State MPs dismayed at NSW Forestry logging unburnt habitat after bushfires

14 March 2020

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AUSTRALIA – The New South Wales Forestry Corporation has continued to log unburnt forest that is habitat for some of the most imperilled species in the aftermath of the state’s bushfire crisis.

Logging operations have continued in the Styx River state forest on the north coast that is now remnant habitat for endangered species including the greater glider and the Hastings River mouse.

Both the federal and state governments have identified the mouse, which had 82% of its habitat burnt, as one of the species most at risk of extinction as a result of the bushfire disaster.

Trucks have also moved into an area of the Lower Bucca state forest north-west of Coffs Harbour in bushland that is part of the proposed Great Koala national park.

Twenty-four per cent of koala habitat in eastern NSW was burnt in the fire crisis and the environment minister, Sussan Ley, has said up to 30% of the koala population on the mid north coast may have been killed.

Environment groups and the independent state MLC Justin Field have expressed dismay that NSW Forestry Corporation has been able to continue with harvest plans in unburnt forest that is now important remnant habitat for wildlife.

The Nature Conservation Council of NSW asked the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) to investigate the logging. But the council’s chief executive said it was told that operations could not be halted when Forestry Corporation was not in breach of its approvals.

The council is now calling on the state government to suspend the coastal integrated forestry operations approval (IFOA) until assessments of the impact of the fires are complete.

“They’ve [Forestry Corporation] finished their operation in Styx River so my guess is whatever damage was going to be done has been done,” Gambian said.

“But it’s not too late to halt operations everywhere else in the state.”

Gambian said the government should offer an assistance package to the industry to support timber communities.

“We understand there are communities that rely on the timber industry for their survival,” he said. “This shouldn’t be a fight between the timber industry and koalas.”

Since the fire crisis, the forestry industry has pushed for more access to burnt areas of forest for logging.

But state politicians have been surprised to learn that logging of unburnt areas has continued as per harvesting plans.

In an estimates hearing last Friday, the Greens MLC Cate Faehrmann said Forestry Corporation had told an inquiry into the state’s koala populations “it was no longer logging unburnt forest while this assessment of the impact on threatened species was continuing”.

“Yet, in fact, in the Styx River state forest, they were continuing to log and the EPA realised that,” Faehrmann said.

She asked EPA officials whether the burning of more than 80% of the Hastings River mouse’s habitat had prompted them to suggest logging operations in remaining habitat should stop.

“Did that not trigger anything within the EPA to suggest to State Forests that it should stop logging those compartments where probably the last few little Hastings River mice, post-fire, were potentially living?” she asked.

Officials said they would respond on notice with the scientific advice they received.

But they said EPA ecologists had raised concerns about the impact of logging on species affected by fire.

“There were issues raised and concern raised about post-fire logging activity and the impact on species,” David Fowler of the EPA told the hearing.

The steering committee for the Great Koala national park met with the environment minister, Matt Kean, this week and asked him to investigate logging operations in the Lower Bucca state forest.

“We requested an immediate end to logging in unburnt forest on the north coast, particularly unburnt forest that is known koala habitat,” Ashley Love a member of the steering committee and the Bellingen Environment Centre said.

Love said the operations were in a significant patch of forest he described as “the largest unburnt remnant within the proposed Great Koala national park”.

The Bees Nest fire on the NSW north coast burnt large amounts of koala habitat to the west of the Lower Bucca.

Love said it meant the Lower Bucca was now potentially an important site for surviving populations that might later repopulate burnt areas when the bushland recovered.

Guardian Australia sought comment from the forestry minister, John Barilaro, and from Kean.

Response was provided via the NSW Forestry Corporation, which said 70% of its harvesting operations on the north coast had been moved into plantations.

A spokeswoman said there were “a small number of areas of unburnt forest still being harvested, maintaining sustainable timber supplies in demand for rebuilding and work in communities where employment in forestry and the timber industry is important”.

“There are strict regulations around forestry operations that were developed by expert scientific panels to ensure a high level of protection for wildlife during harvesting operations,” she said.

The spokeswoman said Forestry Corporation was also working with NSW government agencies, led by the EPA, to “develop appropriate conditions for harvesting timber from a small proportion of forests that are set aside for timber production and affected by fire”.

But the independent MP Justin Field said it was “unacceptable to the community that some of our last unburnt forests are being logged before the assessment of the impact of these fires has even been completed”.

“Forestry Corporation need to be called to account by the forestry minister and the environment minister. If the laws are allowing this to happen then the laws need to change.”

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