‘We are pro-forestry’: Minister rejects call to enhance threatened species protections

Native forestry will continue to be exempted from federal threatened species regulations, Assistant Forestry Minister Jonathon Duniam says, despite a major review finding national conservation law was failing to protect wildlife.

Former competition watchdog Graeme Samuel’s once-in-a-decade review of the Environment Protection Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, published in January, said there are “fundamental shortcomings” in Regional Forest Agreements and he had “low confidence” they were upholding Commonwealth protections for native forests subject to logging operations.

Assistant Forestry Minister Jonathon Duniam says he won’t follow the recommendation of a statutory review of federal environment laws to scrap the exemption for native forestry from Commonwealth wildlife protections. Credit:Louie Douvis

Regional forest agreements are made between state and federal governments. The state provides a plan to “balance” the impact of logging on flora and fauna with economic factors, and in return, commercial logging operations are exempted from national laws that protect threatened species.

“Regional Forest Agreements rely on the states to undertake monitoring, compliance and enforcement, with little Commonwealth oversight,” Mr Samuel said and recommended the federal government remove the Regional Forest Agreements’ exemption from the EPBC Act.

Nationals Senate leader Bridget McKenzie asked Mr Duniam in a Senate estimates hearing on Tuesday how he would respond to the Samuel review.

“Our pathway forward will be guided by industry, they will tell us what they need and my job is to deliver for them,” Senator Duniam said.

The native forestry industry is dominated by state government-owned corporations that have supported Regional Forest Agreements.

“My job, broadly, is to maintain the Regional Forest Agreements in their current form,” Senator Duniam said. “We are pro-forestry, we want to grow the sector.”

A spokesman for Environment Minister Sussan Ley, who is the senior minister for the portfolio that includes forestry, said she would consult with stakeholders on the Samuel review’s recommendations.

A Federal Court ruling last year called into question the legality of the Victorian Regional Forest Agreement.

The court ruled in May that state-owned VicForests was not exempt from EPBC Act protections for the threatened Leadbeater’s possum and its habitat in the state’s Central Highlands, which were being logged by VicForests corporation.

VicForests argued the Regional Forest Agreement exempted it from federal threatened species obligations in the EPBC Act, but Justice Debra Mortimer found the logging corporations’ operations had damaged threatened species habitat and failed the Act requirements – such as protecting threatened possums.

An injunction banning VicForests from further logging in the region was put in place. VicForests has appealed the decision and Senator Duniam told the estimates hearing he supported that action.

Experts said the Federal Court ruling could set a precedent that applies to Regional Forestry Agreements in other states.

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