‘One stop shop’ in forests has broader lessons

Regional Forests Agreements drafted years ago have shown that ‘one stop shops’ for environmental approvals don’t work. So why are they being considered?

IF A TREE FALLS IN A FOREST and no government wants to hear about it, does it make a sound?

The magnificent wedge-tailed eagles who nest in it will hear it fall. The swift parrots, with only 2,000 left of that beautiful species in the whole world, will notice it’s not there when their migration next carries them through. In a different forest, the tiny and critically endangered Leadbeater’s possum will certainly notice as their home comes crashing down.

But thanks to a shonky deal 15 years ago, state and federal governments will turn a blind eye if rare wildlife is in an area under a ‘Regional Forest Agreement’.

That’s the conclusion of One Stop Chop, a thorough legal review of the 15-year operation of Australia’s Regional Forest Agreements (or RFAs) conducted by lawyers from the Environmental Defenders Offices.

RFAs were supposed to be about streamlining the management of native forests to protect the environment and support logging industry workers. The Commonwealth Government accredited state government forest management systems, creating a ‘one stop shop’, and then stepped out of the way, even when there were threats to nationally significant endangered species. We were all supposed to trust that the Commonwealth would only accredit logging management systems that would protect the forests’ values at least as well as before.

In reality, RFAs have turned into a ‘one stop chop’ used to prop up the unprofitable companies, including state forestry agencies, squeezing a few quick bucks out of our precious forests.

The report, commissioned by an alliance of environment groups, examines the legal management of forests under the RFAs. It looks at the regulatory frameworks put in place by the states, and the various court battles since they were established 15 years ago. It concludes that, with few exceptions, the regulations, standards, monitoring, compliance and enforcement have all been weaker under state governments than they would have been if management of the forests had still required commonwealth approval.

One key failing is the weakness of state protections for threatened species. Commonwealth approvals have to meet international standards. They would have to have put in place strict conditions on native forest logging to protect nationally listed endangered animals like the square-tailed kite and the Leadbeater’s possum. In Victoria, for example, management plans (known as action statements) for more than half of the state’s threatened species haven’t even been drawn up. In their absence, there is no way to require proper protection of the forest area the animals inhabit, even when they are detected.

Another failing is the inability of the 20-year agreements to take account of new information and situations. Accelerating global warming was not considered when the agreements were framed and remains unaddressed. Neither massive bushfires in Victoria nor significant rainfall declines in south-west WA have caused logging levels to be re-assessed, let alone reduced.

Monitoring, compliance and enforcement by state governments are patently inadequate, they have turned a blind eye to what is going on. When they have been unable to ignore serious breaches, they write stern letters, give a slap on the wrist to companies whose quest for a quick buck has endangered precious wildlife, or even change the law to suit the logging industry’s needs.

Third party participation, so often vital in environmental protection, is limited and in NSW non-existent. Tragically, it’s often left up to individuals or community groups to try to stop the damage being done, and in some regions even that right is stripped away under RFAs.

This deliberately dismal deal seems to have been used as the template for the equally controversial mining issue. Labor and Liberal governments across Australia have been working hand in glove with big mining corporations to replicate the ‘one stop chop’ in our native forests for everything else. There is a big push to undermine our entire national environmental protection laws by having the Commonwealth accredit the states to manage its environmental protection responsibilities from endangered species like the Tasmanian devil to World Heritage like the Great Barrier Reef.

If it had been left up to the states, the Franklin River would be dammed, and we’d have seen mining under the Great Barrier Reef decades ago. State governments have systematically mismanaged, exploited and abused native forests after the Commonwealth handed them control, even to the extent of flagrantly breaching their own laws on environmental protection. The RFAs were contrived to favour logging, but even the few environmental clauses have been dishonoured. We can see what will happen next if we let them get away with handing all environmental powers to the states.

Like the Greens, Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott need to repudiate unequivocally plans to turn all our environment protection laws into a ‘one stop shop’ for environmental approvals. Australia’s environment needs stronger laws under Commonwealth control, not weaker laws administered by the states.

Our precious forests nurture unique, tiny Leadbeater’s possums and majestic wedge-tailed eagles, as well as storing carbon, and cleaning our water and air for us. But they will only do so as long as we take care of them.

That sound of a tree falling in a forest is a message we all need to hear loud and clear.

Sarah Rees is director of My Environment; Danya Jacobs is an executive member of Lawyers for Forests

Sarah Rees and Danya Jacobs ABC Environment

Originally Published at http://www.abc.net.au/environment/articles/2013/07/31/3813547.htm

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