Already Lost the Forests, Lost the Election, Waiting for the Beer

Faye O’Brien, from O’Brien Sawmills in Barham, has not seen John Williams, Chair of the Natural Resources Commission (NRC), since the Red Gum forests started to flood in August last year. 

During 2009, Dr Williams was a regular visitor to the central Murray Valley and his team at the NRC prepared a report for the New South Wales Labour government with recommendations for the future management of the red gum forests.

Implementation of the recommendations   in Dr William’s final report, Riverina Bioregion Regional Forest Assessment: River Red Gums and Woodland Forests, has seen the decimation of a once thriving timber community with the closure of the five largest saw mills and many small operations. 

I visited the forests early March 2011 with Mrs O’Brien and saw the red gum forests still underwater – forests Dr Williams claimed faced a “water scarce future”.

“If you ask me Dr Williams doesn’t understand the forests, and he has destroyed my community,” said Mrs O’Brien who would like Dr Williams to return and see her beloved Perricoota-Koondrook forest in flood.

Mrs O’Brien had been involved with the timber industry through Timber Communities Australia since the late 1980s. 

Her husband, Ken O’Brien started his red gum timber business more than 30 years ago with a swingsaw and Fergie tractor – following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather who were also sleeper-cutters harvesting from the forests around Koondrook and Barham.

The end of the red gum timber industry, according to Mrs O’Brien, started six years ago when the Victorian government decided to convert its state forests to National Park. 

“Within 12 months of the forests on the Victorian side being converted to National Park we could see the battle for our NSW red gum forests was over,” explains Mrs O’Brien.

“The environmentalists had won the war.  That was a hard thing for us to accept because we knew that these forests need active management not locking-up”

Dr Williams, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, made his recommendations at a time when the forests and timber communities were under stress because of the decade of drought. 

“His recommendations mirrored the recommendations of the NSW Greens.”  

“Ian Cohen, Leader of the Greens in the Upper House, stated publicly that if Labor did not deliver on the red gum forests they would not get Green preferences.”

“Seven days later the Labor government announced that the forests would be converted to national park.  Dr Williams later handed down a report recommending that up to 85 percent of the State’s red gum forests be put into conservation,” said Mrs O’Brien. 

“We have lost the forests, and now it looks like Labor is going to lose the election.” [Since Labor has lost the NSW election.]

His report states that the forests no longer receive sufficient flood flows or groundwater recharge to sustain them and that even with significant water reform the future of the forests will be “drier than has historically been the case” and that “water scarcity, climate variability and projected climate change will continue to force changes in the structure and health of the river red gum forests”.

During the consultation period Dr Williams and prominent forestry expert and Professor at the Australian National University, Peter Kanowski , visited the Perricoota Forest with Faye and Ken O’Brien.  

Mrs O’Brien remembers the group looking at one of the deep dry runners – the local name for the occasional streams flow within the forests – called the Brumbies within that forest and Professor Kanowski asking Ken whether he thought it would ever run again.  

“Ken replied of course, of course, and I’ll bet a box of Crown Lagers on that,” said Mrs O’Brien.  Professor Kanowski  lost the bet and Ken is yet to receive his box of beer. 

More than beer from Professor Kanowski though, the O’Briens, and many others within the local community, would like Dr Williams as the Chair of the Natural Resource Commission and also as a prominent member of the Wentworth Group, to return to the Perricoota Forest and see it in flood.   

“We were a resilient community, but Dr Williams has really squeezed the heart out of us.  He has decimated our community and he got it wrong.”

“What is really sad is that there was no need for the five saw mills to close.  Just as we knew the rains would return, we knew that sustainable production of timber and the needs of the environment are not mutually exclusive.”


The picture shows Faye on her boat in a flooded red gum forest in March 2011.

This is a longer version of ‘Red Gum report got it all wrong’ by Jennifer Marohasy published in The Land on March 31, 2011, page 13.   Since I penned the piece Labor has lost the NSW election and Professor Kanowski has delivered the beer.  

When your next in a newsagency in Australia, ask for a copy of The Land.


12 Responses to Already Lost the Forests, Lost the Election, Waiting for the Beer

  1. Another Ian April 11, 2011 at 8:45 am #


    There are those among our number to periodically advocate that timber not be harvested. Not everyone has figured out that our forests are a renewable resource which like any crop will spoil if not tended to. The fact is that much of our western timber land is now being harvested for the second or third time since European settlers first moved west a little over 150 years ago. It has not occurred to them, that trees like any other crop this is not harvested ultimately spoils anyway. The ultimate destiny of unharvested western forests is a wildfire. ”

    Found at

    “Van Natta Forestry and Logging

    Welcome to the VanNatta Logging and Forestry site. In the pages that follow you will find information including extensive text and a parallel photographic history of the Van Natta Family whose ancestors have been logging in Columbia County Oregon for more than a century spread over 5 generations.”

    Much more at

    (particularly for foresters and machinery buffs)

  2. el gordo April 11, 2011 at 8:53 am #

    Dr Williams goes back a long way and has bias, here he is on the same billing as Flim Flam. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that Williams thinks CO2 causes global warming.

    I blame Bob Carr for everything.

  3. Bronson April 11, 2011 at 1:38 pm #

    The current red gum forests of the Murray like the cypress forests of the piliga are european artifacts. They arose throught the changed land management practices of settlers – farming, grazing, clearing and changing fire use. If the forests are not actively managed for those currently dominant species the species mix and so to the forest will change over time. Locking forests like these up means you are prepared to take a lucky dip approach to their future – you must accept what ever you get with no idea what it is you are accepting.

  4. Debbie April 11, 2011 at 2:14 pm #

    It is so sad and frustrating that we always find ourselves having to defend our way of life against people who think the only way to solve anything at all is to take away and shut down and kick out.
    Where did vision and possibility thinking go?
    Most of what we’ve done in the MDB is sustainable and has not damaged the environment.
    We’re not perfect and we’ve made some pretty silly mistakes BUT we also fixed most of them up.
    A lot of the rubbish we’re being forced to swallow is talking about ancient history!
    The salt problem is being managed, the forests were being maintained and managed sensibly, we’ve been working to reduce the damage caused by European Carp and this list could go on for ages.
    We are now in the position where we could really move ahead and we’re being stymied by ill informed do gooders who have no personal investment in the health and prosperity of our land and our regional communities.
    Williams’ latest comment is: Quoted from ‘The Land”

    ‘If we have water reforms that are successful we can allocate more water to flooding and have the river connected to flood plains”

    Like what planet does he actually come from? That can’t possibly work! How do you allocate more water to flooding? Seriously? It doesn’t work like that in Australia.
    The last thing we need is more flooding for goodness sake!
    What we do need to do is figure out some good plans to make sure that all our environmental assets are well cared for and well managed.
    Splashing water around indiscriminantly with no sensible plan or outcome attached, is just plain ridiculous.

  5. cinders April 11, 2011 at 3:59 pm #

    This is yet another sad story of a regional community being sacrificed for green preferences in urban electorates. In typical fashion the greens are using this ‘success’ as a reason to lock up more forest in another state.

    This time with Bob Brown is making claims in Tasmania to stop the harvesting of the State’s native forests, despite already having 1.4 million ha or 47% in conservation reserves. See his demand for a $180 million compo package to end native forest harvesting at

    Tasmania multiple use publicly owned forests produce 300,000 cubic metres of high quality sawlog, special Species timber, logs of lesser saw log quality as well as for industrial veneers and pulp wood.

    I think the Natural Resources Commission’s (NRC) assessed the sustainable yield of the area to be locked up was in the range of 6,300 to 13,600 cubic metres a year with limited arising products.

    The NSW government announced a support package of $97million for affected timber industry workers, regional communities and to set up and manage the new parks. I think this was increased by another million to assist businesses reliant on those saw mills forced to close.
    If the average yield of the River red gum was 10,000 cubic metres then Brown’s demand to end the 300,000 cubic metres production in Tasmania should see compensation to Tasmania of 30 times the amount. This is $98 million times 30 or $2,910 million. This is a lot of GST payment for hospital, roads and schools)

    Brown ignores the flow on to those dependent businesses and communities that will suffer and the cost of managing the new national parks once the local forest industry and its fire fighting capacity is destroyed. It’s time to end the creation of National parks, and the destruction of the timber industry for blatant political gain!

  6. el gordo April 11, 2011 at 6:14 pm #

    From the Australian Geographic (May 20, 2010)

    ‘Premier Keneally sidestepped a question that the deal was done to secure preferences from the Greens in the upcoming March 2011 state election. “This is about doing the right thing for what is a nationally and internationally significant forest,” she told reporters in Sydney. “It’s about protecting threatened species, it’s about protecting ecosystems.”

    This is a political fight, yet with that kind of language it will be hard to turn around. Now that the Lib/Nat Coalition is the new government in NSW I was wondering if something might be done to stop the ‘destruction of the timber industry for blatant political gain!’

    Bronson’s comment that ‘the current red gum forests of the Murray like the cypress forests of the piliga are european artifacts.’ This is a good point and needs following up.

  7. Ian Thomson April 11, 2011 at 9:18 pm #

    Bronson, yes
    Jen, but how do we convince my brother in Sydney, who hung up on me when I said the rivers were full now?
    You are trying .

  8. Jennifer April 11, 2011 at 9:28 pm #

    Ian Thomson, my sympathies. Jen

  9. David Joss April 12, 2011 at 6:26 pm #

    Big floods occur on the Murray in a surprisingly regular pattern every 17 to 20 years.
    That has been the case since 1852 at any rate.
    There have even happened in the middle of severe periods of drought.
    The regulating of the river since 1935 has not stopped them but has reduced the smaller floods in between. This has resulted in slower growth rates in the trees.
    The way to fix this is to reduce the number of trees competing for the water.
    Bronson (above) is absolutely right. The early explorers and squatters wrote about the areas now in national parks as being grassy plains, swamps and reed beds. They did not mention forests. Edward Curr was delighted that he had no clearing to do on his extensive river frontage. That area is now the Barmah Forest National Park.
    River red gum seeds will only germinate in full sun.
    It was only when the squatters animals grazed down the riverside pastures that the trees began to take over.
    Given the regular flooding that they experienced the trees grew at a spectacular rate. One experienced timber cutter in 1878 (when a misguided Victorian government had brought the red gum industry to its knees) told the Melbourne Argus that from 15 to 20 years was long enough to grow a tree from which sleepers could be cut.
    We all tried to explain this to the learned people of the NRC but were brushed aside because we did not have lots of letters after our names.

  10. el gordo April 13, 2011 at 6:32 am #

    David, all good stuff, thanx. A regular cool PDO brings floods ‘every 17 to 20 years’, but the real shocker for me is the European artifact.

    ‘The early explorers and squatters wrote about the areas now in national parks as being grassy plains, swamps and reed beds. They did not mention forests.’

    This story should be in the msm and I know just the person to do it.

  11. David Joss April 13, 2011 at 9:40 am #

    Good luck with the msm. I’ve had no success getting them interested although there is an expanded version of the above at Quadrant Online at:

  12. Debbie April 13, 2011 at 11:02 am #

    I hope I’m not going to annoy anyone by cutting and pasting this.
    It did make it to the MSM last year.
    I wish I had thought of this.
    It is very funny but also makes a very good point.
    Also, I have no wish to offend my city cousins but, as Ian pointed out, too many of them are just not listening.

    CITY folk are going to have to make way for our urban riparian restitution program.
    THERE is no nice way of saying this, so we’re going to come right out and say it. You people in cities may have to find some other work while we fix the appalling environmental mess you have made of our rivers and waterways.
    The Tank Stream, a disgrace; The Yarra and Brisbane rivers, yuck; the Torrens and Swan rivers defaced by concrete and buildings on their banks; and the Derwent, a yacht-infested drain. And don’t get us started about the Todd.
    We, the Committee of Rural and Regional Australians and Zealots for the Environment, have decided this degradation, caused in no small part by millions of greedy Australians trying to earn a living each day, has to end.
    We have to start somewhere and there can be no better place than the Tank Stream.
    We apologise in advance for any inconvenience while we demolish the buildings of central Sydney so that one day the mighty, historic Tank Stream can flow once again.
    Of course, you Sydney types will need to find new jobs and, some of you, new homes, but there can be no grounds for complaint because – how to put this politely? – it’s not like you guys produce anything we actually need.
    And when the next recession hits, we all know you city people are all going to be the first seeking government payouts. Meanwhile, your environments are dying from over-exploitation all because you want to go to work and feed your greedy children.
    Frankly, you city workers are not sustainable, you are not bio-diverse and you are not appropriate. Sorry, people, but you’ve got the unholy trinity right there.
    Have you no shame? Do you not realise your greedy lifestyles are killing our city waterways? Your communities have been protected from reality for too long. You city folk must be held accountable and subject to regulations like other industries. You receive copious tax dollars for roads, hospitals and schools. Sorry, but Australia’s greatest urban waterways are worth more than your mundane lifestyles.
    You dare to argue against the science? Many of our best and brightest political scientists from Bendigo to Barcaldine have written opinion pieces at ABC Online. Haven’t you read them? No, I guess you wouldn’t have.
    Someone wrote that the shrimp in the Yarra cannot be seen from Southbank. It is this kind of thing that makes us ashamed to be Australian. We need the crustaceans back for our children and our children’s children, should they decide to visit.
    Only when you are not there can these city waterways return to life with the animals that are way more delightful than you are. Only when you are gone can ABC Online commentators be truly happy about this issue and move on to the next one.
    The future we have arranged for you is in tourism, and once our magnificent city waterways are restored, we may even drop by ourselves. That is, if we can get away from our conferences. There are more people’s lives to arrange and we are very busy people.
    Don’t fret. Reskilling, after all, is what people do these days. Upskill enough and you could make the short list for a job as a ranger.
    Who knows, we may one day hear the magnificent call of the green and golden bell frog chirruping out in those places formerly known as CBDs, and people like you will be there to record this biodiversity in a way that is sustainable and appropriate. You can only dream.
    Better still, why not head out to the bush and grow some food? At least then you’ll be contributing.
    While some of you may feel alarm at this announcement, you can rest assured that before we demolish your workplaces and abolish your livelihoods, there will be an inquiry. The deadline is very soon. Type up your submissions if you like, and email them to

    Then one of our guys added a little more:

    This has very great benefits for all, a real win win win solution. The concrete rubble need not be wasted, just recycled and reused to make a barrage between the Sydney heads and across the rip in Port Phillip Bay. This would soon cause fresh water basins for the carp to flourish in. This has been tried and proven for more than 60 years in Lake Alexandrina S.A. In the event of a shortage of fresh water, releases would be made from Warragamba and the upper Yarra, Maroondah and Thompson Dams. If this was not enough benefit, for strategic military reasons we need to keep submarines out of our waterways and there is nothing quite like reinforced concrete for this purpose.
    ( There are many more ideas for us to discuss but, alas, I should go back to work so I can pay the politicians wages.)

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