The native forests of the north coast of NSW are not just the backdrop for an idyllic seaside lifestyle for its 1.7 million residents, they also sustain a hardwood timber industry that has been in existence for more than 150 years.
Of the 6.3 million hectares of forested land on the north coast, more than half is on private property (3.4 M ha) with the balance in public ownership. Of the 3 million hectares of public forest, 90% is already in conservation reserves and only 10% is available for timber harvesting. The reserve system on the north coast is already comprehensive, adequate and representative and already exceeds the International Union for Conservation of Nature protected area threshold target of 15% by a further 10%.
The hardwood timber industry on the NSW north coast supports over 3000 jobs and produces around 75% of the State’s high quality hardwood logs, such as high-quality sawlogs for floorboards, decking and structural beams, and poles, piles, girders and veneer logs.
The Government’s forest grower, Forestry Corporation of NSW is the principal supplier of high-quality hardwood logs in NSW, accounting for around 60% of all supply, with Boral the largest buyer of FCNSW high quality hardwood sawlogs. Eleven other companies share the remaining 30% of FCNSW’s high quality sawlogs production, but these mills account for the largest share of hardwood log supply from private property.
Despite research indicating that there is “more than enough residues in the North Coast’s sustainably managed forests and sawmills to power more than 200,000 local homes per year”, produce biofuels and high-value chemicals, almost half a decade later there is still only limited opportunities to remove material that would otherwise rot and emit greenhouse gases or provide fuel for the next wildfire from the forest.
The 2019/20 Black Summer bushfires have emerged as a tipping point for the hardwood timber industry on the NSW north coast. Over 50% of the area of public State forests available for timber harvesting on the north coast was impacted by fire during the Black Summer. A similar proportion of Private Native Forestry properties were also impacted.
The hardwood timber industry on the NSW north coast has been concerned about inequity in log supply from the public estate for many years. Following the 2019/20 Black Summer bushfires, log supply has been extremely restricted and largely confined to plantation operations.
The NSW forest regulator, NSW EPA, and FCNSW have been in ongoing block-by-block negotiations over access to burnt compartments due to the regulator’s perceived concerns over salvage harvesting. The regulator has also resisted FCNSW’s attempts to access unburnt compartments due to their view that these areas are required as undisturbed refugia for wildlife following the fires.
Many of the major Black Summer fires originated from lightning strikes in remote areas of National Parks and conservation areas, where they were allowed to continue to burn for weeks and months in relatively benign conditions, until they emerged on a blow-up day on multiple fronts. Ironically, rather than focus attention on the failed lock-it-up-and-leave-it or wilderness strategy employed by conservation managers or the landscape adoption of cool burning similar to Indigenous practitioners over the past 60,000 years, there has been an increasing call to lock up more multiple use, proactively managed, production forests and condemn these forests and their inhabitants, particularly the koala, to a similar fate.