Native timber harvesting in Victoria has stopped after a ruling on 4 November in the Supreme Court, prompting a savage attack on the Andrews Government’s culpability by the Liberals Gary Blackwood.
VicForests ordered the stand-down, after Justice Melinda Richards ruled in a case involving Environment East Gippsland that the state-owned enterprise’s pre-harvest surveys were inadequate and it was not doing enough to protect two possum species – greater and yellow-bellied gliders, TimberBiz reported.
VicForests chief executive, Monique Dawson, said the order was permanent, and it was comprehensive. “We’ve got some limited operations in some areas where there aren’t any (gliders) so we’ll keep doing what we can do. But certainly, the impact of the order is profound,” she told TimberBiz.
The ruling forces VicForests to resurvey hundreds of coupes, which it confirmed would take months to complete and would leave harvest and haulage contractors without work and deepen a sawlog shortage that has already led to one mill to close.
Justice Richards also ruled that VicForests had failed to meet its obligations to retain enough vegetation on coupes to protect gliders, under the precautionary principle of the Code of Practice for Timber Production. Her preference was to retain three hectares around a possum sighting and retain 60 per cent of the trees in the rest of the coupe.
Mr Blackwood, the retiring Member for Narracan and the Opposition forestry spokesman, said VicForests had to cease operations pending their appeal against the ruling.
“This is a disgraceful indictment on the Andrews Government, who have been lobbied for months to adjust the Code of Forest Practice so that it reflected exactly what has been in place to protect the Greater Glider for many years,” he said.
“VicForests have 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.”
Mr Blackwood said the Andrews Government had had plenty of time to fix this issue and save hundreds of timber workers and their families from massive hardship. “And now right on Christmas they are faced with the worst situation possible. I cannot think of any Government in our history that has destroyed livelihoods for political expediency as the Andrews Government has,” he said.
Ms Dawson said VicForests was already only undertaking limited operations anyway because of the court’s previous orders. “But the orders are very broad because they’re for all areas of the state where there are greater gliders or yellow-bellied gliders, and they are abundant throughout virtually all of the areas that we harvest,” she told TimberBiz.
Injunctions imposed by Justice Richards on harvesting last December had already locked contractors out of many coupes, leading to lost work, idle machinery and a sawlog shortage that has crippled many timber communities as mills slowed or stopped work. East Gippsland’s timber industry is already on the brink of collapse, with 115 workers facing the axe and warnings Orbost will become a “ghost town”.
In her ruling Justice Richards said the spotlight surveys VicForests “relies on to detect gliders are limited to a one kilometre transect through a coupe”.
“This leaves most of the coupe unsurveyed and provides incomplete information about whether gliders are present and where their home range is located. Without knowing where the gliders are within a coupe, it is not possible for VicForests to take management actions to address risks to them.”
VicForests has highlighted to the court that more intensive surveying at night is next to impossible, even taking Justice Richards and her associate out to an unharvested coupe to show them the difficulty of the terrain, TimberBiz said.