State government-owned logging company VicForests will soon face harsher regulation and greater oversight by the regulator, a move which comes in the aftermath of an ABC investigation into allegations of illegal logging. 

Key points:

  • The Victorian government has announced new powers for the state’s logging regulator
  • Other changes will aim to limit conservationists’ ability stop logging in the courts
  • Allegations against VicForests included systemic illegal logging, “spying”, and failing to regenerate land

The regulator’s additional powers were announced as part of what Victoria’s Agriculture Minister described as “major changes” to the state’s plan to shut the native logging industry by 2030.

But they were packaged with other changes, which conservationists have said may weaken protections for the environment.

The changes included nearly doubling the money given to communities affected by the industry’s decline, and a move one industry player hopes will limit the ability for conservationists to challenge logging in courts.

“The plan ensures critical supply chains that rely on native timber will have enough time to adjust ahead of the phase-out in 2030, while supporting workers and communities through the 2024 step-down and beyond,” said Mary-Anne Thomas, Victoria’s agriculture minister, in a statement.

Tightening regeneration oversight

Last month, an ABC investigation revealed areas that had been logged were not being regrown as the industry claimed. Some areas, which were officially marked as regenerated, years later appeared to be nothing more than weed-infested grasslands.

VicForests said at the time it complied with the law and that any questions about those areas already marked as regenerated should be directed to the government since they were no longer VicForests’ responsibility.

But the decision to categorise many of those logged areas as “regenerated” did not require any independent checks.

In a statement, a VicForests spokesperson said: “VicForests welcomes today’s announcement by the Victorian government to bolster the Victorian Forestry Plan.

“We look forward to working with all relevant stakeholders to ensure a strong and vibrant future for Victorian forestry.”

Now, the government has said they will reinstate a requirement for any areas being claimed as regenerated, to be approved first by the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning.

To support that change, the government also announced $14 million would be spent, including on work to establish a way of managing regenerated forests in the long term.

Margaret Blakers, an independent researcher who conducted a detailed investigation into VicForests’ regeneration, said the move was positive but mostly “window dressing”.

“The first point is that they have actually recognised that there are huge problems with regeneration. That’s implicit in the response,” she said.

But she said the main problem underlying the failed regeneration was simply the scale and intensity of the logging.

“Regeneration starts with logging and there is no reduction in the intensity of logging, no moving forward of the 2030 deadline,” said Ms Blakers, who has been a prominent member of the Greens.

“So logging continues at the same pace until at least 2024 and that’s a disaster.”

New powers, but no details

Minister Thomas also announced plans to give the Office of the Conservation Regulator new infringement powers, giving it more tools to discipline VicForests if it breaches logging laws again.

But the government could not provide details about what those new powers would be.

Last month, the ABC revealed evidence supporting allegations of widespread and systemic breaches of logging laws by VicForests.

The ABC also revealed the regulator had failed to properly investigate those allegations.

David Lindenmayer from the Australian National University, one of the world’s leading forest ecologists, said the announcement sounded meaningless.

“They haven’t used the powers they have, so I want to see something real here rather than vacuous arm-waving,” he said.

Nicola Rivers, an environmental lawyer at Environment Justice Australia, agreed.

“While it is promising [that] the Andrews government has recognised this is a serious issue, it is absolutely inadequate to waste time introducing new infringement options when the focus should be on using the strong environment protection tools already available in Victorian law,” she said.

“The problem is not a lack of enforcement tools, the problem is the government’s failure to use them.”

VicForests has consistently denied breaching the law in a widespread way.

“All timber harvesting and regeneration operations are conducted in line with Victoria’s strict environmental regulations and the State’s Forest Management Zoning Scheme,” it said in an earlier statement.

Freeing loggers from court challenges

Meanwhile, in response to legal challenges, the government said it would introduce legislation to give more “certainty” to industry.

New legislation would make changes to the way something called the “precautionary principle” is required to be complied with by loggers.

The precautionary principle is written into the law, requiring VicForests to abide by it. In general terms, it means actions should be taken to avoid environmental harm, even when it is not certain that harm would occur. But precisely how that is applied in any particular jurisdiction is a complex matter usually decided by courts.

Last year, the Federal Court ruled VicForests had been breaching the precautionary principle by failing to avoid serious and irreversible damage to the threatened Greater Glider.

“We have seen increased litigation which has locked up coupes and made it more difficult for our industry to access the timber that they need,” Minister Thomas said.

Malcolm McComb, chairman of forestry business Pentarch Group, was very grateful for the government’s announcement.

“We would just like to say we are very thankful to the government for taking the steps to stop the warfare, and the legislation changes to stop the amount of time that’s been wasted on pursuing political change through the court system,” he said.

No detail was released about how that would be implemented. Minister Thomas said it would be revealed in legislation to be tabled in 2022.

Environmental lawyer Nicola Rivers said the move could weaken environmental law and put wildlife at greater risk.

“Logging continues to drive threatened wildlife towards extinction. It’s time for the Andrews government to use the full force of the law not rewrite it, and to immediately protect remaining important habitats,” she said.

Victorian logging regulator to get new powers over VicForests after allegations of illegal logging
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