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Despite warnings from environmental experts, logging has recommenced in NSW forests ravaged by the Black Summer bushfires. Now, the EPA is investigating alleged regulation breaches by logging contractors, with habitats and wildlife at risk of irreparable damage. By Drew Rooke.

Logging after the Black Summer bushfires

A logging site in South Brooman State Forest.
Credit: Supplied

On January 20 this year, while swaths of eastern Australia were still ablaze, the New South Wales government held an urgent workshop about logging in the state’s forests, which had been decimated by the summer’s catastrophic bushfires.

The meeting, hastily organised just a week before it happened, was attended by several representatives from the state’s Department of Planning, Industry and Environment and the state-owned Forestry Corporation of NSW (FCNSW).

A handful of independent scientific experts were also invited, including Associate Professor Cristopher Brack and Professor David Lindenmayer, both from the Australian National University, and Professor Ross Bradstock of the University of Wollongong.

A report, obtained by The Saturday Paper, outlines that the workshop examined the many risks of logging in bushfire-affected forests, including the “risk of social backlash”, and how these risks might be mitigated so that post-fire logging – seen as “an opportunity to harvest high-value timbers and provide employment for the forestry industry” – could recommence.

It is clear rural jobs were a key consideration for the workshop. Bradstock says the need to support communities that had suffered during the bushfires was central to the discussion: “There was pressure on the government to sustain rural communities and support rural industries.”

As long as post-fire logging was “managed with appropriate conditions and care”, Bradstock saw no issue with logging restarting. And it did: less than two months after the workshop.

Lindenmayer says this went against the unequivocal advice he gave the NSW government: the environmental risks of any form of post-fire logging could not be sufficiently mitigated by any set of measures.

“I told them it was nonsensical,” Lindenmayer tells The Saturday Paper. “You shouldn’t be doing it.”

While he couldn’t attend the workshop in person, Lindenmayer – described by the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) as an “international salvage logging expert” – says he provided the agency with an extensive body of recently published scientific research, much of which he was involved in.

This research clearly demonstrated that logging fire-affected forests can significantly impair the recovery and rehabilitation of plants and animals, reduce the amount of biodiversity and adversely alter the composition and nutrient levels of soils.

There are more dangerous risks, too. Logging changes the composition of forests, Lindenmayer says, making them hotter and drier over time. It also leaves behind a large amount of debris – known as “slash” – which increases the fuel load on the ground.

As he and several colleagues wrote in a recent comment piece published in the respected journal Nature Ecology and Evolution: “… there is compelling evidence that Australia’s historical and contemporary logging regimes have made many Australian forests more fire prone and contributed to increased fire severity and flammability.”

 

In the South Brooman State Forest, on the NSW south coast, a car kicks up dust as it rumbles along a dirt road. All around, charcoaled trunks are covered in epicormic shoots resembling thick green fur – a sign the forest, near Batemans Bay on Yuin country, is slowly recovering.

In December last year, the Currowan fire swept through South Brooman. It was a fierce and massive blaze: raging for 74 days across nearly 500,000 hectares, destroying more than 300 homes.

Nine months on, Paul* and Melanie*, both local conservationists, are auditing logging operations in this region. They have been doing this for the past four years, acting, Paul says, as the “ears and eyes of the authorities on the ground”. He is driving, while Melanie navigates from the backseat.

Like all state forests subject to logging, South Brooman is divided into compartments, which are themselves subdivided into coupes. Melanie announces the car has entered compartment 58A, where logging began in May, just a few months after the fires tore through.

At first, South Brooman was just one of two state forests where the NSW government allowed logging after the Black Summer bushfires. By September 2020, the EPA had extended that to 12 different forests that had been burnt across the state.

Each of these logging operations is subject to a set of new, site-specific environmental conditions, which augment the existing rules set out in the coastal integrated forestry operations approval (IFOA).

The new conditions, an EPA spokesperson told The Saturday Paper, “aim to mitigate the specific environmental risks caused by the bushfires at each site, including impacts on plants, animals and their habitats, soils and waterways”.

But there are signs the EPA’s new rules are not sparing vital trees from logging.

The Saturday Paper can confirm the EPA is now investigating alleged logging breaches in 14 separate state forests across NSW.

In July, the agency hit the FCNSW with a 40-day stop-work order after an investigation alleged 26 hollow-bearing trees in compartment 58A were either felled or damaged by loggers.

The environmental conditions issued for the compartment require all hollow-bearing trees to be retained because they provide vital habitat, shelter and foraging opportunities for at least 174 species of mammals, birds, reptiles and frogs in NSW – 40 of which are listed as threatened.

The EPA’s executive director of regulatory operations, Carmen Dwyer, said at the time that this “could result in irreparable environmental harm”, including to several vulnerable species such as the yellow-bellied glider and the glossy-black cockatoo, which are known to inhabit the area.

The EPA investigation – which is ongoing – was triggered after another local conservationist, a member of the Brooman State Forest Conservation Group, reported they had found more than 40 hollow-bearing trees felled in 58A.

Melanie and Paul, whose nearby home was destroyed by bushfires on New Year’s Eve, have come to compartment 58A today to follow up a tip about another potential breach – this one in relation to the cutting down of a “giant tree”, defined by the EPA as having a diameter of at least 1.4 metres. The IFOA requires that all giant trees be retained.

In a large clearing, Paul and Melanie step out of the car and walk to a large red mahogany stump, crossing bare earth covered in machinery tracks. They measure the felled tree’s diameter, careful to follow EPA protocols: 145.2 centimetres, a giant tree.

The pair photographs the felled giant and enters it into their database to report to the EPA.

Lying on its side, amid piles of logging slash, the tree seems to have been chopped down for no apparent reason. If it was felled by loggers, they have left it behind. In its crown is a large hollow.

A termite mound stands next to the stump, defaced with a crudely spray-painted smiley face in fluoro green. The colour of the paint is the same used by FCNSW to mark the habitat and trees that are to be retained.

Later, in another area of the compartment, Paul and Melanie find two more giant trees lying on their side. The bark on both is significantly damaged – evidence, Paul says, that a machine, not the wind, pushed them over.

 

In a statement to The Saturday Paper, a FCNSW spokesperson said all forestry contractors are required to “undergo comprehensive training and accreditation in the implementation of the conditions of the IFOA” and that “additional instruction” is provided relating to any site-specific conditions for any operation.

However, there have been many recent alleged breaches of both the IFOA and the additional site-specific conditions governing logging of burnt forests across the state.

In July, the EPA issued FCNSW with another 40-day stop-work order for harvesting operations in Wild Cattle Creek State Forest, on the NSW north coast, after finding two giant trees that had allegedly been felled.

At the time, the EPA’s Carmen Dwyer described these trees as “irreplaceable”.

According to Stephen Cocks, the owner of a logging business on the NSW south coast, widespread breaches are almost inevitable.

He says it’s “so hard to log within boundaries” – referring to the EPA’s new environmental conditions, particularly the requirement to retain all hollow-bearing trees – while trying to keep a business viable.

Cocks recently agreed with FCNSW to suspend a logging operation that his company had been contracted for in Mogo State Forest, which lies just south of South Brooman. “We were struggling to meet the new regulations,” he says.

Cocks claims FCNSW is now trying to get the new post-fire environmental regulations “rolled back” for Mogo State Forest, so logging can continue. A spokesperson for FCNSW would not confirm this but said the forestry corporation is now “seeking clarity” from the EPA on the new conditions.

In the report from the post-fire logging workshop held in Sydney in January, Victoria is cited as a case study. The report said the state had “gained considerable experience” managing logging after the Black Saturday fires in 2009, and the NSW government “should learn from the Victorian experience”.

But Victoria has recently changed tack: last November, its government announced a $120 million plan to end native logging and transition entirely to plantation-based timber, which already comprises nearly 90 per cent of all timber harvested across Australia, by 2030.

Professor Lindenmayer wants NSW to learn from this as well, especially in the wake of the Black Summer and as the next bushfire season begins. “These forests are already badly affected by fire,” he says. “The worst possible thing you can do is add another major disturbance.”

* Names have been changed.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 12, 2020 as "Trees of strife".

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Drew Rooke is a freelance journalist and the author of One Last Spin: The Power and Peril of the Pokies.