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Friday analysis: if you can’t stop forestry by protesting go to court

Protesters at the Wombat State Forest. Picture: Wombat Forestcare Facebook page.

A comment was made recently that environmentalist groups would not be threatened by Victoria’s new laws designed to safeguard the State’s timber workers from protestors.

They would, the comment argued, simply turn to the courts to tie such organisations as VicForests in so much red tape that harvesting operations would grind to a halt.

The proposed new laws are made of stern stuff, and the Victorian Government, the Australian Forest Contractors Association and other industry groups are to be applauded.

Protestors who illegally enter coupes in Victoria and dangerously interfere with workers or their machinery will be subject to stronger penalties including maximum fines of more than $21,000 or 12-months imprisonment.

And PVC and metal pipes, which can be used in dangerous protest activities, will be added to the prohibited items list meaning they potentially attract extra fines if used to hinder or obstruct timber harvesting operations.

These new laws, proposed in the Sustainable Forests Timber Amendment (Timber Harvesting Safety Zones) Bill 2022, deliver the kind of protection the timber industry has been demanding for years.

Well, environmentalist groups seem to have “accepted” the laws are there and have turned to using the legislation.

For example, protests at the salvage operations in the Wombat Forest west of Melbourne have stopped. The salvage operations are being undertaken largely because significant storm caused widespread damage last year created a significant fire hazard.

Instead, the Victorian National Parks Association has called for the government to legislate Wombat Forest as a national park in a fight to protect the state’s endangered Greater Gliders.

A Victorian National Parks Association statement said research, working with “citizen scientists” had uncovered a larger than expected population hotspots of the Greater Gliders in the Wombat Forest.

The organisations said that over four nights in January, the count recorded 40 Greater Gliders, four koalas and a powerful owl – Australia’s largest owl species.

This is a familiar tactic. As Australian Forests & Timber reported earlier this year Taggerty-based forests contractor Mick Johnston decided to leave the industry after 50 or so years because of ongoing uncertainty over access to coupes, protester interruptions and court injunctions against VicForests.

“I was stood down from a coupe recently because a sighting that was made five years ago,” Mr Johnston said. “I’m sick of going backwards.”

Further, Victoria’s Conservation Regulator is assessing allegations of non-compliance with timber harvesting laws in the Wombat State Forest.

The allegations reportedly came from “local forest activists” who were also concerned about the possible impact the clean-up may have on the breeding cycle of the powerful owl.

Apparently the “forest activists” are not as concerned about the possibility of the Wombat Forests being ravaged by fire.

But of major concern is an order by Victoria’s Conservation Regulator directing harvest and haulage contractor Jim Greenwood to produce hundreds of pages of documents relating to his operations in the Wombat Forest clean-up or face a penalty of $18,174.

According to the Weekly Times, the regulator first lodged the order with the Greenwoods last month, but then withdrew it within three days, without explanation.

Now the regulator has reissued the same order, but this time signed by a magistrate.

Mr Greenwood told the Weekly Times he was unable to supply half the documents the regulator was demanding, given he was simply a subcontractor to VicForests, which in turn was contracted to the Dja Dja Wurrung traditional owners of the forest, who wanted the fallen timber salvaged.

One industry insider said it was clear the regulator was using new powers conferred by Parliament late last year to go on a “fishing expedition”.

It seems using the legislative approach, rather than direct disruptive protesting, to disrupt legal logging activities is indeed gaining favour with “citizen scientists” and “forest activists”.