Farm Forestry Network Feasibility Study

In light of the Victorian Government's decision to cease logging in native forests by 2030, Murrindindi Climate Network has been considering ideas for the Victorian Forestry Plan Local Development Strategy Grants Program (referred to hereafter as the Forestry Transition Grant) being run by the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions (DJPR). We believe we have the skills, motivation and experience to be selected by Murrindindi Shire Council as the Community Organisation that should be asked to prepare a Transition Strategy on behalf of the community and forestry sector.

Our Transition Strategy would be based on the development of a network of Farm Forestry plantations across the Shire, which would offer three major outcomes:

     1.     Provide a transition plan for the timber industry as they move from native forest logging to plantation harvesting

     2.     Provide a job transition strategy for local contractors currently employed in the logging industry in the Murrindindi Shire.

     3.     Provide a source of Carbon Credits (accredited under the Emissions Reduction Fund guidelines) which would assist the Murrindindi Shire Council and residents of Murrindindi Shire to offset their greenhouse gas emissions.

The main advantage of this plan is that it simultaneously meets the multiple objectives outlined in the DJPR grant guidelines (forestry transition, jobs transition and social/economic advantages).

While the details of this plan would be developed as the main activity during the term of the Forestry Transition Grant over the coming year, the general concept would be based on the following objectives.

1. Development of a network of Farm Forestry plantations across the Murrindindi Shire on marginal agricultural land. An example of such a plantation would be the farm forestry site at Kanumbra (which was the site of a Farm Forestry Field Day on 16 May 2021). While the exact number and size of plantations is yet to be determined (this would be one of the tasks in the conduct of the Forestry Transition Grant over the coming year), it should be noted that if the funds available for implementation of the outcomes of the Strategy Grants ($36m) were spread evenly across the 11 nominated regions/towns, then approximately $3.3m would be available for implementation in each region/town. Given that establishment costs for farm forestry are approximately $4000/ha, then this could mean that approximately 800ha of farm forestry plantations (a total of 800,000 trees planted) could be established over the next 9 years (leading up to the 2030 deadline imposed by the State Government for the cessation of native forest logging), assuming that all establishment costs were met by these implementation funds. If landholders were expected to meet (say) 50% of the costs of establishment (to ensure that they had "some skin in the game"), then up to 1500 hectares of farm forestry plantations could be established.

While this would not totally match the current harvested volume of hardwood, it would ensure that some farm forestry plantation timber would be available in 2030 from exisitng farm forestry plantations, with more to follow as the establishment process continued post-2030. The number and size of the plantations will depend on the number and size of available sites. Using Kanumbra as an example, the program would require some 50 sites of the same size across the Shire (or extended North-East Victoria area). The Forestry Transition Plan developed under this grant would also explore the opportunities, costs and benefits of ”vertical integration” of the Farm Forestry sites, whereby post-harvest processing of the trees was conducted on-site to meet the needs of the specialised markets requiring high-quality timber products.

2. The current native forest logging industry employs workers with a range of skills, and many of these same skills would be needed in the establishment and operation of a Farm Forestry plantation industry, such as site preparation (earthworks), seed collection and seedling nursery, tree planting, silviculture operations (thinning and pruning), harvesting, transport, milling. In addition, the Farm Forestry plantations would need additional skills such as species selection, tree health monitoring, tree (and carbon) growth monitoring, market intelligence for end-products etc. The transition to Farm Forestry would therefore allow for the use of existing skills, plus an opportunity for re-training and a broadening of skills for a new environment. In the development of the Farm Forestry plantations, priority would be given to workers currently employed in the native forest logging industry in the Murrindindi Shire, and training opportunities would be provided for skill broadening, for example by way of the conduct of an accredited Master Treegrowers Workshop Program (as described elsewhere)

3. Farm Forestry plantations can grow high-quality timber, but they simultaneously sequester (absorb) carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, thereby making a contribution to mitigation of the effects of climate change. This ability has been known for some time, and the Federal Government has recognised it with the creation of the Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF), whereby such “carbon offsets” are purchased by the government (and by buyers in secondary markets) to compensate for activities which lead to greenhouse gas emissions. These trades are done by purchasing ACCUs (Australian Carbon Credit Units). Each ACCU issued by the Clean Energy Regulator represents one tonne of accredited carbon dioxide equivalent (tCO2-e) stored or avoided by a project, and the current (June 2021) market price of an ACCU is about $19/ACCU. Importantly, the ERF now recognises sequestration in harvested plantations. Over the life of a harvest-cycle of a farm forestry plantation (25 years), the monetary value of carbon sequestration can be comparable to the monetary value of the harvested timber, and provides a source of income that can be used to expand the farm forestry plantation area over time.

Given the three objectives of the above-described Forest Transition Plan, it is important that appropriately skilled people are assembled for the project team. To achieve this, the following people could play a major role in developing the Forest Transition Plan (with additional consultation with other individuals and organisations as required):

Dr. Tony Richardson: project management, farm forestry development, systems modelling, financial analysis, carbon sequestration aggregator

Mr. Clinton Tepper: farm forestry planning, species selection, tree health analysis, tree growth monitoring, harvest planning

Mr. John Woodley: tree planting, silviculture services (pruning and thinning)

Ms. Philippa Noble: eco-systems monitoring, landholder liaison

Dr. Rita Seethaler: economic analysis, community liaison

This project team would be responsible for helping to prepare the Forestry Transition Grant application, and then (if the grant application is successful) for the initial development of the Forestry Transition Plan via the Forestry Transition Grant. They would later play a major role in the initial stages of the implementation phase through the training and mentoring of existing native forest logging workers and new staff, who would eventually assume more responsibility for implementation of the Forest Transition Plan over the period leading up to, and beyond, 2030.