Forestry practices review changes kept under wraps

Philip Hopkins

THE refusal of state Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio to release the promised changes to Victoria’s code of forestry practice is threatening the survival of several Gippsland timber businesses, according to opposition spokesman on forestry, Narracan MLA Gary Blackwood.

Mr Blackwood said Ms D’Ambrosio had commissioned the review into the Code of Practice for Timber Production last July because of a spate of legal challenges against VicForests in Victoria’s Supreme Court and High Court.

The challenges resulted in temporary bans on timber harvesting in many native forest coupes.

VicForests’ appeal against the High Court ban, which hinges on an interpretation of the code of forestry practice, is scheduled to be held this month.

Mr Blackwood said the review had been completed for many months, but Ms D’Ambrosio had refused to release it – despite being pressed in state parliament to do so.

A key aim of the review was to “minimise the risk to short-term supply obligations arising from third-party litigation”, Ms D’Ambrosio said last July.

Mr Blackwood said 70 per cent of the coupes in the Central Highlands were subject to court injunction awaiting the outcome of the appeal in the High Court.

“Already sawmills are running out of logs – three in east Gippsland I believe. Brown in Noojee is starting to panic, Powelltown and Reids at Yarra Junction are the same,” he said.

“Even Heyfield, which often carries a lot of stock, but will not get full allocation.

“It’s a matter of when they run out.”

Mr Blackwood alleged Minister D’Ambrosio was refusing to implement the recommendations of the review of the code of forest practice that she herself convened.

Speaking in parliament last December, he said the review had identified a number of issues with the code around clarity, accuracy, enforceability, inconsistencies and ambiguities around policy and ecological integrity.

“DELWP (the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning) has completed the review, identified the problems and provided solutions,” he told parliament.

“Part of the review identified that the code did not give industry certainty.”

Mr Blackwood said the key recommendation was the need to tighten up the interpretation of the ‘precautionary principle’.

“This would then allow VicForests to continue harvesting as per the regulations. It would stop the litigation,” he said.

Because the minister had not acted, “all these coupes are locked up, the mills will not get their allocation this year and some will run out by September”, he added.

“Some have already run out.”

Mr Blackwood said the Coalition opposed the Labor policy to stop harvesting native forests by 2030.

“However, the government can fix this and honour their commitment to transition the industry from 2024-25 based on the premise that current levels of harvesting would continue until 2024-25,” he said.

“In effect, Minister D’Ambrosio is undermining her own government’s policy by not acting on the recommendations of her own review.”

In a letter to AG Brown sawmill in Noojee, Agriculture and Regional Development Minister Mary-Anne Thomas acknowledged the need for an accurate, consistent and enforceable code to give the forest industry certainty.

“The Victorian government is currently assessing possible changes to the code arising from the review to ensure delivery of the Victorian Forestry Plan,” she said.

“This will provide the investment and time needed to support communities and businesses transitioning to a plantation-based timber industry and secure a strong future for the sector.

“We will continue to stand by every timber business, community and worker during this transition – and deliver the certainty about their future they deserve.”