The Victorian government has fined a conservationist who exposed what the Environment Minister described as “very disturbing” and “extremely poor practice” logging, despite reports he helped prepare becoming a catalyst for substantial reform of industry guidelines.
In April this year Owen Hanson, a field ecologist with the Goongerah Environment Centre (GECO), entered an area being harvested by VicForests to investigate concerns that a range of rules designed to protect vulnerable plant communities were being flouted by the government logging corporation.
Despite the fact the reports produced were submitted to the state government who thanked the organisation for their work, Hanson still received a $440 fine for entering the area where the logging was taking place.
Responding to the apparent contradiction Ed Hill, a spokesperson for the GECO, accused the Andrews government of hypocrisy and trying to silence green voices.
Hill stressed there was no actual work being conducted in the forestry ‘coupe’ at the time GECO field ecologists entered it and that the government enjoys discretion over whether to fine or prosecute people who enter ‘timber harvesting safety zones’.
“The government are basically saying ‘thank you for your engagement now we will punish you so you shut up, go away, and stop embarrassing us’,” he said.
The three conservationists who entered the logging site in East Gippsland faced weeks of uncertainty over whether they’d be prosecuted before Hanson was eventually fined despite the Environment Minister describing the allegations and the subsequent findings of a government report as “very disturbing”.
In response to the first of two reports submitted to her by the GECO, the Environment Minister Lisa Neville announced more ‘spot checks’ would be initiated to ensure logging was being carried out in compliance with conservation laws.
Now, after another internal government report which was double-checked against an independent consultant’s, a raft of issues around how the ecological community of Cool Temperate Mixed Forest and the potential for greater protection of large old trees have also been identified.
The government reviews made no adverse findings against VicForests, but noted it was difficult to ascertain exactly what the vegetation communities the GECO raised concerns about had been because the clearing had already occurred.
After acknowledging shortcomings of regulations to minimise the impact of logging on the environment, the Victorian government is now consulting with stakeholders on how to strengthen and clarify the laws.
The Executive Director of Land Management Policy at the Department of Environment, Peter Beaumont, said the government is “always looking to improve [its]approach and achieve the important balance between environmental protection and a productive timber industry”.
"Our review of the current regulatory documents identified some ambiguity in the definition of Cool Temperate Mixed Forest which has the potential to cause interpretation issues and confusion,” Beaumont said.
He also noted that large old trees are not afforded any specific protection in the East Gippsland area, which raises questions about how they’re meant to grow to achieve the protected ‘giant tree’ status currently enjoyed by just three specimens.
"The consultant [engaged to prepare an independent report]also made one additional recommendation, to establish clear prescriptions around how non-target tree species should be protected during harvesting operations,” Beaumont said.
While the government is considering how best to implement these reforms the GECO, which was shortlisted for a United Nations biodiversity prize this year, is concerned that the it is not serious about regulating the loss-making forestry industry in East Gippsland.
“Owen alerted the government to these appalling logging practices and they are now committing to doing something to improve those practices; they should be thanking Owen not fining him,” Hill said.
In a fresh report to be submitted to government next week the GECO will outline the criteria it has developed to identify Cool Temperate Mixed Forest as the government seeks to establish one of its own 20 years after a key forestry planning document suggested this be done.
“Appalling logging practices in old growth forest continue in East Gippsland, often in breach of the law,” Hill said.
“Instead of acting to stop logging in old growth forests and ensure VicForests comply with the law, the government is fining the people that bring these matters to their attention."
The Victorian government declined to comment.
Images courtesy the GECO.