By DAVID McALPINE
Previously threatened by bushfire and then by mining plans, a South Gippsland community now fears its livelihood will be damaged by logging of native forest just a few kilometres from the main street.
Surrounded by rolling green hills of farmland and bush 35km southwest of Morwell, Mirboo North is a tranquil small town with an economy relying largely on agriculture and eco-tourism.
VicForests has revealed plans to log 110 hectares of state forest just north of the township, including some of the catchment area for the river that supplies the town’s water.
Preserve Our Forests Campaign co-founder, Marg Thomas, who has previously led campaigns to prevent coal seam gas and coal mining in the region, was shocked by plans to log forest so close to the town.
“I think most people are really quite devastated,” she says. “We can’t let this little bit of forest be destroyed. It’s the heritage of our town, really.”
In August, she was called by a representative from VicForests, a Victorian Government-owned business responsible for harvesting state forest, who advised her of plans to harvest native state forest near the town.
The logging area is split into three coupes, the forestry term for a planned logging area, with 54 hectares on the east of the Strzelecki Highway towards Morwell and two adjoining areas totalling around 56 hectares a few kilometres west of the highway.
The plan includes an area of bush on one side of the Lyrebird Forest Walk, popular among locals and tourists for its spectacular native flowers, trees and habitat for lyrebirds and koalas.
Ms Thomas, who made the tree change to Mirboo North about 40 years ago, says the plan would affect a number of local businesses. They include a beekeeper whose hives thrive in the forest, and the owner of the Grand Ridge Brewery, an old butter factory renovated into an award-winning beer producer and venue, who sources water from the river catchment in the potential logging area.
The plan also threatens the region’s biodiversity and crucial habitat for the Strzelecki koala, superb lyrebird and eastern barred bandicoot, as well as the forest’s significance to local people, Ms Thomas says.
“My daughter and her kids, we were down there just recently, not long after this was announced and we took the grandkids fishing,” she says.
“We were just walking up and my daughter sees a platypus in the Little Morwell River. We’d never seen one there before. So that was just really special.”
The Little Morwell River is managed by Gippsland Water and supplies drinking water for Mirboo North.
In a statement responding to concerns about this water quality being affected by logging operations, Gippsland Water said it had a “very well established and effective working relationship with VicForests”, which operates in many of Gippsland Water’s drinking water catchments.
“Gippsland Water has made VicForests aware of the risk management considerations and protection of water quality requirements that must be taken into account when planning future activity in the Little Morwell River area, and we will continue to work with them to ensure that adequate protections are in place.
“Examples of water quality protection measures that may be employed include the maintenance of filter strips and buffer zones, which are areas of vegetation located between logging areas and the water courses to which they drain.”
South Gippsland Shire Council has not yet taken an official stance on the issue but deputy mayor and Mirboo North resident Maxine Kiel is supporting the community in opposing the timber harvesting plan.
“The potential logging near Mirboo North will affect the community greatly,” she says.
“Most of the community here are against the project and so there’s quite a groundswell of local people that are putting up a protest against VicForests for the proposed logging.”
Cr Kiel liaised with VicForests to arrange a public meeting on September 14, which about 350 people attended and lasted for more than 2½ hours.
“The main message was we do not want logging anywhere near our town,” she says. “They certainly felt the movement on the night that there were not too many people in favour of it.”
At the next council meeting in November, Cr Kiel plans to propose a motion that the council support the community against the logging plan.
She says the council might not have power to stop VicForests, but it can encourage local MPs to support the community’s wishes.
Gippsland South MP Danny O’Brien, who recently raised the issue in State Parliament, says he has asked VicForests to consider the views of the community.
“I understand they are currently doing that and have arranged a date to meet the liaison group formed out of the public meeting some weeks ago,” he said in a statement.
“I am a supporter of a sustainable timber industry – it creates jobs in Gippsland and I understand these logs, if harvested, will go to local mills including one at Yarram in my electorate.
“However I’m optimistic that VicForests will revise its plans in response to local concerns in Mirboo North.”
The Yarram sawmill, Radial Timber Australia, which uses a unique radial sawing method, was not available for comment.
VicForests would not provide answers to specific questions but issued three media releases about the Mirboo North coupes, which are available on their website in addition to an interactive map of the coupes.
VicForests’ general manager of stakeholders and planning, Lachlan Spencer, says community consultation is still under way and no harvesting will take place “before 2018”.
“Planning for these areas will ensure any environmental values, such as streams and threatened species, are protected from any timber harvesting operations.
“These areas have been publicly listed on VicForests Timber Release Plan for the past four years, which is available on our website.
“As VicForests have never been into the Mirboo North area before, we saw this as a good opportunity to engage directly with the residents.”
“We believe that forest planning needs to be a partnership between VicForests, the Department of Environment Land Water and Planning, science, interest groups and the local communities.”
Mr Spencer says VicForests is taking a “more proactive approach” in this year’s community consultation, and was happy to work through the various issues raised by the community.
“The meeting was organised in order to give us an idea of what things are most important to the community in the areas we plan to harvest and how we can work together to develop plans that balance the competing needs of all of our stakeholders,” he says.
Ms Thomas says many questions raised by community members have not been answered adequately by VicForests, and the Preserve Our Forests Campaign the community has established will ask for clarification at their next meeting.
“VicForests weren’t prepared. They weren’t prepared for the number of people and the passion they have against this activity,” she says.
“I suppose through this it’s opened our eyes to the bigger picture of what’s going on in other forested areas and there’s a lot of devastation going on and we just need to change that.”