MINERS and small prospectors fear that the state government’s study into the future of Gippsland’s forests could lock up swathes of forest and shackle mining as a driver of local economic growth and jobs.

Both the Minerals Council of Australia and the Prospectors and Miners Association of Victoria (PMAV) are critical of mining’s inability to have a say in the process.

The government has appointed a taskforce headed by a former Environment Minister, Lisa Neville, to investigate the forest’s future, particularly the areas used for timber harvesting.

A key member of the taskforce is the chair of the Victorian Environment Assessment Council, which in December released an interim report into the values, management and use of state forests in the Central Highlands – the area of the CH Regional Forest Agreement.

The taskforce is liaising with an Eminent Panel for Community Engagement (EPCV) that is seeking feedback from the community into the issues identified by VEAC.

The executive director of the Victorian division of the Minerals Council of Australia, James Sorahan, said the MCA was extremely concerned that it had had no input into the investigation. VEAC was considering extending areas of forest into protected conservation zones that are mineral rich, he said, urging the government to consult with affected stakeholders and communities, including the mining industry.

“A proper analysis of impacts on economic opportunities for regional Victorians needs to take place to ensure a balanced analysis of the economic, social or environmental impacts of mining and minerals exploration in the study area,” he told the Express.

“There has been no detailed analysis.”

Mr Sorahan said active exploration and mining in the region showed the potential for minerals which can benefit the local and broader state economy. More than 20 mining and exploration companies with 38 exploration licences (EL) and eight EL applications are in the study area.

“Explorers are looking for not only gold exploration, but at least one other commodity including antimony, tungsten, tin, molybdenum, bismuth and base metals such as copper and zinc,” he said. Many critical minerals needed for renewables were available.

Mr Sorahan said Geological Survey Victoria (GSV) estimates there is “significant potential” for gold and critical minerals worth at least $3.4 billion.

“MCA Victoria is not against extending protected areas, but they need to be areas that don’t risk sterilising minerals rich regions because exploration has effectively no impact on the environment, and mining’s is minimised and highly regulated,” he said.

“Conservation and modern mineral resource development are not mutually exclusive outcomes.”

Mr Sorahan said minerals development had not been identified as a major driver of biodiversity loss in Victorian state of environment reporting.

“The footprint is small, and most exploration is low impact,” he said.

A PMAV Committee member, David Bentley, told the Express that the government was rushing through the VEAC report that could close up to another one million hectares of public forests and reserves in Gippsland.

“Prospecting, mining, camping, hunting and fishing, four-wheel driving, horse and trail bike riding, rally cars, dogs – every bush user group will be affected,” he said.

“A major mining area like Walhalla-Potts Point could be lost. This is the first step towards the Great National Park.”

Mr Bentley said the process in Gippsland was akin to the Central West Investigation area, which resulted in the loss of more than 7000ha of goldfields into national parks.

The PMAV has 1706 paid up members, but Mr Bentley said 85,000 people in Victoria have mining rights licences, which are valid for 10 years.

The interim VEAC report into the forests of the Central Highlands, based largely on desktop assessment of previous research and talks with experts, emphasised that forest values were particularly threatened by climate change – heatwaves, floods, higher temperatures, declines in annual rainfall, and increased bushfire frequency and severity.

Other threats were invasive plants and animals, such as blackberry and deer, and loss and fragmentation of habitat. Melbourne’s growing population was also placing more pressure on the forests for recreation and other uses.

Native timber harvesting, now closed, is a legacy use.

“In spite of having had significant impacts (disturbance) on these forests, it can no longer be viewed as an ongoing threat,” VEAC said.

VEAC said it had identified large areas of high quality natural values with relatively low conflicting uses that could be protected in a national park, and that link the existing parks in the region. The taskforce’s community engagement process and more detailed information were needed where national park values and other uses were in conflict, VEAC said.

The reported noted that a large national park could be created from three large areas in the north and south of the RFA area would link the existing Yarra Ranges, Kinglake, Lake Eildon and Baw Baw national parks and the Bunyip, Cathedral Range and Moondarra state parks.

“There are relatively few uses that would conflict with the national park designation, although this is an area that the EPCE should explore further with the community during its engagement period,” VEAC said.

“The upper Thomson catchment also contains outstanding natural values commensurate with a national park designation, and would link to the Yarra Ranges National Park to the west. More detailed consideration is needed however as there are potentially high value uses such as mineral extraction that would conflict with such a designation.”

The VEAC report said there is significant potential for gold in the state forests in the east of the Central Highlands RFA area.

“GSV found that areas near Erica and east of Warburton, in particular, exhibit very high potential for critical minerals (including copper, nickel, tin, tungsten, antimony, zinc, rare earth elements, platinum group elements an cobalt), gold and extractives (including limestone and sedimentary hard rock),” the report said.

VEAC noted there are recreational uses of the forests, including camping, fishing and water-based activities, four-wheel driving, mountain biking, horse riding, trailbike riding, bushwalking, birdwatching, recreational prospecting, deer hunting and scenic driving

Given the threats to the forest, VEAC said: “For all public land categories, sufficient management resources are required for active and adaptive management to restore and maintain values and build healthy forests.”

The state government says the end of native timber harvesting creates new opportunities to improve forest management, balancing recreation and tourism for Victorians to enjoy outdoors, while protecting the environment and supporting Traditional owner self-determination.

The taskforce, however, has been strongly criticised for lacking expertise in bushfire policy.