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Byron Shire
September 23, 2021

‘Unlawful’ forest agreements head to court

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Opponents of Regional Forest Agreements. Photo NCEC

The North East Forest Alliance (NEFA) and the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) are challenging what they refer to as the ‘rubber stamped’ ongoing destruction of forest ecosystems of the north-east NSW forests from Sydney to the Queensland border.

The North East Regional Forest Agreement (RFA) exempts logging in native forests from federal biodiversity law. It was originally signed between the Commonwealth and New South Wales in 2000, it was renewed in 2018 for another 20 years with five year rolling extensions that could continue indefinitely.

‘NEFA will argue that when the Prime Minister executed the varied RFA, he did not have regard to assessments of key environmental matters as required by law,’ said NEFA President Dailan Pugh.

NEFA spokesperson Susie Russell said ‘We say there was no assessment of the impact of climate change on the forests. This despite the Commonwealth having access to and publishing its own materials about the current science – science that warns about the effects climate change has already had on the Australian natural environment and what climate change might mean for our forest ecosystems in the future.’

Burnt koala habitat following the Black Summer fires of 2019/20. Photo supplied.

‘Extreme weather events can have catastrophic impacts on forests. We saw this in the drought that preceded the 2019/20 bushfires, the bushfires themselves, and the floods that have followed. Untold number of animals, including some that the Commonwealth Government has listed as threatened with extinction have died.

‘Similarly, we say the Commonwealth undertook no assessment of endangered species or oldgrowth forests before it rubber stamped ongoing intensive logging for another 20+ years,’ said Ms Russell.

EDO Chief Executive Officer David Morris said the EDO is ‘challenging the Federal Government over its failure to assess how another 20-plus years of logging, against a background of a changing climate, will impact our forest ecosystems, endangered species and old growth forests.’

‘The Commonwealth didn’t want to incur the costs of conducting a proper assessment, waving through a 20-year extension of native forest logging without proper scrutiny.

‘Under the current system, if a population of koalas is being threatened by a new development, the project needs to be assessed at the Federal level. But if the same population of koalas is being threatened by a logging project, it’s been rubber stamped on the basis of 20-year-old environmental assessments.

‘We have known for years that as the climate changes, fires will follow. And yet the North East RFA was renewed without an assessment of how climate change will impact the health and resilience of our native forest ecosystems. Less than 12 months later, fires began ravaging native forests across the region.

‘This RFA is a powerful instrument that allows the forestry industry to bypass Federal biodiversity assessments. To be robust, these agreements must be founded on the latest scientific knowledge on climate and the state of our forest ecosystems.’

Damage by the NSW Forestry Corporation to four giant hollow-bearing trees and six koala feed trees. Photo supplied.

However, The Australian Forest Products Association NSW (AFPA NSW) CEO Sue Grau has labelled claims by an activist group that it will challenge NSW’s North East Regional Forest Agreement (RFA) as time wasting and inappropriate.

Ms Grau states that the building boom requires timber and that if the timber isn’t sourced from Northern NSW then it will ‘come from places with often far less sustainable forestry practices’.

‘In recent months the High Court and the Federal Court respectively have rejected similar claims attempting to undermine the RFAs in Tasmania and Victoria,’ she said in a press release.

‘Australia’s rigorous RFA framework has withstood these claims, with the courts holding that RFA forestry operations operate with strong environmental controls and in parallel with the Environment Protection Biodiversity and Conservation (EPBC) Act,’ she concluded.

oldgrowth forest in Clouds Creek SF remapped and proposed for logging. Photo supplied.

Turning point?

Yet the Nature Conservation Council Chief Executive Chris Gambian said that he sees the NEFA and EDO challenge as a possible turning point in the protection of native forests and koalas in this state.

The Nature Conservation Council point out that the state’s native forests are in ecological decline because of decades of unsustainable logging sanctioned by state and federal governments through environmentally destructive Regional Forests Agreements.

‘We applaud the North East Forests Alliance for challenging the deeply flawed RFA approval process and for their tireless efforts to give our native forests the protection state and federal governments have failed to provide,’ says Mr Gambian.

Koalas in the Braemar State Forest could be the first to suffer under new state logging laws. PHOTO supplied.

‘Making forestry operations adhere to federal environmental standards is just common sense, but Regional Forest Agreements have for decades given state forestry agencies and logging companies special exemption.

‘These perverse arrangements have accelerated the decline of our precious forests and pushed koalas and other threatened species closer to extinction.

We stand with NEFA and all the other forests conservation groups that have worked for decades to stop the senseless destruction our forests, which are among the most important ecosystems on the planet.

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