THE state government says it has beefed up its resources to combat illegal invasions of native forest coupes amidst the unrelenting financial and emotional impact caused by protesters’ actions.
The government has added more ‘authorised officers’ and specialised equipment to help them respond to the “illegal disruption of timber harvesting activities”.
There are now 22 authorised officers, with 19 based in the regions.
A spokeswoman for Agriculture and Regional Development Minister Mary-Anne Thomas said the specialised equipment included thermal imaging equipment, a dedicated support trailer for use in support of Victoria Police search and rescue operations, and access to drone technology.
According to the government, there are current maximum fines (adjusted annually for inflation) under the Sustainable Forests (Timber) Act 2004.
These are 20 penalty units ($3317.60) for refusing or failing to leave a native forest coupe when directed by an authorised officer; 20 penalty units ($3317.60) for failing to stop or move a vehicle in a coupe; and 60 penalty units ($9952.80) for breaking down, damaging or destroying a fence erected in a coupe.
The spokeswoman said since January 1 last year, most protests had been resolved on the day they began, except for protests requiring specialist rescue teams.
Since the same date, authorised officers had issued 100 penalty infringement notices to forest protesters, including 31 penalty infringement notices issued since January 1 this year
This year, seven protestors had been charged with an offence to hinder, obstruct or interfere with timber harvesting operations and were due to appear in court, she said.
Opposition forestry spokesman and Narracan MLA Gary Blackwood said these measures were the least that hardworking forest workers deserved from the government.
Mr Blackwood said the native forest industry was promised access to coupes at the same level of harvesting until 2024-25, with a gradual reduction in access to production forest through to 2030.
“This has been completely disrupted by feral green activists taking over coupes and endangering the lives of forest workers and themselves,” he said.
Mr Blackwood said the protesters’ actions had forced VicForests to move to other harvest areas, causing lost time for contractors and their employees.
“On top of this, greens’ court action has removed around 60 per cent of coupes on the Timber Release Plan,” he said.
“We now have a situation where sawmills are running out of supply and may well have to stand down their employees for some months until deliveries can resume.
“The Andrews government must honour the promises they made in their Forestry Plan and if this means locking up feral activists and shutting down third party litigation, it has to be a priority.
“The lives and livelihood of legitimate forest workers should never be compromised — they must be protected by the Andrews government.”
VicForests chief executive Monique Dawson told a recent Senate hearing VicForests lost coupes almost on a weekly basis through protest action.
This included ‘black wallaby’, where protesters hid in undergrowth and leapt out.
Ms Dawson said this happened at a coupe near Bendoc in April.
“Protesters in that coupe hid in undergrowth and leapt out in front of an active timber harvester and attached themselves to the head of the harvester,” she said.
“Not only is that incredibly frightening for our harvesters, but those protesters who attached themselves to the head of a hydraulic machine was cooling, and when hydraulics are cooling, they actually operate by themselves.
“One of the protesters put himself under the harvester head.
“We were telling them they were at risk of being crushed … and their position was to laugh it off and to suggest that we were saying that because we wanted them to unattach.
“But it was a very dangerous situation, compounded by there being a child of about two years old who was taken along to the coupe by her parents.”
Queried by Labor Senator Raff Ciccone, Ms Dawson said a child was wandering around without supervision near the incident, near where people were attached to the harvester.
“It was, frankly, a terrifying situation,” she said.
Steel spikes were recently found driven into a road in the east Gippsland forest that is used by forest workers and the public, an act described as “eco-terrorism” by the state opposition.