A timber industry worker sat alone in the forest after losing all his work.

Forgotten: A Timber Worker's Perspective

By Brendon Clark

As we commence the year 2024, we are confronted with the demise of our industry in Victoria. This deliberate course of events has sparked intense emotions within our community. Although some may celebrate its exit, many of us appreciate the deep-seated connection and historical significance that the industry retains in Victoria's high country. We comprehend that the removal of professional timber workers will not only create financial difficulties, but it will also deprive the community of their invaluable expertise in managing the constant threat of devastating bushfires.

Since 2003, 60% of the old growth forest has been lost to these fires, raising a legitimate concern that a further reduction in timber workers will accelerate the forest's decline and yet again put our people and homes in danger. Our community has already endured the tragic loss of loved ones in these catastrophic events.

It's puzzling why the government overlooks not only the financial burden for the state and rural communities with the loss of timber workers, but also the impact on the environment. A common view I’ve heard is that we should lock up our forests to keep them safe. This would have been the case with our original old growth forest. This is no longer the case after two hundred years of interference.

The bushlands of Victoria today are vastly different from those before Europeans arrived. When they settled here, they had to cut wind tunnels into the old growth forests as the terrain and trees were too damp to burn. These wind tunnels were essential when wind conditions were favourable for forest fires. Clearing the land this way was the only option due to the forest's natural fire-retardant properties. However, as we have learned from recent fires, a young, dense forest can no longer stop the spread of fire. The landscape has changed significantly and no longer holds water as it once did. Without proper rehabilitation, the risk of future bushfires continues to rise. If we fail to protect the remaining old growth forest, it will have long-term effects on the endangered species that inhabit these areas, including us, since most of our water supply originates from these remaining areas.

By commencing rehabilitation efforts around the remaining 40% of old growth forest and water catchments, we may be able to protect them from the increasing likelihood of bushfires in the future.

The undeniable fact is that the young forest we have now, compared to a complete old growth forest, is overpopulated with trees. These overcrowded trees vie for water and sunlight, making them more prone to burning due to their insufficient internal water storage. This condition causes the environment beneath them to become drier and more susceptible to igniting severe bushfires. If we do not address this issue by removing these surplus trees, we are likely to witness more massive and destructive bushfires, as we did in the past and as predicted with the escalating impact of climate change.

In the 2019-20 fires alone, five unrehabilitated national parks in Victoria were entirely burnt, with 60% of the forest exposed to extreme bushfire, permanently changing this environment and releasing 56 million tons of carbon in one devastating event. These occurrences are prime examples of the repercussions when rehabilitation work is neglected to be done before making these areas parks. The suffering and loss of life to our native forests and animals in these areas was horrendous. The way the animals would have suffered is unimaginable. The few survivors are now exposed to feral predators like wild dogs and cats. The feral deer eat most of the forest's natural regeneration after the fires, removing more of the native wildlife food source.
The australian forest red with fire with kangaroos caught in the catastrophe.
Sadly, moving forward without the timber industry makes it impossible for the government to afford the necessary funding for our forestry. Our forestry needs to generate income to make it viable to carry out the essential rehabilitation work. The problematic trees need to be selectively removed in a low-impact manner and used for renewable building materials so as not to release more carbon into our atmosphere. If the government had the foresight when they came into power, they could have initiated a transition into a more sustainable and beneficial forestry practice. However, it seems that emotional politics have clouded their judgment, demonising the timber workers and failing to recognize their potential in preserving the forest and helping us combat climate change. Instead, they have deliberately and gradually dismantled the industry and the businesses involved, without properly managing the forest, leading to more environmental damage.

The effect of the industry shutdown on hundreds of timber workers has been equally devastating. The knee-jerk closure – instead of the eight years transition the government had us all planning for – has disrupted small businesses across Victoria. The stress and uncertainty faced by the frontline industry workers and their families are overwhelming, leaving them in limbo. With some of them, myself included, not having been paid for months with no sign of compensation as yet. The future looks uncertain, casting a shadow of doubt over the entire community.

The timber industry has undeniably left a lasting impact on the area, but its legacy will forever be tarnished by its sudden and unexplained end. The unanswered questions and unheard pleas of those involved leave a bitter taste. Why was the industry closed without proper transparency and communication? Why is there a need to withhold and redact information if the intention is to protect the environment? These circumstances give rise to suspicions of corruption or incompetence, further reinforcing the belief that the industry was set up to fail. It is evident that the promised deadline of 2030 was unattainable from the start because it was a lie.

A lie that led us timber workers to invest in our businesses and family homes, believing we had time to repay our debts before the closure occurred. A deceitful trap set by our government leaders, playing politics with the rural community, families, and businesses.

As the bittersweet reality sets in for those fortunate enough to secure new employment opportunities, they are forced to leave behind cherished friends and family, creating a void that cannot be easily filled. Meanwhile, for those who remain, family hearts ache as they witness their loved ones sitting at home, mere shadows of their hardworking former selves, desperately seeking answers from the government. The cloud of uncertainty looms heavily overhead as they contemplate the unknown future that awaits them. They feel helpless and overlooked, questioning why their leaders have forgotten them.

The lack of support and inadequate resources provided for a smooth transition only exacerbates the feeling of neglect experienced by rural communities, impacting their financial well-being. It's disheartening to witness the sacrifices made by these individuals being forgotten by the government. The countless hours spent away from their families, the friendships forged in the industry, the physical scars on their hands, and the wrinkles on their weathered faces all bear witness to their unwavering dedication.

These timber workers have played a vital role in building homes and livelihoods, contributing billions of dollars to the Victorian economy for generations. Yet, their history of contribution is seemingly disregarded in the government's approach to business and individual redundancies. It's a painful reminder of broken promises and lies from those in power.

The time has come for our new leaders in this government to listen to the voices of these timber workers, to acknowledge their struggles, rightly compensate all forestry workers no matter the type of contracts they maintained all those years, and to work towards a new and prosperous future that takes into account the needs and aspirations of those affected.

For those who may critique what I am saying, it's important to recall the key role that I played in the timber industry. My work involved stopping deforestation after significant bushfires. As an arborist and seed collector, my business aimed to save one of our key species, the Alpine Ash. I never cut down a tree in my 20-year service for VicForests for timber production.

As we move into the new year, consider the future fate of Victoria's great Alpine national parks without the timber industry. When Melbournians will be forced to drink desalinated sea water as the bushfire ash poisons our water supply. Our government officials will stand on the steps of Parliament, with ash falling around them, and blame climate change, but realise this is only part of the truth on why our Alpine forests burn.

The real truth lies in negligence and ignorance, which have led to the downfall of our beautiful one of a kind backyards.
a generated image showing the scary future of bushfires burning as government walks into parliament.
On a personal note, I find myself in a dire financial situation, nearing bankruptcy. Unfortunately, I have not received any support from the labor government since the closure of the industry. I am desperate to speak to someone who can understand and address the damages that have been inflicted upon businesses like mine. The situation has become so critical that I am on the verge of losing my home.

I have made numerous attempts to contact the premier's office by phone and email, but I have yet to receive a reply. Instead, I was advised to apply for Centrelink. But Centrelink payments don’t cover the thousands of dollars in bills my business still has, which I can no longer afford to pay. I’m close to dishonouring payments for vehicle mortgages and insurances (vehicles I can’t sell as they’re devalued from the high kms they were required to complete in my line of work as remote bush worker).

I have encountered nothing but obstacles in accessing the compensation that our industry rightfully deserves. It seems that the decision-makers are deliberately impeding our efforts to receive the compensation, as per the government's instructions. It’s as if it's a game for them, interpreting their own guidelines in ways that suit them, trying to find loopholes to not pay redundancies. Not considering the effect this is having on small family-run businesses. If they don't have to pay us, they won't, regardless of our long service to the industry or our genuine need for assistance.

The latest fight for my business has been to explain why we didn’t pay out redundancies ourselves back in July, as the government only wants to reimburse us not pay it directly. Unlike harvest and haulage companies, my company hasn’t received monthly compensation payments since the shutdown. Instead our finances were drained very quickly as we ensured we paid final tax, super and insurance bills. We had no funds left to pay out thousands of dollars to our workers in redundancy. Not to mention the fact we weren’t aware there’d be no work for us and were only included on the redundancy plan in December, after I spent months fighting for it.

This situation incredibly difficult. I am a proud individual who takes immense pride in the work I have done within this industry. My business has played a significant role in saving millions, if not billions, of trees after the devastating bushfires. Yet, the government treats my business as though it holds no value. 

I am at a loss. 
Brendon Clark
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