Closure of native timber harvesting contradicts national-state method

File photograph



THE state government’s regulation of timber harvesting, which has led to the impending closure of Gippsland’s native forest industry in January, directly contradicts the joint national-state approach to ensure biodiversity alongside a timber industry over the previous 30 years, analysis shows.

The 1995 National Forest Policy Statement (NFPS) emphasised the need for a landscape-focussed approach to conservation and forestry, and which became the basis to prepare the Regional Forest Agreements.

In contrast, the Andrews government’s approach to forest management, unlike previous Victorian governments, has concentrated on individual harvest coupes irrespective of the socio-economic impact on the forest communities.

In turn, the state government’s strict interpretation of the code of forestry practice led to countless legal cases by environmentalists that were backed by the Supreme Court, which ordered VicForests to undertake extremely stringent assessments of threatened species in individual coupes.

The state government subsequently blamed these legal cases, which ordered injunctions on harvesting, for its decision to close the native forest industry on January 1.

However, VicForests’ new technique of using drones to survey the coupes has uncovered countless animals, more than would have been found on foot by researchers.

The government made its decision to close the industry before the drone surveys were completed and analysed and could potentially be used as evidence in court.

The Major Event Review of the 2019/20 bushfires also found that despite the enormous areas of forest burnt, there was still enough sustainable timber for industry needs.

When setting up the NFPS in the 1990s, the JANIS working group – conservation scientists and planners from all states and the CSIRO – drew up the criteria to form a CAR (comprehensive, adequate and representative) reserve system. The objectives of biodiversity conservation for forests were to maintain:

Ecological processes and the dynamics of forest ecosystems in their landscape context;

Viable examples of forest ecosystems throughout their natural ranges;

Viable populations of native forest species throughout their natural ranges, and;

The genetic diversity of native forest species.

The JANIS technical working group agreed that these aims would be best met through the establishment of conservation reserves, and complementary management of adjoining forest areas, including in the timber production estate.

A Forestry Australia Fellow, Mark Poynter, said NFPS criteria reflected the ‘multiple-use forestry approach’ that had been embraced internationally and adhered to in Australia for generations.

“It is a landscape-scale concept which dictates that, with careful management, a whole range of values may be obtained from a forest in a complementary manner that doesn’t unduly compromise the whole of other values,” he said.

“It dictates that, for example, producing a sustained yield of timber from a portion of a large forest may not significantly affect the biodiversity values of the forest as a whole.”

JANIS said different regions could create CAR reserves “while obtaining optimal economic and social outcomes”.

“The analytical processes which integrate the application of the reserve criteria with social and economic considerations should be transparent,” the JANIS group said.

When reserves were created, “the option which imposes the least cost on the community should be adopted”.

The economic and social costs and benefits of alternate reserve options could include “the costs associated with broader employment impacts and industry adjustment”.

A DELWP report released in July 2017, in assessing timber harvest exclusion zones for the Leadbeater’s possum, argued that landscape planning would be a better management tool to manage threatened species and provide greater certainty and reduce costs for industry, but this report was never acted on.

The bushfires of the past 20 years, culminating in the 2019/20 bushfires in Gippsland, led the state government to sharpen Victoria’s forestry code to include a strict interpretation of how the internationally recognised ‘precautionary principle’ relates to timber harvesting. There was no reference to landscape context.

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”, the Environment Minister, Lily D’Ambrosio, told Parliament last year.

The Opposition maintained that the forestry code applied only to a very minor portion (4.5 per cent) of the state’s 7.8 million hectares of public forest.

“There is virtually no chance of them creating a threat of ‘serious or irreversible environmental damage’ that justifies invoking the precautionary principle,” said Gary Blackwood, the then Member for Narracan and Opposition spokesman on forestry.

The Supreme Court ruled last year in a case by environmentalists that VicForests’ pre-harvest surveys – 80 per cent done by (the then) DELWP staff and 20 per cent by VicForests – were inadequate and that it was not doing enough surveys to protect two possum species, greater and yellow-bellied gliders. This amounted to VicForests having to find virtually every glider within a coupe.

VicForests argued that the court’s demand for more intensive surveying at night was next to impossible and dangerous. The court also ruled that VicForests had failed to meet its obligations to retain enough vegetation on coupes to protect gliders under the precautionary principle.

In November last year, the Court of Appeal found the trial judge had correctly interpreted the requirements of the forestry code and that the declarations and coupe injunctions were lawful.

The rulings forced VicForests to resurvey hundreds of coupes, which it has since done using drones. A VicForests spokesperson said the drone survey program was developed to comply with the court’s orders of December 2022 which provided a new interpretation of what was required under regulations relating to the detection and protection of the glider species.

These surveys were developed in conjunction with the University of Melbourne and became operational from April 2023 – barely a month before the government announced it would totally close the industry by next January.

“The drones use a thermal camera to detect hotspots when flying over the forest canopy at night. When a hot spot is identified the drone switches to a normal light video camera and spotlight to zoom in to enable the species to be identified. 

“Details of location and images of the fauna seen are recorded,” the spokesperson said.

“Our surveys were designed primarily to detect any nocturnal arboreal fauna, particularly gliders that may be in an area planned for timber harvesting operations in the state’s native forests.”

The spokesperson said the results have been very good.

“We were able to cover larger areas of forest than we would have done if we were walking these places on foot,” they said.

“We were surprised to see that we could detect heat signals very deep in the canopies. Sometimes we were able to detect animals even walking on the ground below.

“One of the most surprising things for us was that the animals seemed to not be bothered by the drones flying above the canopy. None showed any change in their behaviour which is very good because we know that we are not affecting the way they live.

“A subsequent appeal decision clarified that a similar effort of survey was required for all relevant threatened species.”

Mr Blackwood said VicForests had been working to a prescription that gives greater oversight to greater glider habitat for some years.

“A simple and transparent inclusion in the code of this prescription and reference to the precautionary principle would have closed the loophole that activists use to support third party litigation,” he said.

“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.”

Forestry Australia, the industry peak group for forest scientists, managers and timber growers, maintains that Victoria’s forests have been captured by political ideology and complex legalities rather than being determined by science and professional expertise.

The president of Forestry Australia, Dr Michelle Freeman, said all should be concerned that lawyers had become key decision makers in forest management, causing forest management professionals to be disempowered.

Dr Freeman said the ‘precautionary principle’ should not be regarded as a hard and fast rule.

“That’s why it is termed the ‘precautionary principle’, not the ‘precautionary rule’,” she said.

An independent panel researched and wrote the Major Event Review that assessed the impact of the 2019/20 bushfires on the modernised Regional Forest Agreements. The panel consisted of Dr Gillian Sparkes AM, Victorian Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability; Dr Tony Bartlett AFSM, an independent forestry consultant; and Victorian traditional owner Katherine Mullett.

The report, with 37 recommendations, was delivered to the state and federal governments 18 months ago, but neither government has made a formal reply to it.

“The panel believes this was the first time in Australia that the precautionary principle had been formally applied to timber harvesting after a major bushfire,” the report said.

This was appropriate, given the magnitude and intensity of these bushfires and the time required to assess bushfire impacts on threatened species.

“The combined measures by DELWP and VicForests (since 2018) to increase pre and post-harvesting threatened species surveys and adopt landscape habitat planning approach”, should improve better knowledge on protection measures for threatened species near planned timber harvesting, the panel said.

The panel said the (initial) additional protection measures on timber harvesting in the fire-affected forests in this instance were proportionate and a timely assessment of the likely risks to threatened species. This had some economic impacts on forestry industry businesses but avoided the “unnecessary costs and the potential for perverse outcomes”.

However, the panel did not find any clear evidence why timber supply commitments under the Victorian Forestry Plan could no longer be met as a result of the bushfires. The forestry plan was to close the industry in 2030 but was suddenly brought forward in May to January 2024.

The bushfires had minimal impact on the Central Highlands RFA, the chief source of Victorian ash timber, but did greater damage to the forest resource in the RFA areas of Gippsland and in particular East Gippsland.

VicForests’ resource modelling showed that the 2019/20 bushfires reduced the volume of D+ Grade saw log available for harvest in the future by minus nine per cent in ash forests and minus 13 per cent in mixed species forests.

Overall, about 1 million cubic metres of standing D+ potential saw logs were burnt or destroyed by the bushfires, of which about 36 per cent was ash saw log and 64 per cent was mixed species saw log.

The greatest impact was in East Gippsland, with about 60 per cent of the impacted timber. For the highly productive ash forests, 56 per cent of losses were in the North East of the region and 42 per cent in the Gippsland RFA.

In November 2021, the state government harvest review was completed.

“That review found, after considering the bushfire impacts on the available timber volume in eastern Victoria, that the annual timber supply commitments can still be met and ecologically sustainable forest management supported,” the panel said.

“The review found that the maximum potential harvest levels are 172,000m3 per annum for D+ ash species saw log and 144,000m3 per annum for D+ mixed species saw logs.”

VicForests provided the panel with data that included adjustments for bushfire losses. Taking into account the remaining available saw log volumes and gross estimated volume of D+ saw logs affected by the bushfires (1,034,700m3), the saw log losses from the 2019/20 bushfires represented about 11 per cent of the D+ saw logs available to VicForests before the bushfires.

Based on the information the panel had access to, “the panel’s analysis indicates that, after allowing for the estimated bushfire-related saw log losses, the remaining saw logs available under the current allocation order appear to be more than sufficient to meet the allowable harvesting levels under the Victorian Forestry Plan for both ash and mixed species, across all the RFA regions in eastern Victoria”.

The panel acknowledged that there was both ongoing changes to threatened species management requirements and ongoing legal cases that could affect the results of this analysis.

Since March 2020, the Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action (DEECA) has completed risk assessments for 142 threatened species and communities. Protections are now in place for 37 threatened species and two rainforest communities.

In Victoria’s estimated 3.14 million hectares of state forest, the risk assessments to date has resulted in new Special Protection Zones excluding timber harvesting from more than 50,000 hectares of forest.

DEECA says this has secured critical habitat for species and communities including the Southern Greater Glider, Diamond Python, Tapered Galaxias, Tall Astelia, Giant Burrowing Frog and two temperate rainforest communities.

In addition, more than 60,000 hectares of important habitat have been protected for species including Glossy Black-cockatoo, Alpine Spiny Crayfish, Slender Tree Fern and Watson’s Tree Frog through new Special Management Zones where some timber harvesting can occur under restrictions.

DEECA says the risk assessments, an RFA requirement, apply to any species, and communities that have been listed as threatened under Victoria’s FFG Act or the Commonwealth EPBC Act that are potentially affected by forestry operations across Victoria’s five RFA regions.

To assess the potential impact by forestry, all threatened species and communities undergo a prioritisation process to determine eligibility for inclusion in the Threatened Species and Community Risk Assessment (TSCRA). The process considers data and models about the potential extent of overlap between a species’ distribution and forestry operations.

DEECA says scientific literature and expert judgement about the potential impacts from timber harvesting on populations of the species at an RFA scale also contribute to the prioritisation.

Once assessed, the eligible species and communities are assessed using the TSCRA. The TSCRA methods are based on the DELWP risk management guidelines, but have been modified for application to an environmental context. The TSCRA considers data and models about the potential extent of overlap between a species’ distribution and forestry operations.

“We will continue to monitor any potential risk to threatened species and communities across Victoria’s five RFAs,” a DEECA spokesperson said.

More details are available in the TSCRA reports on DEECA’s website at

Voice: Locals have made their stance clear since the decision was handed down by the state government in May.