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VicForests now in charge of commercial harvesting

The Napthine government handed control of Victoria’s western forests to VicForests in one of its final acts before the election campaign. Source: The Age

Just days before the caretaker period began on November 4, Agriculture Minister Peter Walsh transferred all commercial timber harvesting west of the Hume Highway to VicForests, which means it would no longer be managed by the Department of Environment and Primary Industries (DEPI).

The ramifications of the move are unclear, although the Victorian National Parks Association claims it represents a secret attempt to introduce industrial-scale logging in high-conservation-value areas previously off limits.

A letter sent by the DEPI’s forestry regulation director Jon Presser to a regional environment group confirms VicForests was made responsible for all commercial timber harvesting from November 5, a day after the election campaign officially started.

In the letter Mr Presser said the transfer would unite all commercial timber harvesting in Victorian state forests, saying VicForests was best equipped to manage commercial timber harvesting.

“Timber harvesting from state forests will continue to be managed in a way that fosters the growth of large, healthy trees, protects biodiversity and important cultural and ecological value, and that provides locally grown sustainable timber products,” the letter says.

VicForests manages about 1.3 million cubic metres of timber. The transfer will increase this by about 100,000 cubic metres under 70 mostly small-scale licences to harvest wood in a range of areas, including around Bendigo, in the Pyrenees ranges near Avoca, in parts of the Otways and around Mount Cole, near Ararat.

A spokeswoman for Mr Walsh confirmed that the department’s Commercial Forestry Services Unit had been transferred to VicForests. But she said this would not change current harvesting or licences.

“The transfer has created consistency in commercial forestry operations, and clearly separates DEPI’s forestry governance and regulatory roles from any commercial operations,” she said.

But Victorian National Parks Association spokesman Nick Roberts said the transfer would cost taxpayers millions, and underpinned a move to introduce “industrial-scale” logging in the area.

“This is a shocking and secret move to introduce industrial-scale logging in high-conservation-value forests of western Victoria in the dying stages of government,” Mr Roberts said.

VicForests director of corporate affairs Nathan Trushell said the new allocation represented less than 8% of the timber harvested by VicForests.

“Some stakeholders have expressed concerns that harvesting will increase and others are worried that operations may be closed down,” Mr Trushell said.

“However, we intend to continue managing these operations in a similar fashion to the way they are being managed today.”

Last year Mr Walsh announced commercial logging would be allowed around Mount Cole, with a tender process to harvest 3000 cubic metres of sawlogs during three years.

The environment has received little attention during the state election campaign, despite strong support to establish a new Great Forests National Park in the Central Highlands.

Labor was forced to dump support for the park after an intervention by the CFMEU, while the Mr Walsh recently told a forestry industry dinner the Coalition would not be committing to any new national parks that would result in the loss of timber resources.