Despite flora and fauna species suffering a massive blow after the Black Summer fires, the NSW government is still pushing ahead with deforestation, writes Sue Arnold.
SAY GOODBYE to koalas.
A dreadful proposition, yet one that will, in due course, be a reality unless state and federal governments are legally or politically restrained from their policies which are driving the koalas and significant biodiversity to extinction.
The political scenario is devastating. Once again, the Federal Government is attempting to ram its Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment Bill through Parliament, enthusiastically supported by Environment Minister Sussan Ley, who claims the bill is a step in the right direction for protecting biodiversity and the environment. In essence, the bill would give state governments powers of approval for major projects. Governments with records that demonstrate a total rejection of any protection for koalas or other vulnerable, endangered wildlife.
Nationals Leader, Senator Bridget McKenzie, has a private member’s bill lodged in Parliament which would make native forest logging across the country exempt from national environmental protections.
In early May, the Federal Court came down with a judgement in the case Friends of the Leadbeater Possum v Victorian Forests which effectively states that the Federal Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC) is not relevant in terms of Regional Forest Agreements described as regional long term plans for sustainable management and conservation of Australia’s native forests.
According to Environmental Justice Australia, who represented the Friends, the full bench of the Federal Court overturned the landmark initial win in the possums' case on one ground:
‘...that logging has a wide exemption from federal environmental law even when conducted in habitat critical to the survival of wildlife facing a high risk of extinction and in breach of state law.’
Friends are applying to seek level to appeal to the High Court.
In NSW, industrial logging of remaining forests will soon be ramped up as the Forestry Corporation prepares to log three critical state forests with significant koala populations. The three forests include Newry, Upper Kalang and Pine Creek state forests. Logging operations are centred around Bellingen Shire where a distressed and angry community is appalled by the failure of the Forestry Corporation to address the ongoing destruction and unacceptable loss of biodiversity and forest.
Bellingen Shire Mayor Dominic King summed up the rage as a result of a recent meeting between the Council and the Forestry Corporation.
It was a meeting which the Council hoped would result in an improvement in the communication and engagement by the Corporation with the Council, the community and other stakeholders distressed by the industrial logging of some of the most diverse, intact and unburnt forests on the east coast:
“ ..instead, what we received was the same old spin via a self-congratulatory PowerPoint presentation that cherry-picked the science and produced inaccurate facts on the impacts of industrial logging. They stated that koalas and other endangered species were doing well in logged forests. We are seeing massive reductions in koala numbers with a 71 per cent decline in this state since the Black Summer bushfires.“
A scientist commenting on the Bellingen Shire proposed logging operations which will impact almost 4,000 hectares said:
‘If these operations go ahead, the deforestation rate will be ten times that of the Amazon and around 7 per cent of the public forests will be affected. This greatly exceeds the sustainable annual yield of the forest and will have drastic long-term impacts on habitat, water availability and quality.’
Pine Creek State Forest near Coffs Harbour provides a perfect example of the fate awaiting remaining koala populations. Known as the “koala nursery”, key compartments containing healthy populations of koalas are currently under Forestry Corporation planning stages for logging. Communities and koala experts are appalled by the impending operations. In 2013, a regional summary of koala populations estimated koala numbers to be greater than 1,000 in the coastal Coffs Harbour and northern Bellingen region and between 500-1,000 in the Coffs Harbour Hinterland.
The study suggested that the Coffs/Bellingen population is ‘the most critically important koala regional population in this region and perhaps one of the most important in the nation’.
Nevertheless, there has been no koala management plan for the area since 1999. In 2017, the North East Forest Alliance published a report titled ‘Clearing Koalas Away’ by Dailan Pugh which estimated more than 23,000 hectares of koala habitat near Coffs Harbour had been virtually cleared.
Dealing with the Forestry Corporation is not for the faint-hearted.
A genuine descriptor of NSW Forestry Corporation would probably go something like this: “Secret organisation dealing in confidential contractual arrangements, accommodating major losses both economically and environmentally, beholden to no authority other than the national party.”
A sustained effort to obtain important documentation from the Forestry Corporation by IA has proved to be a daunting task. Industrial logging in NSW is authorised by the Coastal Integrated Operations Approval (CIFOA), a lengthy document containing conditions of approval. In addition to the CIFOA, another huge document labelled ‘Protocols’ also authorises the logging of massive numbers of fauna and flora species, many listed under the EPBC Act and the schedules of the Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016 as vulnerable, endangered and critically endangered species.
The CIFOA level of protection for the majority of flora and fauna species is expressed under various tables as ‘threatened species and endangered populations considered adequately protected by the approval’. Several pages of fauna and flora are listed under the tables. There is no definition of what exactly ‘considered adequately protected by the approval’ means.
More tables indicate flora and fauna species require the application of a species-specific condition and site-specific biodiversity conditions. Some tables list flora and fauna requiring individual species-specific conditions. Virtually none of these conditions are available.
In order to begin “harvesting”, a significant number of species require species management plans. As a result of weeks of effort by IA, who contacted the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) with responsibility for approving species management plans, the Natural Resources Commission (NRC) which has the job of monitoring the industrial logging and finally the Forestry Corporation, two species management plans were obtained. Neither the EPA nor the NRC could provide the plans; IA was eventually referred to the Forestry Corporation which provided the information weeks later.
The Corporation’s website reveals two only species management plans.
It would appear from some intensive research that lengthy tables listing the status of various categories of flora and fauna under the CIFOA have been taken from the now defunct Office of Environment Heritage $100 million Save our Species program. IA was unable to find a single study of any vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered fauna listed under the CIFOA tables which had benefited from any research post the catastrophic bushfires, which a number of scientists estimated killed or impacted over 3 billion animals.
Harvest plans by the Forestry Corporation are available on their Plan Portal website, a site designed for obfuscation with tiny coloured dots indicating which forests are under planning, approval or completion designations. It is almost impossible to find the relevant information and harvest plans allow two days only for any submissions of objection. Forest activists are forced to check the Plan Portal website 24 hours a day in order to check which compartments will be logged.
In spite of massive, ongoing community protests, the NSW Government remains deaf to any concerns. The same scenario is practised by Federal, Queensland, Victorian and South Australian governments.
Mayor Dominic King sums up the nightmare situation:
We need to work to elect people who understand and support the latest scientific knowledge, that put people before profit and who recognise the value of our forests and biodiversity in ensuring the survival of our future generations. We also need to let our friends, neighbours and the larger population know what is happening in the forests in our regions. We can do that by attending rallies, protests, workshops and supporting the community activists that continue to shine a light on what is really happening to our globally unique forests and ensure the finger is firmly aimed at the politicians that continue to allow this to happen.
It is clear to me that the only way we can achieve a better long-term outcome for our forests, biodiversity, infrastructure and our future is through the ballot box.
Unfortunately, by the time the next NSW state elections are called, these precious forests will be history unless drastic action is taken. No bets on the outcome of the looming federal election.
Sue Arnold is an IA columnist and freelance investigative journalist. You can follow Sue on Twitter @koalacrisis.
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