We must return federal environmental protections to native forests.
Last Friday was a chance to restore balance to the way our native forests are managed — a chance that was wasted.
Over the past 20 years, areas designated for logging have been exempted from Australia’s national environment laws. Even open cut mines don’t get that sort of special treatment. These logging laws, known as ‘Regional Forest Agreements’, were meant to protect jobs and protect the environment. They have failed on both counts.
The first of these agreements — the East Gippsland Regional Forest Agreement — expired on Friday. But despite all the evidence that the industry needs to be brought into the 21st Century, the Victorian and Federal Governments quietly extended the failed laws.
With these laws in place, when a logging operation is imminent, tech-savvy volunteers are forced to seek out some of our most threatened animals, such as long-footed potoroos or powerful owls that are present in the area and in danger from logging. With photographic evidence that these animals are living in the forests, they can force a stay of execution before the trucks roll in. These ‘data blockades’ in areas such as Far East Gippsland and the Central Highlands beyond Healesville are now often the last line of defence against logging.
It should not need to be this way.
Over three sunny January days, I returned to the majestic forests of East Gippsland, where I spent a lot of time in the 1980s, and where I’ve returned regularly since. It is invigorating to breathe in the fresh air and hear cascades of clear water, clean enough to drink straight out of the creeks and rivers.
I am proud to have been one of the leaders of the campaign that created the Errinundra National Park. It was a win for people over an outdated “chop it down, ship it out” attitude. We saved a section of forest, and it thrives today as a magical place to visit.
As we march through the 21st century with logging still continuing, the important role of these forests in combating dangerous global warming has become ever-clearer. Each undisturbed hectare of forest holds hundreds of tonnes of carbon, which is many times more than most other forests around the world.
Just outside the Errinundra National Park, where the Regional Forest Agreement is in place and the normal environment rules do not apply, great swathes of formerly magnificent forest is being left devastated. There is no getting past the brutal nature of the process conducted by an industry stuck in the past century.
No modern industry would use dynamite to go fishing, but the native forest logging industry uses napalm as part of the ‘management’ regime.
When an area of our pristine, irreplaceable forest is logged, it is cut down and bulldozed. The complex understory is destroyed, the resulting silt and debris is sent downstream, possums and gliders are thrown from their nesting hollows, and wombats are buried alive. Then, just in case any plants or animals have survived, napalm is dropped from the sky to scorch the former forest, in the name of ‘regeneration’. Yes, napalm.
No modern industry would use dynamite to go fishing, but the native forest logging industry uses napalm as part of the ‘management’ regime. All this for mostly low-value wood products such as woodchips and tomato stakes.
This is all based on a myth that native forest logging can support jobs into the future. What we are seeing now is that it is simply unsustainable to keep propping up this outdated industry at the expense of our native forests. We subsidise the industry in East Gippsland up to $5.5 million a year. Just think of how many jobs we could create building walking, horse riding and bike trails, and employing local people as custodians of our forests.
It’s clear that we have got the balance wrong when it comes to forest management in Australia. Last Friday was an opportunity to transition to the sustainable jobs of the future — like in tourism and sustainable, plantation-based wood products. In fact, 85 percent of the wood product industry is already in sustainable, plantation-based logging.
But the longer we wait, the harder it will get.
We can make the first step towards restoring the balance. We must return federal environmental protections to native forests to put our forests back in our hands.
Janet Rice is a Victorian Senator and the Australian Greens spokesperson for forests.