By Senior Solicitor Emily Long

Our Black Summer of bushfires fundamentally changed the landscape of NSW.  5.4m hectares of land burned in the state. 890,000ha of that was in State Forests – where native forest logging occurs.  Koalas – already listed as vulnerable in NSW – were lost in their thousands.  Despite this, logging of native forests – burned and unburned continues. Where the law clearly places ecological sustainability at the heart of logging approvals, how can this happen?

Even before last summer’s blazes, koalas were facing an uncertain future. Now habitat loss has been accelerated by the fires. A recent survey of 123 sites within the fire grounds found that, on average, koala numbers were down by 71%. The ecological carrying capacity of burned sites has also been reduced – by 39% according to the NSW Government. Many other species have been significantly impacted by the bushfires, with the Commonwealth identifying a list of 119 animal species nationwide that are now a high priority for urgent management intervention.

The rules for how forestry is carried out in State Forests and other Crown-timber land in coastal NSW are set out in the Coastal Integrated Forestry Operations Approval (CIFOA). The forestry work is conducted by or on behalf of the Forestry Corporation of NSW (FCNSW).

The CIFOA and the Forestry Act state that ecological sustainability is a core objective of logging approvals. Ecologically sustainable forest management requires, among other things, maintaining forest values, including biological diversity and the sustainability of forest ecosystems, for future and present generations.

The Black Summer fires have revealed that the CIFOA is unable to respond to the fundamental changes to the landscape wrought by the fires. For areas that were not burned, the CIFOA permits logging to continue ‘business as usual’. This is because the CIFOA conditions do not anticipate the potential impacts of bushfires – and therefore cannot properly respond to their impacts.

For areas that were burned, the fire impacts have meant that FCNSW has been temporarily unable to conduct harvesting in some areas – but only because it is unable to comply with some of the usual CIFOA conditions, in particular the mitigation of erosion risks. Once those issues have settled – which FCNSW is asserting is now the case – harvesting in burned areas can carry on as usual.

Site Specific Operating Conditions

Further, the CIFOA permits the FCNSW to seek ‘site specific operating conditions’ (SSOCs) if it is unable to comply with the ordinary conditions at a particular site.  The FCNSW made use of this provision in the immediate aftermath of the fires and requested that the EPA issue SSOCs. The EPA agreed to issue these SSOCs for 17 State Forests across coastal NSW. While these SSOCs do provide some additional protections, ultimately, they permit logging in the immediate aftermath of the fires where it would otherwise have been temporarily prohibited.

Expert analysis of the decision to issue SSOCs

EDO is assisting North East Forest Alliance to protect the Banyabba koala population and other threatened species in North East NSW. NEFA is particularly concerned about the EPA’s decision to issue SSOCs that permit logging in burned areas of Myrtle, Bungawalbin and Doubleduke State Forests. These forests are important for many threatened native species, particularly the koala.

EDO assisted NEFA to obtain a copy of the materials that were before the EPA CEOs when those SSOCs were issued. The information received included information about other State Forests where SSOCs were also issued.

EDO briefed three expert ecologists to consider the information obtained from the EPA and to comment on the adequacy of the EPA’s assessment. We asked the experts to consider whether the EPA CEOs were given enough information to form a view about the likely ecological impacts of the harvesting, including – importantly – about whether the harvesting would be ecologically sustainable. In short, the answer was no. This in turn raises serious questions about whether the EPA applied the precautionary principle: If there are threats of serious or irreversible environmental damage (i.e. from logging after the fires), lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation.

Our letter to the EPA

On behalf of NEFA, we wrote to the EPA raising concerns that the EPA did not properly exercise its power to issue SSOCs. It should have required FCNSW to provide better information about potential environmental impacts before deciding whether to issue them or not.

Our letter also summarises key issues raised by the experts and enclosed a copy of the expert reports. Links to all of these materials appear at the end of this post.

Among other things, the materials highlight the importance of giving the forests time to recover after the fires. They also support and supplement the findings and recommendations of Dr Andrew Smith in a recently published Review of CIFOA Mitigation Conditions for Timber Harvesting in Burnt Landscapes, commissioned by the EPA.

What now?

FCNSW is now on the record stating that, in its opinion, it can recommence harvesting in burned areas of State Forests. If correct, then apart from the areas where SSOCs were issued, logging can now carry on under the ordinary CIFOA conditions – both in burned and unburned areas – with no modifications that respond to the impacts of the fires. The SSOCs expire after 12 months.

At a time when animals that have survived the fires need support to recover and persist in the environment, should we be removing what little habitat remains? Is this ecologically sustainable forest management?

Further Reading