.
VicForests’ operations were halted, considerable portions of allocated timber were severely burnt and its staff and contractors have seen their homes and those in their communities destroyed.
Even now, the complete impact of the fires is yet to be fully realised, and the long-term effects may not be felt for generations.
VicForests aided in the state’s fire relief efforts, including in the effort to reopen roads post-fire, and is now beginning its fire recovery operations.
VicForests’ Forest Scientist Michael Ryan said the organisation’s fire recovery operations are a critical step in ensuring the successful recovery of forests.
“The affected ecosystems will naturally recover to an extent, but there are large swathes of land that require a helping hand,” he said.
“VicForests has one of the largest native seedbanks in Australia, and we are using it to kick-start the state’s forest regeneration – especially for younger ash forests that may not have had sufficient mature seed to self-regenerate.”
“It is our responsibility to step in where necessary to ensure the effective recovery of our forests, and with it, help to usher back fire-affected wildlife.”
While the regeneration aspect of the fire recovery operations is one key part of the process, so too is the removal of fire-killed trees, which pose a risk to commuters along busy rural highways and future fire-fighting work, where these are a leading cause of firefighter fatalities and effectively make many areas no-go zones for ground based firefighting.
Vitally, though, our bushfire recovery operations provide much needed stability to fire-affected communities, allowing commercial recovery of some of the fire-killed and damaged stands to reduce longer term reductions in available timber required by sawmills and communities. This also allows people to go back to work and reinvigorate local economies that were left in a standstill during the fire period.
Ms Dawson highlighted just how many people rely on the industry for work, and how it positively contributes to communities across the state.
“Our activities underpin many rural Victorian communities,” she said.
“We support around 2500 regional jobs across the state, and for one of the heavily fire impacted towns, Orbost, we have a hand in one out of every 10 jobs there.”
“Getting these people back to work will help return some normalcy to their lives and their communities.”
Managing the high conservation values of a forest is essential to our careful and sustainable approach to harvesting.
High conservation values refer to elements in a forest ecosystem that are important to preserve. These include ecological values such as biodiversity, habitats and waterways, community values such as water supply along with cultural values such as spiritual sites, historic artefacts and aesthetic impacts.
Prior to harvesting we assess coupes for high conservation values and ensure appropriate management actions are included in the plan to protect identified values. Throughout harvesting, VicForests’ staff and contractors continue to monitor the coupes and if any additional values are observed they are added to the management actions and plan.
VicForests’ response to IUCN listing of Mountain Ash ecosystems
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Ecosystems is a global framework for monitoring and documenting the status of ecosystems. A Red List of Ecosystems assessment is a tool used by the IUCN to highlight to governments and managers where, in their view, conservation management efforts could be focused.
Following a 2014 assessment study, the Mountain Ash forest in the Central Highlands of Victoria was listed on the IUCN Red List of Ecosystems, with the category of “Critically Endangered”. Responding to stakeholder concerns about the listing, VicForests published a position paper setting out our evaluation of the listing.
The assessment focused on the conservation of hollow-bearing trees across the landscape and the authors of the study concluded the decline of these trees meant the ecosystem was considered critically endangered in two of the 11 IUCN criteria. In our paper, we highlight limitations of the study that led to a gross underestimate of hollow bearing trees, including:
biased data was used to assess risk of decline of hollow-bearing trees across the ecosystem
the figures relating to the area of forest where harvesting occurs were incorrect
the recruitment of hollow-bearing trees in the present or next 40 years was not considered.
Additionally, since the study VicForests has introduced and implemented a range of changes to its forest management systems to improve the protection of high conservation values such as hollow-bearing trees, including:
current and future hollow-bearing tree protections