Wielangta and the forest wars

July 19, 2008

The chainsaws are poised to enter Wielangta Forest in south-east Tasmania, despite ongoing community opposition and a long legal battle led by Greens senator Bob Brown.

Eighty people attended a public meeting in Hobart on July 11 to hear about the struggle to preserve Wielangta Forest. The gathering was addressed by Bob Brown, legal team head Roland Brown and Margaret Blakers, a campaign co-ordinator and member of the Green Institute.

In 2003, Bob Brown decided to turn to the courts to stop Forestry Tasmania from logging the 10,000 hectare Wielangta Forest. In May 2005, he applied to the Federal Court for an injunction to stop logging, which was refused, but Forestry Tasmania agreed to stop most logging until after the court had made its ruling.

In December 2006 the Wielangta battle appeared to have been won when logging was stopped by the Federal Court, which found that Forestry Tasmania's Regional Forest Agreement (RFA) was damaging to the natural habitat of the swift parrot, the Wielangta stag beatle and the Tasmanian wedgetail eagle — all endangered species.

Environmentalists celebrated the court decision. However, instead of the logging industry changing their practices to meet the law, they managed to change the law to meet their practises!

Two months after the logging ban, then-PM John Howard and Tasmanian premier Paul Lennon (since resigned) simply changed the RFA, undermining the Federal Court finding by agreeing that Forestry Tasmania's management plan did in fact protect the endangered species.

In November 2007, the full bench of the Federal Court overturned the ban on logging. While agreeing that the species were at risk, the judges effectively ruled that the RFA alteration, which had no parliamentary approval, overrode the 2006 judgement and made logging exempt from the provisions of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.

Bob Brown owes around $200,000 in court costs from the 2007 Federal Court proceedings. His application to appeal against the decision was voted down by two-to-one in the High Court on May 23 this year, effectively ruling out any further legal action to protect the forest.

The Wielangta case has confirmed that RFAs and also the federal EPBC Act are ineffectual for protecting wildlife. PM Kevin Rudd, federal environment minister Peter Garrett and Tasmanian Premier David Bartlett could simply change the RFA again in order to make it effective. However, so far they have all supported the planned logging.

Far from being demoralised, Wielangta's defenders are gearing up for the next stage of the campaign. Blakers told the meeting that the emphasis governments now place on climate change provides more campaigning opportunities.

Forest regrowth has been scientifically proven to be a very poor substitute for the carbon storage capacity of native forests. Carbon emissions from logging has been calculated to be something like 20%-30% of Australia's carbon emissions.

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