Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Where does your timber come from?

Using wood as the primary material for making demands a number of considered processes when selecting and buying one's timber. Firstly, where is it from? Secondly, how is it harvested? Thirdly, who profits from the harvesting? And lastly, who or what may be harmed in any part of the process?

Organisations such as Rainforest Alliance, FSC and numerous others have developed grading and certification systems - not all are as thorough or quite what they appear, but given the appalling practices in rainforest timber provision, no-one should buy and use any rainforest timbers without being very very sure that it is certified appropriately. Habitat loss, the murder of local Indigenous peoples, and support of regimes and elites such as Indonesia's military by Thai timber interests demand something more than a shrug and another 'oh well'.

Many FSC certified programs involve local landowners and workers processing the trees at least into roughly milled section for export, and often some tertiary utilisation as well. Peter Mussett's ongoing involvement with PNG and Solomon Island community based forestry leads to carefully stacked piles of kwila, New Guinea rosewood and walnut sitting in a yard and very very large shed in Welby, NSW - timber that has been sustainably harvested with minimal habitat disturbance, as well as ensuring that maximum economic benefit goes back to the community. The Woodage also stocks nothofagus from New Zealand produced by a FSC certified operation - a far more commercial enterprise than most of the PNG providers but evidence that sustainable timber harvesting + beneficial local economic outcomes = profitable timber businesses. A lesson Gunns seem to be realising if only to take advantage of the marketing opportunities.

Most FSC certified plantations or forests in the developed first nations are still usually harvested with high levels of mechanisation. But occasionally you come across someone such as the Streamline Timberworks in Floyd County, Virginia. As we begin to slowly come to terms with peak oil (even if the governmental response is still nothing more than hopeless) there are even more reasons for considering how we harvest timber than minimising habitat damage.

Where I live has what is probably the greenest timber mill in the eastern half of Australia. Situated on the edge of a large State forest, it processes radiata pine for the building industry, using timber from Wingello, Penrose, Belangelo and Meryla plantations. What can't be broken down into lumber either goes to the Visy Paper & Pulp Mill at Tumut or ends on garden beds as pine chips. The mill produces no waste, no water waste, has lowered its carbon footprint by modifying its drying processes and utilises only radiata from plantations.

The mill is owned a private family company - the plantations that is relies upon are State Forestry controlled. As NSW heads towards a change of governments in March 2011, the future of publicly owned forests is of concern as the more than likely O'Farrell government does have a conservative agenda of privatisation. Calls to the current shadow minister of Primary Industries, Katrina Hodgkinson, National Party member for Burrinjuck has seen assurances that an O'Farrell government has no plans to sell off the State Forests, at this stage. What Labor may be planning is anyone's guess - effectively there's no one answering the phones and it's proved a little difficult to get anyone at the Minister's office to answer questions concerning State Forests policies. As the State government of whatever persuasion is closer to broke than they're happy to admit, watch this space for sudden changes due to inclement financial conditions.

Moving on from the political shenanigans, the process of harvesting in State Forests whilst regulated by legislation is not policed as it ought to be (see for example investigations earlier this year concerning North Coast forests - the South Coast has also seen similar issues) and there are significant scientific questions about the harvesting processes currently employed. In single species plantations of exotics such as radiata pine, the protection of habitat is not critical, but harvesting methods can and do have significant impact in terms of soil erosion, spoilage of water courses, spreading of weed species. Whilst I think you'd have Buckleys getting anyone in Forestry to seriously consider using work horses in plantations, it should be investigated as a way of moving to true sustainable selective logging practices in native forests.

Plantation management poses some particular problems - as the State Forests are pretty much all operated as monocultural clear fell operations, the medium and long term problems are buried in the blizzard of so-called efficiencies of high rotation/ high output. In the Southern Highlands, the State Forests represent significant barriers to endemic species in terms of migration as they offer little in the way of migration belts or corridors. But its also what we're not growing that frustrates me. Joseph Maiden as director of the Botanic Gardens in Sydney did extensive work concerning mixed species plantations of native species at the end of the nineteenth century; including techniques for successfully cultivating red cedar which is usually attacked by the cedar tip moth. Maiden identified co-dependent species which not only protected the cedars, but could in turn be harvested and processed as well. Unhappily I say, State Forests NSW does not and has not put anything like the effort and funds into native species utilisation as it has done supporting radiata utilisation. Hence I can go to The Woodage and buy absolutely beautiful FSC certified Shining Gum which comes from.... Chile. What is coming onto the market from Australia is woodchip quality.

It is not heart warming that a country lucky enough to have endemic in its forests some of the finest cabinet timbers in the world, some of the structurally toughest building timbers has chosen to pursue a policy of radiata pine as the end all and be all of non-pulp timber production in planations. It is well and truly time for us to be debating what our State Forests should be growing, and how.