Last week, the Gippsland environment group Goongerah Environment Centre (GEC) was shortlisted for the prestigious United Nations World Environment Day Awards in the Habitat Restoration and Biodiversity category.
The announcement came as the Victorian government was threatening to prosecute GEC volunteers for exposing an illegal rainforest logging operation.
Members of the East Gippsland group entered an area where timber was being harvested by VicForests, a government logging corporation. They believed that VicForests had illegally cleared protected rainforest, and reported their findings to the environment minister.
The government’s response was to threaten to prosecute members of the organisation for entering a “timber harvesting safety zone”. A subsequent internal investigation noted “significant concerns” and found that “VicForests retains a degree of culpability” for the potentially illegal clear-felling of at least 22 large rainforest canopy trees.
“The unwarranted destruction of these trees is not considered to be consistent with ‘best practice’… and will likely contribute to a negative environmental impact,” the investigation found.
Victorian environment minister Lisa Neville said: “There was extremely poor practice and it was probably a fine line whether this was a breach or not.”
GEC spokesperson Ed Hill said: “It’s a great honour to have made the shortlist for this prestigious award that recognises significant contributions to the conservation of biodiversity by local community groups. Ironically the Victorian government are threatening to prosecute our volunteers for doing the exact work the United Nations has recognised and shortlisted us as finalists for.
“We would have expected this kind of behaviour from the previous Liberal government, not Labor, who promised Victorian’s greater transparency and accountability.
“The state government are shielding VicForests’ logging operations from public scrutiny. Our organisation entered the ‘timber harvesting safety zone’ as we suspected logging was occurring unlawfully. In the absence of appropriate regulation of VicForests by the Department of Environment Land Water and Planning, we felt it was necessary to document the rainforest destruction and call on them to investigate.
“The state government should be thanking us for doing their job and scrutinising VicForests. Instead, they are threatening to prosecute community members for doing the job of government and ensuring logging is not in breach of the law.”
But agriculture minister Jaala Pulford told parliament she believes it is “entirely appropriate” that members of the environment centre could face prosecution.
Pulford defended the regulations preventing the public from entering timber harvesting safety zones. “This is heavy and dangerous work, and the protection of people who work in the timber industry, and indeed the protection of people who do not like the timber industry, is important,” she said.
Hill questioned whether the investigation into GEC was really about safety, suggesting “the department don’t like us because we do the work they should be doing”.
VicForests has a poor track record, he said, and the department is complicit and “wilfully assists VicForests to operate under a veil of secrecy”.
“They want to get these rainforest species, these wet forest species, out of the way to create a hot fire in the area which will burn everything out of the way and create an ash bed which they’ll drop a couple of species of eucalyptus forest in.
“The really good habitat for the threatened species is in the way, and the rainforest is in the way. VicForests wants to clear it out, basically to create their tree farms.”