By Bonnie Cassen
Most of us know by now how unsustainable logging native forests is for our forests and wildlife, pushing many species of flora and fauna to the point of both local and complete extinction. But it is also economically unsustainable. Taxpayer dollars are propping up an unprofitable industry that takes perfectly good native forest ecosystems and decimates them to make woodchip for export purposes.
What makes things worse is that the industry appears to have gone rogue, particularly since the Black Summer bushfires. With negotiations breaking down between the Environmental Protection Authority and Forestry Corporation New South Wales, FCNSW set their own site-specific conditions.
In 2020 citizen scientists documented evidence of 70 breaches in the three forestry compartments near Mogo for which Forestry Corp. was fined in December 2021. You may wonder why it takes ordinary citizens to carry out the accountability function in this equation. Or you may question why allegedly only a third of the 70 irrefutable breaches received fines.
The other 50 per cent has been either permanently destroyed and replaced with another land use or is classed as degraded forests and bushlands—most of which was previously cleared but now regrowing vegetation of different ages.
Australia is the worst offending country in the world for mammal extinctions. Fifty-five wildlife species plus 37 plant species have gone extinct in Australia.
Forestry Corp fined $45,000 for logging habitat trees in Mogo State Forest
NSW Forestry Corporation logging contractors cut down at least 70 mature habitat trees in Mogo State Forest on the South Coast in clear contravention of post-fire logging regulations, a NSW Environment Protection Authority investigation has found.
The EPA has ordered Forestry Corporation to pay $45,000 for three separate breaches of Site-Specific Operating Conditions (SSOC) for Mogo State Forest Compartments 174A, 161A and 173A between May and December 2020.
The results of the lengthy EPA investigation have only just been made public with credit largely going to local South Coast group Coastwatchers and its dedicated citizen scientists.
Mogo State Forest is home to threatened species including powerful owls, greater gliders, gang gang cockatoos, yellow-bellied gliders and is an important food source for the critically endangered swift parrots.
Gang gangs and yellow-bellied gliders recently had their threat status upgraded, largely because the 2019-20 Black Summer bushfires have made their survival more precarious.
The EPA investigation was prompted by the detailed photographic evidence with GPS coordinates that Coastwatchers provided.
Coastwatchers spokesperson Nick Hopkins, whose own home was destroyed by the fires said,
“The destruction of vital habitat trees so soon after the Black Summer bushfires was utterly appalling. Hollow bearing trees were scattered all over the forest floor like dismembered corpses.”
The group recorded at least 70 tree hollows that logging contractors had cut down in clear breach of the post-fire orders. These hollows are critical habitat for many species that bore the brunt of the catastrophic fires.
“At the end of the day, our own government is responsible for this vandalism,” Hopkins said. “Forestry Corporation is owned by the NSW Government, so ultimately the government is responsible.”
Chris Gambian, Nature Conservation Council Chief Executive said, “This incident should give the board and senior management at Forestry Corporation pause for thought about the role the organisation is playing in the management of our forests. NSW state forests are not simply a natural resource – they are critical ecosystems that are not only vital for our wildlife, but they are also essential for wellbeing of our society.
In a statement on its website FCNSW states that since the 2019-20 bushfires it has adopted additional environmental safeguards above the requirements of the strict ruleset in place in NSW, the Coastal Integrated Forestry Operations Approval, to balance providing timber to local industry, employing local people to produce important timber products and ensuring the forests can regenerate after the bushfires.
FCNSW also said it “undertook ground assessments with trained staff walking through the forest to identify trees with visible hollows and identified and protected hundreds of such trees during the harvesting operations.”
However with Coastwatchers identifying 70 separate incidents of breaches clearly documented over three compartments, that does not appear to be the case. Interestingly the EPA only acted on a third of them. If fines had been issued taking into account all 70 breaches, the fine would have been around $135,000.
The EPA is severely under resourced and as the regulator is reliant on citizen science to help push them into investigating allegations of non-compliant logging. In other words if they get a lot of complaints about any given logging operation, they will investigate it. It gets prioritised. It is part of the squeaky wheel gets oiled syndrome. If the community squeaks loud enough then EPA field staff will come and investigate and hopefully penalise or even prosecute.
Coastwatchers believe that Forestry Corp knew the logging could not be compliantly conducted in 2020 and yet still allowed its contractors to continue to commit offences. In legal terms to knowingly allow the commission of offences to continue is a very serious matter. It is also very concerning that the EPA allegedly hasn’t taken the entire legal situation seriously as all 70 breaches should have been addressed. Coastwatchers is currently seeking further advice on these matters.
Citizen Science is Saving Biodiversity
Despite extensive evidence pointing to a minimum of three years hold on all logging activities in bushfire affected forests, logging in these compromised areas continues. And despite the efforts of groups such as Coastwatchers, more forests are being logged than can be scrutinised. As well as Mogo there are currently active logging operations in Currowan and Shallow Crossing State Forests, both in the Shoalhaven. A further 19 operations are planned in the southern Shoalhaven Shire just in the next 12 months alone.
Both the Coastwatchers Association and the NSW Nature Conservation Council would love for more citizen scientists to come on board and adopt a forest. It is really a matter of keeping your eyes and ears open and photo-documenting what you see during pre-logging and post-logging surveys. Coastwatchers Forest Working Group is willing to train mid-South Coast people interested in taking on the challenge.
You don’t need a science degree and you don’t have to be technically qualified. Also to this end, the Nature Conservation Council recently launched a Breachwatch website which is encouraging and resourcing community members to get more active in the conservation of their local public native forests.
It may be wrongly felled trees with hollows or large trees that need to remain, or perhaps yellow belly glider feed trees that have been cut down. But it is also noticing big stick nests and other bird activity, particularly threatened species such as gang gang cockatoos, swift parrots and powerful, masked and sooty owls. Spotlighting for glider dens is also important because den trees will trigger exclusion zones. In fact logging operations in all exclusion zones need checking. Even erosion events need to be documented as the EPA is very interested in breaches that result in sedimentation of the drainage lines or the creeks.
The role of citizen scientists is extremely valuable in protecting our forests and wildlife with photos with the exact GPS location and date becoming irrefutable evidence.
“Worldwide our species is almost at war with Nature; the human race is really taking Nature down and we need to abandon that trend,” Hopkins told me. “We need to turn this whole thing around instead of all our lovely flora and fauna sliding from one precarious conservation status to another downhill towards extinction. We need to get those plants and animals that are ‘threatened’ back to ‘vulnerable’, and those that are ‘vulnerable’ back to ‘of least concern’. We need to reverse the biodiversity crisis, species by species, ecosystem by ecosystem. Pull all these species back from the brink. I think a lot of people in the community feel this way too but don’t quite know what to do about it.”
Hopkins said he hasn’t seen much wildlife returning to the forests he regularly visits, except sulphur crested cockatoos and some smaller birdlife. However just this year two new sightings of gang gang cockatoos were recorded in compartment 146 in Mogo yet logging continues in the exact locations where the gang gangs were seen.
Hopkins also tells me of an experience he had just days ago in compartment 146. “I was walking in compartment 146 the other day when I heard the Mogo Zoo Gibbons vocalising. The Siamang Gibbons are from Sumatra, Malaysia and Thailand. They are classified as ‘endangered’ from human activity including logging.
“Mogo forest is being logged where an endangered species, the gang gang cockatoo, was sighted this year only 500 metres from a zoo where various other endangered species (also facing threats from logging) are being protected and bred. This fact is dripping with so much irony it’s doing my head in.”
FCNSW is also under investigation by the EPA in compartment 146 because the contractors chopped down a yellow bellied glider feed tree (halfway down compartment road 2) which is a big no no. They have also cut down at least four trees that are over one metre diameter which breaches FCNSW’s own site specific conditions.
From one compartment to the next, these examples re-enforce the assertion that the contractors are unable to operate compliantly.
Furthermore, Coastwatchers now believe both nectar and habitat tree categories have been greatly under-retained possibly leading to hundreds of trees being felled illegally just in compartment 146 alone. This re-enforces the importance of having independent community members on the ground observing and providing scrutiny.
Renewed Calls to End Native Forest Logging, Save our Forests and Save Taxpayer Money
Logging native forests is not only driving species to extinction, the NSW Forestry Corporation’s annual report shows it is also costing taxpayers millions of dollars.
In 2020-21, the native forestry arm of the NSW Government’s logging company lost $20 million and prospects of it turning a profit any time soon are dim. There is clearly no rational economic argument for propping up the logging industry.
“The latest annual report shows NSW taxpayers unwittingly paying to cut down forests the people want protected,” NCC chief executive Chris Gambian said in a statement. “It’s not just ecologically and economically unsustainable, it is morally indefensible. If you’ve got the public, the scientists and even the bean-counters telling you to stop cutting down native forests, the government must listen and act.
“Taxpayer dollars should be used to protect forests, not destroy them. Victoria and Western Australia have announced end dates for native forest logging — NSW must do the same.”
Obviously as native forest logging ends, a fair transition plan for workers and companies involved must be enacted with lessons to be learnt from Victoria and WA who have already invested time and research in getting the formulars right.
Gambian also said the government should not renew the 30 wood supply agreements with timber mills that will expire in 2023 but rather start talks with workers and the industry about transitioning out of native forest logging.
“The government will have to make a choice in the coming year,” he said.
“Will it lock in destructive native forest logging for years to come, or will it develop a plan to transition to a sustainable, plantation-based timber industry? We strongly urge the government to end native forest logging and close this sad chapter in the state’s environmental history.”
The Forestry Corporation Annual Report comes off the back of two other reports that support ending or curtailing logging of native forests, especially after the 2019-20 bushfires that severely burned millions of hectares of state forest, national park and private land.
In late November 2021, the Frontier Economics report was released comparing the value of alternative uses of native forests in Southern NSW. It found there would be a net economic and social benefit of almost $62 million by ending logging in public native forests over the next 30 years compared with keeping the industry going.
A few days later, a Natural Resources Commission (NRC) report into post fire logging the government had kept secret for months was leaked to The Guardian. That report called for suspension of timber harvesting in three ‘extreme risk’ zones and is yet to be released by the government.
And So, the Work Continues
Friends of the Forest (Mogo), the Forest Working Group of the Coastwatchers Association, the South East Region Conservation Alliance, the Brooman State Forest Conservation Group and the Nature Conservation Council of NSW continue to call for an end to all active logging operations in the Batemans Bay, Nowra, Narooma and Eden management zones.
The leaked NRC Report calls for a suspension of operations, stating logging should be stopped completely for three years in the Nowra and Narooma management zones, identified as posing an ‘extreme risk’ to environmental values. In the Batemans Bay and Eden Management Zones, identified as ‘high risk’, it also recommends 75 per cent of the forest be protected through additional measures and restrictions for operations.
Surviving wildlife must have a chance to recover from the devastating Black Summer bushfires.
“Forestry and the EPA have been overseeing operations in ‘high risk’ bushfire affected forests where not enough forest has been set aside to meet this 75 per cent target,” Hopkins said. “In practice this would protect approximately an extra 90 hectares in compartment 146 in Mogo State Forest being logged right now. These fire-ravaged forests are being over-logged, and this has serious consequences for long term biodiverse ecosystem recovery.”
Takesa Frank from the Brooman State Forest Conservation Group has initiated an official parliamentary petition to end native forest logging. If this petition gets 20,000 signatures, South Coast MP Shelly Hancock will table it in Parliament and it will trigger a formal parliamentary debate. There are currently 4,506 signatures so please consider signing the petition at your earliest convenience or at least before 2nd August.
Feature image: We need to protect our native forests, end native forest logging Friends of the Forest (Mogo). Photo supplied