By Michael Slezak and Penny Timms
Thousands of hectares of state forest appear to have been logged or earmarked for logging illegally, an ABC investigation has found, amounting to what some say is the mass “theft” by a government-owned for-profit logging company.
Trees making up some of Victoria’s most endangered ecosystems are being felled and turned into building products, paper or wood chips by VicForests, which are then sold in retailers such as Bunnings and Officeworks.
The apparently illegal logging is also threatening the habitats of some of the country’s most vulnerable species, including the Leadbeater’s possum, Victoria’s animal emblem.
In its simplest terms, the trees appear to have been taken illegally by VicForests — since they are not inside the areas it has been granted permission to log.
“If VicForests is logging timber that hasn’t been allocated to them, then they’re taking and selling timber that doesn’t belong to them,” said Danya Jacobs, a lawyer at Environmental Justice Australia.
“And another way of putting that is, it’s tantamount to stealing timber from public forests.”
The Victorian Government determines where VicForests can log in state forests by creating what is known as an “allocation order”.
That order includes a map, and the ownership of the timber inside the borders of that map is transferred to VicForests.
According to the Sustainable Forests (Timber) Act 2004, only trees within that allocation can be harvested for sale — and all other timber in state forests remains the property of the Crown.
But VicForests appears to be taking trees from outside its allocation at hundreds of locations across the state.
“It’s theft. Essentially these forests belong to all Victorians and by logging them, VicForests is stealing from all Victorians,” said Ed Hill, an environmental activist employed by Friends of the Earth.
He was one of the first to notice VicForests was regularly planning logging of timber it did not own.
Data obtained by the ABC’s Specialist Reporting Team, and independently analysed, shows it is a practice that has been repeated multiple times, is ongoing, and is planned to continue.
Satellite images show areas of ‘illegal’ logging
The below imagery appears to show that some logged areas are completely outside the legal boundaries.
In these three examples from across Victoria, the area where logging is allowed is in red. The yellow outline shows areas VicForests has illegally logged.
Infographic: Logging at the Little Jacqui coupe in the Rubicon Valley. (ABC News/Digital Globe/AUE Imagery)
The ABC can reveal that there are 17 sites that have been logged, or there are plans to log, that are completely outside the allocation order. There are also 25 sites that are at least 90 per cent outside the legal area.
Across Victoria, almost one in every 20 trees earmarked for logging is not allowed to be taken, according to the data obtained by the ABC.
“The [Environment] department have failed in their role as the regulator to hold them accountable for a whole raft of breaches that have not been acted on,” Mr Hill said.
Once a tree is logged, it is either turned into wood chips, a building product or paper.
Those items can be then found in everyday building and office supply stores around the country.
Two major outlets, Bunnings and Officeworks, said they would stop using wood products from VicForests by 2020, unless the logger was able to get certification by the Forest Stewardship Council.
One reason VicForests has failed that certification is for logging in places it is not allowed to.
How do allocation orders work?
An allocation order is drawn-up by the Agriculture Department, used by VicForests, and then enforced by the Environment Department.
Both the departments, their responsible ministers, and VicForests all declined to be interviewed by the ABC on the matter.
They also refused to answer specific questions about the ABC’s findings, but did issue statements.
In one of those statements, the Victorian Environment Department claimed the detailed maps obtained by the ABC, which clearly show the boundaries of what timber is owned by VicForests, were not legally enforceable.
That contradicts information on an official Environment Department website, which says those detailed maps specify which trees in state forests are given to VicForests for logging under the Sustainable Forests (Timber) Act 2004.
The department told the ABC the only map that could be used to prosecute illegal logging is a low-resolution PDF printed in a government gazette.
The Environment Department told the ABC the map was too small to determine which areas were outside the allocation.
But even on the low-quality map, some areas planned for logging appear to be well outside the boundary.
Across the Rubicon
One area that has already been logged sits inside the Rubicon Valley historic area, about a two-hour drive north-east of Melbourne.
Shane Brooks has a hobby farm there and from a hill, the view of the forest is being cut away by logging.
He is not against logging, so long as it is done sustainably. And he is not convinced that is happening.
“My property’s got a view of this destruction … which is sort of impacting on my property,” Mr Brooks said.
“Every week, it seems to be getting worse.”
He said he was concerned by the suggestion that VicForests could be illegally logging those forests.
“That’s crazy,” he said. “That means the Government’s not managing the area properly. That’s terrible.”
Logging is an industry that helped build the towns around the Rubicon Valley, and is still one that supports much of their economies.
As a result, many residents are strong supporters of VicForests.
Gordon Simpson runs a petrol station in the town of Alexandra that relies on refuelling logging equipment.
His parents started it 65 years ago and today it still gets almost half its business from the logging industry.
“Gold was Alexandra’s first industry and timber is the second industry. This town was known as a timber town and it always has been,” Mr Simpson said.
About a month ago, the last sawmill in the surrounding shire closed.
As a form of protest, Mr Simpson took out an ad in the local paper as a mock “death notice” for the local timber-milling industry.
“We regret to advise of the passing [of] the last remaining timber mill in the Murrindindi region,” it began.
“It was a lonely end for this hard worker.”
This story was published by the ABC on 21 November 2018.