Victoria’s Regional Forest Agreements
A background briefing
Regional Forest Agreements (RFAs) are agreements between the State and Commonwealth governments. There are five in Victoria for different regions. They were meant to resolve the conflict surrounding native forest logging, but have failed to do so
Photo: Ben Baker
This brief provides background on what Regional Forestry Agreements (RFA) are and how they have failed to deliver protections for Victoria's forests and habitats or certainty for industry - particularly following the devastating bushfires of 2019/20. We have provided some key recommendations to address this issue.
What is an RFA?
RFA’s are agreements between the State and Commonwealth governments. There are five in Victoria for different regions. The original RFAs were 20 year agreements established between 1997-2000.
RFAs sought to resolve the long-standing conflict surrounding native forest logging, but comprehensively failed to do so, despite:
- removing federal government control on the controversial export of wood chips;
- granting the logging industry an exemption from national environment law.
RFAs failed to meet their core objectives:
- the reserve system created is inadequate to conserve biodiversity;
- forests are not being ecologically or sustainably managed;
- the logging industry continues to be plagued by instability and uncertainty.
As the original RFAs expired, the Victorian government decided to undertake a two year review process (three years for the East Gippsland RFA).
Forests destroyed, wildlife pushed towards extinction
During the life of the RFAs, tens of thousands of hectares of critical habitat for forest dependent threatened species, including the Leadbeater’s possum and the Greater Glider, have been logged.
Following two decades of logging, these species are now formally recognised as closer to extinction with the Leadbeater’s Possum up-listed to critically endangered in 2015, and the Greater Glider added for the first time in 2016-17 to state and national threatened species lists as vulnerable to extinction.
RFAs removed federal oversight over logging impacts on ‘matters of national environmental significance’ under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (1999), such as nationally-listed threatened species in Victoria’s forests. This left only the state regulatory regime, which is outdated, lacks adequate mandatory rules to protect wildlife in logging areas, is failing to protect threatened species from further decline, and is often not enforced.
Inadequate reserve system
A fundamental basis of the RFA system was intended to be the establishment of a network of reserves to adequately protect Victoria’s forest biodiversity, known as the Comprehensive, Adequate and Representative (CAR) reserve system.
The CAR system established under RFAs is inadequate in protecting Victoria’s threatened species, including from extinction. It does not protect areas of critical habitat, nor does it protect areas known to be the minimum required to maintain and recover viable populations and enable recovery of threatened species, like Leadbeater’s Possum.
The formal and informal reserves have not been reviewed in light of new information about threatened species and the impacts of severe wildfire since the RFAs were entered. Both urgently require expansion in light of recent work mapping important habitats and conservation values in State forest, such as the VEAC Conservation Values report1.
Victorian government RFA 'modernisation' process
In March 2018, the Victorian government announced a two year review of the RFAs, involving consultation with scientific bodies, industry and the community2 and working in partnership with traditional owners.3
Public consultation on behalf of the Victorian government showed overwhelming support for protecting forests from logging, a desire for improved recreation opportunities and a future for the wood and paper industry in plantations4.
Scientific advice during the review process recognised that under RFAs5:
- matters of national environmental significance’ under the EPBC Act, such as nationally-listed threatened species have suffered lesser protection through exemption from national laws.
- the CAR reserve system has not adequately protected biodiversity
- the impacts of climate change on the full set of forest values are likely to be significant for Victoria’s forests
The New RFAs
The ‘modernised’ RFAs were made public on 1 April 2020, and introduce new levers for reform including the following:
- Major Event Review (MER) - within 6 months of a significant change in circumstances, such as a major bushfire that has impacted nationally threatened species, old growth forests, or log volumes for industry, State and Federal governments can initiate a MER. The MER can assess implications, among other things, for the CAR reserve system, logging levels and protection of threatened species. In doing so, the MER must assess impacts of the event on old growth forests, threatened species, Indigenous heritage values, ecosystem services provided (such as clean water, carbon sequestration, recreation, pollination, biomass), economic and social values.
- Review and adjustment of log volumes - previously, RFAs stated expected log volumes. The new RFAs have introduced commitments to review and adjust logging levels, including following a bushfire or other event that has significant implications for the volume of logs available in a forest.
- Improved assessment and protection for threatened species. By October 2020, the State government must have assessed and implemented additional interim protection for all threatened species from logging impacts, and implemented additional permanent protection by April 2022.
The 2019-20 bushfires not only had a devastating impact on lives, property and communities – but also affected large areas of Victoria’s forests and has implications for forest conservation, wildlife and the future of the timber and paper industries.
The fires impacted 776 rare and threatened plants and animals in Victoria, including wildlife such as the Greater Glider. Of these 776 species, 185 suffered fire across more than half their habitat6. Remaining populations of forest-dependent species across the state are now more important than ever.
Even before the bushfires, the government needed to address over committed logging volumes. Now, with elements of the industry controversially pushing for immediate access to burnt areas and green unburnt areas – both highly damaging forms of logging that will harm recovering and living forests - the urgency to address logging over commitment is even greater.
2019-20 bushfires a “Major Event” requiring urgent review under RFAs
As a consequence of the 2019-20 bushfires, Wilderness Society had called for the RFA review to be paused until there was a proper understanding of the bushfire impacts. Instead of a proper reassessment of these impacts, a clause called a “Major Event Review (MER)” has been included in the new RFA to allow for adjustments in the future
The 2019-20 bushfires meet multiple criteria as a Major Event, according to an assessment by Wilderness Society. Although a rapid assessment, it is clear these bushfires should trigger an urgent Major Event Review (MER) for four RFA regions: East Gippsland, Gippsland, North East and Central Highlands.
Map 1. 2019-20 bushfire extent & RFA regions
The Victorian RFAs define a Major Event as a substantial change in circumstances that has the potential to significantly impact upon:
(a) the objectives and operation of the RFA;
(b) the comprehensiveness, adequacy or representativeness of the CAR Reserve System;
(c) Ecologically Sustrainable Forest Management (ESFM);
(d) one or more Matters of National Environmental Significance (MNES)MNES; or
(e) the stability of Forest Industries, within the RFA Region, and includes (but is not limited to) natural events such as bushfires, floods and disease;
The rapid assessment indicated four RFA regions with severe consequences resulting from the 2019-20 fires should have Major Event Reveiws:
East Gippsland RFA Region
- majority of public land burnt with extensive impact on forest habitats and wood volumes for industry
- large proportion of state forests, informal and formal reserves burnt with significant impact on the CAR reserve system in a number of bioregions including: East Gippsland Lowlands, East Gippsland Uplands, Highlands – Far East, Monaro Tablelands, Victorian Alps
- significantly impacts on nationally threatened species including Long-footed Potoroo, Giant Burrowing Frog, Smoky Mouse and Spot-tailed Quoll
Gippsland RFA region
- large area of public land burnt with significant impact on forest habitats and wood volumes for industry
- large area of state forests, informal and formal reserves burnt with significant impact on the CAR reserve system in a number of bioregions including: Highlands – Southern Fall, East Gippsland Uplands, Victorian Alps, Highlands – Northern Fall
- significant impacts on nationally threatened species from bushfire both inside and outside the region including Giant Burrowing Frog, Broad-toothed Rat, Smoky Mouse, Spot-tailed Quoll
North East RFA region
- large area of public land burnt with significant impact on forest habitats and wood volumes for industry
- large area of state forests, informal and formal reserves burnt with significant impact on the CAR reserve system in a number of bioregions including: Victorian Alps, Highlands – Northern Fall
- significant impacts on nationally threatened species from bushfire both inside and outside the region including Spotted Tree Frog, Broad-toothed Rat, Smoky Mouse, Spot-tailed Quoll
Central Highlands RFA region
- large areas burnt outside the region with significant implications for forest habitats and wood volumes for industry within the region
- large area of state forests, informal and formal reserves burnt in the Gippsland and North East RFA regions with significant impact on bioregions shared with Central Highlands RFA region including: Highlands – Southern Fall, Highlands – Northern Fall with significant implications for the CAR reserve system within the region
- significant impacts on nationally threatened species from bushfire outside the region, meaning populations within the region of significantly increased importance including Greater Glider, Spotted Tree Frog, Smoky Mouse, Spot-tailed Quoll
Industry transition and immediate protection
In context of the recent fires, there is an urgent need to bring forward the Victorian government’s planned 2030 industry transition out of native forests, and to rapidly implement Immediate Protection Areas and old growth protection measures on the ground.
The government announced these measures in November 2019,7 prior to the bushfire crisis unfolding. The circumstances in our forests are now dramatically different to those that informed the policy announcements. Continued supply of native forest wood to industry until 2030 is now untenable given the loss of timber and habitat (a large proportion of the Immediate Protection Areas, and old growth forest8 have now been burnt).
The logging industry phase out9 should be an integral part of bushfire recovery and response, to assist adjustment to the new social, economic and ecological realities relating to forests following the fires.
Victoria’s Regional Forestry Agreements need to facilitate rather than impede reform, and if implemented truly “modernised” RFAs would:
- promote reform of forest management, in line with science and community expectations
- protect forests from harmful logging
- immediately trigger a Major Event Review to ensure assessment of the forests following the 2019-20 bushfires and rapid industry and management response
- end the special treatment for this one industry, by discontinuing its exemption from national environment law.
- Victorian Environment Assessment Council (2019) Conservation Values of State Forests - Assessment Report. See http://www.veac.vic.gov.au/investigation/assessment-of-conservation-values-of-state-forests Accessed 31 March 2020
- Lily D’Ambrosio, Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change (2018) Certainty For Workers And The Future Of Our Forests. Media Release 27 March 2018. See https://www.premier.vic.gov.au/certainty-for-workers-and-the-future-of-our-forests/ Accessed 31 March 2020
- Department of Environment, Land, Water and PLanning (2019) Traditional Owner Partnership. DELWP webpage. See https://www2.delwp.vic.gov.au/futureforests/traditional-owner-partnership
- Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning.(2019) Future of our Forests Feedback Report – Phase 1 Engagement December 2018 – March 2019. See https://www2.delwp.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0032/426947/FutureOfOurForests_FeedbackReport.pdf Accessed 31 March 2020
- Regional Forest Agreements Scientific Advisory Panel (SAP) (2019) Scientific Advice to Support Regional Forest Agreement Negotiations - Final Report 20 November 2019. See https://www2.delwp.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0034/444787/Scientific-Advisory-Panel-Reports-of-Advice.pdf Accessed 31 March 2020
- Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning. (2020) Victoria's bushfire emergency: Biodiversity response and recovery Preliminary report - Version 1. See https://www.wildlife.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0034/449746/Victorias-bushfire-emergency-Biodiversity-response-and-recovery-Version-1-23-January-2020.pdf Accessed 31 March 2020
- Lily D’Ambrosio, Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change (2019) .Protecting Victoria’s Forests And Threatened Species. Media Release 7 November 2019. See: https://www.premier.vic.gov.au/protecting-victorias-forests-and-threatened-species/ Accessed 31 March 2020
- Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning. (2020) Timber harvesting and threatened species management. DELWP webpage. See https://www.forestsandreserves.vic.gov.au/forest-management/environmental-regulation-of-timber-harvesting Accessed 31 March 2020
- Victorian government (2020) Victorian forestry plan. Webpage. See https://www.vic.gov.au/victorian-forestry-plan Accessed 31 March 2020