Legal exemption for logging – extended

Premier Daniel Andrews secretly extended the 20 year RFA logging deal for East Gippsland with no review, assessment or public knowledge, one day before it was due to expire. This is an astoundingly irresponsible move considering that in the week before, VicForests admitted there are not enough forests left to keep the sawlog supply going.

What’s the RFA?

Twenty years ago on 3rd of February 1997 the logging of East Gippsland’s forests was exempted from federal environment laws while the limits on export woodchipping were done away with. This 20 year agreement between the state and federal governments is called the Regional Forest ‘Agreement’ (RFA). If it had have expired, VicForests’ logging plans would then need to be referred to the Federal Environment Department if federally listed threatened wildlife might be impacted. The original ‘agreement’ in 1997 caused massive disagreement, then two decades of conflict, over-logging and with wildlife becoming increasingly threatened, such as Quolls and now the once more common Greater Glider.

Rather than have to refer clearfelling intentions to the Feds, the Andrews’ Labor government chose instead to extend the RFA for one more year, with a nod by the federal minister. This also allows them to group the Central Highlands and the East Gippsland legal exemptions into one bundle for what they hope will be a more streamlined roll-over in 2018 for another 20 years.

The RFA claimed it ensured conservation values and rare wildlife were protected by handing all the responsibility to the state. But under state ‘protection’ the Leadbeaters possum has been logged for years and has now been put on the critically endangered list, the once common Greater Glider is now listed as threatened, and EEG has been forced to take legal action against VicForests five times – mostly for issues over not surveying or protecting environmental values.

Clearly the state has been unwilling to protect forest values if it threatens VicForests logging demands.  It’s been a cosy collusion between all parties.   

The old agreements were based on extremely flimsy assessments and have been an abysmal failure (unless of course, you happen to be in the logging or woodchipping game). Two decades on and it is now an even more shambolic and obsolete deal. There have been massive changes in this time, including the impacts of climate change and bushfires. Astonishingly, bushfire impacts were never considered in the EG RFA.

RFAs resulted in ‘Magic Pudding management’

When the RFA was signed, woodchipping in the Tambo region north of Bairnsdale increased – wait for it … 700%! It also escalated in East Gippsland and has been responsible for over-logging across all state forests.

This has resulted in VicForests recently admitting it has hit a brick wall and can’t supply the promised log volumes to sawmills. That wall was clearly looming for a long time and the industry bosses and government tree-counters were aware of the ‘chainsaws-on-steroids’ operations that were going on, but they cleared public forests regardless hoping tomorrow would never come.

In fact, relative to the forested area and rate of cut, we have been on a par with the Amazon’s forest destruction.

One year to sort out the logging industry

The logging industry is in major upheaval. The Andrews Government set up the Forest Taskforce in late 2015 in order to sort out a future that suits both logging interests and conservation needs. It’s been an underwhelming process that has tied up key campaigners for over a year. Either the plan is to solve the conflict and shift the industry to plantations with least conflict or it’s to let the industry smash the remaining forests down while keeping campaign resources tied up. Either way – the logging of native forests is coming to an end and running so short of forests it’s had to be supplied with logs from NSW (VicForests annual report 2015-16). The big Heyfield mill dummy-spit has highlighted this situation.   

The one year extension rather than a 20 year auto-roll-over (permanent lawless logging) should give the Taskforce time to expose the over-logging , the lack of logs available and the desperate need to protect the pockets of valuable forest remaining in eastern Victoria. This should see a major reform of how the industry operates, where it operates and using what log resources. The market for sawn timber has steadily been moving into plantation wood until now about 85% of all wood used is plantation based. That’s where the secure future is.

More than 20,000 hectares of old growth and other intact old forests have been logged in RFA regions in Eastern Victoria, including the Central Highlands and East Gippsland, since the RFAs were signed in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Both federal and state environment laws are shockingly ineffective – due to both non-existent and weakly worded laws, as well as an aversion by the responsible state environment departments to act against those operations breaking these laws.

Once the pressure from the logging mafia and its union has been diminished, there should be no reason for the government not to declare new protected areas and introduce a new system of restoration management for our forests. 

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