By Kath Gannaway
The Federal Court in Melbourne on Friday, 17 November, ordered that logging not proceed in 34 areas across the Central Highlands, ahead of a two-day hearing starting on 14 December.
Environment group Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum (FLP) challenged VicForest’s exemption from Federal environment protection law in the Friday hearing, calling for an interim injunction.
Environmental Justice Australia filed the application on behalf of FLP earlier this week.
The case brought by FLP will challenge whether logging in endangered species habitat can continue to have a special exemption from Federal environment protection law.
VicForests confirmed on Friday that court action was being taken in regard to their operations under the Central Highlands Regional Forest Agreements (FRAs) with CEO Nathan Trushell saying the state-owned company believes its operations are in accordance with the Central Highlands RFA.
The court was asked to prohibit logging in 34 areas earmarked for logging where leadbeater’s possum and greater gliders live, unless federal environment laws are complied with.
The application also called for the court to order the protection of areas to mitigate the impact from what it claimed is unlawful logging completed at 32 sites.
FLP spokesperson Steve Meacher said logging in public native forests was exempt from most federal environment laws, provided it was carried out in accordance with the RFAs.
The case before the court, however, alleges that five-year reviews, a requirement of the RFA, have not been completed as required and as such are not compliant with the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, which, he said, required federal approval for actions that significantly impact threatened species.
“The federal-state Regional Forest Agreements have failed to protect endangered wildlife, but have been used to try to exempt the logging industry from environment laws,” Mr Meacher said.
EJA lawyer Danya Jacobs claimed the native forest logging industry has operated on the basis of exemption from federal environment laws for almost 20 years, but also maintains that the agreements have not been complied with.
“This case asks the court to examine this situation in specific forests that are home to iconic threatened species that are suffering because of logging,” Ms Jacobs said.
Mr Trushell said the RFAs existed to provide effective environmental conservation and timber industry certainty and added they believed VicForests’ operations were compliant.
He said VicForests was a highly regulated organisation that was subject to regular audits and certified by the Australian Forestry Standard.
Mr Thrushell confirmed on Monday that VicForests had consented to delay harvesting in four operations until the December hearing which, he said, would provide the Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum with an opportunity to put its case in greater detail.
“These four operations are part of 34 coupes we have agreed to suspend until the further hearing,” Mr Trushell said.
He said VicForests believed their operations were in accordance with the Central Highlands Regional Forest Agreements (RFAs) and that they looked forward to the court clarifying their obligations.
“We are keen to see the legal matter resolved as quickly as possible to minimise disruption of timber supply to local mills and to important regional jobs.”
The orders made by Justice Mortimer on Friday and other documents related to the case are available on the Federal Court website, here – https://www.comcourts.gov.au/file/FEDERAL/P/VID1228/2017/order_list