Logs on truck in Hobart (file image)
Western Australia has banned commercial logging of native hardwood species. Image by HANDOUT/THE BOB BROWN FOUNDATION
  • environmental issue

Alcoa mine clearing to supply scarce WA hardwood timber

Aaron Bunch January 7, 2024

The survival of Western Australia’s ailing hardwood timber industry could hinge on an environmental assessment of alumina giant Alcoa and its controversial plan to clear parts of a state forest.

In an unusual twist, the industry is banking on logs from the US-listed company’s mine site expansion in the state’s southwest – which the environmental regulator is examining – after the state banned commercial logging of native hardwood species.

The Cook government says the ban will save more than 20,000 square kilometres of karri, jarrah and wandoo state forest for future generations.

But the Forest Industries Federation has concerns about where the long-term timber supply for flooring, furniture, firewood and sawdust will come from.

Chief executive Adele Farina said the state’s timber mills were initially likely to be fed by Alcoa’s land-clearing for bauxite mining at its Huntly and Willowdale sites on the Darling Range, southeast of Perth.

“The sawmills, which are reliant on the larger diameter logs, are really looking to that mine site clearing operation to feed their mills,” she told AAP.

The Environmental Protection Authority has said it will “comprehensively scrutinise” the impacts of Alcoa’s current and proposed mining activities after the WA Forest Alliance raised concerns.

That could take up to two years and in the meantime, Alcoa has an exemption to continue operations during the review with strict conditions, which Ms Farina expects would supply about 10,000 tonnes of logs per annum.

Alcoa workers in Geelong (file image)
 Alcoa is proposing to expand its bauxite mining operations in WA’s southwest. Image by Julian Smith/AAP PHOTOS 

The logging and haulage contracts for the work haven’t been finalised yet and Ms Farina said that has left businesses reliant on hardwood in limbo.

The federation wants the Forest Products Commission to close the deals quickly because some mills are in a “desperate position” and others have closed.

“Over the last 12 months there has been very little product coming from mine site clearing because of the environmental issues between the government and Alcoa … forcing Alcoa to go into already rehabilitated areas, which rarely have any trees,” Ms Farina said.

This issue and the government’s decision to focus on firewood production has meant there has been just a “trickle” of logs.

“Sawmills are under significant financial and viability pressures at the moment and they’ve got no clarity yet going forward,” Ms Farina said.

The Department of Water and Environmental Regulation said the government’s forest management plan permits timber from native forests to be logged during management activities, including when land is cleared for approved mining operations.

“Alcoa has received approval for clearing for mining operations that will enable the harvesting of timber in accordance with the forest management plan,” a spokesman said.

Alcoa said land clearing would be capped at 800 hectares per year while the environmental regulator conducted the impact assessment.

The conditions of the exemption also require the company to double its rehabilitation activities to reach 1000 hectares per year by 2027 and to protect black cockatoo nesting trees.

Under an agreement with the government, Alcoa must also allow the Forest Products Commission to log its land leases before undertaking bauxite mining.

The commission determines what trees are logged and the tonnage harvested, however jarrah and marri have been historically targeted.

Alcoa does not receive payment for allowing the logging.

Questions remain about where WA’s long-term supply of hardwood will come from with Ms Farina speculating that it was likely to be imported from overseas, which could challenge plans for WA’s low-carbon future.

“A lot of that timber is not sourced from sustainably managed forests,” she said.

“In terms of that furniture grade and feature timber, it’s going to become scarcer and scarcer and the cost is going to increase significantly.”

Timber mill in Victoria (file image)
 WA’s largest export-focused timber mills and harvest and haulage businesses have already closed. Image by Adrian Black/AAP PHOTOS 

Before the commercial native forest ban, WA’s karri forests were predominantly being chipped and exported overseas, while jarrah sawlog products were mostly sent interstate, the government has previously said.

The largest export-focused timber mills and harvest and haulage businesses left the industry in 2023 after receiving government exit payouts.

The remaining smaller locally-owned sawmills will be able to process jarrah and karri logs from ecological thinning activities for forest health and mine site clearing. 

These products will remain in WA for use by high-end furniture makers and carpenters who work on heritage projects.

The government is also investing $350 million to expand the state’s softwood plantations by 33,000 hectares to produce pine for the construction industry in the decades to come.