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.
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