In the last issue of Rainforest News we discussed the proposed renewal of the three Regional Forest Agreements (RFAs) in New South Wales. The three regions are North East, Southern and Eden. The Agreements expire between 2019 and 2021 but the State and Federal Governments have been considering the renewals for some time.
The Commonwealth is keen to see the RFAs extended. The Assistant Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, Senator Anne Ruston, told The Guardian “The Coalition government is fully committed to fulfilling its election commitment to establish a 20-year rolling life to all Regional Forest Agreements, which are the best mechanism for balancing the environmental, economic and social demands on our native forests.”
The ABC has obtained documents under Freedom of Information that show concerns have been raised within government about the legality of renewing the Agreements given that they are based on 20-year old science. Among the documents is a brief to the NSW Forestry Minister for a meeting of forestry ministers in Tasmania on 30 August 2017. It states:
“The Commonwealth is concerned that significantly altering existing RFAs may invite challenges to their validity, in the absence of new — and costly — Comprehensive Regional Assessments.
“Its preference is to extend the existing agreements. It is in both parties’ interests to avoid the need to revisit the costly CRA process”.
It appears that the NSW RFA renewals are still being negotiated with consideration of legal challenges.
In the background to these negotiations, the NSW Government has proposed a change to logging rules which are called Integrated Forestry Operations Approvals. The new IFOA is currently available for public comment.
The IFOA is so complex it is very difficult to provide a useful summary here. Excluding the Executive summary, there are 248 pages in the documents covering conditions and protocols.
However, there is absolutely no doubt that the proposed changes are designed to provide more timber from a dwindling resource. There can be no pretence whatsoever that they are intended to improve protection for flora and fauna. As a member of the Threatened Species Expert Panel stated “I find it extremely frustrating to try and contribute to a solution when the underlying driver of the wood supply agreements fundamentally restricts any chance of a balanced approach and I can see the environment being the inevitable loser in the equation.”
The new IFOA introduces a “multi-scale landscape approach” and describes four types of harvesting: intensive harvesting, selective harvesting, mixed intensity harvesting and alternative coupe logging.
Intensive harvesting is essentially clearfelling with some trees and clumps of trees retained. The intensive harvesting zone covers 140,000 ha in northeastern NSW between Grafton and Taree. Intensive harvesting is claimed to be required for regeneration of Blackbutt. The result will be conversion of the forest to effectively a Blackbutt plantation.
Intensive harvesting was already occurring in Blackbutt forests without formal approval. The Draft IFOA now legitimises the practice.
The IFOA incorporates a move away from targeted surveys for threatened species as they were too expensive. “Protecting” threatened species, including koalas, will now be based on various forms of mapping.
There are requirements for retention of some trees in clumps between 0.1 and 2 ha in area and wildlife habitat clumps which may be as small as 1.1 ha. The clumps are required to include habitat trees, feed trees, etc. Wildlife habitat clumps are also required to provide “habitat connectivity to help improve landscape connections between other retained patches of vegetation or as habitat islands within a large cutover area”. The Draft IFOA actually suggests that such isolated habitat islands, which can be little more than 1 ha in area, “improve connectivity”.
One member of the Expert Panel on Threatened Species commented on the role of clumps saying “there comes a point where the intensity of harvesting renders the entire forest no longer a forest in form or structure e.g. resembles and functions as retained clumps in farmland landscape. If the exclusion zones are sufficiently isolated they may not be functional units for many fauna. Unless the exclusion zones are close together or linked they may not actually deliver any real environmental outcomes.”
Tree retention clumps and wildlife habitat clumps are required to cover 10 to 13% of the harvestable area. So at least 87% of the forest is clearfelled. What happens to the fauna in those areas. Clearly, they will not be able to crowd into the clumps. The most likely result is that they will die.
The public consultation period ends on 29 June. Comments and submissions can be made via the EPA web site at https://engage.environment.nsw.gov.au/forests.