Sweet RFA for our environment

Forests across Australia have been exempt from federal logging laws since RFAs were signed. Above is a destroyed stand of forest in the Acheron – logged under the RFA. Rare and threatened species have continued to be killed and habitats destroyed.

The Regional Forest Agreements (RFAs) sprang from the Earth Summit conference in Rio de Janiero in 1992 where Australia signed a ‘Global Statement of Principles on Forests’. The federal and State governments (excepting Tasmania) then signed onto the National Forest Policy Statement six months later. This policy stated that there would be a comprehensive, adequate and representative reserve system in place by 1995 to protect old growth and wilderness. Since then, the $300 million dollar RFA process[1] has only succeeded in escalating the forest debate while old growth and wilderness continue to be clear felled.

The export woodchip industry is viewed by many to be the motor that powered and steered the RFA across the country. The federal and State governments rushed each regional agreement through resulting in inadequate reports that have been widely condemned by academics and scientists across the country.

Before an RFA could be signed ‘Comprehensive Regional Assessments’ needed to be produced. These were not technically ‘assessments’ — they were a catalogue of selective information and existing data of varying relevance and age. It is clear that, at least in relation to the East Gippsland region (which provides the case study for this article), important research reports such as studies on soil compaction were omitted and obvious gaps were left unfilled. High levels of logging were locked in despite an admission of very poor resource estimates in the assessment.[2]

In one year alone the introduction of RFAs has seen a 26% increase in the volume of woodchips leaving Australia. In 1999/2000 this was a record 7 million tonnes.[3] The existence of an RFA for a particular forested region allows unlimited volumes of woodchips to be exported for 20 years with minimal conditions attached. The regulations, in the Export Controls Act 1982, were amended to facilitate this.

The East Gippsland RFA was the first region to be signed off in 1997. Woodchipping has increased 100% over the past two years and over 700% in the adjoining Tambo region. These figures are derived from the annual volumes and royalties from the Forest Management Areas in Victoria obtained under freedom of information. In East Gippsland sawlog yields have gone down 20% at the same time as woodchipping has increased while average royalty rates for all classes of logs continue to fall.

Many hoped the RFA process would:

• acknowledge the 30 years of forest mismanagement since woodchipping began;

• reassess the narrow definitions of old growth and rainforest which legally allows their clear-felling;

• deal with the lack of data on threatened species and their poor protection;

• acknowledge the historic over-logging of public forests;

• seriously assess the environmental impacts of clear-felling; and

• analyse the economics of logging and the effects on other industries which rely on forests (tourism and honey production for example).

However, none of these goals has been achieved. Although some points were acknowledged — such as the lack of information to determine the environmental effects of logging, the 20 year RFA was signed off regardless.[4] Many RFAs contained requirements to work up sustainability indicators, monitor effects of clear felling and so on,[5] but these have not been honoured. The East Gippsland RFA is just months short of its five yearly review (due in February 2002), but while logging has increased rapidly, environmental monitoring is virtually non-existent.

The East Gippsland RFA failings

Economics

No RFA has examined the economics of the logging industry or the effects on tourism. In East Gippsland, tourism brings in approximately five times more in revenue than logging does,[6] while in the Otways, tourism is worth about 50 times more than the logging industry.[7] Destroying forests is destroying the primary resource of the tourism industry. Ignored in all these reports has been the plantation sector, as an alternative to native forest logging, and the impact of subsidised native forest logging on plantations.[8] Massive subsidies to the logging industry have been ignored.

Inadequate reports and conclusions

In their rush, reports contained very poor quality information and absurdly presented data and conclusions. For example, the social report claimed 85% of workers would not leave if the industry declined. Checking the figures showed that the 85% were in fact six out of eight who responded to a questionnaire.[9]

Sustainable yield

The method of assessing wood resource was looked at and was found to use ‘unreliable data’, had a ‘lack of basic resource data’, there was a ‘concern … of an overestimate of volume leading to an inability to sustain production’ and ‘No allowance is made for loss of resource through fire damage, insect or fungal attack or storms’.[10] Presumption and guesswork were the basis of calculating log volumes to supply the industry for the next 20 years. If new conservation discoveries are made, there can be no additional areas protected unless another reserved area is rezoned for logging. This is to ensure ‘no net deterioration in timber production capacity’.[11] The Agreement was signed despite these acknowledged failings.

Woodchipping

The most glaring oversight in the resource and economics report was the lack of discussion about woodchipping. Grazing on public land received more attention. However, in the final RFA agreement, it was clearly stated the government would facilitate and not hinder the export of woodchips.[12]

Ecological sustainability

An examination of Ecologically Sustainable Forest Management by an Independent Advisory Group resulted in a damning report which found major failings in the 43 areas considered.[13] In just one aspect of ‘planning to protect and maintain biodiversity’, East Gippsland management was found to need 41 improvements to meet requirements. These recommendations were all but ignored when the RFA was signed. The uncertain effects of clear-felling were made obvious. Predicting species responses to logging was impossible due to ignorance of where species occurred and how each would cope with clear-felling. Ecologically Sustainable Forest Management should ‘maintain forest ecosystems and vitality’ and ‘protect and maintain biodiversity’ but the RFA was unable to ensure either of these.[14]

Environment impact statement

The creation of the RFA triggered the Environment Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act 1974 (Cth) which required an environmental impact statement to be carried out. Yet the Prime Minister deemed the Comprehensive Regional Assessment Process (CRAP!) to be an adequate substitute for an environmental impact statement, despite it lacking all the criteria necessary under that Act. The most glaring shortfalls were public consultation, prudent and feasible alternatives and — environmental assessment.

The consultation process

Public consultation is seen by many who participate in these processes as a formality to legitimise what governments plan all along. The RFA consultation process confirmed this. The only public meeting in Melbourne was disrupted by the loggers’ union but another was never organised in its place. Rural consultation sessions were held in logging strongholds deterring most people who had a differing opinion from attending. Detailed written submissions pointing out extremely important issues were lost or ignored and many concerns of the public were never considered in the reports.

Life after the RFA …

Since the East Gippsland RFA was signed in February 1997, we have seen:

• licences issued for unlimited woodchip exports and a massive increase in the volume leaving the region;

• a four-year blockade of the Goolengook old growth forest, with over 300 people arrested as well as other blockades in environmentally significant areas;

• the logging of areas which have previously been identified by the government as having national and State significance for biological values (National Estate, Sites Of Significance, Goolengook, Heritage River Zones);

• inadequate protection of threatened species including the clear-felling of identified threatened species habitat;

• a 0.5% increase in the area placed in secure reserves for the region;

• the increase of estimated area available for clear-felling from 5600 hectares annually in 1995/96 to 11,350 hectares in 2000/2001;[15]

tenders for 800,000 cubic meters of ‘waste’ wood finalised soon after the RFA was signed;

the promised jobs have not eventuated;

the largest woodchip concerns in East Gippsland awarded the contract to oversee all logging — extraction, grading, measurement, marking, loading and delivery of logs as well as pushing new logging roads into forests;

increases in environmental breaches as a result of self- management as well as misgrading of logs to allow cheaper rates;[16] and

logs selling to the woodchip industry for as low as 10 cents a tonne royalty.[17]

Both sides of parliament, particularly Wilson Tuckey and his present shadow, Laurie Ferguson, are determined to entrench the RFAs in legislation. If this succeeds and the compensation clause is accepted, the RFAs will lock in uncontrolled export woodchipping for years to come with little hope of ever seeing important areas of old growth, rainforest or threatened species habitat protected. It would cost governments millions in compensation if they were to do so. If current management continues, everything outside reserves and parks will, over the next 10–20 years, become a sea of commercially selected regrowth saplings and tree farms perfectly suited for the export woodchip industry.

Community concern over forest destruction grows, and protests continue to escalate. Unfortunately, blind faith in market forces and export woodchipping, no matter how economically dubious, still rule the show. Priceless forests are being destroyed and those charged with responsibility for managing our environment continue to demonstrate their lack of accountability and their commitment to large corporate interests.


[*] Jill Redwood is Coordinator of Concerned Residents of East Gippsland. (now EEG)

[1] Answer from Robert Hill in federal parliament to a question by Bob Brown.

[2] Resource and Economics report, East Gippsland Comprehensive Regional Assessment, Appendix A, p.13 <http://www.rfa.gov.au/ rfa/vic/east/> .

[3] Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARE) data, Australia Forest Products Statistics, June quarter 2000, p.62 <http://www.abareconomics.com/>

[4] Independent Advisory Group Report on ESFM Systems and Processes, East Gippsland Comprehensive Regional Assessment, pp.41-3 http://www.rfa.gov.au/rfa/vic/east/raa/esfm/esfm.html

[5] East Gippsland RFA, agreement points 6, 26, 30, 35, 37, 38, 40, 46, 50, 62, 65, 66 <http://www.rfa.gov.au/rfa/vic/east/>

[6] Lakes and Wilderness Tourism and ABARE data.

[7] Geelong Otway Tourism report, August 2001, Western RFA.

[8] Auditor General’s Report, May 1993, Resource Assessment Commission report 1991, Marsden Jacobs Report 2001.

[9] East Gippsland Comprehensive Regional Assessment Social Report, p.37 <http://www.rfa.gov.au/rfa/vic/east/> .

[10] Resource and Economics report, East Gippsland CRA, Appendix A <http://www.rfa.gov.au/rfa/vic/east/> .

[11] RFA, above, ref 5, Attachment 5, Box 1.

[12] RFA, above, ref 5, Point 53.

[13] Independent Advisory Group Report on ESFM Systems and Processes, East Gippsland Comprehensive Regional Assessment, Planning to Protect and Maintain Biodiversity, <http://www.rfa.gov.au/rfa/ vic/east/> p.38.

[14] Independent Advisory Group Report on ESFM Systems and Processes, above, ref 13, pp.41-3.

[15] Department of National Resources and Environment, Annual Wood Utilisation Plans <http://www.nre.vic.gov.au/> .

[16] Personal communication with foresters, and independent audits of logging coupes.

[17] Concerned Residents of East Gippsland (CRoEG), FoI request for royalty rates, 2000/2001.

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