Latrobe Valley consultant criticises Great Outdoors Taskforce panel

Philip Hopkins

A LATROBE Valley consultant has strongly criticised the lack of bushfire expertise on the state government panel investigating the future use of Victoria’s native forest estate.

The government has established the Great Outdoors Taskforce to conduct the investigation of the state’s public land estate, which now includes forest previously used for timber harvesting. The taskforce will be chaired by a former Victorian Minister for Environment, Lisa Neville.

Members of the taskforce include:

Karen Cain, chair of the Eminent Panel for Community Engagement and a former chair of the Latrobe Valley Authority;

Mellissa Wood, chair of the Victorian Environmental Assessment Council and member of the Eminent Panel for Community Engagement;

Graham Dear, board chair of the Victorian Fisheries Authority, and;

Terry Robinson, chief executive of Destination Gippsland.

John Cameron, a forest and business consultant with decades of experience, said wildfire was the single most important threat to the state’s 7.5 mill hectares of native forest.

“There is a clear need for a fire behaviour expert to be on the Great Outdoors Taskforce,” he said.

Mr Cameron said at least one of several highly qualified bushfire experts should have been chosen, including a representative from Forestry Australia, the professional body that represents forest scientists, bush practitioners and experts in forest management.

The work of the late Professor Kevin Tolhurst, who died suddenly last October, should be included in the investigation.

“Kevin was an expert in wildfire behaviour, prescribed burning techniques and guidelines, ecological management of landscapes, fire risk management and ecological impacts of fire,” he said.

“Victorian bushfire policy is hopelessly misguided, and based on shonky science steeped in ideology. Against misguided political, ideological and bureaucratic impediments, Kevin continued to deliver real science and practical management options.”

Mr Cameron wrote a tribute to Dr Tolhurst last year with Traralgon resident and former CSIRO bushfire expert, David Packham.

“Kevin’s last message to a gathering at Mallacoota on October 5, was, that if appropriate fuel reduction had been applied prior to the 2019-20 Black Summer bushfire, Mallacoota would not have burned,” they wrote.

Mr Cameron said Victoria’s black summer bushfires burnt 1.8 million ha, five lives were lost and millions of native fauna were killed.

“Within the region of the fire, only 0.6 per cent of the forest was fuel reduced in the four previous years, well below the 5 per cent recommended by the Victorian Bushfire Royal Commission,” he said.

Mr Cameron said there was a glaring falsehood in the government’s announcement of the task force, which stated that 1.8 million hectares of native forest had been allocated to the native forest industry. When harvesting ended this year, the area of the Victorian forest available for timber harvesting was only about 4-6 per cent of the 7.5 million hectares of native forest.

“This was only about 375,000 ha, or 0.4mill ha. The government is misleading the public again and again on the facts,” he said.

The Minister for Environment, Steve Dimopoulos, said the taskforce would also include Traditional Owner representation. Their involvement will be flexible to allow for each Traditional Owner group to determine its involvement.

The taskforce will consult with communities and stakeholders to ensure all options for future uses and care of the forest are heard and explored. It will consider opportunities to protect the environment and support recreational, social and commercial opportunities in their recommendations to government.

This includes investigating which areas of the estate present opportunities for recreation and tourism such as camping, hunting, hiking, trail-bike riding and four-wheel driving.

The taskforce will also explore which areas need to be protected to safeguard threatened species, areas that qualify for protection as National Parks and opportunities for Traditional Owner management.

The panel will prioritise areas of state forest where some decisions can be made now and advise on where more engagement is required.

The work will be undertaken over the next 12 months and consultation details will be released in the coming weeks.

Mr Dimopoulos said the end of native timber harvesting was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to design new ways of caring for the state’s forests while giving Victorians more opportunities to enjoy the great outdoors.

“This taskforce will play a critical role listening to Victorians about how best to manage our forests. Each member brings specialised knowledge to the panel ensuring thorough consideration of all options during consultation,” he said

For more information visit, deeca.vic.gov.au/futureforests/immediate-protection-areas/future-forests.