By Philip Hopkin.
The state government’s claim that environmental damage from the 2019/20 bushfires in Gippsland justified changes to Victoria’s forestry code have been condemned as nonsense and a ‘power grab’ by the State Opposition.
The amendments to the Conservation, Forests and Lands Amendment Bill, which have been passed by both Houses of State Parliament, give the Environment Minister or the DELWP secretary the flexibility to amend the code, if necessary, to ensure its principles are adhered to.
A key issue is how the internationally recognised ‘precautionary principle’ relates to timber harvesting. Under the precautionary principle, threats of serious or irreversible environmental damage when the science is not yet settled, “requires us to put in place protective measures to ensure we don’t have regrets in the future”, Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio told Parliament.
“The precautionary principle was triggered by the 2019/20 Victorian bushfires, which dramatically impacted forest ecosystems, threatened the survival of endangered species and limited timber production, particularly in Gippsland and East Gippsland,” she said.
“There remains scientific uncertainty about the ability of species to recover from these impacts … consideration needs to be given to additional protective actions … in timber harvesting operations..
Ms D’Ambrosio said the precautionary principle meant the framework for protecting forests could respond to shocks such as major fires and also provide greater certainty to ensure the timber industry was meeting its obligations – hence the extra discretionary powers to be given to the Minister or secretary.
However, the Opposition spokesman on forestry, Gary Blackwood, attacked Ms D’Ambrosio’s claim as “disingenuous” as it neglected to mention that the Code applied only to a very minor portion of the state’s 7.8 million hectares of public forest.
Just 4.5 per cent of native forest was available for timber production and other uses.
“Therefore, timber production operations that are subject to the Code are of such a proportionally minor scale, that there is virtually no chance of them creating a threat of ‘serious or irreversible environmental damage’ that justifies invoking the precautionary principle,” Mr Blackwood, the Member for Narracan, told Parliament.
“Similarly, the excuse that the 2019–20 bushfires have created ‘scientific uncertainty about the ability of species to recover’ is largely disingenuous. Forests have been recovering from similar major fire events since European settlement—indeed the Ash regrowth forest which comprises the state’s primary timber resource is the product of the huge 1939 bushfires.
“The distinguishing feature of the 2019–20 bushfires was its extent and, notwithstanding that parts of East Gippsland were intensively burnt, it has been noted by fire experts that the worst days experienced in that fire season were not as bad as in other most notable fire seasons..
Mr Blackwood said the original Code was written as a set of statewide broad minimum standards of environmental protection during timber production. “By necessity it retained a lot of flexibility in wording to account for the reality that, for example, particular requirements for wet forests in the Central Highlands may be far more onerous than what is necessary to protect environmental values in flat red gum forests and woodlands in northern Victoria,” he said.
“The detailed prescriptions needed to implement these standards were contained in associated regional documents that were more attuned to particular local forests … designed to take into account the characteristics of each of those regions..
The Code’s provisions had been carefully determined based on a mix of science, decades of overseas and Australian field observations, and the operational practicalities for workable timber production. “Timber is harvested on an 80-year rotation. Not one species of animal has become extinct because of timber harvesting. Timber harvesting and threatened species have coexisted for well over 100 years,” he said.
Mr Blackwood said the bill had been sold by the government as another attempt to solve the litigation issues that had confronted the native forest timber industry for many years. Ms D’Ambrosio completed a Code review last year by the minister, including subsequent recommendations that were supposed to stop third-party litigation by green activists.
“It failed,” he said, resulting in this legislation will allow the Minister or the Secretary to make unilateral decisions.
The Deputy Opposition Leader Peter Walsh said the bill effectively gave unfettered power to the minister or the secretary for what may be incorporated into the Code in the future. Mr Walsh said the Weekly Times had reported on the stacking of the forestry policy and regulatory roles within the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions and the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning with Labor Party-aligned people.
One role there was being fulfilled by someone who was now the Labor Party candidate for Preston. “The industry is rather cynical when it comes to how this legislation has been drafted and what this legislation will be used for in the future. There are views in the industry that this legislation has been effectively designed by Labor Party members and operatives within the department, to be implemented by the same people, to put the industry at a disadvantage to make it harder for the industry to operate into the future,” he said.