Although Alistair Hull’s family arrived in Australia in 1820 and has generations of farming and forestry experience, he came to the timber industry relatively late.
The proprietor of Talbot Timbers was working in an abattoir when a disastrous bushfire swept through the central goldfields in 1985, destroying farms, livestock and livelihoods.
Helping a neighbour to cut fence-posts to replace those destroyed in the blaze, he saw an opportunity to reuse the fallen and dead timber, and began his business.
“There was a need for more people in the bush to use that timber that had been damaged in the fire,” Hull recalls.
“They were issuing licences at the time, and it just went on from there, from firewood, fence-posts to where we are today.”
Thirty years later and Hull has contracts for high-end furniture and carpentry timbers across the state.
“We’ve taken timber that was worth $200 a cubic metre to $3000 a cubic metre,” Hull says.
“I though if we started a value-added industry here we could employ some of the people who had been forced out by the ECC (Environment Conservation Council) report of 2001.”
The Box-Ironbark Forests and Woodlands Investigation report produced in 2001 removed a significant proportion of area available for logging from the industry and put around 120 timber workers out of business or jobs.
Now a new proposed investigation and draft proposal paper compiled by the successor to the ECC, the Victorian Environmental Assessment Council (VEAC) has Alistair Hull concerned for the future of his business.
According to the draft: recommendations propose a significant increase in protected areas while retaining some areas of forest in the Mount Cole–Pyrenees block for timber production... the draft recommendations propose an increase of 61,000 hectares in protected areas
The paper acknowledges that timber harvesting will be affected if its recommendations are accepted, with decreases in land available for hardwood logging used by Talbot Timbers.
For Alistair Hull, who has made significant investments in upgrading milling capacity in his business recently, the draft paper is deeply concerning.
“They seem to think that the timber industry is a threat to the forests,” he says.
“In actual fact, it's not. The timber industry is not driven by the need for timber, it's driven by the need to manage the forest.
“We're thinning the forest to grow larger trees. Every tree that goes 60 centimetres over bark at breast height - straightaway it's a habitat tree. You can't touch it. There are severe penalties if I do.
“And there are size classes under that which you also can’t touch.”
Hull says the process for ensuring logging is done sustainably and with regard to conservation is exhaustive, with audits conducted by DELWP, VicForests and external assessors.
He says there is a misunderstanding that all logging is clear-felling, or that foresters are inimical to the environment.
“We have spent generations here. We’re trying to get these forests back to the kind of place they were before the clearing of the goldfields era.
“There were fewer trees, and they were much bigger, with high crowns. Those trees provide habitat. If you let too many trees grow too closely together, they don’t reach their potential, they choke each other out.
“It’s also disastrous in a bushfire.”
Joan Phillips is the executive officer of VEAC. She says the investigation is far from complete and has yet to be submitted to government.
She says VEAC is engaging specialists to look at businesses like Talbot Timbers, and will be visiting Alistair Hull’s sawmill in the near future.
“Look, we do need to understand more about these operations, and we are doing baseline work, sending specialists into the selected areas. It’s important to remember the final outcome may not be the same as what’s in this draft,” Ms Phillips said.
The Central West Investigation draft proposals paper has been released by the Victorian Environmental Assessment Council for comment until October 31 2018.
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