AN appeal in the Supreme Court by VicForests to continue native timber harvesting was lost this week, upholding the original ruling that put an injunction on further logging.
A panel of three judges dismissed VicForests’ appeal on Tuesday morning, agreeing unanimously with the trial judge that the state-owned agency harvested with inadequate measures to protect two glider species, based on their interpretation of the timber code of forestry practice.
In a statement, VicForests said they needed time to assess the verdict. “VicForests is disappointed with today’s Victorian Court of Appeal outcome and will review the decision in full before making any further comment,” the statement read.
The original ruling was handed down in November 2022, which halted harvesting operations in Gippsland and the Central Highlands, the habitat of the Greater Gliders and Yellow-Bellied Gliders, which are deemed endangered.
The summary of the judgement, released on Tuesday afternoon, outlined how in the original case, two environmental groups had argued in the Supreme Court that VicForests was not complying with the Code of Practice for Timber Production 2014.
Under the code, VicForests has to comply with the ‘precautionary
principle’ during planning for harvesting, and must determine that “if there are threats of serious or irreversible environmental damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation”.
Eighty per cent of the pre-harvest surveys are conducted by DEECA staff, and the rest by VicForests and the Arthur Rylah Institute.
The surveys are approved by the Office of the Conservation Regulator. VicForests has access to about five per cent of the state’s eight million hectares of native forest.
The trial judge found that VicForests’ timber harvesting operations “did not comply with the precautionary principle and threatened the gliders’ survival” and were thus inadequate.
A state government spokesperson told the Gippsland Times their immediate priority in the wake of this decision was the timber workers and their communities.
“We acknowledge the Supreme Court of Victoria’s decision and will continue to support timber workers as we transition out of native timber harvesting on 1 January, 2024,” the spokesperson said.
“Forestry workers, their families and communities are our immediate priority – we do not take the decision around an early transition out of native timber harvesting lightly, but the uncertainty from ongoing litigation and severe bushfires cannot continue.”
The Nationals Member for Gippsland South, Danny O’Brien said the court decision is a “final devastating blow” for the timber industry, and that the state government had “stopped caring for blue-collar timber workers long ago”.
“Labor could have legislated to clarify the Timber Code of Practice which is the source of all this legal action, but it chose not to because it is chasing inner-city Green votes,” Mr O’Brien said.
“When I challenged the Premier on this in Budget committee hearings recently he claimed the government has legal advice that the industry couldn’t be saved – but of course he refuses to release that advice.
“It’s bunkum to suggest the government can’t legislate to protect the industry – we have bills in Parliament right now that overturn decisions of courts and the government chooses to do that regularly.
“The death of the timber industry by deliberate policy decision will hurt local families, be an economic failure for our state and nation and ultimately will threaten our forests even further when the inevitable fires return.”
Nationals Member for Eastern Victoria Region, Melina Bath said, “I completely reject the Andrews government’s assertion its hands were tied on native timber harvesting. Daniel Andrews will forever be remembered as the Premier who failed to put people and jobs before political ideology.”
“The hypocrisy of Labor has no bounds – it’s happily delivered the death knell for Victoria’s sustainable native industry and sided with activists – all while turning a blind eye to the importation of hardwood from countries devoid of the same stringent environmental standards,” Ms Bath added.
“My thoughts remain with workers – direct and indirect, and their families who have had their lives turned into a political football by this disgraceful Andrews Government.”
Federal Nationals Member for Gippsland, Darren Chester said the region needed to take the fight for the timber industry to Melbourne and Canberra.
“This requires a national focus and the Prime Minister has to get involved before it’s all too late,” Mr Chester said.
“Last year the Prime Minister tweeted after speaking at the Australian Forest Products Association dinner in Canberra: ‘We want a thriving and a sustainable timber industry … one that provides jobs and drives down our emissions for years to come.’
“After a year in government, the Prime Minister hasn’t lifted a finger to support Victorian timber communities and the families that will lose their income as a result of this decision.
“There’s no compensation package that can replace the bush skills, heritage, community spirit and economic value of the native hardwood timber industry.”
A spokesperson for the federal government did not directly address the VicForests verdict or Mr Chester’s remarks when reached for comment, but affirmed their support for foresting jobs and the industry.
“The Albanese Government supports sustainable forestry, and is making record investments in forestry that is environmentally, socially and commercially sustainable. Through the Regional Forest Agreements process, we work with states and Territories to support Australia’s forest industries to operate under high standards for environmental management and sustainable harvesting,” the spokesperson said.
“We need timber products, and we want sustainable forestry jobs. That’s why we are investing over $300 million to grow plantations, modernise our timber manufacturing infrastructure, and build the skills of our forestry workforce.
“Native forests are valuable stores of carbon. They provide critical habitats for threatened and endangered species like the Greater Glider and Leadbeater’s possum. That’s why we’re strengthening our environment laws to better protect nature and give the forestry industry greater certainty.”
The federal government spokesperson said the state government decision to end native forest logging is “a decision for them”.
“It is one that we understand they have taken with the specific operating context in mind. We will work closely with communities and state governments to maximise the economic and jobs opportunities that will flow from protecting forests,” they said.
“Australia is not currently able to meet all of its domestic timber needs through plantation forestry so we will continue to make investments in our nation’s environmental and commercial interests.
“Regional Forest Agreements and native forestry practices will have to comply with our strengthened federal environment laws. We are consulting with industry on how this will be done.”
The two environment groups who originally took VicForests to court – Environment East Gippsland and Kinglake Friends of the Forest – will be awarded costs and have welcomed the Court of Appeal upholding the original verdict. The two groups were represented by barrister Jonathan Korman and Oakwood Legal.
Jill Redwood from Environment East Gippsland said the verdict was “another nail in the coffin of VicForests”.
“Litigation is an expensive and risky undertaking for small community groups, but our decision to turn to the law has been vindicated,” Ms Redwood said.
“The decision to enforce the original orders gives us faith in the justice system. Our forests now have some breathing space to finally regenerate after decades of destruction.
“The end of native forest logging has brought with it a sense of relief, but also grief, anger, and sadness for all that has been senselessly lost.”
Kinglake Friends of the Forest said the decision gives endangered forest species a fighting chance of survival.
“It’s testament to the power of communities to fight for the natural world; for the places we love and the wildlife we share them with,” the group wrote on social media.
Last month, timber communities were shocked after the state government announced native timber harvesting in Victoria would cease at the end of the year.
The closure date is now January 1, 2024 – six years ahead of the original 2030 closure date announced four years ago.
The State Treasurer, Tim Pallas told reporters as the 2023/24 State Budget was unveiled that the earlier closure was in response to action in higher courts and risk of further third-party litigation.
He hoped that this would allow the uncertainty to stop and those affected to move forward.
“I have sympathy for forestry workers … we don’t have satisfaction in any of this,” he told reporters at the time.
“Litigation has frustrated this industry.
“The VicForests case is not the only one.”
Since the November verdict, VicForests had ordered its workers to cease all native harvesting operations.