‘Phantom’ timber turns into serious money for millers

Valuable and endangered private forests such as the one at Whian Whian, the scene of protests in 2013, are being logged to supply unrealistic state government agreements with sawmills.

Chris Dobney

‘Phantom’ timber that was ‘gifted’ to the logging industry is now turning into real cash – millions of dollars for millers – and there are no hollow logs to pull it from, says a north coast forest group.

Recently released data proves that the $8.55 million spent ‘buying back’ timber commitments from Boral last year was for timber that never existed, according to the North East Forest Alliance.

Contrary to the government’s claims, the ‘buyback’ will do nothing to relieve the severe over-logging of north-east NSW’s public forests, NEFA says.

The scandal has plagued both sides of parliament: the former ALP government created the over-allocation and instigated the ‘buy-back’ in the first place.

NEFA spokesperson Dailan Pugh told Echonetdaily the supply crisis is worsening and sawmill owners will again demand that taxpayers pay many more millions for the ‘phantom’ timber that never existed and was given to the millers for free.

‘Last June when primary industries minister Katrina Hodgkinson announced the $8.55 million buyback of 50,000 cubic metres of annual sawlog commitments from Boral she claimed it was “to reduce the harvest of high-quality saw logs on the North Coast to ensure the long-term sustainable supply of timber from the region’s forests”.

‘It is now evident that even though this phantom timber was given to Boral for free in 2004 the Forestry Corporation has never been able to supply it.
Graph shows promised timber allocations versus promised supply.

Graph shows promised timber allocations versus promised supply.

‘In 2003-4 Wood Supply Agreements for 221,700 cubic metres per annum of large hardwood sawlogs from public forests were given to north coast sawmillers for free until 2023.

While this gift to the logging industry is costing taxpayers a small fortune in subsidies, the state-owned Forestry Corporation, tasked with chopping down state forests to supply the free timber, is posting staggering losses.

Last financial year it lost $11.8 million on native forest logging operations. The year before last it lost $15 million.

‘Despite trashing our forests the Forestry Corporation has never been able to supply these volumes because the commitments were based on grossly inflated yield assessments. Taxpayers have so far had to pay tens of millions to buy back timber that never existed, to purchase timber from private land for the millers, and pay them compensation,’ Mr Pugh said.

‘In 2006 and 2007 taxpayers paid $2.8 million to buy back 12,200 cubic metres per annum of non-existent timber, as well as millions more to buy timber from private land to help meet commitments. Even then the shortfall averaged over 30,000 cubic metres per annum for the five years 2004-9, and we had to pay unknown millions in compensation to sawmillers,’ he added.

‘This most recent data shows that despite the buybacks, from 2009-2014 the Forestry Corporation’s shortfall of large sawlogs doubled to 60,000 cubic metres per annum. The minster’s announcement to buy back 50,000 cubic metres from Boral (starting this financial year) does not even cover this shortfall, and the situation is rapidly worsening.

‘How many more millions are we going to have to pay to sawmill owners for phantom timber before our public forests are totally degraded? This is not sustainable. There needs to be an independent and open inquiry into this shameful situation.’ Mr. Pugh said.

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