Despite unprecedented damage to forests and wildlife, NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro overruled the Environment Protection Agency and determined that industrial-scale logging continues in NSW’s burnt and unburnt forests. Suzanne Arnold reports on the extraordinary protections afforded the forestry industry by the government of Gladys Berejiklian.
More than 62% of harvestable native forests were damaged in the catastrophic 2019-20 bushfires, according to the NSW government’s own records. Up to 10% of native hardwood forests were lost. Nearly 3 billion animals were killed or displaced, with about 8,000 koalas incinerated on the mid north coast of NSW alone. Some 113 animal species were identified as the highest priorities for urgent management intervention.
Despite this unprecedented damage to forests and wildlife, Deputy Premier John Barilaro is determined that industrial-scale logging will continue in NSW’s burnt and unburnt forests.
When the Environment Protection Authority sought a voluntary halt to logging in a number of state forests in March last year, after intervention by John Barilaro, the NSW Forestry Corporation rejected the request. Barilaro also holds the portfolio of Regional New South Wales, Industry and Trade, which covers the timber industry.
The EPA report says logging continued “because John Barilaro asked the [Forestry Corporation] to deliver on contractual obligations”.
Moreover, in the latest round of bushfire recovery pork barrelling announced by Barilaro, he awarded more than $38 million of the $177 million to timber/forestry projects.
These grants came on top of some $46 million that Barilaro’s Department, Regional NSW, awarded to the Forestry Corporation under bushfire recovery measures for urgent infrastructure repairs, nursery expansions and replanting the forest.
Barilaro’s Department of Regional NSW claims that forestry and related industries are responsible for more than 22,300 jobs.
Yet a 2016 report by The Australia Institute estimated that just 600 people were directly employed in the industry. The TAI report also put the economic losses of the native forest industry in NSW at $79 million over the past seven years, meaning that not only are taxpayers propping up an unviable industry, they are also propping up an industry that is adding to environmental destruction.
The Forestry Corporation also rejected a plea from the EPA for extra site-specific conditions to protect koalas.
Environment Protection Authority review
Four months ago, in September 2020, the EPA published a review it had commissioned from Dr Andrew Smith, an acknowledged expert in forest planning and management.
His review was the result of a consultation between the EPA and the Forestry Corporation to develop a suite of site-specific operating conditions to manage environmental risks associated with timber harvesting in burnt landscapes – a result of a “critical shortage of timber” after the bushfires.
Dr Smith’s findings were concerning. In particular Dr Smith noted:
- Recovery times are likely to be up to 45 years for the koala and 20-120 years for the Greater Glider and Yellow-bellied Glider.
- Fauna populations are at risk of elimination by timber harvesting under the normal Coastal Integrated Forestry Operations Approvals and cause catastrophic population decline in species such as the Koala, Greater Glider and Yellow-bellied Glider.
- There should be a halt to logging of all unburnt and lightly burnt forests within the net harvest area for 12 months.
But the Forestry Corporation rejected his recommendations and advised the EPA that it intended to return to harvesting in September 2020 as it is “legally obliged to do so in order to meet supply commitments”.
Scientists, conservation organisations, and local communities are appalled by ongoing logging of burnt forests at a time when NSW native forests and wildlife need time to recover. Indigenous rights of native title holders whose land includes forests are also ignored.
Vulnerable and endangered species
The Forestry Corporation also approves its own harvest plans and is responsible for reporting non compliance.
An analysis of the harvest plans on the Forestry Corporation’s website demonstrates that almost every wildlife species included in logging plans for the north-east forests is either listed on the schedules of the Biodiversity Conservation Act or the Commonwealth EPBC list as vulnerable and endangered species.
Recommended recovery plans have not been developed as required and a significant number of affected species are under consideration for upgrading to endangered status by the Federal Threatened Species Scientific Committee.
NSW shuts down opposition
The Berejiklian government has also gone to great lengths to ensure no legal challenges can be mounted to prevent this industrial scale logging of NSW forests and the loss of biodiversity. The Premier’s actions strike at the heart of democracy.
The forestry industry can over-ride any legal protective measure for species survival regardless of bushfires and natural disasters.
The Forestry Act 2012 contains a privative clause s.69ZA (2) that prohibits and legal action against a breach of forestry operations to which an integrated forestry operations approval applies.
The privative clause effectively over-rides any legal challenges under the Biodiversity Conservation Act, National Parks & Wildlife Act, the Protection of the Environment Operations Act, and the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act.
Moreover, only the Environment Protection Authority and National Parks & Wildlife Service are authorised to mount challenges against Foresty Corporation. Neither agency can be forced to take action.
According to North East Forest Alliance (NEFA) spokesperson, Dailan Pugh:
“For many years NEFA has audited logging operations and found numerous and often egregious breaches of the logging rules. The same type of breaches occur time and time again.
The supposed regulator, the (EPA), occasionally issued token fines but mostly just warning letters. We tried but couldn’t find a way to prosecute the Forestry Corporation ourselves, and the EPA refused to.
As there were no consequences the breaches continued, as they were very profitable.”
The Commonwealth Regional Forest Agreement Act also denies any legal challenge to protect listed threatened species or ecological communities impacted by forestry.
Part 3 of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 which deals with threatened species does not apply to a forestry operation undertaken in accordance with a Regional Forest Agreement.
Forests are home to about 80% of life on earth. Yet values for wildlife, ecosystems and native forests are omitted from governments’ balance sheets.
International scientific experts are warning that the consequences of ignoring climate change and biodiversity loss are dire. Australia’s political leaders continue to turn a deaf ear to the science.
As recently discussed, we can look forward to more pandemics as climate change accelerates.
Sue Arnold is a former Fairfax investigative journalist. Her speciality is environmental issues and she is a regular contributor to Australian and international publications. Sue heads up Australians for Animals Inc., a 32-year-old wildlife charity and is Founder and CEO of the California Gray Whale Coalition based in San Francisco.