Our dogged pursuit of the crooks involved in the opportunistic logging of a large strip of the Snowy National Park during the January ’03 fires is starting to pay off.
Auditor General to scrutinise DSE.
Firstly, in mid-July we received a response from the Auditor General’s Office confirming that they had decided to investigate the theft of logs from the park. It took many months for them to carry out their preliminary investigation “due to delays in obtaining the relevant information”. This indicates DSE officials are loath to have this looked at outside of their control.
The AG’s office also believes there are other anomalies which need to be investigated. Any significant findings will be presented to Parliament.
DSE admits to conflict of interest
Secondly – and after 18 months of heel nipping, the Bracks Government rewrote its investigation findings and released them. This was done on the afternoon of Friday 13th, just as the Olympics were starting and any story would be buried under a five page Thorpie special. It’s a sanitized but still damning report on illegal logging and theft of logs from the National Park. The conclusions of the report excuses the theft of 50 trucks of logs by saying that people were stressed and confused, and not able to supervise the loggers properly. However there are some other interesting findings.
The report admits that the logging works were excessive, inconsistent with the prescriptions and made the area they were engaged to protect even more flammable. It also highlighted the conflict of interest in hiring a senior logging industry figure to undertake the work.
It says there were “at least four” ex DSE employees hired to work on the fires. They were “in many cases now retired” but one was now a “senior member of the timber industry”. This indicates three (or more) came out of retirement. We’d guess the other person could only be Garry Squires, CEO of East Gippsland Logging and ex-senior manager for DSE Gippsland. It was that person who made the initial prescriptions for the Yalmy Rd works, and it was those initial prescriptions that didn’t distinguish between the National Park and state forest wood. You’ve got to ask yourself why someone who’s been up through the ranks for 20 years and was senior manager for all of Gippsland didn’t know logs weren’t supposed to disappear from Parks.
Kid in charge of a lolly shop.
In summary, the DSE admitted the clearing work was opportunistic and carried out by an industry leader who had a clear conflict of interest.
The initial stages of the operation, including preparation of the prescriptions, were in the hands of a senior person from within the timber industry who was contracted to the Department to provide strategic fire advice. This obvious conflict of interest was not managed.
We accept that the Yalmy Road edge of the Snowy Park had some Messmate trees with bark which can be flammable. However, the over enthusiastic felling of all species of trees and the illegal taking of logs from the National Park was not due to either confusion or stress. It had been brought to the attention of DSE superiors early yet no action was taken until it was too late.
The investigation compared the logs removed with the logs that were said to have ended up at mills. The report doesn’t present the figures or log volumes, or name the mills. Unfortunately, despite clear breaches of the Act and knowing who was involved, the investigation team said it could not gather the crucial evidence to initiate criminal proceedings against any individuals. Civil proceedings (ie suing the thieves) doesn’t seem to have been considered.
One of the frustrating things about this report is that its authors, who decided that the theft and destruction was “procedural rather than the wrong doing of any individuals”, are anonymous. We only know that one is in the DSE (and reading between the lines it appears that DSE personnel were equally implicated in this looting activity) and one is a former Senior Prosecutor from the DSE’s Offence Management Unit, so it is possible that he or she is a former close colleague of Squires. So it’s ironic when they say “this obvious conflict of interest was not well managed”. They could look in the mirror and say the same thing.
Part of the 7 page report states:
Timber was removed that did not appear to be posing any serious fire threat, and merchantable timber was removed from the National Park despite no power within the National Parks Act to do so.
Furthermore the clearing operation created so much waste material that it ultimately added to the fire threat. Very significant windrows were pushed up against bush on the burn side which required substantial additional work before any backburning could have commenced…
So a logging industry boss is let loose in a national park with bulldozers and chainsaws and the DSE are amazed that the area turned into a logging coupe. This happened at the same time the loggers were patting themselves on the back for their services to the community.
The report goes on to say that concerns were raised by staff at the time but were not acted on until it was too late and “significant parts of the control line had been prepared beyond the requirements of the prescriptions”.
In its recommendations, the report suggested that in future, if any non-departmental staff are employed to manage or supervise at wildfires, DSE must ‘identify and manage’ any conflict of interest.
It seems that managers constantly have to be reminded of the obvious way to manage. The DSE does seem to have conflicts of interest quite frequently. One solution could be to clean out entrenched upper level foresters from the Department so that DSE can start to reflect its name and stop being apologists for gluttons.
Suggestions of collusion between industry and senior forestry staff is implicated but not adequately explored in this report. Just vague statements that “sawmills were without logs . local industry leaders were . putting pressure on local staff . the valuable native timber resource . Added to this pressure NSW was also demanding that backburning take place off Yalmy Road . valuable plantations”.
At this point we’d like to repeat that there was a “local industry leader” right there in the office, drawing up the Yalmy Road logging prescriptions, and that his business partner, Bob Humphreys, was in the media squealing for more logs during the crisis.
However “Not all staff supported the decision to backburn off Yalmy Road . A key element of the decision – to allow timber to be taken off the site for commercial purposes – was not approved by the regional fire control centre in Traralgon.” It also says that the “regional centre” did its lolly when it “became aware of” the theft of the National Park logs, and “issued an order to cease”. Whoever these mysterious resisters are, a big thumbs-up from us.
Those responsible have been shown up, but not named for fear of litigation threats. The Bracks Government claims that there is not enough hard evidence to prosecute. It seems that a smoking gun is no longer evidence unless someone produces the bullet.
Let’s hope the Auditor General will shed more light on this situation. Whatever the final outcome, it is crucial that Mr Bracks generously compensate the reserve system for this lawless destruction by logging interests.
Jill / Liz