May 25, 2009
Nearly 40 per cent of old-growth forest earmarked for protection by the State Government since the 2006 election has been found instead to be young regrowth, poor quality vegetation and cleared paddocks.
A survey by green groups found that about 15,000 hectares of Gippsland forest that the Government planned to turn into national park and conservation reserves was of no value to the timber industry and had comparatively little environmental value.
The survey findings come as the Government engages in a protracted haggling exercise with conservationists and state-owned commercial logging agency VicForests over the final location of the protection areas.
A report to be released today claims the Government is "protecting" cleared and previously logged land, while allowing timber harvesting to continue in high-value old-growth forest areas, such as Brown Mountain in far east Gippsland.
This is despite its 2006 election promise to "immediately protect the remaining significant stands of old-growth forest in Victoria".
Victorian National Parks Association executive director Matt Ruchel said the Government's commitment to turn 41,000 hectares into national park and conservation reserves could be an important step, but that the maps it released before the election were based on flawed ecological advice.
The report, designed to pressure the Government to rethink its old-growth protection maps, says 10 of the 25 proposed protection areas in east Gippsland are not old growth forests.
An area cited in the report is at Mt Stewart, which was found to be "grassy dry and shrubby dry forest, including a large weed-infested cleared field, large areas that were prescribed burned in the 1990s and 2007".
Similarly, areas at Breakfast Creek, Boggy Creek and Yellow Waterholes are described as "largely burned areas from the 1980s, cleared land and logging coupe from 2006".
Mr Ruchel said it was unclear if the mapping errors were deliberate or a mistake.
But Wilderness Society forest campaigner Luke Chamberlain accused VicForests and "Government logging bureaucrats" of undermining the election pledge. "Two and a half years on from the election John Brumby must show leadership and honour his Government's commitment."
John Hermans, a forest ecologist who runs his own sawmill at Clifton Creek, said he believed the timber industry recommended forest that was not commercially viable for inclusion in state reserves.
"If more people knew what was happening here in Gippsland there is no way they would get away with it," he said.
The Government promised to protect 33,500 hectares of old growth plus 5000 hectares that link the Snowy River to Errinundra National Park and 2500 hectares of "icon sites" — mainly logged areas that were once battlegrounds between conservationists and the timber industry.
The protection areas are yet to be formalised in legislation, but have been off-limits to loggers since the election.
The State Government did not respond directly to the claims in the green groups' report, which was also backed by the Australian Conservation Foundation.
Instead, a government spokesman said that finalising the park boundaries was still a work in progress.
"This process requires extensive survey and mapping work to ensure that, in line with election promises, the boundaries protect the greatest amount of old-growth forest available, while also protecting timber jobs," spokesman Lyall Johnson said.
VicForests spokesman Cameron McDonald said the agency was just one of several bodies talking to the Government about the old-growth protection maps. "Any suggestion that we exert undue influence is incorrect," he said.
Conflict over the protection areas has been heightened by summer logging at Brown Mountain, which green groups say is home to trees up to 500 years old. One coupe was felled and the remains burned, but further harvesting has been on hold since January, when conservationists claimed they had found threatened glider, owl and crayfish species.
This triggered a State Government investigation, which Mr Johnson said found no evidence of threatened species. But he said the moratorium on harvesting in the remaining Brown Mountain coupes scheduled for logging would continue while the survey results were considered for "further issues"."