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Bunning reaffirms boycott of VicForests timber despite court ruling

Log trucks blocked the entrance to the Bunnings store at Traralgon in June last year after the hardware chain announced it would stop stocking local hardwood timber in its stores.

Hardware giant Bunnings has reaffirmed its boycott of VicForests timber despite the Federal Court ruling that VicForests had not broken Commonwealth environmental laws. Bunnings announced in June last year it would stop selling timber logged by VicForests after a court found the state government-owned forestry agency breached conservation laws. Sources: Philip Hopkins, Timberbiz

However, VicForests appealed, and the full bench of the Federal Court last month overturned the decision by the Federal Court’s Justice Mortimer that VicForests broke Commonwealth environmental laws because its harvesting endangered listed threatened species – the Leadbeater’s Possum and Greater Glider.

The full bench found that Victoria’s native forest industry is covered by Regional Forest Agreements, which provide all the protections required by the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.

The appeal set aside the orders made by Justice Mortimer.

“As all findings by Justice Mortimer that VicForests’ operations were conducted unlawfully were based on her incorrect finding that the EPBC Act applied, any continued suggestion that this case has found that VicForests’ activities are unlawful have no legal foundation,” VicForests said in a statement on its website.

Bunnings merchandise general manager, Toby Watson, has said that Bunnings had reviewed the court decisions.

“Our timber policy requires our suppliers to source from legal, responsibly sourced and well managed forest operations,” he said.

Mr Watson said the court had only reversed a single finding relating to the EPBC Act and upheld the judge’s 21 other findings.

“As such, Bunnings continues to lack confidence that VicForests’ forestry practices meet the requirements of our policy, and we won’t be reversing our decision at this time,” he said.

The decision has drawn a sharp response from the CFMEU Manufacturing which wants the State Government to step in and convince the hardware store to change its policy.

The union wants the Victorian government to ‘increase pressure’ to reverse a Bunnings ban on timber from Victorian managed forests.

Michael O’Connor, national secretary for CFMEU Manufacturing, argues that Bunnings’ stance on illegally logged timber was hurting the local, ‘environmentally friendly industry’, and in turn union members.

In its online statement, VicForests said of its 23 grounds for appeal, Ground 1 relating to the EPBC act was the main ground.

“Most of the time spent in arguing the appeal was on this ground alone,” the state’s commercial forestry agency said. Success on ground 1 decided the whole appeal, with all remaining 22 grounds alternatives in case ground 1 was unsuccessful.

“Public claims that VicForests was only partially successful because the Full Court did not ‘reverse the trial judge’s 21 other factual findings’ misrepresent the nature of the appeal and the findings of the Court,” VicForests said. “There were 22 additional ground – and only four related to findings of fact on past timber harvesting by VicForests.”

VicForests was unsuccessful on these four grounds, but “it is important to note that very little time was spent in court arguing these grounds”, VicForests said.

“Further, the Full court itself noted that because of its decisions to uphold the appeal on the basis of ground 1, the remaining grounds of appeal were dealt with in a summary way. Ultimately, VicForests’ failure to succeed on the alternative 22 grounds is not relevant to the outcome of the appeal,” it said.

VicForests said the RFA obligations did not mean that harvesting in State forests did not need to comply with environmental laws. “In fact, the legal requirements for forestry operations in Victoria are very strict and include the need to comply with a comprehensive set of rules designed specifically for timber harvesting, all overseen by the Victorian Chief Conservation Regulator,” VicForests said.

VicForests’ chief executive, Monique Dawson, recently told the Senate that Victoria’s strict code of forestry practice consisted of two documents 278 pages long. Speaking to Senator Bridget McKenzie’s private members bill on the Federal Court case, Ms Dawson said with audit compliance targets from the independent regulator at 60 per cent to 100 per cent, “we’re at 98 per cent or 95 per cent, so we do very well on our audits”.

Ms Dawson said the Commonwealth had the capacity, through the RFAs’ legal framework, to take action against Victoria if the state was not meeting its obligations. “To the best of my knowledge,” she said, there had been no dispute raised about prescriptions for the Leadbeater’s Possum and Greater Glider.

Greens Senator Janet Rice said the crux of the issue was whether the code of forestry practice, or compliance with the RFA, was not being met. It appeared there was no ability, other than for the Commonwealth or the state, to take legal action under Commonwealth laws, she said.

Ms Dawson said that was correct. “We would argue that’s the intent – that the jurisdiction would quickly be the state Supreme Court. And certainly, there have been cases brought in the state Supreme Court,” she said.

“In this case, it was no doubt brought in the Federal Court because there was very strong precedent for those cases lost in Victoria. So, I imagine the applicants realised they would be unlikely to be successful if they brought an action in the state Supreme Court.”

Forestry Corporation of NSW was forced to stop logging on Monday by an activist perched in a treetop at Mogo State Forest. The activist’s platform was raised 25 metres above the ground and suspended by ropes connected to logging machinery below. Source: About Regional

Joslyn van der Moolen from Friends of the Forest Mogo said police were present, but that the protest had been peaceful and there were no arrests.

She said the group were in the forest since daybreak on Monday and remained there until mid-afternoon.

The activists are protesting against the resumption of logging in forests badly impacted by the 2019-2020 Black Summer bushfires that are home to endangered species including yellow-bellied gliders, powerful owls, glossy black cockatoos and swift parrots.

Forestry Corporation of NSW resumed its logging operations in state forests on the NSW South Coast in March 2021, against the advice of the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA).

The EPA said it was “concerned” at Forestry Corporation NSW’s decision to ignore new conditions put in place to protect burnt forests, including at Yambulla, Mogo, Shallow Crossing, Nadgee, Timbillica and East Boyd state forests.

“The site-specific conditions, developed in consultation with experts and government agencies, aim to mitigate the environmental risks caused by the bushfires and are tailored for the specific impacts on plants, animals and their habitats, soils and waterways,” said an EPA spokesperson.

While the EPA monitors and regulates forestry operations, it does not have the power to enforce its recommendations.

However, the EPA said it would increase its regulatory oversight of logging operations and has officers actively monitoring forestry operations.

Forestry Corporation of NSW said the local timber industry has been operating at a significantly reduced rate since the bushfires, which threatens local jobs.

“In the wake of the drought and COVID-19, it is crucial we support industries such as the timber industry, which supplies critical resources while providing valuable jobs and economic stimulus for the regional communities that are built off the back of them,” said a Forestry Corporation of NSW spokesperson.

The company behind NSW’s largest renewable timber production says around 10 per cent of Eden’s population relies on jobs in the timber industry – a figure disputed by locals.

Forestry Corporation of NSW also said it has “developed harvest plans that will be supplemented with additional environmental safeguards to provide for additional searches for plants and animals, retaining a greater number of hollow-bearing trees and increasing the area of land in the operations to be excluded from harvesting.”