In recent weeks, we have heard a lot about Tasmania’s new Forest Agreement, and the struggles to adequately protect Tasmania’s native forests from logging.
However, what you might not realise is that in Victoria, things are also about to change. The State Government has put forward a new bill, to be debated in Parliament today, to provide "security" for Victoria’s logging industry – which, in other words, means giving away our native forests to be logged for the foreseeable future.
These are the biggest changes to Victoria’s logging laws since the laws were enacted in 2004. They are very worrying. Why?
In Victoria, the government owns all state forests, and permits logging in certain parts of the native forest estate by VicForests, a state-owned enterprise. As you would expect, the government has responsibilities to manage Victoria’s native forests in the public interest, and the interests of the environment.
This is important, as Victoria’s native forests are not only belong to the public, but also to around 150 flora and fauna species listed as threatened, or extinct — including the state's faunal emblem, the Fairy Possum. VicForests has different responsibilities: it must operate as a commercial business, logging and selling timber to companies to turn it into paper, furniture and other wood products.
Because of this difference in objectives, government supervision of VicForests’ practices is crucial, but the new bill removes just that.
Under the current law, the government flags forests for VicForests to log in an Allocation Order. Then, VicForests must every five years submit a plan listing each of the forest coupes within this area that it wishes to log, which government can approve or reject. Only after this second step does the timber become the property of VicForests.
Under the new law, the government will no longer have the power to review these plans. Instead, they will simply approve the Allocation Order, and the large areas of forest stands mentioned in the order will belong to VicForests. VicForests will be left to decide which coupes within these stands to log, and when.
The government has said that this abdication of its supervisory role will not explicitly remove any environmental controls, but they will no longer have the power to regularly review VicForests’ choice of coupes to log, because these coupes will belong to VicForests. It will instead have to rely on monitoring VicForests’ performance against existing environmental controls.
This is a problem. Existing environmental controls are inadequate, and out of date. For example, the Leadbeater’s Possum Action Statement, which supposedly protects Victoria’s faunal emblem (which experts say faces extinction in the near future) has not been updated since 1995, despite the lost of almost half its habitat in the 2009 bushfires. Sadly, the Possum is better off than most – more than half of Victoria’s threatened species don’t have Action Statements at all.
The government’s enforcement of these laws is also poor. A report by Victoria’s Auditor General last year found no adequate policies or frameworks to guide environmental enforcement.
Even more concerning, the bill proposes to allow the government to lock these unsupervised logging practices in for the indefinite future.
Under the current law, the government can only transfer coupes to VicForests every 5 years. The bill contains no such limit. This means that the government can give VicForests native forests for the indefinite future, allowing VicForests to enter contracts to log and sell native forests timber 20, 30 or 50 years into the future. The bill also makes sure that if VicForests sells on the timber to third parties, the government cannot claim the timber back.
So if the government learns that logging is no longer feasible – because of environmental reasons, or because the forests are simply running out (for example, due to bushfires) – the current and future government will find it very difficult and expensive to do anything about it.
The government is about to make a very long-term commitment on behalf of all Victorians. Given, this, you would think VicForests must at least be making lots of money, right? Wrong.
VicForests’ Annual Reports show that in five of the past seven years, VicForests has made cash losses, which it has borrowed money to cover. So in fact, VicForests’ logging of native forests is losing them cash.
Logging also prevents other viable uses for these forests. Victoria’s Central Highlands forests constitute of one of world’s richest carbon stores, and they also perform an important tourism role.
Victoria’s wood industry has a long history, and has been an important source of jobs. However, there is a good argument that, with some inspired political leadership and investment, wood and jobs could be provided by already existing timber plantation industry.
In reviewing Victoria’s logging laws, the Government had an opportunity to envisage a brighter future for Victoria. The bill currently before Parliament moves us in the opposite direction – locking current and future generations of Victorians in to decades more of native forest logging. It is hard to the see any social, economic or environmental reasons why.