VICTORIA’S old-growth forests could be opened to more logging under a state government plan to dilute environmental laws designed to protect threatened species.
The Age has learnt that the Department of Sustainability and Environment is quietly examining Victoria’s 23-year-old Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act so that the existence of animals deemed threatened or endangered is less likely to derail logging proposals.
It follows a landmark Supreme Court ruling in August last year banning VicForests from logging old-growth forest at Brown Mountain in East Gippsland after an environment group produced video footage of an endangered long-footed potoroo in an area to be felled.
Senior department and government sources have confirmed the government wants to overhaul the act amid concerns that environment groups are becoming increasingly skillful at capturing footage of endangered species to thwart logging operations.
The department currently searches for threatened species only in areas earmarked for logging, leaving most of Victoria’s old-growth forests unchecked. But under a proposal before cabinet, the department would undertake a more extensive survey of old-growth forests. The existence of endangered or threatened species in areas earmarked for logging would then be considered in a statewide context instead of automatically triggering the maximum level of vegetation protection.
Environment Minister Ryan Smith’s office yesterday denied that the act – designed to protect flora and fauna from threatening processes – was being reviewed. But Mr Ryan’s spokeswoman, Lauren Bradley, said the government reserved the right to review it.
”It is normal practice for government to review and update legislation,” she said.
But parliamentary secretary for forestry Gary Blackwood, who has been driving the changes, confirmed the government intended to ”revisit or review” the way the law applied to the management of threatened species.
”Bearing in mind that roughly 90 per cent of our threatened-species estate is locked up in park and reserve, and only 10 per cent is available for timber production, we think that if we do some work in the park then we may well find that these species aren’t as rare as we might think, and therefore it might give us an opportunity to
take pressure off areas set aside for timber production,” he told The Age.
Mr Blackwood has been appointed chairman of a native forest taskforce by Agriculture Minister Peter Walsh. The recommendations of the taskforce are being considered by cabinet and are likely to be made public soon.
Wilderness Society campaigner Luke Chamberlain said the proposed change showed the government saw biodiversity as a problem that got in the way of its logging program.
”This is further evidence that we have a government-sanctioned rogue industry that cares nothing for native wildlife,” he said. ”The government cares more about feeding woodchip mills for Reflex paper than it does about endangered species facing extinction.”
Victorian National Parks Association executive director Matt Ruchel said the flora and fauna guarantee already provided only a minimum of protection. ”Where is the transparency in terms of an exhaustive public consultation process?” he said.
Victorian Association of Forest Industries chief executive Lisa Marty said various reviews had highlighted the need for better information and monitoring of threatened species.
Josh Gordon and Adam Morton