Log­ging in na­tive forests: court to hear chal­lenge to his­toric 'peace deal'

The Guardian Australia - - News - Michael Slezak

Ex­emp­tions al­low­ing log­ging to oc­cur in Aus­tralia’s na­tive forests with­out ap­proval un­der fed­eral en­vi­ron­men­tal law are be­ing chal­lenged in court as lawyers claim the agree­ments cre­at­ing them are not be­ing ad­hered to in an area of Vic­to­ria.

The case, brought by En­vi­ron­men­tal Jus­tice Aus­tralia (EJA) on be­half of Friends of Lead­beater’s Pos­sum, could have na­tional im­pli­ca­tions, with other groups rais­ing sim­i­lar con­cerns around the coun­try.

Aus­tralia’s 10 re­gional forestry agree­ments (RFAs) in Vic­to­ria, Tas­ma­nia, New South Wales and West­ern Aus­tralia were signed be­tween 1997 and 2001, each run­ning for 20 years.

The agree­ments be­tween state and fed­eral gov­ern­ments mean pro­pos­als to log in des­ig­nated na­tive forests are not re­quired to be ap­proved through the usual fed­eral process, un­der the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion and Bio­di­ver­sity Con­ser­va­tion Act (EPBC).

They were seen by many as a his­toric peace deal that at­tempted to pre­serve con­ser­va­tion val­ues while al­low­ing the forestry in­dus­try con­tin­ued ac­cess to na­tive trees.

But the agree­ments re­quire per­for­mance re­views to be con­ducted ev­ery five years. EJA will ar­gue that since those re­views have not been un­der­taken in Vic­to­ria, some log­ging in the forests cov­ered by the Cen­tral High­lands RFA, which threat­ens Greater glid­ers and Lead­beater’s pos­sums must gain ap­proval un­der the EPBC, which has not oc­curred.

The Vic­to­rian Cen­tral High­lands RFA was signed in March 1998. But over the 19-year pe­riod, the Vic­to­rian and fed­eral gov­ern­ments say they have done just one re­view, which ex­am­ined the pe­riod to 2009 and was com­pleted in 2015.

An EJA lawyer, Danya Ja­cobs, said the case asked the court to pro­hibit log­ging at 34 sites where Greater glid­ers and Lead­beater’s pos­sums live, un­less fed­eral en­vi­ron­ment laws were com­plied with.

Log­ging in those forests is a ma­jor threat to the species, both of which are listed as threat­ened by both state and fed­eral gov­ern­ments.

“The na­tive for­est log­ging in­dus­try has op­er­ated as if it’s ex­empt from fed­eral en­vi­ron­ment law for al­most 20 years, on the ba­sis of agree­ments that have not been com­plied with,” Ja­cobs said.

“This case asks the court to ex­am­ine this sit­u­a­tion in spe­cific forests that are home to iconic threat­ened species that are suf­fer­ing be­cause of log­ging.”

On Tues­day af­ter­noon, VicForests agreed to im­me­di­ately halt log­ging at two sites named in the claim un­til Fri­day, when an ur­gent hear­ing of an in­junc­tion ap­pli­ca­tion may take place.

Nathan Trushell, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the state-owned com­mer­cial log­ging com­pany, VicForests, said they be­lieved their op­er­a­tions were in ac­cor­dance with the Re­gional For­est Agree­ment.

“Prior to har­vest­ing, a thor­ough, multi-lay­ered plan­ning process is un­der­taken to con­sider the man­age­ment of many en­vi­ron­men­tal and other val­ues present in the for­est,” Trushell said.

“We are keen to see the mat­ter re­solved as quickly as pos­si­ble to min­imise dis­rup­tion of tim­ber sup­ply to lo­cal mills and im­por­tant re­gional jobs.”

A de­tailed re­view of RFAs, con­ducted in 2016 by the Na­tional Parks As­so­ci­a­tion of NSW, con­cluded the agree­ments failed in all their aims, the log­ging of na­tive forests they fa­cil­i­tated re­sult­ing in an in­crease in the num­ber of threat­ened species.

Lead au­thor of the re­port, se­nior ecol­o­gist at the Na­tional Parks As­so­ci­a­tion of NSW Oisin Sweeney, said the court case in Vic­to­ria would be care­fully watched around the coun­try and could have ma­jor im­pli­ca­tions for other RFAs.

“It’s ab­so­lutely rel­e­vant in NSW,” Sweeney said. “We have had the first five-yearly re­port. It was pro­duced in the ninth year of the RFA. So it was sev­eral years late. We still haven’t had the 10 and 15 years re­ports even though we’re 18 years into the RFA.”

The log­ging al­lowed by the RFAs in NSW has been de­stroy­ing habi­tat of koalas there. A re­port re­leased in May by the NSW En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency found that all koala pop­u­la­tions in NSW, with one pos­si­ble ex­cep­tion, have con­tin­ued to de­cline, with at least one pop­u­la­tion now con­sid­ered en­dan­gered.

In Au­gust, the first RFA in the coun­try was rolled over, with an agree­ment signed be­tween the Tas­ma­nian and fed­eral gov­ern­ment.

Pho­to­graph: Jean-Paul Fer­rero/Aus­cape/Alamy

The case will be brought by EJA on be­half of Friends of Lead­beater’s Pos­sum.

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