The federal and Victorian governments announced on March 27 a two-year extension of the controversial Regional Forest Agreements (RFAs) for East Gippsland, the North East and the Central Highlands. They will be reassessed at the end of the two-year period.
RFAs are 20-year deals between the state and federal governments that give environmental regulation of logging to state governments. The first RFA was signed in 1997 for the East Gippsland region in Victoria, at the height of the Goolengook forest campaign. Two decades of forest conflict across Victoria and in other states followed.
Logging in native forests that are home to threatened species is exempt from federal environmental laws if operations are conducted under an RFA. This exemption has proved disastrous for threatened species across Australia. Forest-dependent species, including the Leadbeater’s possum and greater glider, have declined dramatically due to the impacts of logging under this system.
Consequently, while many environmentalists were relieved the logging agreements had not been rolled over for 20 years as happened in Tasmania, they did not welcome the two-year extension.
Wilderness Society Victoria Campaign Manager Amelia Young said: “Regional Forest Agreements have been a disaster for our forests and endangered species, giving the logging industry a special exemption from the national laws to protect endangered animals. It is outrageous that the industry that is perhaps the biggest threat to endangered animals gets an exemption from the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Act.
“The government must put a moratorium on logging that may affect endangered species while the scientific and economic reassessment is conducted. It is essential that a moratorium is placed on logging in forests in the critically endangered Mountain Ash forests of the Central Highlands, the only home of the critically endangered Leadbeater’s possum.
“The government has at least given responsibility for pre-logging wildlife surveys to the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, rather than logging agency VicForests, but the department needs to make sure surveys are conducted to ensure legal requirements to protect threatened species are met, and that the surveys are made available to the public.”
Goongerah Environment Centre Office (GECO) welcomed the state government’s announcement that some old growth forests in East Gippsland’s Kuark forest will be protected, but raised concerns over continued logging in environmentally sensitive forests for the next two years.
A GECO spokesperson said: “While some protection of Kuark forest is welcomed, overall Victoria’s forests and wildlife deserve more. Many other areas of high conservation value and old growth forest across East Gippsland remain open to logging and need to be formally protected.
“[Under the extended RFA] habitat for species like the nationally threatened Greater Glider and Leadbeater’s possum will continue to be logged with legal impunity and the special treatment given to the logging industry will continue.”
Friends of the Earth (FoE) has also called on the Victorian government to place a moratorium on logging in sensitive areas and publicly reject logging industry calls to log Victoria’s National Parks.
FoE spokesperson Ed Hill said: “Logging National Parks and protected water catchments is no solution to the timber supply crisis. The government needs to urgently protect what remains of our forests and provide exit packages through a fair and just transition for workers.
“Victoria’s forests have been over-logged for decades under the flawed forestry deals. The 2009 Black Saturday fires have further reduced available forests. It is time to accept the inevitability of a transition. Government must learn from the closure of the Hazelwood power station and put transition plans in place before the inevitable closure of more timber mills.
“Victorians overwhelmingly support National Parks, including the creation of new parks to protect forests and wildlife from logging. The government must act in the interests of all Victorians and deliver on their commitment to create the Great Forest National Park within this term of government.”
The Wilderness Society agreed, arguing the government must place an immediate moratorium on logging possum habitat and permanently protect the Kuark forests.
Young said: “The Kuark forest needs to be given permanent protection in the Emerald Link, which would protect Australia’s last remaining intact vegetation from alpine to coastal areas. The announcement tragically gives the green light to logging in other iconic areas of the Emerald Link, such as Nunniong, Coopracambra and Errinundra.
“Regional Forest Agreements must be reassessed, as they are based on conditions more than 20 years ago. Endangered animals are even more at risk, the logging industry continues to cost taxpayers money and the agreements do not look at logging’s impacts on climate change, the forests’ role in storing carbon and the cumulative impacts of successive bushfires.
“Forests need protection in the Great Forest National Park and Emerald Link. The announcement shows there is plenty more work in front of the government to create regional jobs by protecting forests in new national parks.”