Media Releases - 17 December 2021

Andrews Gov’t announcement of additional industry support doesn’t solve wood supply crisis, nor cover up VicForests’ appalling conduct

  • Andrews government announcement reaffirming logging phase out by 2030 welcome, but that timeline must be brought forward, and VicForests reigned in

  • Additional resources and powers for conservation regulator, and ongoing support for workers in regional communities facing inevitable change are welcome

  • Industry support and tweaks to logging rules don’t remove business exposure to risk of illegality

    Logging coupe in Victoria. Image: Louise Chen.

The Wilderness Society welcomes today’s reaffirmation of the native forest logging phase out by 2030 by the Andrews government, but reiterates the urgency of bringing forward that timeline, and reigning in its logging corporation, VicForests.

“After the impacts of the 2019-20 bushfires, there’s not another ten years of logging left. The forests, and regional communities, need support and care to recover, not more logging,” said Richard Hughes, the Wilderness Society's Victorian Campaign Manager.

“Decades of forest mismanagement mean there is a crisis in both Victoria’s native forests, and in the Victorian wood and fibre industry. The Wilderness Society welcomes ongoing support for workers in regional communities facing inevitable change as a result of decades of uncertainty.

“Today’s announcements of industry support and regulatory tweaks comes off the back of a shocking few weeks for VicForests, which has been referred to IBAC for serious allegations of widespread illegal and questionable activity including spying on a private citizen, and has faced calls for the board to be stood down.

“There is still a need for the Andrews Government to staunch the rot emanating from VicForests, which continues to be a barrier to industry reform and managing forests in the interest of the whole community.

“The Victorian government needs to ensure new plantation trees are rapidly going in the ground, and to urgently prioritise appropriate use of the existing plantation estate domestically here in Victoria instead of exporting millions of tonnes of plantation wood each year—which would be a superior outcome for jobs, industry, the community and for the environment.

“The Office of Conservation Regulator (OCR) receiving stronger watchdog powers for breaches to environmental laws and regulations is a positive step, however the willingness of the regulator to prosecute remains to be seen given there has not been any OCR-led prosecutions, despite numerous complaints by community members evidencing VicForests breaking the rules.

“The proposal to further reform logging rules through new legislation in 2022 is of concern. There has already been a weakening of the logging code this year, and further relaxing of these laws is not an appropriate way to bring logging into conformance with the law. We will scrutinise the introduction of this legislation closely—any erosion of environmental regulation will not resolve the twin crises of wood shortages and wildlife extinction.

“Buyers, manufacturers, processors and retailers of timber and paper products produced by VicForests’ harvested wood patently cannot rely on either the conservation regulator, or the Responsible Wood certification to guarantee sustainability, let alone to guarantee legality—which only demonstrated adherence to laws can deliver.

“Notwithstanding today’s announcement of support packages for workers and industry, and plans to ‘clarify’ the logging regulation, businesses are still on notice that they are exposed to risk of illegality, with court findings standing that VicForests has been logging in vital habitat to the Leadbeater’s Possum / Wollert and Greater Glider / Warnda and is likely to continue driving extinction, in breach of Victorian law.

“It’s high time the Victorian government reined in its rogue logging agency, VicForests. VicForests’ customers, such as global paper and packaging giant Nippon, have had a huge cloud cast over their supply chains, with clear exposure to illegal logging risk. Any buyers of wood or products sourced from VicForests must continue to ask whether they are in breach of Australia’s illegal logging and environment laws,” Richard Hughes concluded.

Further comments from The Wilderness Society on the recent Andrew's Government announcement.

The Hon. Lily D’Ambrosio

Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change

Level 16, 8 Nicholson Street, East Melbourne 3002

By email: lily.d'[email protected]

22 December 2021

Open letter re: environmental standards, compliance and enforcement in logging operations

Dear Minister D’Ambrosio,

I am writing following your announcement on 17 December, 2021 of a package of measures relating to environmental standards, compliance and enforcement in logging operations.

Your media release of 17 December states

Recent legal challenges to timber harvesting have highlighted the need for new mechanisms to ensure the timber industry can meet the requirements of the Code of Practice for Timber Production.

The Wilderness Society does not support mechanisms that weaken environmental protections. Weakening laws and regulations in order to encourage or demonstrate legality is an extremely poor response.

The proposed precautionary principle compliance standards appear to be yet another thinly veiled mechanism for removing existing legal protections in order to free up every available stick of forest for logging of dwindling remaining forests.

Earlier this year, the Andrews Government made substantial changes to the Code, under the guise of “clarification” that resulted in substantial weakening of environmental protection for threatened species habitats, old growth forests, water catchments and other forest values.

It is regrettable that this latest round of changes appear to be another token effort to appear to be dealing with VicForests failings relating to legality, wood supply, regeneration and myriad sustainability issues.

As you are aware, The Wilderness Society has long-held concerns about the application of the Code of Practice for Timber Production (the Code), and has and continues to strongly oppose any weakening of the Code, including around changes that relate to the precautionary principle.

In September, 2019, we wrote to you raising concerns, including as follows:

“...we believe the process to amend the Code should be abandoned and the process started afresh in a manner which aligns with the intent of recommendations arising from the Independent Review of Timber Harvesting Regulation, and with the Department’s response to that review, as well as with your intent, as Minister, for effective regulation of logging in publicly owned state forests.

The Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (‘the Department’) purports to be strengthening the protection of forests and wildlife: “to ensure that environmental, cultural and economic values of State forests are protected and enhanced for future generations”.

However, the proposed changes to the Code take forest management in the opposite direction and are contrary to the stated objectives of the independent review you commissioned into the capabilities of DELWP as regulator of logging, last year.”

Noting the 2019-20 bushfires were yet to occur, at the time we also wrote that:

“Such an attack on Victorian environment law is unprecedented in the last two decades and the characterisation of these changes as “improving regulatory certainty” or addressing “administrative errors” is misleading and urgently requires refinement.

It is unfathomable that in the midst of a global extinction crisis, where more Victorian species are at risk of extinction and less old growth forests remain than at any point in recorded history, your government would proceed with these changes.”

Lastly, two other points from our 2019 correspondence remain relevant, notwithstanding the fact that regressive changes to the Code were ushered through this year:

“Minister, you do not need to weaken protections for forests and wildlife in order to make the Code clearer and more easily understood by the community.

Neither do you need to weaken protections for forests and wildlife in order to tidy up administrative errors. “

In our view, the Office of Conservation Regulator has consistently failed in its role as regulator of VicForests. Although the creation of the OCR was a welcome step, not least because of the consistent failure of DELWP and its predecessors to regulate VicForests without fear or favour—it is however notable that there has not been any OCR-led prosecutions of VicForests. This needs to change, not least because of the numerous complaints by community members evidencing VicForests breaking the rules, and the burden of compliance currently being carried by the community and the courts, and not the regulator.

We look forward to continuing to work for a Victorian wood and fibre industry all Victorians can be proud of and hope to continue to play a constructive role in achieving this outcome

Yours sincerely

Richard Hughes

Victorian Campaigns Manager