The NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) has fined Forest Corporation of NSW (FCNSW) $11,000 for private native forestry breaches that took place during a controversial forestry operation in Whian Whian in September and October 2013.
The old-growth Big Scrub forest on private land adjacent to Whian Whian state forest is only a short distance from iconic Proesters Falls.
Acting EPA director Michael Hood said the authority issued two penalty notices to FCNSW for breaching the Private Native Forestry Code of Practice.
The destruction took place despite widespread opposition from local residents and after volunteer botanists from the North East Forest Alliance (NEFA) had pointed out the existence of threatened species in the path of a planned access road.
‘The EPA has issued one penalty notice for breaching a koala exclusion zone and one for breaching an exclusion zone around an endangered plant species, known as a slender marsdenia,’ Mr Hood said.
NEFA has described the fines as ‘pathetic’ and called on environment minister, Mark Speakman, to ensure there is ‘an independent investigation into the committing of these offences by the Forestry Corporation and the ineffective handling of them by the EPA.’
Mr Hood added that during the operation FCNSW ‘identified and marked both the koala tree and the slender marsdenia plant’.
Forestry operations are excluded from within 20 metres of both these features to protect them from damage, yet in both instances forestry operations were carried out within the exclusion zone.
The penalty for a corporation is $5,500 for each offence.
Mr Hood said the EPA ‘takes the protection of threatened species seriously.’
But NEFA spokesperson. Dailan Pugh disputes the EPA’s version of events.
He said there were three slender marsdenia plants in the path of the road, two of which were actually destroyed by the operation. No breaches were issued for these or for what he describes as ‘numerous other flagrant breaches’ .
EPA ‘oversaw’ breaches
Mr Pugh told Echonetdaily that it was members of his organisation that identified the plants in the first place and that the EPA only became involved after NEFA pointed out the existence of endangered plants and high-use koala trees in the path of the original planned road.
‘We went and checked out the route of a proposed track that FCNSW were going to put in. We took our botanists down there and they found a number of threatened plants on the route of the track, including red bopple nut and the endangered slender marsdenia,’ Mr Pugh said.
‘We had other people looking for koala trees and they found a large number of koala high-use trees in the path of the proposed road,’ he added.
‘So we reported those and asked for a stop-work order.
Mr Pugh said that the EPA had to bear some responsibility for the location of the final access road, which he said FCNSW drew up with the EPA’s full knowledge.
‘After the stop-work order, the EPA came up and FCNSW had their botanists there as well as the EPA and they worked out a new route for the track with the EPA around.
‘And what they’re being fined for now is putting in that track, which was done in our opinion under the supervision of both the EPA and FCNSW, within the location of the koala high-use trees and the slender marsdenia.’
‘Again it’s as a result of our complaints. We went back there afterwards and found they’d put the track in illegally through the buffer zone of a large number of threatened plants, including arrowhead vine and red bopple nut, which they’re not taking action on. So it’s not dealing with all of our concerns.’
‘Our real concern is that these offences came after we identified they were likely to occur. They actually went in and found the koalas and apparently the slender marsdenia and they put the road through anyway, knowing it was illegal at the time,’ he said.
‘I just find it really reprehensible that it was left up to NEFA and local people to prove these species were there – and the really shocking thing is, after having proven they were there, these offences occurred anyway.’
Mr Pugh said that on a return trip to the site after the forestry work had ceased, the access road was ‘seen to be eroding significantly’.
He added that FCNSW should be required, not just to pay a fine, but to undertake substantial rehabilitation of the site.
‘There’s a large number of threatened plants that have been affected by this operation as well as the koala feed trees and there should be some rehabilitation work required of FCNSW, I believe.’
FCNSW also claims the EPA knew about the breaches and says it will fight the fines.