Dailan Pugh, North East Forest Alliance
In 2013 the communities of Terania Creek and Whian Whian were galvanised into action when the Forestry Corporation began logging a private property located on the ridge between them, next to the Nightcap National Park. They knew it was an important area for koalas and other threatened species and yet nothing was being done to protect them.
What started as an effort to negotiate with the landowners and the Forestry Corporation to get them to apply the required protections for threatened species, resulted in a month of community angst and blockades, with intimidation, assaults and arrests of forest protectors.
In September 2015 the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) found the Forestry Corporation guilty of constructing an illegal road through what were meant to be exclusion zones around a koala high use tree and eleven threatened plants. They fined them $11,000 for two of the offences.
Now the Forestry Corporation is refusing to pay and the EPA say they can’t make them. The community has been denied justice.
It is worth reviewing what led to this.
On September 19, 2013, the Forestry Corporation was stopped by an adjacent landowner from using an access road through his property in an effort to force them to apply the legally required prescriptions for koalas, marbled frogmouths, Sooty Owl and Masked Owl that had been recorded by the North East Forest Alliance (NEFA) in the logging area.
In response the Forestry Corporation marked an alternative road. NEFA found it passed through 8 koala high use trees, three endangered slender marsdenia plants and over 60 vulnerable red bopple nuts, all of which legally required 20m exclusion zones around them.
That afternoon a meeting of over 70 residents in Whian Whian Hall called for the logging to cease due to poor environmental stewardship. NEFA wrote to the chief executive officer of the EPA, Barry Buffier, asking him to immediately impose a stop work order to stop the road being constructed through the threatened species.
The EPA scoffed at the suggestion it would stop work and spent the next two days wandering around the area with the Forestry Corporation and two botanists identifying an alternative route.
As the community protested, under police guard the Forestry Corporation constructed a new road on the afternoon of Wednesday 25. They all knew that threatened species were in the way and that what they were doing was illegal.
Due to the strong community pressure, the landowners agreed to a community survey being undertaken the next weekend. With expert help, and under supervision by the Forestry Corporation, the survey identified that the new road had killed two slender marsdenia and severely damaged a third, as well as passing through what should have been exclusion zones for two koala high use trees and threatened plants.
Across the logging area, the survey found 12 koala high use trees, along with numerous threatened plants, many of which had the road and logging within what should have been their buffer zones. An earlier road was found to have been constructed through the Critically Endangered Lowland Rainforest of Subtropical Australia.
Logging continued for two weeks, with delays due to forest protests. At one stage two forest protectors were grabbed by the loggers and pinned to the ground for 45 minutes until police arrived and arrested them.
Tragically, on Wednesday October 9, a Forestry Corporation worker was injured by a falling branch where logging was occurring. When the rescue helicopter landed nearby, there was no other transport so one of the forest protectors drove the paramedics to the accident site. Despite this, the police publicly, and falsely, accused the forest protectors of hindering the ambulance.
That night two forest protectors were attacked and bashed by loggers while asleep in their tents. The forester died the next day. Logging continued until Friday, but out of respect for the forester, protests were stopped.
After logging finished, NEFA assessed the new road and found it had been bulldozed through what should have been 20m exclusion zones for two koala high use trees and 24 threatened plants (four slender marsdenia, 12 arrow-head vines, and 8 red bopple nuts). Their habitat had been significantly degraded. Two slender marsdenia and one arrow-head vine had been killed. Most of these had been identified and tagged with tape prior to road construction, so the Forestry Corporation knew they were breaking the law when they bulldozed through their exclusion zones.
There was a two-year window of opportunity for the EPA to legally pursue this matter, and they used most of this time up before they issued the Forestry Corporation with two Penalty Notices (each with a fine of $5,500) on September 11, 2015, for constructing their track through what should have been 20m exclusion zones for a koala high use tree and the endangered vine slender marsdenia.
They were issued an Official Caution for violating buffers of four red bopple nuts, with violations of six arrow-head vine buffers noted. This is half of the breaches documented by NEFA.
The EPA refused to investigate NEFA’s detailed complaint about the remapping of endangered rainforest as cleared land so a road could be constructed through it. They have a lot to hide.
The Forestry Corporation stated it intendeds to vigorously dispute the fines on the grounds that its intent ‘was discussed with EPA staff on site during the operation’. In other words, the EPA knew Forestry was going to construct the illegal road and, at best, did nothing to stop them.
Given that the EPA had almost used up its two years for legal action, the Forestry Corporation simply bided its time before telling the EPA that it would not pay the fines and would rather dispute them in court. By then, the EPA claims, it was too late to defend the fines in court.
Yet again the Forestry Corporation has got away with illegal logging, and the EPA has proven that they are reluctant and inept regulators.
So while the community’s actions in trying to stop the Forestry Corporation constructing its illegal road have been vindicated, it came at great and unnecessary environmental and social costs. This could have been avoided if the EPA had stopped work back in 2013 until a legal access was identified and community concerns were addressed.
The EPA refused to investigate complaints about the construction of another road through endangered lowland rainforest and threatened plants in the same operation. In March 2015 NEFA again found the EPA had approved the Forestry Corporation’s bulldozing of illegal roads through endangered lowland rainforest and a grove of 26 vulnerable onion cedars in Cherry Tree State Forest.
The Forestry Corporation is getting away scot-free with brazenly flouting the logging rules and the EPA are helping them. This is not the example the government should be setting. There needs to be an independent inquiry into this failed regulation.
Premier Baird needs to intervene to deliver justice for the local communities who were traumatised by the Forestry Corporation constructing an illegal road under police guard, and direct his agencies to ensure that both the spirit and the letter of the logging laws are complied with.