MLA attacks govt’s green group support

Philip Hopkins

THE state opposition’s forestry spokesman has attacked the government for allegedly supporting an environmental group’s campaign to close the native forest industry, and urged it to sack the group from a government body.

Narracan MLA Gary Blackwood raised the issue in parliament recently with Energy, Environment and Climate Change Minister Lily D’Ambrosio.

“The action I seek is that she immediately stop supporting the environmental activist group WOTCH, also known as Wildlife of the Central Highlands.

“Currently the minister supports WOTCH representatives sitting on the stakeholder reference group of the Office of the Conservation Regulator,” Mr Blackwood told the Legislative Assembly.

“The minister also directs that WOTCH be given specialised survey equipment such as infra-red cameras from the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning for the purposes of the group’s survey activities.

“The results of the survey activities are used to withdraw large areas of forest from timber production and are acted on by DELWP without any verification.”

Mr Blackwood said it was interesting to note that their work was only conducted in areas that were being logged or were earmarked for logging in the timber release plan signed off by the Minister for Agriculture, not in the 94 per cent of native forest area set aside from timber harvesting in parks and reserves.

“On their Facebook page, WOTCH state that with each tree that falls, with each hectare of habitat lost, we come closer to losing these species forever,” he said.

“This is typical of the emotive language used to depict a lie. With the controls in place and the pre-coupe survey work undertaken by VicForests, not one species of animal has become extinct because of timber harvesting, ever.”

Mr Blackwood said for example, the Leadbeater’s possum was now found in regrowth from logging that was only 40 years of age.

“The areas that are harvested do not disappear. They are regrown, and this has always been the method used,” Mr Blackwood said.

“Habitat trees are set aside from harvesting, ensuring animal habitat is protected in close proximity to the forward food source that will come with the regenerating forest.

“WOTCH is an environmental activist group using the information gained with the support of DELWP to undermine and eventually end the sustainable harvesting of our native forests.

“This group completely disregards our rule of law. “They published a book on how to monkey wrench logging equipment, as they called it, but in reality it advocates the sabotage of equipment worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, which happened on many occasions through the 1980s and 1990s.

“WOTCH has proven to have the same disregard for the law, conducting their surveys in breach of the curfew and the five kilometre and 25 kilometre travel limits of the COVID restrictions, also illegally entering harvesting coupes and breaching the safe work zone of an active coupe on many occasions.”

Mr Blackwood queried how the Environment Minister could justify giving the group legitimacy, accept its survey results and use them to remove areas from industry, without verifying the survey data.

“I call on the minister to stop providing WOTCH with taxpayer-funded equipment and remove them from the Office of the Conservation Regulator stakeholder group as they are completely conflicted with their intent to shut down our native forest timber industry,” he said.

WOTCH was contacted for a comment, but did not reply.

A government spokesperson said the Conservation Regulator had established a stakeholder reference group that included representatives from diverse fields, including community, traditional owners, commercial land users and conservation groups.

“The role of the reference group is to provide advice and support to the regulator to assist it being an effective, trusted and best practice regulator,” the spokesperson said.

“Timber harvesting work sites are dangerous, and unauthorised entry puts protesters, workers and compliance officers at risk.

“Unauthorised entry into timber harvest safety zones is illegal.”

Under government policy, all reported sightings of animals by stakeholder groups are to be verified by species experts from the Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research.

The loan of survey equipment to community groups, including WOTCH, to undertake field surveys for Leadbeater’s possums was stipulated by the Leadbeater’s Possum Advisory Group.

The various community groups survey in either state forest or national parks. Their evidence must be verified by a video recording of a Leadbeater’s possum, in conjunction with a GPS reading.