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8 December 2008

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Australia

Park plan threatens timber mills

Australia - Victoria's peak furniture body has urged the State Government not to destroy the red-gum timber industry by creating a big national park along the Murray River.

John Osmelak, general manager of the Victorian branch of the Furnishing Industry Association of Australia, said red gum was a magnificent, highly valuable timber that created some of the state's best furniture. "We don't want the national park to go ahead," he said.

The Victorian Environmental Assessment Council (VEAC) has recommended creating an extra 103,000 hectares of red gum forest reserves along the Murray River, including a national park in the Barmah Forest.

The State Government has not yet responded to the VEAC report, which says up to 75 per cent of the red gum forest is under stress. Accepting VEAC's recommendations would close down most local timber mills, costing 80 direct jobs and more indirectly.

Mr Osmelak said Australia had an annual trade deficit of more than $1 billion in wood furniture. More than $400 million in illegally logged imports, much of it furniture, was also being imported annually. "It is rather ironic and incongruous that we have a recommendation from VEAC that can only lead to an increase in the trade deficit and illegal logging," he said.

The 120-year-old Arbuthnot mill at Koondrook, near Barham, faces closure. Managing director Paul Madden said his mill's output ranged from high-quality furniture-grade timber to railway sleepers and firewood.

Mr Madden said demand for red gum was huge ' particularly from the State Government. Apart from furniture, there was a big order to restore the Port of Echuca heritage wharf, as well as a VicRail order for 290,000 sleepers.

He said losing the industry would have a savage effect on Murray communities. "At Koondrook, 15 members of the footy team are connected to the timber industry. No industry, no footy team," he said.

Mr Madden said governments were spending millions to save failing industries due to the financial crisis. "Here is an industry that is viable, and yet they want to close it and destroy jobs," he said.

Timber production is permitted within about 45,000 hectares of state forest ' about 16 per cent of public land in the investigation area.

Mr Madden said only 0.02 per cent of the forest was taken each year. Logging was done selectively. "VEAC said itself of the 33 threats to the forest and environment, timber harvesting was not a threat," he said.

Mr Madden said the red gums were definitely stressed due to a lack of water, but a national park would not solve this.

"The forest has too many trees that compete for the little water. The answer is to thin the forest," he said. Where this was done, particularly in NSW, the forest was becoming healthier.

The timber industry is part of the Rivers and Red Gum Environment Alliance, which is made up of 25 organisations and community groups.

The alliance has put together a counter proposal to VEAC. It recommends managing most of the forest as a multi-use Ramsar Reserve, along the lines of the Barmah State Forest, which has been managed as a Ramsar wetland for 26 years.

The alliance also stresses the capacity of red gum products and new forest growth to sequester carbon, as set out in the Garnaut report and the Federal Government's emissions trading scheme green paper.

Nick Roberts, red gum project director for the Victorian National Parks Association, said the timber industry represented only 0.8 per cent of the regional economy. Most of the timber was low-use such as firewood.

"Timber yields are tiny," he said, and would need to be further reduced, regardless of new parks, due to new data on sustainable yields.

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