Alarm at logging breaches

STATE agencies guilty of logging breaches that felled protected trees and threatened endangered species have escaped punishment despite the environmental watchdog finding systemic problems in at least one forest district.

A special Environment Protection Authority audit found three breaches by VicForests near Cann River in East Gippsland, home to threatened species including the long-footed potoroo.

A fourth was confirmed in the Barmah State Forest, near Echuca, where the Department of Sustainability and Environment logged more than half of a 35-hectare protected nesting colony for the endangered superb parrot. As few as 150 superb parrots breed in Victoria.

EPA chairman Mick Bourke said the East Gippsland breaches, where timber workers logged more than a hectare of the Errinundra National Park at one site and breached coupe boundaries by a total of nearly 15 hectares at two others, were signs of a systemic problem.

“Anywhere where there is potential to impact on national forest and special protection zone is a serious matter,” he said.

The special audit was released along with a wider EPA report into timber harvesting in 2004-05 which found an average of 91 per cent compliance with the law.

But breaches, often for minor offences such as inadequate record-keeping, were found in 44 out of 45 coupes sampled.

The EPA found the Gippsland and Barmah breaches were due to poor management, communication, mapping and planning, and false assumptions by staff that coupe boundaries could be changed without proper approval. Recommendations included improving boundary delineation and increasing staff training.

But the EPA was not asked to consider penalties. Mr Bourke said it was unclear whether Government officers were bound by codes of practice in the sustainable forests act.

Environmentalists reacted angrily, calling for those responsible to be prosecuted.

Lawyers for Forests president Vanessa Bleyer said it was preposterous that Government employees could break the law and get away with it.

“The audit simply seeks to keep a record of criminal acts. What sort of response is that? I can’t break the law and get away with it,” she said.

Friends of the Earth spokesman Jonathan La Nauze said the destruction of the superb parrot’s habitat should have alarmed the Government: “You only get one chance at saving a species from extinction, and this audit shows we’re blowing it.”

Environment East Gippsland spokesman Luke Chamberlain said a similar audit finding incompetence and mismanagement in the private sector would lead to mass sackings.

Acting Environment Minister Candy Broad said the Government believed adequate steps were being taken to stop logging breaches. She said it was encouraging that the annual audit found overall compliance in the timber industry was high.

Many of the EPA recommendations had already been put in place, including park boundaries being checked by Parks Victoria before harvesting, she said.

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