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New documents: EPA and Forestry Corporation at loggerheads over forests, koala protection

by Suzanne Arnold | Oct 3, 2023 | Energy & Environment, Latest Posts

The NSW Environmental Protection Agency is at war with the Forestry Corporation over the proposed Great Koala National Park. Suzanne Arnold with the story.

Logging of native forests in NSW is escalating, threatening the state’s koala population at a time when world scientists have been expressing concern over the survival of koalas and other endangered species. 

Documents procured under parliamentary standing orders by NSW Green, Sue Higginson, show how the threat to East Coat koalas is driven by logging and the failure of the state-owned Forestry Corporation (FC) to protect koala habitats in the state’s forests; particularly the proposed Great Koala National Park.

It was a election promise of the now Labor government that it would create the Great Koala National Park. In the last week, Penny Sharp, the Minister for the Environment said this would not happen until 2025, which allows logging to proceed for at least another two years in native forests.

Sharp practices

Under the Sharp decision, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the only official guardian of koalas in native forests, has therefore had its mandate to protect koalas in the Park – its power to protect the species – deferred, which allows the Forestry Corporation to continue to log in areas in the proposed Park.

EPA to FC

The documents reveal how Wood Supply Agreements between the FC and timber companies are driving harvesting operations. If the deals with the timber companies were to be cancelled, the government would have to pay compensation.

In a meeting with the EPA in May to discuss the Park, FC claimed it had not received any ministerial direction other than to keep fulfilling their obligations under the Agreements. FC indicated it would not be making any changes in their approach.

Steve Orr (EPA) to FC

The documents contain correspondence and notes of meetings between the EPA and the Forestry Corporation in relation to upgrading koala protection measures (prescriptions).

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Protection measures rejected

Forestry Corporation had claimed in May 2023 it was not privy to any discussions about the boundaries of the Great Koala National Park, according to the EPA. (At the time, the boundaries were publicly available in a Natural Resources Commission report).

FC insisted there was no reason the proposed boundaries should be factored into planning for current or future operations, as they were planned well before the election.

Smoke ‘n mirrors budget: forests and koalas are great but logging and money are better!

With no firm direction from the government about the establishment of the Park, Forestry Corporation has proceeded logging in the Park – “the EPA is also engaging with the FC to encourage it to take a precautionary approach to conducting Forestry operations in areas with highly suitable koala habitat within the proposed Park, and to ensure such values are maintained if forestry operations are necessary in these areas,” said the Minister’s press release.

Bushfire warnings

Following the bushfires of 2019-2020, the EPA was made aware that logging was being carried out by Forestry Corporation in areas of state forests in spite of a Natural Resources Commission cabinet in confidence report dated June 2021, which advised that logging should temporarily cease and additional controls be augmented.

Only the Forestry Corporation can trigger special conditions to protect or curtail logging in fire or drought affected forest ‘compartments’. Changes in forestry approval conditions and protocols can only be made by the ministers for environment and agriculture. None have been made since 2018 when the logging approvals were signed.

The documents show the EPA continued to advocate the need to implement additional controls to the NSW government and Forestry Corporation, pointing out the effects of ‘multiple stressors’ on post-fire recovery, and the need to understand the impact of forestry operations to ensure biodiversity was not jeopardised.

Their preliminary findings identified further disturbances from logging and climate change risks.

Efforts to upgrade koala protection prescriptions were doomed as neither EPA nor FC could agree, resulting in a weak compromise put in place by the Natural Resources Commission; a compromise which substantially reduced protections.

EPA efforts frustrated

One EPA document states: “There appears to be a reluctance to directly evaluate if the koala prescription settings improve outcomes for koalas and their habitat – the EPA acknowledged that those settings were not an efficient use of the available resources, and often left important habitat unprotected.”

The EPA was calling for far higher rates of browse trees retention with a clear priority for protection of high-quality browse species considered necessary to mitigate the logging risk adequately.

And the agency continues to have concerns that the limitations of current research have not been fully acknowledged, or identified the impacts to koalas in selective harvesting operations permitted throughout the forests which have been approved for logging.

Demands by the EPA to FC in relation to protection of koala habitat in the Park have been largely ignored,

despite the EPA upgrading forest compartments in the Park as high risk.

The EPA proposed that undertaking targeted koala surveys in select areas where the agency considers it may be necessary to ensure occupied habitat, is better considered in the design of permanent habitat protection. FC support was requested.

Forestry Corporation request for support ignored

FC rejected EPA’s request that operational plans be provided at least three weeks prior to commencement of operations, so that the Agency and community were provided with a reasonable timeframe and transparency on proposed operations and controls in place.

FC advised the EPA of measures in response to contractors’ concerns over harvesting forests within the proposed park, including:

  • Enhance information on the FC website in relation to how koala habitats are protected during timber harvesting.
  • Engage with the EPA to discuss plans of operation information.
  • Provide regular information to the Minister for Agriculture on upcoming operations, which can be shared more broadly within government as needed.

As for the koalas:

Prioritise areas containing high numbers of koala browse trees for inclusion in new tree retention clumps without contravening approval requirements.

In response, FC upped the requirement to protect 10 koala trees per hectare to 12.

NSW legislation protecting endangered flora and fauna, including ecological provisions in the state-owned corporations act, provides Forestry Corporation with a defence for all biodiversity destruction.

In the September budget, funding for monitoring not only the NSW forestry approvals but also the 20-year Regional Forests Agreements was cut to $1 million p.a. This, supposedly to ensure forest biodiversity was protected from industrial logging.

The Lorax would be appalled

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.

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