Timber industry buoyed by court ruling on Regional Forest Agreements

The Regional Forest Agreements covering native forest logging on the North Coast have been found to be legal. Photo: Friends of Pine Creek.

TIMBER industry supporters on the North Coast had reason to smile last week after a Federal Court judge dismissed a legal challenge to the North East NSW Regional Forest Agreement (RFA) that allows logging in north-eastern NSW native forests.

The North East RFA covers the coastal area between Sydney and the Queensland border, and exempts logging from federal environmental assessment under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act).

The case was brought by the North East Forest Alliance (NEFA) against the Commonwealth of Australia and the State of NSW in the first ever legal challenge to a Regional Forest Agreement in NSW.

NEFA lawyers argued that, when the RFA was renewed in 2018 for another 20 years, the Commonwealth did not assess climate change, endangered species or old-growth forests as it was required to.

Justice Perry dismissed those arguments, finding that such an assessment was not required, and in any event had occurred.

Dr Michelle Freeman, the President of Forestry Australia, welcomed the decision.

“Common sense has prevailed today, and native forestry can have a strong future in Australia,” Dr Freeman said.

“Our Regional Forest Agreements time and time again have proven to be a successful way of sustainably managing Australia’s forests for all their values, and the Federal Court has confirmed this today.

“Our forestry industry, its workers, families and communities that depend on it, can now move on with certainty in their future.”

Member for Oxley Michael Kemp also welcomed the judgement, citing it as evidence that “hardwood timber can coexist within the parameters of conservation”.

“New South Wales forestry operations follow some of the strictest regulations and environmental standards across the world,” Mr Kemp said.

Mr. Kemp said that, of 20 million hectares of State Forest, only 30,000 hectares are available for selective harvesting, equating to less than 0.1 percent or just fourteen in 10,000 trees.

Timber NSW Chairman Andrew Hurford said, “The NSW timber industry not only supports thousands of jobs and contributes billions of dollars to our economy, but its continued operation is vital to shield NSW residents from further cost blowouts in housing, home renovation, energy, transport and consumer goods.

“Power poles, pallets, railway sleepers, flooring, decking, cladding, ferry wharves – without an available supply of locally sourced timber all these products would have to be imported.”

NEFA President Dailan Pugh was disappointed with the result.

“The decision to not require a new assessment put at risk the survival of a multitude of species that have rapidly declined since 1997, including many nationally threatened species that are not adequately protected under NSW’s logging rules and are being significantly impacted.”

Greens MP and spokesperson for the environment Sue Higginson said, “The decision by the court, that native forest logging is technically lawful, is a devastating blow for our forests but should not be mistaken for an endorsement of native forest logging and should rather be seen as a warning shot to the NSW and Commonwealth Governments that native forest logging must be reviewed urgently and ended as soon as possible.

“The court confirmed that in no uncertain terms, this matter is wholly political.

“The finding by the Federal Court may be technically correct under a strict assessment of the lawful requirements, but it confirms what experts and reviews are consistently saying, that our federal environmental laws are outdated and ineffective and represent political failure.”

Managing Lawyer at the Environmental Defenders Office, Andrew Kwan, said without legal reform native forest logging “will continue to be exempt from Commonwealth environmental assessment for at least another 20 years”.

“This could have devastating consequences for wildlife and forests,” he said.

“It is vital that our remaining native forests are properly protected by a reformed federal legal framework that includes strong national oversight.”

By Andrew VIVIAN

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