VicForests timber contractors who have worked for years in the Orbost, Cann River and Bendoc areas are in limbo as coupes in the area of the proposed Emerald Link are closed to them.
Member for Gippsland East, Tim Bull, last Wednesday addressed Parliament with the concerns of Far East Gippsland timber harvesters contracted to VicForests, like Rob Brunt, of Brunts Harvesting, Orbost, referring to the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee Report on the 2019-20 Budget Estimates in relation to regional jobs.
Addressing Agriculture Minister, Jaclyn Symes, Mr Bull said Mr Brunt “had been told there are no logging contracts in his logging area of Orbost, Cann River and Bendoc”.
“This is very alarming for Mr Brunt because he is only one year into a five-year contract,” Mr Bull said.
“Instead VicForests have allocated him a coupe at the far away location of Benambra. This is logistically challenging for a logging business based out of Orbost.
“Mr Brunt believes the reason he’s been allocated this coupe so far away and not a local coupe is because of the exclusion areas put in place around the proposed Emerald Link trail.”
Mr Bull told Parliament there needs to be a balance.
“If we want to be fair dinkum about saving regional jobs, Mr Brunt needs to be offered more coupes in his local area. This would require more resources being made available. We can’t continue to lock up areas and not replace them and expect these timber industry businesses to survive,” Mr Bull said.
“What I want the Minister to do is look after Mr Brunt and if we’re going to put more areas in reserve for the proposed Emerald Link trail we need to open up commensurate areas of bushland for these timber workers to be able to operate.
“Orbost as a community has had more than its fair share of kicks in the guts with the downturn in the timber industry and that is simply because we have more areas going into reserve.
“Often they’re for good reason. Often they are put into reserve for a particular species’ protection, and that’s okay, but we don’t have the same area replaced for those workers, and if we continue to take, take, take, that will be to the detriment of that town and that industry. We need some balance here.
“I ask the Minister to allocate more timber resource in the Orbost region.
“Mr Brunt isn’t the only contractor that’s facing this at the moment. He’s employing people with kids at school, that have got mortgages and they should have the right to work in their local area, not have those resource areas taken off them.”
Right now Mr Brunt is in a world of uncertainty.
He has two crews of four bush workers and three truck drivers each. One crew is currently working over in Swifts Creek where coupes have been allocated. The second is assisting the first with their usual Cann River job now locked up.
“Our crew will be over in Swifts Creek for at least the next three or four months,” Mr Brunt said.
“That’s months living away from home and families for much of that time.
“Camping out is part of the job at times, and I have a network of options available to us, like caravan or houses, in my own backyard, the area we normally work, but I don’t have that network over in Swifts Creek and I’ve got crew members staying in pub rooms or even camping on the side of the road somewhere.
“I do get some com pensation for working outside our normal area, but that doesn’t account for blokes living away from home, away from their families.
“I made significant investments in taking on a five-year contract and working outside our usual area was not part of the deal.
“The Swifts Creek crew, I know they have two coupes in front of them. The Cann River crew, I’ m not even sure where they’ll be in two weeks. This is not what I signed on for and it’s not sustainable.”
Another Orbost timber harvesting operation, MWM Logging, is in the same boat. Its crew has a job it’s finishing just out of Orbost, then they’re headed to West Gippsland to Noojee.
“It will mean a lot of work away, and we don’t even know for how long,” a company representative said.
Like Mr Brunt, MWM Logging is a bit over a year into a five-year contract, and like Mr Brunt, invested heavily to be awarded the contract.
“We were told we needed this machinery and that piece of machinery, so we purchased those things, spending nearly $2 million. And that doesn’t include the two new trucks we’ve purchased,” the spokesperson said.
“We’re just working through it, not knowing what’s happening fortnight to fortnight really.
“The department works so slowly, too. Between DELWP workers being provided the key to access coupes for assessment and VicForests then making coupe allocations from their reports, it can be weeks, while we’re sitting around waiting to see what will happen.
“It won’t be sustainable, especially if we haven’t got the workers.
“Experienced workers just won’t come out here if they’ve got to work like this. If experienced people don’t come it will be the bank that comes through to pick things up.”
For now, East Gippsland timber harvesters remain in a world of uncertainty, as clear information is yet to come from VicForests, though it confirms the coupes have been closed.
“VicForests is not harvesting within forest areas reserved for the proposed Emerald Link,” VicForests chief executive officer, Monique Dawson, said.
“VicForests regularly adjusts harvest schedules - this is a normal challenge for operations in a forest environment.
“We will be releasing an amended Timber Release Plan for consultation in November, which will identify new areas for planned harvesting in 2020.”