Under a deal struck with the former Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE), VicForests was also required to upgrade its forest education programs for loggers as penance for having cleared eight hectares of scarce rainforest in East Gippsland last year.
It has also been building ties with a key environmental group concerned with the plight of the state’s threatened faunal emblem, as part of the remedial measures.
Despite the moves, environmentalists fear the episode, along with recent changes to timber laws and the merger of DSE with the more commercially-driven Department of Primary Industries, could mark a more lax attitude towards logging transgressions.
Although the case tarnished its image, VicForests has met the conditions imposed by the 12-month “probation”, according to the newly-formed Department of Environment and Primary Industries (DEPI), which says the matter is now closed.
VicForests echoed that sentiment, adding that it remained committed to “operating in line with legislation”.
As part of its out-of-court settlement, VicForests replanted 22 hectares of rainforest in East Gippsland, although both the company and DEPI declined to identify the exact location of the reparations.
The forestry company, which oversees the contractors who harvest and replant trees, had also improved the training of contractors so that they could better recognise protected species. It had also started working with the Leadbeater’s Possum Advisory Group, a fact confirmed by the Arthur Rylah Institute, the environmental research arm of DEPI.
The legal fallout from the logging mishap along with other court stoushes with green groups have been blamed in part for VicForests’ recent fiscal woes. According to its most recent annual report, legal costs are running at their highest level in the corporation’s history, helping drag the company into the red in 2011-2012.
The state government, meanwhile, has been working to shore up the logging industry. In a bold move to cut the industry’s administrative costs, the Victorian parliament recently passed a series of amendments to the Sustainable Forests (Timber) Act (2004).
The changes remove the requirement for contractors to have an operating licence, give VicForests indefinite ownership of the land transferred to it and allow the VicForests board to approve the company’s own timber harvesting plan. All three components have come under attack from environmental groups.
Ameila Young, the Wilderness Society’s state campaigns manager, believes this gives VicForests carte blanche control of Victorian native forest, and says its recent transgression in destroying eight hectares of protected forest points to potential disaster. She fears the environment will rank second given VicForests’ heightened autonomy in determining timber harvesting plans.
“It’s like putting the fox in the hen house,” she added.
Ms Young believes that because the VicForests board is responsible for pursuing commercial returns, they are not best placed to consider the environmental costs of logging. “In fact, given their responsibilities, it is likely they will not,” Ms Young stated. She cites the illegally cleared hectares as a prime example of logging transgressions.
CHIP OFF THE OLD BLOCK: What the new laws mean
Outsourced contractors require harvesting operator’s licence
Contractors do not require a licence
VicForests’ harvest plan requires approval from DEPI
VicForests’ harvest plan requires approval by VicForests Board
The state allocates land to VicForests with 15-year limits
Land is allocated to VicForests indefinitely
Napthine Government MPs claimed in Parliament that their intention in removing requirements for a harvester’s licence was to eliminate red tape. But Opposition members voiced concern that the government’s primary motivation was economic, ahead of safety.
Logging advocates are quick to counter that the environment will be protected. Forests are still governed by management plans, while harvesting must meet Victoria’s Code of Forest Practices, which sets out guidelines on biodiversity, planting and felling.
However, the degree of freedom now afforded the industry is unprecedented. The amendments allow VicForests to approve its own Timber Release Plans – which outline where they will harvest and replant – whereas, previously, this was overseen by the DSE (now DEPI).
That development aside, activists question whether VicForests’ replanting practices invest adequately in robust, bio-diverse flora. The National Sustainability Council has reported that replanted forest – which can focus on just one species – is of less ecological value than rainforest.
They also fear self-regulation could lead to over-harvesting as VicForests tries to maximise revenues. Not only is VicForests now able to decide where and when its contractors can log, say environmentalists, but the amendments allow the state to allocate land to VicForests for indefinite use. Previously, the time limit for accessing allotted forest was 15 years.
Forestry advocates counter that harvest levels from public native forests are below estimated “sustainable levels”, which in Victoria amounts to 10 per cent of native forests (the equivalent of 16 of Melbourne’s Yarra Bend Park).
Kelly O’Shanassy, the chief executive of the advocacy group Environment Victoria, questions the state government’s motives. “We’re worried that the brown [profit] side of the debate basically is going to completely overshadow the green side, which is the environment protection.”
Yet, VicForests has struggled in recent times to turn a profit. Premier Denis Napthine trumpets that the corporation has notched $11.58 million in net earnings during its eight-year life. But since 2007, VicForests has struggled to turn a profit, despite selling increasing volumes of timber.
Last year, it pulled in revenues of $120 million but recorded an operating loss of $96,000 (after paying more than $3 million in legal fees).
Court costs aside, environmental activists have latched onto the dismal fiscal picture to underscore their case that the industry is not sustainable.