The Victorian government has made short-term extensions to three of its regional forest agreements (RFA) allowing logging of native forests, but also announced new limits on the trees that can be cut.
In a move likely to be watched closely by other states including NSW, the Andrews Labor government extended three agreements to bring them line with two others that expire in March 2020.
The state will also provide immediate protection to approximately 2,500 hectares of high environmental-value forest in and around East Gippsland's Kuark Forest, Lily D’Ambrosio, Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change, said in a statement.
Similarly, the government will also protect all large, old trees greater than two-and-a-half metres in diameter across Victoria, securing key habitat for wildlife.
“Our RFAs are more than 20 years old, and don’t reflect modern forest science or the needs of local communities - that’s why it’s so important to modernise these agreements and get them right," Ms D'Ambrosio said.
“This is about protecting more old growth forests like the Kuark Forest and protecting threatened species so future generations can appreciate them.”
The two-year extension will "provide time for extensive consultation with scientific bodies, industry and the community to modernise the state’s RFA framework and better manage Victoria’s forests".
In an unusual twist, the announcement of the extensions came first from Anne Ruston, the federal assistant Agriculture Minister.
Senator Ruston said the move "demonstrates our governments' shared interest in ongoing native timber industry, and the jobs and economic prosperity it creates".
"Victorian native forests produce high quality, appearance-grade timber, and the RFAs ensure this is done sustainably," Ms Ruston said in a statement released to the AAP.
The extensions have been granted by both federal and Victorian governments for agreements in the East Gippsland, Central Highlands and North East regions.
The controversial pacts allow logging of native forests on public land and provide exemptions from Commonwealth environmental laws. The Turnbull government is pushing for 20-year extensions.
The move is likely to bring at least some short-term certainty to the timber industry, with six firms forming a group, G6, to highlight a looming shortage of trees.
"It's hard to invest or plan anything," said Brian Donchi, a G6 spokesman and resource manager for one of the group's members, Fenning Timbers based in Bairnsdale.
"They have to do something otherwise the industry will shut down," Mr Donchi said on Monday, ahead of the extension announcement.
He said the industry's access to mountain ash had already dropped from 220,000 cubic metres in 2013 to 153,000 cubic metres by 2017, with a further fall extended to 130,000 by 2020-21.
The Victorian Association of Forest Industries and the Australian Forest Products Association, two industry groups "cautiously welcomed" the two-year move but called for a 20-year extension.
“RFAs are essential to provide certainty for our members as key regional employers, to invest, create jobs and support their local communities," Tim Johnston, the association's chief executive, said.
"[E]xtended RFAs must include guaranteed volume and quality of timber supply to allow for further long-term investment in value adding technology."
Environmental groups welcomed the Kuark protection as a "good step in the right direction", but said more could have been done.
“Today’s announcement does not provide full protection for the iconic Kuark forest, some areas have not been included, we will continue to advocate and campaign for their protection,” Ed Hill, a spokesman for the Goongerah Environment Centre Office.
"Habitat for species like the nationally threatened greater glider and Leadbeater’s possum will continue to be logged with legal impunity and the special treatment given to the logging industry will continue," he said.
Jess Abrahams, a Australian Conservation Foundation campaigner, said RFA were "an out-of-date loophole exempting destructive logging from national environment law".
“All areas of high conservation forest should be protected from logging while this important [two-year] review takes place," Mr Abrahams said.
“Daniel Andrews should have simply let these RFAs expire and stood up to the forestry union and the logging industry," he said.
"The logging industry must be rapidly transitioned to plantations - it cannot expect to get clean green certification while it is still logging the habitat of threatened species."
Central Highlands at risk
The Greens at state and federal level said the RFAs should have been wound up immediately.
“It’s clear that the Victorian Labor government wants to delay making a long-term decision until after the state election," Samantha Dunn, a state Greens MP.
Janet Rice, the federal Greens forest spokeswoman, said 87 per cent of Victorian timber came from plantations and it was time to protect what was left of native forests.
“So many communities who care about their forests, including the people of Mirboo North, Noojee, Rubicon and the Strathbogies will be devastated as the destruction of our precious forests continues,” Senator Rice said.
Sarah Rees, a campaigner for the Great Forest National Park, said the Central Highlands to Melbourne's north-east would get little benefit from the changes.
"There's more logging in the Central Highlands than in the entire state of Tasmania," she said.
Danya Jacobs, a senior lawyer with Environmental Justice Australia, said the mountain ash logging in the region would be in stands dating from after the 1939 bushfires.
"The additional requirement to retain all trees greater than 2.5-metre diameter is unlikely to provide any further protection in the Montane Ash forests in the Central Highlands, which are the forests most critical for Leadbeater’s possum," she said.
David Lindenmayer, who is part of an Australian National University program that has monitored the central highlands for 35 years, described the on-going logging planned for the region as "sheer madness".
"We already know this system is in massive, massive trouble," Professor Lindenmayer said. "The plans essentially screw over the water supply for 4.5 million people [in Melbourne] for the sake of keeping a few jobs going."
NSW watches on
The RFAs involve 10 plans in four states, five in Victoria, three in NSW and one each in WA and Tasmania.
Ms D'Ambrosio's concern that the science in the RFAs needed to be updated is echoed by NSW Labor.
“Labor will not sign off on a rollover of the RFAs until there is a proper independent scientific assessment of their outcomes, and the assumptions of the original RFAs are revisited,” Penny Sharpe, NSW Labor's environment spokeswoman, said.
“Importantly, the RFA assessment must include climate change as a consideration," she said. "Given the key role of forests for carbon storage, no RFA should be renewed without investigating their impact on climate change.”
Paul Toole, NSW's Minister for Lands and Forestry, said his government was committed to renewing Regional Forest Agreements in 2016.
"Consultation has recently concluded on the renewal of Regional Forest Agreements, including how they can be improved and what changes need to made to the existing agreements that were developed close to 20 years ago," Mr Toole said.
"It is proposed that the new RFAs will be able to respond to emerging issues and to be modified over time as new science or new information becomes available," he said.
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