Politics, Science/Environment

Barilaro’s Department tears up logging rules after bushfires and another Koala row starts

Agreements to change logging rules in New South Wales to better protect animals that survived last summer’s bushfires have been torn up by Deputy Premier John Barilaro’s department and government-owned loggers, sparking yet another inter-government stoush over koala habitat.

By ABC Science, Technology and Environment reporter Michael Slezak

Photos; The ABC

Key points:

An explosive letter sent earlier this month to the NSW Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) from the heads of the Department of Regional NSW — Mr Barilaro’s department — and Forestry Corporation of NSW states there has now been “substantial recovery post-fire in many coastal state forests”.

  • The proposed changes sparked a fiery response from the NSW Environmental Protection Agency
  • The documents, which are now public, also detail allegations the Forestry Corporation of NSW made false reports about its logging operations to avoid new protections
  • The revelations, which sparked an internal war in the NSW Government last week, are the latest controversy over koala habitats

It declares logging in NSW can return to “standard” this month in forests not covered by new site-specific logging rules.

The letter comes despite an agreement struck between the loggers and the EPA earlier this year to only log areas according to those new rules.

The letter sparked a fiery response from EPA boss Tracy Mackey, which was published on the EPA’s website on Tuesday.

She said the move did not appear to be lawful, and the EPA was now considering action to stop Forestry Corporation.

A spokeswoman for Forestry Corporation told the ABC they were “continuing to actively work with the EPA in good faith” and had “proposed a gradual return” to normal work, with additional voluntary protections.

Other documents released to NSW Parliament earlier this month show the EPA believed the actions were partly motivated by the direction of Mr Barilaro, the Department of Regional NSW and Forestry Corporation.

The documents also detail allegations that Forestry Corporation made false reports about its logging operations to avoid new protections.

Forestry Corporation denies these allegations.

The revelation comes less than two weeks after Mr Barilaro threatened to sit on the crossbench over new planning rules in NSW designed to protect koala habitat.

The threat sparked an internal war within the NSW State Government, with Mr Barilaro later backing down on the threat.

He is now on four weeks mental health leave and was unavailable for comment.

Logging changes after bushfires

Last summer’s bushfires burned up to 42 per cent of public forests in NSW, including 25 per cent of the koalas’ best habitat, according to an independent report commissioned by the EPA, also published on its website on Tuesday.

That review said the fires pushed animals into small patches of unburned or lightly burned forests, and that logging selectively targets those patches.

But in its letter, the loggers and the Department of Regional NSW said there had now been substantial post-fire recovery, and that the challenges that led to the changed logging rules “have now largely dissipated”.

The EPA’s independent report said recovery took between 10 and 120 years, depending on the species.

For koalas, forests needed about 45 years to recover, it said.

After the fires, logging in NSW stopped.

Negotiations began between Forestry Corporation and the EPA to develop so-called “site specific operating conditions” which would govern logging as it returned to the state forests.

In areas where those conditions were agreed and implemented, logging was allowed to continue.

Those negotiations have been drawn out, and agreements have not been reached for some areas.

With fewer areas to log, and more restrictions on areas they can log, Forestry Corporation and the Department of Regional NSW said in the letter 155 jobs were at risk in the next few months on the South Coast, and by the end of the year, another 450 would be threatened on the North Coast.

“All involved in this process have acknowledged that developing and operating under the [site specific operating conditions] is challenging and time consuming and is providing neither a landscape approach to environmental protections,” the logging and department bosses wrote to the EPA, announcing they were abandoning the agreement.

In response, Ms Mackey said: “As you note this has not been easy, but this does not mean it should be abandoned.”

Four protesters at log pile
Four protesters attempted to stop logging in the Comboyne State Forest earlier this year. (Supplied: Jane McIntyre)

The set of internal documents suggest this is the latest of a series of agreements broken by the state-owned loggers.

In April, a brief to Environment Minister Matt Kean detailed how Forestry Corporation agreed to an EPA request to voluntarily not log in unburned forests while new rules were agreed to, but then reneged.

The brief says the move was motivated by Mr Barilaro who “asked them to deliver on contractual obligations”.

Both the EPA and a representative for Mr Barilaro have been contacted for comment.

The documents also contain a brief by the EPA detailing alleged false reports by Forestry Corporation.

The EPA said Forestry Corporation falsely declared hundreds of logging operations were already active when they weren’t.

The move was intended to stop those logging operations being affected by new rules.

“[Forestry Corporation] refused a request from EPA to disclose which operations had legitimately commenced, what type of activity and when.

“They then updated their portal to falsely suggest hundreds of forestry operations were active,” the brief said.

Forestry Corporation told the ABC it had not seen this allegation before, and it was not true.

“Forestry Corporation considered operations to have commenced when the associated roadworks commenced, an opinion that was not shared by the EPA,” it said in a statement.

Independent MP Justin Field told the ABC the EPA’s response was “what the community expected from the regulator after such devastation from the fires”.

“The EPA’s most recent response is an astonishing rebuke and warns that Forestry Corporation’s plan will be in breach of its own laws and would be hugely environmentally damaging,” Mr Field said.

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First published at The ABC, Wednesday 23 September 2020. See; https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-09-23/barilaro-logging-proposal-in-koala-habitat-gets-rebuke-from-epa/12692102

2 Comments

  1. Barbara Michel

    How can this man, this party, say they stand for country Australia? How can they look their children in the eyes and say that logging is more important, more relevant, than saving koalas? Just this week I’ve started counting logging trucks trundling down my road again after a few months of quiet. Next to the blue pools I go to is a swath of destroyed land, ripped to shreds with bits and pieces of bark and branches left to remind us of what was there only a few months ago. Koala signs along the road are no longer needed if there are no trees for them to live in.

    Shame.

  2. So, where is the conversation about the need for increasing the native hardwood plantations on degraded land to secure supplies in the future? Or alternative engineered products to compensate for the lost hardwood production post fires. We are in this predicament because of a long ago exposed systemic failure to predict and provide for future demands. FC and their Nat supporters throwing a ‘hissy’ fit will not solve anything.
    Our publicly owned forest estate does not belong to Forestry Corp or the logger/contractors/ millers. They are custodians, who have sadly been shown, time and again, to disregard the rules, or manipulate the rules to seek their own ends, which are inevitably money driven, at the expense of the environment and the public purse. Ceasing logging in the native estate is long overdue. Current on the ground practice is not serving anyone well. Its time we had a timely, modern and environmentally sustainable response.

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