Facing the inevitable

Back in 2013 I wrote this piece about Murray Kidman and his business Otway Tonewoods:

Murray has been running a small business harvesting blackwood from public native forest in the Otway Ranges in south west Victoria, supplying the tonewood market.

As I said back then, Murray has been operating on borrowed time with the inevitable closure of public native welfare forestry in Victoria.

That time has now come.

But Murray and his son James are determined to fight to the last!

They have started a petition calling for the continuation of public native welfare forestry in Victoria:

https://www.otwaytonewoods.com.au/pages/petition

Murray’s two main customers, Maton and Cole Clark, are remaining silent about the situation. They understand the risks involved in wading into the deeply divisive Forestry Wars.

It is likely that most guitarists would favour saving our public native forests from logging vs saving the Kidman business.

How can you claim your business is sustainable when clearly the tonewood market is anything but sustainable?

The story of Otway Tonewoods is just another step on the long slow decline of the tonewood market in Australia. The music marketplace refuses to take any responsibility for its own future.

How many people in Australia own a guitar or other musical instrument made from wood? How many of these people make a living from their music?

How many music festivals are there in Australia?

How many music shops are there in Australia?

All of this will disappear unless someone starts growing tonewoods and is openly supported by the marketplace!

Sitting on our hands waiting for politicians or someone else to fix the problem just wont work.

Trying to prop up a failed industry (public native welfare forestry) wont work.

It is disappointing that neither Maton nor Cole Clark wont even start a conversation about the future supply of tonewoods. Crisis! What crisis??

They want us to believe that the future supply of tonewoods is completely under control. Is the shutting down of Otway Tonewoods part of their sustainable future?

When will the marketplace wake up?

It can’t whilst Maton and Cole Clark continue their current charades.

With all due respect to Murray and James Kidman, their social license is about to expire with no option for renewal.

Will it be a turning point for the music industry in Australia?

I sincerely hope so!!

2 responses to “Facing the inevitable

  1. Hi Gordon,

    I have admired your work on plantation Blackwood for many years and hope that markets become favourable for your investments. I had begun trailing figured Blackwood cuttings in 2008 and since established stock with good genetics. As you have said – acquiring suitable genetics needs more research. The value of Blackwood as a tonewood has only recently been acknowledged. This has been due to the initial efforts of Maton Guitars and Murray Kidman, and later efforts from Cole Clarke and Cort Guitars, all promoting its use as a tonewood worldwide. There weren’t any instrument manufacturers producing guitars from Blackwood before the 90’s, as far as I am aware. So, the value of Blackwood plantations has been increased by the work of all three entities that you have mentioned.

    I have been a member of the Otway Agroforestry Network for only a few years and have been alerting people to the benefit in planting such timbers for instruments due to their high potential value and locally indigenous benefits. However, members are simply informed of their options, not made to plant species of our preference. It is worth noting that once these trees are ready to harvest, operations that pay high rates for instrument grade timber will need to exist. So, the benefit in small scale native timber harvesting in creating markets and maintaining demand is complementary to many plantation endeavours and particularly if transitioning from native timber into native timber plantations.
    I don’t know where to begin to address some of the issues you have raised but I would suggest reading the supporting document to the petition found on the petition page that you gave a link to https://www.otwaytonewoods.com.au/pages/petition

    Plantations are the ideal solution to reduce excess pressure on the environment. However, the environment relies on disturbance in many situations and the level of harvesting needs to match the level of disturbance that is required, so that we are providing a service for the bush – not the other way around. The issues have much more depth than simply to harvest or not to harvest native trees. I would suggest that the commercial harvesting of plantations makes far more environmental impact than our single-tree-selection method of harvesting.

    Both Maton and Cole Clarke are proud of their procurement of Australian native timbers. I would suggest reading the recent book “The Guitar – tracing the grain back to the tree” by Chris Gibson and Andrew Warren for some insight into this process. They are by no means silent about the issue and have had sustainability at the forefront for decades. And just to clarify, we have not sold timber to Cole Clark.

    There are many suitable and sustainable Australian timbers for instruments. As you would know, Blackwood occurs over a large range of vegetation types, from grasslands to rainforest and is both a pioneer and late successional species. It is extremely resilient, with seed lasting over 200 years, and in many instances becomes weedy. In Victoria, as in much of Tasmania, Blackwood dominated forests are un-natural, in the sense that they only occur due to ineffective recruitment from past disturbance and are not a natural vegetation type. This is mostly due to cleared land that has regenerated or an ineffective recruitment of canopy species due to inappropriate harvesting and recruitment techniques. These latter are often legacies of selective harvesting activities for Ash before the 1990’s, instead of clearfell techniques, particularly in the Otways. By selectively harvesting Blackwood trees in these overstocked and unnatural ecosystems it is helping to encourage canopy species of both Rainforest and Wet Forest. In forest ecology, small scale disturbance is important in maintaining and promoting biodiversity. Whether plantations can accommodate the demand for timber is almost beside-the-point. If the harvesting of native timber is benefiting the environment, then it should be retained.

    The petition is not for “Otway Tonewoods,” if it were then there would be less public ways to achieve results. This is larger than us, it’s about not only the people that use native timbers but it’s about Victoria’s connection with timber and the bush. It’s about opening up the conversation. It’s about putting all the information on the table and not just what we want to hear or what suits our own agenda. The biggest impediments to a constructive conversation are the inaccurate information that is being pushed by environment organisations regarding the impacts from timber harvesting, a lack of effort to target the greatest threats and ideas around “wilderness.” These ideas are creating more separation and disconnect with the Australian bush and these ENGO’s need to truly acknowledge their responsibility as conservation organisations. Read the supporting document on our website for more information.

    Despite all these discussions about conservation and logging – the biggest questions for forest management are not being discussed. These are the acknowledgement of indigenous culture and techniques in looking after Country. Since European settlement, indigenous burning practices quickly became extinguished. Believe it or not, our bush had less trees upon colonisation than it does now. The resulting wildfires from a lack of regular burning has overstocked our forests with canopy trees and undergrowth – becoming increasingly tuned to carry the next big fire. We look at the bush now and think that this is normal and by walking away we are somehow looking after it. A forest that is overstocked will take longer to develop old-growth characteristics, including hollows. If we do nothing, these issues will not only persist but will get worse. Now is the time to do something about it. If we truly want to acknowledge indigenous Australia and our responsibility to the bush we should be removing the barriers around indigenous “self-determination” and actually let indigenous Australia apply its knowledge and skills in looking after our forests. Or are we simply satisfied to acknowledge the indigenous custodians of Australia on our websites and in our email signatures?

    If timber harvesting becomes undervalued as a tool in looking after our bush, then so be it. But let’s have that conversation, let’s not just let it slide whilst the Victorian government attempts to gain a few green votes – likely at the expense of many more.

    Looking forward to discussing these issues with you further Gordon,

    Kind Regards,

    James Kidman.

    • Hi James,
      Thanks for your in-depth reply. My response has been slow as I’ve wanted to think about what you have said.

      “I have admired your work on plantation Blackwood for many years and hope that markets become favourable for your investments. I had begun trailing figured blackwood cuttings in 2008 and since established stock with good genetics. As you have said – acquiring suitable genetics needs more research. The value of Blackwood as a tonewood has only recently been acknowledged. This has been due to the initial efforts of Maton Guitars and Murray Kidman, and later efforts from Cole Clarke and Cort Guitars to promote its use. There weren’t any instrument manufacturers producing guitars from Blackwood before the 90’s, as far as I am aware. So, the value of your plantations has been favoured by the work of all three entities that you have mentioned.”

      I completely acknowledge the work and effort of you and your father, and Maton, Cole Clark, Cort and Taylor Guitars. Other tonewood merchants have also played a significant role. Without these positive tonewood stories my blog would be much harder to write. But the rise of blackwood as a quality tonewood has not been matched by any substantive changes at the supply end of the market as I hoped it would 10 years ago. We are still primarily in plunder/salvage mode.

      “I have been a member of the Otway Agroforestry Network for only a few years and have been alerting people to the benefit in planting such timbers for instruments due to their high potential value and locally indigenous benefits. However, members are simply informed of their options, not made to plant species of our preference. It is worth noting that once these trees are ready to harvest, operations that pay high rates for instrument grade timber will need to exist. So, the benefit in small scale native timber harvesting in creating markets and maintaining demand is complementary to any plantation endeavour.”

      I could easily argue an opposing position about the detrimental impacts of continuing public native forestry on farm forestry in Australia. These detrimental impacts have been discussed in numerous reports over the last 40 years all to no avail. Given that public native forestry in Australia will never be reformed to the benefit of farm forestry, we are left with little choice. How markets choose to respond once public native forestry is shut down will be up to the market. I’m guessing 99% of the market will not support farm forestry.

      “I don’t know where to begin to address some of the issues you have raised but I would suggest reading the supporting document to the petition found on the petition page that you gave a link to https://www.otwaytonewoods.com.au/pages/petition

      I did indeed read the supporting document to the petition before I wrote my blog.

      “Plantations are the ideal solution to reduce excess pressure on the environment. However, the environment relies on disturbance in many situations and the level of harvesting needs to match the level of disturbance that is required, so that we are providing a service for the bush – not the other way around. The issues have much more depth than simply to harvest or not to harvest native trees. I would suggest that the commercial harvesting of plantations makes far more environmental impact than our single-tree-selection method of harvesting.”

      I have never seen any science that supports the “environment relies on disturbance” hypothesis.
      Your single tree harvesting does indeed seem to have a low impact compared to plantation harvesting, but you are comparing apples with oranges.

      “Both Maton and Cole Clarke are proud of their procurement of Australian native timbers. I would suggest reading the recent book “The Guitar – tracing the grain back to the tree” by Chris Gibson and Andrew Warren for some insight into this process. They are by no means silent about the issue and have had sustainability at the forefront for decades. And just to clarify, we have not sold timber to Cole Clark.
      I spoke with Chris and Andrew when they came to Hobart and have followed their progress over the years since. I have also read and reviewed their book:
      https://blackwoodgrowers.com.au/2021/09/26/the-guitar-tracing-the-grain-back-to-the-tree/

      I fully (~99%) support Maton and Cole Clarke in what they doing, and I understand they are small businesses with limited resources. But I think Bob Taylor (Taylor Guitars) provides an excellent role model for any business that relies on wood. His focus is on securing his future wood supply, and not expecting the log trucks to keep rolling down the road. As such I would encourage Maton and Cole Clarke (and any other wood-dependent business) to go further. They could for example join OAN themselves! When I see Miles and Linda out planting tonewoods I will be the first to cheer and shout!

      “There are many suitable and sustainable Australian timbers for instruments. As you would know, Blackwood occurs over a large range of vegetation types, from grasslands to rainforest and is both a pioneer and late successional species. It is extremely resilient, and in many instances becomes weedy. In Victoria, as in much of Tasmania, Blackwood dominated forests are un-natural, in the sense that they only occur due to ineffective recruitment from past disturbance and are not a natural vegetation type. This is mostly due to cleared land that has regenerated or an ineffective recruitment of canopy species due to inappropriate harvesting and recruitment techniques. These latter are often legacies of selective harvesting activities for Ash before the 1990’s in the Otways. By selectively harvesting Blackwood trees in these overstocked and unnatural ecosystems it is helping to encourage canopy species of both Rainforest and Wet Forest. In forest ecology, small scale disturbance is important in maintaining and promoting biodiversity. Whether plantations can accommodate the demand for timber is almost beside-the-point. If the harvesting of native timer is benefiting the environment, then it should be retained.”

      What you are describing here has nothing to do with modern commercial native forest practice in Australia, and no one in the forest industry is advocating for its adoption. Ecosystem restoration is an entirely separate issue, and in the context of climate change becomes an extremely vexed question indeed. I see zero evidence that harvesting benefits the forest environment – quite the opposite!! Even the forest industry only talks about logging as a benefit for employment. They never mention any benefit to the environment.

      “The petition is not for “Otway Tonewoods,” if it were then there would be less public ways to achieve results. This is larger than us, it’s about not only the people that use native timbers but it’s about Victoria’s connection with timber and the bush. It’s about opening up the conversation. It’s about putting all the information on the table and not just what we want to hear or what suits our own agenda. The biggest impediments to a constructive conversation is the inaccurate information that is being pushed by environment organisations regarding the impacts from timber harvesting, a lack of effort to target the greatest threats and ideas around “wilderness.” These ideas are creating more separation and disconnect with the Australian bush and these ENGO’s need to truly acknowledge their responsibility as conservation organisations. Read the supporting document on our website for more information.”

      I completely agree there is inadequate/inaccurate information, but I would not say it is purely on the NGOs. Vicforests, like all State forest agencies, is highly politicised. The information Vicforests provides is highly “filtered”. Thank goodness Victoria has a decent legal/administrative system that allows 3rd parties to challenge Vicforests activities. Here in Tasmania there are no legal means by which 3rd parties can challenge State forest management.

      As for “constructive conversation” that disappearred in 1996 when John Howard became Prime Minister. Since then blind ideology has driven the political machine! The 2014 Tasmanian State election is another example where constructive conversation between NGOs and the forest industry was betrayed by our political system. In Tasmania at least there will never again be any dialogue between NGOs and the forest industry!!
      The Regional Forest Agreements (RFAs) were the first and last opportunity to get public native forestry “right” in Australia, and even the forest industry now admits they have failed. As I said in 2013, Otway Tonewoods is living on borrowed time. That time is now over. We need to face the future and invent a new forest industry.

      The biggest problem with public native welfare forestry isn’t the science or the social license. The biggest problem is the politics!! The ever-shifting quicksand of the political landscape means that logging in public native forests is a game of politics and nothing else.

      “Despite all these discussions about conservation and logging – the biggest questions for forest management are not being discussed. It’s about acknowledging indigenous culture and techniques in looking after our bush. Since European settlement, indigenous burning practices have been extinguished. Believe it or not, our bush had less trees upon colonisation than it does now. The resulting wildfires from a lack of regular burning has overstocked our forests with canopy trees and undergrowth – becoming increasingly tuned to carry the next big fire. We look at the bush now and think that this is normal. A forest that is overstocked will take longer to develop old-growth characteristics including hollows. If we walk away from the bush these issues will persist. If we truly want to acknowledge indigenous Australia and our responsibility to the bush we would be removing the chains around indigenous “self-determination” and let indigenous Australia apply its knowledge and skills in looking after our forests.”

      I’m not sure why you even discuss this issue. Once again it is not part of standard public native forest practice and the forest industry is not advocating for it. In the context of climate change I’m not even sure that indigenous burning practices are even relevant.
      If timber harvesting becomes undervalued as a tool in looking after our bush, then so be it. But let’s have that conversation, let’s not just let it slide whilst the government gains a few green votes – likely at the expense of many more.
      Instead of talking about hypotheses and forest management practices that no one is advocating, I’d like a conversation about all the failures of public native forestry in Australia. After all how can we hope to change if we do not understand what has gone wrong.

      Back in the 1990s when the RFAs were being developed it was clear to me that they would not succeed in their stated goals. Why? Because they failed to address so many critical issues.

      Public native welfare forestry is now in the ICU on life support. No amount of petitioning will bring it back to life. The forest industry in Australia is in crisis. If it is to have any future the forest industry needs drastic change. But that wont happen whilst public native welfare forestry remains the albatross around the industry’s neck.

      Whenever someone contacts me about growing blackwood I tell them up front – “no one wants you to grow blackwood! Not the Government, not the forest industry and not the marketplace!”

      As a footnote I wish there were more green votes. The world is dying for the lack of green votes. The forest industry loves playing the anti-green rhetoric. It does them no credit whatsoever.

      I wish there was a better, more optimistic story to tell, but the forest industry has no Plan B. Their only vision is to hold onto the past. After 50 years it should be clear to everyone that vision is a failure.

      We need a New Forest Industry in Australia. New Zealand made the transition 30 years ago. They now have a forest industry bigger than ours!

      The Western Otway Ranges is a perfect location for growing commercial farm blackwood. It should be the hub of a major blackwood growing industry. It could still become one if enough people shared the same vision.

      “Looking forward to discussing these issues with you further Gordon,”

      Likewise!

      Cheers

      Gordon

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