The more than four million hectares of forests on private land across NSW have been dubbed ‘the forgotten forests’. For several decades, as debate has raged about the management of the public forest estate, these private forests have been out of sight and out of mind – hidden behind unassuming rural fences, concealed by a legal wilderness where industrial logging did not require any governmental approval; the extent of logging unrecorded, the environmental impacts not considered.
In mid-2007, the NSW government finally introduced baseline regulation of logging on private land in NSW, as part of its wider native vegetation reforms. This means that all logging operations must now comply with a Code of Practice and must have a Property Vegetation Plan. The new regulation has also resulted in the collection of some baseline information, which has for the first time provided information on the scale and distribution of the industry. It was an important step forward.
However, it is, as usual, in the details where the new Code of Practice falls down badly. It is riddled with weaknesses, loopholes and inconsistencies, which provide avenues to allow logging of old growth forests, rainforest and endangered ecological communities. It does not require any surveys for threatened species and as a result does nothing to protect their most important habitats and is very weak on streamside protection.
The extent of logging revealed by the regulation is nothing short of alarming – the current rate of approvals for logging of private forests is approximately 120,000 hectares per year. This is almost three times the extent of annual logging across all public forests in NSW. If this rate of approvals continues, then by the end of the decade more than one million hectares of private forests may have faced the chop. The vast majority of current approvals are for the tall moist forests of north-eastern NSW and the river red gum forests of the south-west.
Making the situation far worse is the fact that the approval process for private logging is shrouded in a veil of secrecy. In what can only be described as a ‘special deal’ for the timber industry, logging approvals are not subject to the same public accountability provisions as clearing approvals. Furthermore, the Department of Environment and Climate Change has twice refused a straightforward Freedom of Information request for copies of a number of approvals. After a year of legal wrangling, our legal challenge to their refusal will soon be heard by the Administrative Decisions Tribunal.
Unfortunately, rather than implementing improvements, the NSW government is instead poised to further weaken the controls on private logging. The current regulation has been described as ‘transitional’ and the government is now preparing a new ‘Forests Act’ which will be a stand-alone Act to regulate private forestry.
There is a real risk that the government will hand over control of the new Act to the Department of Primary Industries. This would effectively put the fox in charge of the henhouse. Previous experiences in NSW of native vegetation legislation being administered by industry departments have failed dramatically.
Other major problems with the direction in which the new legislation is heading include suggestions that it will provide even more avenues to allow logging of high-conservation value forests and may give logging approvals that have no end-point. This would be unprecedented in native vegetation management in NSW.
So, the small step forward taken in 2007, with the introduction of a regulation, is already under threat and several major steps backwards are already on the agenda. Many magnificent forests are at risk, such as those at Five Day Creek, west of Kempsey. These rugged forests are part of the New England Wilderness Area, and they contain substantial areas of old growth forests and rainforest. Over the past two years, the local community has exposed substantial illegal logging in these forests in their determined attempts to protect their waterways and catchments. The future of these forests, and many like them, hangs in the balance.
Carmel Flint is a spokesperson for the North East Forest Alliance.