I am writing to you in my capacity as Research Fellow in the Institute for Ethics, Governance and Law, with expertise in governance, environmental policy, sustainability, climate change and natural resource management.
I am sending this email to your other ministerial colleagues, individually, with the same content, as the issue I am bringing to your attention impacts all your portfolios and ministerial responsibilities and obligations.
This matter concerns the failures in the policy areas of planning, primary industry, and environment, and possibly impinges on much more serious issues of regulatory mismanagement.
For the past few months I have been investigating the clearance of native forest, old growth, rainforest, and threatened species within NSW State Forests, notably within areas approved by DPI as plantation. I have written to one or all of you, and your agencies over the last few months, but there appears to be a lack of understanding of the gravity of the situation.
My investigations have revealed that since the creation of the Plantation and Reafforestation Act (PRA) and associated Code of 1999 and 2010 significant areas of native vegetation have been alienated (converted) to plantations, amounting to hundreds, or possibly even thousands, of hectares across the public forest estate.
You are probably aware that the PRA and Code replaced previous laws and regulations regarding native vegetation management, and that the Act allows for the conversion of native vegetation inside plantation areas under certain conditions (‘limited circumstances’). You are probably also aware that under the Act there is no requirement for public consultation, that the onus of supervision and approval belongs to the Department of Primary Industry (and not the Environmental Protection Agency), and separates compliance under the PRA and Code from conformance with the Forestry Act and associated management planning processes.
What you are probably unaware of is the grey area under which this places the native vegetation within these areas. I am not referring to areas of native forest that in any other State would be referred to as silvicultural regrowth and classified as native forest, i.e. areas post-logging that have been seeded or sown (classified in NSW as plantation under the definition in the Act). Rather, I am talking about those areas of native vegetation which existed within plantation areas, or areas subsequently designated as plantations, which were never planted or sown, but which continue (or continued) to exist within the plantations, outside areas that were either seeded, sown, or planted.
My investigations in the hardwood plantations north of Sydney indicate that while these areas individually are small, in total they amount to a significant proportion of the plantation estate. In some individual plantation units they constitute as much as 20%, or more, of the total area, and in aggregate constitute extremely important and diverse natural habitats for many threatened plants and animals, as well as proving an important range of ecosystem goods and services that plantations in and of themselves, do not.
There is no easy way to say what is happening to these areas, so I must speak plainly. In short, these areas of fully functioning natural forests are being systematically removed under what amounts to little more than a legal fiction, and passed off as plantation timber, or removed, and not counted at all. And yet these areas exist, or existed. As you know, it is in such legal grey areas that integrity challenges exist, and can sometimes even be exploited, for commercial, or other, objectives.
Let me explain how this happening. Forestry applies to DPI to have an area approved as a plantation. DPI first checks that it sits within a designated plantable area, and that the plantation design takes the identified retained vegetation into account. The approval is given and the native vegetation not otherwise identified as retained becomes part of the planted forest. If the public becomes aware of the actual or potential loss of old growth, natural secondary forest, rainforest or rare and endangered plants and contacts the EPA, the EPA refers them onto DPI, at which point DPI responds by saying planned or approved activities are compliant with the Act. If the public then contacts forestry, forestry replies by saying that the area is a plantation, and all activities have been, or will be conducted in accordance with the Act and Code.
The area is then logged. And this is where things become particularly strange. Under the provisions which guide the harvest planning process maps are created, and provided to contractors. Contractors are expected to follow these plans, but if they don’t (such as a stream is crossed with heavy equipment, or old growth forest or rainforest is removed), this may be considered non-conformant with the plan, yet still compliant with the Act and Code. In effect, the standards which are expected to govern the management of natural forest inside the non-plantation (native forest) estate, somehow become weaker, or do not seem to apply; if the EPA is contacted, the complainant is referred to DPI, DPI responds by saying that the area is compliant with the Code, and FCNSW that forestry activities are consistent with plantation management and the Act. Meanwhile, threatened species have been impacted, water quality compromised, and old growth removed. If the logging activity is especially egregious forestry might discipline the harvest contractor, or if warned in advance by the public might identify this tree or that as ‘habitat’, but the end result is always the same: the natural forest is removed.
The timber taken from these areas then also falls into a grey area, which poses a serious integrity challenge, because it is not listed on the harvest plan. How can it be? The area is a plantation, and therefore a valuable species such as brushbox, or grey gum, or ironbark do not exist within it, and are not part of the identified species on the plan, because to do so would mean the area was not a plantation, but native forest, and subject to the provisions of the Forest Act and Coastal Integrated Forestry Operations Approvals (CIFOA) process, and under the jurisdiction of EPA. Rather the native timber is logged, milled, and fed into the wood market, whether as plantation timber or otherwise, to be used for the boardroom tables of Sydney, housing in developments such as Mount Gilead (itself erstwhile Koala habitat), or – heaven forbid – as ‘residues’ for ‘Green’ power to burned for electricity generation: but who would know? And so round and round the public goes, if it tries to do anything about it.
Why does this matter? Apart from the obvious danger of timber substitution, or even more serious issues of forest governance and integrity, these areas are neither ‘ingrowth’ into plantation nor planted forest, a claim often made by the relevant agencies contacted. In most cases they are areas of natural forest that are part of the broader forest around the plantation estate. Removing this affects the broader forest, its ecological integrity, and the quality of habitat and other ecosystem services available. When the public shows the relevant agencies that the forest existed before and after the initial clearing for plantation establishment, the claim is invariably made that the forest in question was identified as ‘degraded’ and not required to be retained. Alternatively, under the Act, the argument goes, the area was less than one hectare, or no more than 10%, or offset. To make matters worse, forestry has the ability under the Act and Code to annex adjacent native forest, change plantation design, and ‘offset’ logged native forest (very often of an inferior quality to the forest removed, and available for logging subsequently, anyway).
In other words, rather than governing the retention and management of native vegetation, the PRA and Code have become the drivers of its removal, and instead of protecting this valuable asset, DPI and forestry are facilitating its destruction, and EPA looks the other way.
I am writing at such length because I believe you need to weigh up the risks associated with allowing forestry to ‘log to the quota in the Act.’ Rather than avoiding conversion, forestry is actively engaging in it, and there is a net loss of native forest, old growth and rainforest. In some instances, in some plantations there is more lost than permitted under the Act; investigations I have undertaken have demonstrated this. There are implications. The Forestry Corporation of New South Wales is certified to the Australian Forestry Standard of Responsible Wood Australia, and supplies companies who feed into the Forest Stewardship Council system, both of which have more stringent requirements than the Act and Code. Being sanctioned by these systems would not only look bad for FCNSW but the other agencies who allowed this happen, and the ministers and directors-general under whose instructions they operate. This would not make the plantation timbers of NSW or the estate itself at all attractive to investors, or possible future buyers, should the division ever be sold off. Indeed, the structure of the Hardwoods Division, which has made hardwood plantations and native forest indistinguishable, is a problem in itself. Conversion of native forest inside hardwood plantations also taints NSW softwood plantations, which of themselves may also constitute a similar risk-profile, given the existence of native vegetation inside these plantations as well.
In conclusion, I am advising you that whatever either DPI, or FCNSW, or EPA claim, the reality on the ground demonstrates that native vegetation is being cleared and converted to plantation, and there has now been a lot of ground-truthing to determine this, I can assure you. This forest is invariably contiguous to adjacent forest and rainforest, and not an isolated patch. But in order to comprehend that, it requires an understanding that these remnant cross plantation boundaries, and are part of a larger ecosystem; the plantation is the intrusion, and not the other way round.
I have prepared this advisory to help you better manage the plantation estate, and to ensure NSW practices sustainable forest management, which at present, in my opinion, it does not. I have given the same advice to DPI, EPA, FCNSW, RWA and FSC.
My recommendation is simple. Stop converting native vegetation inside plantations. Stop logging native timbers inside plantations. Stop designating individual native trees as ‘habitat’ and removing the rest. Put EPA back in charge of oversight and approval forest management, and change the Act and Code to explicitly exclude conversion, of any kind. All the while ‘limited’ circumstances’ remains in the rubric, forestry will exploit what is little more than a legal loophole.
I am not looking for the standard response that is likely to ensue should you pass this correspondence onto your agency. Please don’t bother yourself. I am looking rather for some critical reflection and understanding of the social, environmental, economic, and political implications of looking the other way, especially given the current circumstances in which the Government finds itself, and in the context of an upcoming election. But most importantly, I am asking you to give consideration to the importance of these forests in the light of the current climate, water and biodiversity crisis in which we find ourselves – and to take action to stop this invisible land-clearing.
I am at your disposal for a presentation, or to give further and advice and assistance, should you require it. This letter has been written to provide you every opportunity, having been advised, to mitigate this silent disaster.
Tim Cadman BA (Hons) MA (Cantab), PhD (Tasmania), Grad. Cert. Theol. (Charles Sturt)
Senior Research Fellow, Earth Systems Governance Project
Research Fellow, Institute for Ethics, Governance and Law
Adjunct Research Fellow, University of Southern Queensland