- Adam Morton, Environment Reporter
- The Age, April 10, 2009 - 12:00AM
NATIVE forest timber could be converted into energy and fed into the power grid under a Victorian Government plan to ensure the future of the forestry industry.
A draft strategy for the industry's future proposes lifting a ban on the sale of renewable energy generated by burning native forest wood.
The policy paper, released yesterday by Agriculture Minister Joe Helper, said the change would apply to "lower-quality native hardwood logs", a byproduct of sawlog harvesting.
"Variable oil prices and increasing concern about levels of greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels means that there is interest in bioenergy as an energy source," it said in the paper. "Renewable energy production may also be a valuable potential market for logs salvaged from bushfire-affected native forests."
If adopted, the policy shift would allow the Victorian forestry industry to capitalise on proposed federal climate change laws that will require electricity retailers to source 20 per cent of their energy from green sources by 2020.
Other proposed changes under the strategy include doubling the maximum length of timber contracts from 10 to 20 years and reviewing the role of Government-owned timber supply company VicForests.
Mr Helper said it reaffirmed the Government's long-term commitment to logging in plantations and sustainably managed state forests, and the employment it creates in regional areas.
The plan was embraced by the timber industry, but criticised by environment group The Wilderness Society, which described it as archaic.
Wilderness Society forest campaigner Luke Chamberlain said the strategy was counter-intuitive; talking about the benefits of storing greenhouse gas emissions in forests while locking in long-term logging contracts and promoting the creation of "forest furnaces".
"This flies in the face of a previous Bracks government commitment to outright oppose the burning of native forests for power," he said.
"If this industry locks in burning native forest for power and 20-year woodchip contracts it will undermine efforts to restructure the industry to become climate positive, innovative and job creating."
Victorian Association of Forest Industries chief executive Philip Dalidakis dismissed the criticisms as an ideologically driven scare campaign.
He said restrictions already in place ensured only waste from native forest logging would be turned into bioenergy.
The Federal Government's proposed renewable energy laws require that electricity generation must not be the primary reason for logging native forests.
"Any suggestion that this is a free-for-all is misleading," Mr Dalidakis said. "It will not require one more additional tree to be harvested than the sustainable yield figure already allowed by government."
Mr Dalidakis said the industry would remain focused on producing sawlogs for high-value timber products such as floors and tables.
He said the Government's plan could produce a windfall for fire-devastated communities such as Marysville, where dead trees that could not be used for sawlogs or woodchips could be converted into energy.