The Age (article), March 29, 2009
One of Victoria's most prized but controversial cool temperate rainforest sites is being clear felled by loggers after the State Government reneged on a deal to protect it.
Logging started in College Creek catchment in the Strzelecki Ranges six days after the Black Saturday fires devastated vast tracts on the hills that rise at the southern end of the Latrobe Valley.
College Creek was one of five environmentally significant core areas declared off limits to logging by then environment minister John Thwaites in 2006. It was to have been given to the people of Victoria. The core sites were to be linked by protected wildlife corridors joining the Strzeleckis' Tarra-Bulga National Park in the east to the Gunyah Gunyah Reserve, home of Australia's biggest tree by girth, at its western tip.
But last year Mr Thwaites' successor, Gavin Jennings, jettisoned the "cores and links" agreement and signed a new deal allowing Hancock Victorian Plantations to log College Creek and other areas that had been set aside.
Environmentalists have accused Mr Jennings of caving in to the logger, which has commercial contracts to supply timber to the Maryvale pulp and paper mill.
Now 1500 hectares within the "cores and links" will be clear felled, with the 350-hectare College Creek site the first to go.
Friends of Gippsland Bush secretary Susie Zent said the site was the most politically contentious forested area in the state. "We have fought so hard to have this area saved only to have it signed away in a secret deal made against all rainforest ecologists' advice."
College Creek is Crown Land over which Hancock holds a 60-year lease. With the lifting of the moratorium on logging, Hancock is now logging the site before it is replanted and returned to the stewardship of the state.
Unlike higher-profile state forests and national parks in the Alpine region, the Grampians and the Otways, the Strzelecki Ranges are a hodgepodge of native vegetation, remnant old growth forest, regrowth, reserves, blue gum and pine plantations, freehold and Crown land. Their chequered history of compromise and trade-off, cultivation and preservation, exploitation and sanctuary has been dictated for 60 years by the needs of the timber industry and Maryvale mill at Morwell.
Hancock is contracted to supply the mill and insists logging College Creek was necessary to meet its commitments. But community groups and environmentalists have condemned the logging and accuse the Government of caving in to Hancock.
The 2006 agreement negotiated between Mr Thwaites, Hancock, Australian Paper (then owner of Maryvale mill), Trust for Nature, three local councils and community groups expired in 2008 when the parties failed to reach consensus and the company withdrew from negotiations, saying commercial conditions had changed.
Mr Jennings said this meant the Government had to negotiate a new deal with Hancock from which other interest groups were excluded. Hancock chief executive Linda Sewell said the "cores and links" agreement was not legally binding and the company gave six months' notice of its intention to walk away if a consensus could not be reached.
Pulp wood and plantation legislation gives industry lease holders the right to remove native vegetation from Crown land.
According to Ms Sewell, College Creek is a plantation established by Australian Paper for forest production in the 1970s. However, rainforest botanist Stephen Mueck believes it regenerated to become much more than a plantation.
"There is still some surviving cool temperate rainforest and some threatened fauna," he said.
Friends of the Earth campaigner Anthony Amis, also involved in negotiations with Hancock, believes the company needed to log the cores and links because blue gum and shining gum plantations in the Strzeleckis have failed.
"Hancocks are logging under unsustainable contracts that can't possibly be met due to the failure of thousands of hectares of blue gum plantation," Mr Amis said.