By Farrah Tomazin
The Andrews government has spent years investigating claims of unlawful logging against its state-owned timber company without enforcing any penalties.
Documents reveal Victoria’s environment department is currently probing 27 alleged forest breaches against VicForests, reported by the community between January 2016 and December 2017 – including multiple claims involving rainforests, where timber harvesting is prohibited.
At least four of those cases relate to coupes in East Gippsland, where logging activities allegedly took place in or around rainforest areas without establishing protective buffers that are required under the Code of Practice for Timber Production.
And in one of those cases, an entire section of rainforest was found within VicForests’ proposed harvest area before environmental lawyers obtained a Supreme Court injunction to stop the process.
All four cases were first reported two years ago, with tender documents revealing that the department had sought to contract independent experts to examine each alleged breach “and provide expert advice that may be used in a court of law”.
But when The Sunday Age asked for the findings this week, the department simply said they were still being investigated by compliance officers. It is understood no regulatory action has been taken and not one prosecution has been sought so far.
While VicForests says it is meeting its obligations to log responsibly, critics argue the lack of enforcement is an example of the government’s reluctance to crack down on the powerful timber industry. The highly-guarded and often lengthy nature of investigations has also raised questions about the department’s role as a regulator that is meant to be at arms’ length from the state’s logging entity.
“Time and again we see evidence presented to the Environment Department of serious breaches of rainforest protection laws and nothing is done,” said Danya Jacobs, a senior lawyer at Environmental Justice Australia. “Limitation periods to commence prosecutions are allowed to expire with most cases left open, under investigation for years, and no decisions made.”
With nine months until the Victorian election, forestry policy is likely to become increasingly sensitive for the Andrews government, which came to office partly on a platform to protect the environment.
A central plank of this plan was to create a Great Forest National Park, which would establish 355,000 hectares of newly-protected forest stretching from Kinglake to Mount Baw Baw and back to Eildon.
Goongerah Environment Centre spokesman Ed Hill, whose organisation reported rainforest breaches, said that instead of meeting its commitment Labor had allowed VicForest to “run amok” while the department’s “impotent approach to enforcing the laws is leading to senseless and unlawful destruction by loggers”.
But Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio rejected claims of inaction, insisting that the government’s record in forest protection was “second to none”.
“All allegations of non-compliance are investigated thoroughly and those found guilty will be held to account,” she said. “As there are active investigations continuing, it would be inappropriate to comment further.”
Concerns about timber regulation come almost two weeks after protesters blockaded a VicForests logging operation in an area of the Strathbogie Ranges found to have Victoria’s highest documented density of Greater Glider – a native possum that the minister last year listed as an endangered species.
It is not the first time harvesting has occurred in an area known to have threatened or iconic wildlife, however: last year, as revealed by The Sunday Age, a dead koala was found between logged trees in the Acheron Valley – after the government ignored advice from its own scientific committee for greater protection measures.
VicForests apologised at the time, admitting its procedures had failed. But in relation to its latest plans in the Strathbogies, the company says it had considered the environmental values and had agreed to use a “significantly low intensity harvesting method” that would only remove about 50 per cent of the trees in the planned area.
Asked about the alleged rainforest breaches, VicForests senior compliance manager Bill Paul said: “VicForests takes all alleged breaches very seriously and encourages the public to report any biodiversity concerns regarding our operations both to us and the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning Prior to any harvesting a thorough, multi-layered planning process is undertaken to consider the management of the many environmental and other values present in the forest.”
Published by the Sunday Age on 25 February 2018