#AceNewsReport – Aug.20: Forestry Minister John Barilaro last year commissioned an independent report from the Natural Resources Commission (NRC) to look at this issue and review the Coastal Integrated Forestry Operations Approvals (IFOA) framework.
#AceDailyNews says Angry South Coast residents still waiting to see report into impacts of post-bushfire logging it has sparked outrage from residents who say the framework used to guide NSW Forestry on environmental impacts in these compartments is no longer adequate given the destruction caused by the fire the report, while complete, has not been publicly released.
Independent MLC Justin Field said the report should be made public before any further logging operations occur: We put some degree of faith that this report could give us some advice on what could happen sustainably,” Mr Field said.
“I call it an act of gross political bastardry to promise this report, not publish it, then go in and log anyway.”
Taking an emotional toll
Residents have spent 18 months fighting for NSW Forestry to stop logging until the forest has recovered more from the impact of the 2019-20 fires.
Without the report, they felt they had no choice but to organise protest action.
Last week they confronted NSW Forestry at the compartment to declare they would not be backing down.
“We live out here for the forest, and the forest is a part of our home,” said Takesa Frank, who has lived in Brooman all her life.
“We’ve just been in a constant fight for the last 18 months since the fires, and we haven’t had time to just sit back and reflect on what has happened to us.”
Those concerns were echoed by Alan Dixon, the manager of Clyde River Berry Farm which operates in the Brooman State Forest.
“The ongoing forestry operations are a slap in the face after the black summer,” he said.
“We choose to live out here but there is an element of feeling like the custodian of this land as well, it is here for everyone to use.”
Additional safeguards in place
A spokesperson for Forestry Corporation said there were additional environmental safeguards in fire-affected logging areas.
They said the measures ensured the ongoing environmental protection and timber supply was balanced.
“The plan is to selectively harvest and regenerate a small proportion of the regrowth forest in Shallow Crossing State Forest.
“We will set aside more than half of the compartment in exclusion zones that will not be harvested, as well as a minimum of 50 per cent of the local area landscape to assist in forest recovery.”
A spokesperson for Mr Barilaro, meanwhile, said the NRC’s report was being considered by the state government.
“The NRC’s advice on native forestry post bushfires is currently being considered by the NSW government and remains cabinet in confidence,” they said.
“The NSW government has not changed the strong regulatory arrangements for native forestry in state forests.
“Forestry Corporation’s responsibilities include not only protecting the environment but also ensuring a continuing supply of timber to sustain a critical regional engine industry.”
Forestry was issued with a stop-work order in July last year for breaching environmental regulations.
Residents have made numerous other reports to the EPA about further alleged breaches, however no further action has been taken by the environmental regulator.
Experts stressed the seriousness of both the alleged and confirmed breaches of laws that are meant to protect the water supply for Melbourne and other parts of Victoria.
“One of the really special things about Melbourne’s drinking water supply, and particularly the Thomson catchment, is that it’s an unfiltered supply,” said Professor Stuart Khan, a water quality expert from the University of New South Wales.
Professor Khan was not involved in the ANU investigation, but said trees and undergrowth helped to filter the water.
When they are destroyed — particularly on steep slopes — pollutants can enter the water supply, causing potential bacterial or algal outbreaks, he said.
“Catchment management is the most important barrier for protecting drinking water in Melbourne,” Professor Khan said.
“It’s something that needs to be taken very seriously and [loggers] need to comply with very strict regulations.”
Regulator as useful as ‘an ashtray on a motorbike’, scientist says
The new instance of alleged illegal logging is in Melbourne’s most important drinking water catchment: the Thomson catchment.
Logging on slopes steeper than 30 degrees is banned in some Water Supply Protection Areas, including the Upper Goulburn and the Thomson, because it can cause soil to flow into the streams and rivers, which can foul the water supply.
ANU scientist Chris Taylor discovered the latest alleged breach using digital mapping tools, and then visited the site to confirm his findings in April.
Some of the logging occurred on slopes of almost 35 degrees, according to his report.
Dr Taylor submitted the findings to the OCR, which told the ABC it was now investigating the allegations.
But Dr Taylor’s colleague, Professor David Lindenmayer, says he has no confidence the regulator will do what is needed, arguing it has been ineffective in the past.
He said the OCR had failed to properly investigate past instances of illegal logging, and had not taken enough action when it found illegal logging had occurred.
“Metaphors come to mind, such as ashtrays on motorbikes, screen doors and submarines, and hitting people on the wrist with wet lettuce,” Dr Lindenmayer said.
“The reality is that the OCR is not doing its job and it needs to because it needs to help protect important water supply catchments.”
The breaches and allegations revealed last month were in the Upper Goulburn catchment.
That catchment is also part of Melbourne’s drinking water supply infrastructure, connected via a pipeline constructed to ensure the city does not run out of water.
Site of alleged breach already inspected by regulator
When the ABC asked the OCR about the latest allegation, its chief conservation regulator Kate Gavens initially said she could not comment because an investigation was underway.
However, VicForests told the ABC the regulator already inspected the site in 2020 and found some breaches of the slope limits, although not enough to take action.
When asked for clarification, Ms Gavens said the regulator had conducted inspections in the Thomson catchment last October and found operations were “compliant”.
But she said OCR officers were continuing “their assessment of allegations received last week about slope limits [in the Thomson catchment logging site]”.
Professor Lindenmayer said the saga was “farcical”.
“You should never believe anything until it’s officially denied,” he quipped.
Professor Lindenmayer said the regulator needed to be more proactive.
“I think that it’s extraordinary that you could go to a place that is a 35-degree slope and not find a breach,” he said.
“The regulator needs to do its job and VicForests needs to obey the law.”
VicForests told the ABC that “a range of protections, including all buffers, were put in place in this coupe to protect water quality”.
No action unless environmental harm
After the ABC last month revealed the regulator had confirmed two breaches in the Goulburn catchment, the OCR published a leaflet explaining the situation.
It said that since no “demonstrable environmental harm” was found, the breaches did not proceed to criminal prosecution, in line with the “Conservation Regulator’s Compliance and Enforcement Policy”.
That policy, also available online, notes the regulator can take a range of actions before criminal prosecution, including civil proceedings, enforceable undertakings and injunctions.
The policy does not say actual harm needs to be caused before regulatory action is taken, but notes the importance of “risk” of harm.
Professor Khan said the breaches put Melbourne’s water at risk.
“As more and more areas are logged, and particularly areas that are logged outside of the regulated requirements, this will be a gradual creep towards a less well-protected drinking water catchment for Melbourne,” Professor Khan said.
“The fact that there’s no environmental harm detectable is not the whole story.
“When you have a future rainfall event that leads to runoff in that catchment … you won’t be looking for impacts in the catchment itself.
“You’d be looking at impacts in the reservoir — impacts in terms of water quality.”
#AceNewsReport – Apr.21: The Office of the Conservation Regulator, a Victorian government body tasked with monitoring the state-owned logging company VicForests, foundbreaches of the law at two locations last yearbut decided not to take action.
Melbourne’s drinking water and catchment areas put at risk by ‘systemic’ illegal logging on steep slopes, experts say:
Instead it communicated to VicForests an “expectation” that it would comply with the law in future.
In addition, new peer-reviewed independent analysis by two Australian National University scientists — published this month — suggests the breaches have been “widespread and systematic” with 75 per cent of logging areas in the catchment subject to illegal logging of this sort.
Both VicForests and the Victorian government’s conservation regulator Kate Gavens declined interview requests by the ABC.
But a spokeswoman for the office of the conservation regulator said harvesting on steep slopes “continues to be a focus for the conservation regulator’s proactive coupe [(logging area) inspection program” and a “target for independent auditing”.
In a statement provided to the ABC, Ms Gavens queried the allegations of widespread breaches in the scientific report that sparked the investigation.
VicForests did not deny the two breaches found by the regulator, but noted the regulator didn’t find any impacts on drinking water or the environment.
“VicForests puts in place a range of protections in its harvesting operations to protect water quality,” a VicForests spokesman said.
In a letter seen by the ABC, however, the regulator said the illegal logging it discovered “increased risk to waterway health and is not acceptable to the conservation regulator”. But it said it would not be taking any regulatory action.
Melbourne’s drinking water at risk
Logging on slopes steeper than 30 degrees is banned in some areas protected for drinking water supply. Logging very steep slopes in those areas can cause soil to flow into the water, compromising water quality.
According to Professor Jamie Pittock, an expert in water management from ANU — who was not involved in the report — soil washed into the water can increase the chance of dangerous algal blooms and increase the cost of filtration.
“Soil tends to contain things like nitrates and phosphates and, if that gets into drinking water sources in dams, that exacerbates things like algal blooms,” Professor Pittock said.
Elle Bowd, a soil scientist at Australian National University (ANU) — also not associated with the investigation — said logging on steep slopes was particularly problematic as gravity meant more soil would be washed into the waterways.
“Logging can increase in turbidity, salinity and nutrients,” Dr Bowd said.
A spokeswoman for the regulator said it had two regulatory actions open to it: official warnings or prosecution.
Instead it communicated its findings and expectations.
Professor David Lindenmayer, one of the two scientists from ANU who uncovered the breaches, said the regulator needed to take stronger action.
“It’s like buying lettuce from Coles and Woolworths and then slapping the wrists of people in VicForests (with it),” he said.
“It should be preventing these kinds of problems by actually doing the analysis in the first place to show VicForests the parts of the forest that they cannot log,” he said.
Professor Lindenmayer was critical of the regulator’s claim that no adverse environmental impacts were found.
“The problem is if you don’t look properly you don’t find a problem.”
The new breaches are the latest in a long-running string of allegations of illegal logging made against the state-owned company, which includes the widespread practice of taking timber not owned by VicForests and a recent court decision, currently being appealed, finding much of VicForests logging has been conducted illegally.
VicForests denied allegations it took timber it wasn’t allowed to, and said it was awaiting the results of an appeal against the recent federal court decision.
‘Widespread and systematic’ illegal logging
The finding by the government’s conservation regulator of breaches in two logging areas was originally uncovered in 2019 by ANU ecologists Professor Lindenmayer and Chris Taylor.
The two ecologists have since updated and extended their analysis and concluded that in 2018, 90 per cent of logged areas in the Upper Goulburn Water supply protection area included illegal logging of steep slopes.
In total, in the years since VicForests was formed in 2004, the scientists found 75 per cent of logging areas — called “coupes” — in the same catchment included illegal logging on steep slopes, coming to a total of 160 logging coupes.
“What we found was that VicForests are systematically breaching forest laws by logging forests that are steeper than 30 degrees in slope,” Professor Lindenmayer said.
“[That’s] more than 16 years of logging breaches right across the landscape throughout this part of Victoria.
“But we’re not just talking about areas that are 31 degrees or 32 degrees of slope. We found areas that were 34, 37 and 39 degrees of slope. So these are way over the 30 degrees. So this is not just a simple accident.”
VicForests disputed this.
“There is not systemic and widespread breaching of slope prescriptions,” a spokesman said.
The regulator told the ABC it examined the scientists’ investigation and conducted its own.
“Minor breaches of the slope harvesting limit were identified in each investigation,” a spokeswoman for the regulator said.
Professor Lindenmayer said it was not possible that among the 160 breaches they found in their independent investigation there were only two that were able to be verified.
“If we’re wrong, it could be plus or minus 10 per cent at worst,” he said, noting they made 18 on-the-ground measurements, all of which confirmed their modelling
Regulator slow to act
In April 2020, after Professor Lindenmayer and Dr Chris Taylor first told the regulator about their findings, the regulator said its own analysis did not substantiate their allegation of “systemic and widespread breaching of slope prescriptions”.
The regulator argued the map data used by the scientists was not accurate enough and included too few on-the-ground measurements.
Despite that, the regulator investigated and found potential breaches in just two locations, which have both now been confirmed as breaches.
The new work by Professor Lindenmayer and Dr Taylor, published in a peer-reviewed journal, included on-the-ground measurements of areas at 18 sites in seven coupes, to confirm the results from their map-based data.
All 18 measurements were found to be more than 30 degrees, with some measurements going as high as 40 degrees.
The government-owned logging company and its regulator argued the maps used by government and VicForests to determine what forests were given to it were not legally admissible, and so nobody could determine what timber was legally vested in the company.