What does the state government's announcement actually mean for Victoria's forests?

Goongerah Environment Centre 

November 9 ‒ It's been an emotional few days following the Victorian government announcement that logging native forests will end in 2030.1 The government has also committed to state-wide protections for 90,000ha of old growth forests, and 96,000ha of new protected areas, 48,500 of which are in East Gippsland. An action statement for the threatened Greater Glider was also finally released, after two years of inaction following it's up-listing to threatened in 2017.2

This announcement has been a long time coming, and this would not have happened without the dedicated and tireless campaigning of environmental groups and supporters across Victoria. The Goongerah Environment Centre (GECO) has congratulated Minister D'Ambrosio and Premier Andrews for making these commitments and for finally breaking their paralysis on the issue and showing leadership. But there are still a lot of details missing and these must be publicly released to reassure Victorians that the government's commitments will actually provide what they say they will and deliver meaningful and lasting protections for threatened wildlife and ecosystems.

The government must also clearly articulate a plan for how forests will be protected into the long term, and move quickly to legislate formal protection in new national parks or secure conservation reserves. Another 10 years of logging, and five more years before the industry begins scaling down, will not put a stop to Victoria's biodiversity and extinction crisis.

So, let's break it all down.

The Immediate Protection Areas in East Gippsland (about 45,000 hectares)

Significant stands of forest in the Goongerah catchment have been earmarked for protection in 'Immediate Protection Areas' (IPA) These forests are adjacent to the snowy river national park and include important habitat for the Endangered Large Brown Tree Frog, Long footed Potoroo, Yellow Bellied Glider and old growth forest.

The entire area of the Kuark forest has also been protected. Some of Kuark was already protected by Minister D'Ambrosio in March 2018, the new protected area announcement expands protection for the Kuark forest in a significant way and extends protection to forest located south of the current southern boundary of Errinundra National Park.

The Bemm River Rainforest site of significance is now flagged for better protection and inclusion in the IPA. Approximately 400 hectares of forest was earmarked for clear felling in the rainforest site, these areas should now be protected from logging which will help to preserve the integrity and catchment health of the Lower Bemm River.

While these proposed new protections are welcomed, more of East Gippsland's forests must be included or destructive logging in high environmental value forests will continue. Forests near Bendoc and on the Errinundra plateau with some of the most significant populations of Great Gliders in Victoria are still under direct threat of logging.

The final boundaries of the IPAs are still being formalised and we are in discussion with government over the inclusion of additional important forests. 

Old Growth

Premier Andrews and Minister D'Ambrosio have announced an immediate end to old growth logging, committing to immediately protect 90,000 ha of mapped old growth forest that is outside of existing parks and reserves. But what does this actually mean? A map of the modelled old growth has been released but it's very hard to read, and spatial data is being made available early next week.3

Based on what the government has communicated to us and their announcements, 90,000 hectares of forest that is currently mapped as 'old growth forest' and that is outside of existing parks and reserves, will be excluded from logging. VicForests will have to work around the old growth areas and not log them. This is a good move, but will it protect all old growth forest from logging? Unfortunately not.

Old growth forest will not be 'protected' but there will be a ban on logging mapped old growth forest. In theory, this should make logging unviable in several areas that VicForests has earmarked for logging this summer. We are seeking a clear commitment from the government that VicForests will not be logging in areas with mapped old growth forest this summer, as they have planned to.

Old growth forests also exist outside the old growth mapping areas, i.e. they are not defined as old growth by the mapping. These forests are unprotected and earmarked for logging. Old growth forest at Granite Mountain in East Gippsland is not mapped as old growth but is being logged right now. This untouched forest has never been logged and contains trees hundreds of years in age, but sadly the old growth protection plan will fail to prevent the destruction of this forest.

We hold grave concerns that VicForests will be using a dodgy field identification tool to self identify what they determine to be old growth in areas that are not mapped as old growth.4 This tool will declassify old growth in the field. Putting VicForests in charge of self identifying old growth forests and volunteering them for protection is like putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank.

Minister D'Ambrosio must ensure the most rigorous regulatory oversight is put in place to identify and protect old growth forest that occurs outside of mapped old growth areas and make sure VicForests is not put in control. The Environment Department is currently developing their own field detection method, and if its anything like VicForests' method, old growth forests will not be safe from logging.

GECO has campaigned for old growth forest protections for decades, and the government has finally showed leadership and declared widespread protections for all mapped old forests thanks to our hard work and campaigning. Much more work needs to be done to hold them accountable to this announcement, and campaign for further protections for areas of old growth that are still being logged right now.

We need to ensure any field verification successfully identifies old growth, and does not declassify and raise the bar to unattainable standards so old growth logging can continue under deceitful and misleading definitions.

Greater Glider Action Statement

We are alarmed by the proposed strategy for Greater Glider protection. Currently in East Gippsland, Greater Gliders receive a 100 ha Special Protection Zone when more than ten are found over 1 km. GECO citizen scientist have used this prescription to save important glider hot-spots from logging.5

This long-awaited action plan falls short in providing protections for Greater Gliders. The protections are now replaced by a new prescription which says that if five Greater Gliders are found in a km, VicForests can log just less than half of the trees. This is based on the research of only one scientific paper that did not record statistically significant results. There is little evidence that it will actually be effective in ensuring they survive. Compliance to this also relies on enforcement by the Environment Department, who have been heavily criticised for their weak approach to regulation and their lack of capability to hold VicForests accountable to environment laws.6

Laws must actually function to protect the glider, not continue to allow logging in key areas of habitat where Greater Gliders are found. The protections in the government's plan are based on landscape protections that fail to protect the most important hot spot areas for Greater Gliders and will allow logging in areas where these animals are found.

Forests on the Errinundra plateau and near Bendoc in far East Gippsland are well known Greater Glider hot-spots where healthy populations are surviving. These are high altitude areas at about 900-1000 meters above sea level. Greater Gliders are usually found in higher numbers at higher elevations. But the government's action plan fails to protect any of these forests and instead has placed protection areas over lower lying areas of forest where large populations of Greater Gliders are rarely encountered. The thriving populations in the high elevation areas will continue to be logged with even less protection than what was afforded to them prior to the so-called 'action plan'.

The Greater Glider action statement has protected significant Greater Glider populations in the Strathbogie ranges in north east Victoria and this is a great move. However, this is an isolated population in a heavily cleared landscape and its protection will not guarantee the species survival across its range in eastern Victoria. We know that Greater Gliders have declined by 55% in the last 20 years in East Gippsland and up to 80% in the Central Highlands, yet the highest value habitat areas for them will continue to be logged under the government plan.

The 2030 announcement

Ten years is a long time for business to continue as usual. The wood supply contract with Australian Paper is responsible for the continued destruction of Victoria's forests, and this contract will continue until the trees run out, and the industry collapses. This could happen well before 2030.

Government legislation (Wood pulp Agreement Act) locks in supply of native forest logs to the pulp and paper mill until 2030. This supply contract will not change under the plan and the commitment to end native forest logging in 2030 will coincide with the end of this legislated contract, basically that means logging will continue to feed the paper mill until the wood runs out. In order to meaningfully deliver the scale of protection that our forests and wildlife need to thrive, the wood volumes to the paper mill need to be reduced.

Other contracts will start having their supplies reduced by 2024, but money will not be available to logging contractors and millers who may want to exit the industry until 2024. Money should be available for workers to exit the industry now; they shouldn't be stuck in a dying industry for another five years without the choice to abandon ship.

The government knows that the industry is collapsing. Acknowledging the end and walking away at the point of collapse is not a solution. If they were serious about providing state-wide protections for forests, they would start the transition now, and cut their ties with Australian Paper. High conservation value forests will continue to be logged for paper for another decade if they don't.

We have a lot of work to do. We are relieved that the government is finally acknowledging the importance of protecting forests and that the end of the native logging industry as we know it now is inevitable. This must result in greater conservation outcomes and to protect what remains of the forest. Whilst we welcome the protection of some forests and some greater protection for old growth forests a lot more needs to be done and we will continue to hold the government accountable, especially with regard to the protection of old forests in East Gippsland, which are still being logged.

We will be working hard to get more details and clarity, and will continue to hold the government to their commitments. Forests and wildlife that are still under threat are running out of time and we will need to continue our advocacy to deliver outcomes that result in meaningful and lasting protection for our forests. The fight is far from over.

More information: www.geco.org.au

Donations: www.geco.org.au/donate

The Goongerah Environment Centre is an affiliate of Friends of the Earth Australia.

References:

  1. https://www.premier.vic.gov.au/protecting-victorias-forests-and-threatened-species/
  2. https://www.environment.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0019/440371/267-Greater-Glider-2019-Action-Statement.pdf
  3. https://www.forestsandreserves.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0016/440530/Modelled-Old-Growth-Forest.pdf
  4. https://www.facebook.com/GECOEastGippsland/posts/10157908420158420
  5. https://www.geco.org.au/reports
  6. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/mar/25/damning-logging-report-finds-victorian-department-neither-effective-nor-respected

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Published in Chain Reaction #137, December 2019. National magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia. www.foe.org.au/chain_reaction


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