Environmental campaigners are celebrating a win as timber harvesting operations in Victoria’s west come to an end today.
VicForests announced last fortnight that all community forestry operations would end by February 5, citing the risk and cost of litigation as the reason for its decision.
Community forestry operators work under Forest Product Licences, which had been due to expire at the end of June 2024, but it was unclear whether licences could have been extended beyond that date.
State-owned business VicForests is facing court proceedings brought by 200-member community group Wombat Forestcare alleging it breached requirements to survey for threatened species in western Victorian forests.
Environmental campaigner and Wombat Action Group spokesperson Amy Calton said it was “really special” to know all forests in Victoria were now safe and protected.
“It has been a really long game. I am honestly exhausted and over the moon,” she said.
The state government last year announced native timber harvesting operations in Victorian forests would end by January 1, 2024, bringing the end to operations in the state’s east.
But this did not include community forestry, which mainly operated in western Victoria by harvesting wind-thrown timber, felling single trees, or thinning; a process of removing select trees.
Most of the harvested wood was used for commercial firewood supplies, while some operations produced wood for fence posts, poles and rails, and high-value products such as furniture and instrument manufacture.
Wombat, Mount Cole, Pyrenees, Lerderderg, and Cobaw State Forests and Enfield State Park were some of the locations for this work.
Ms Calton, from Wombat Action Group, has been running rallies, campaigns, and events over the past few years in an attempt to halt the harvesting of wind-thrown timber in Wombat State Forest.
“I am exhausted and I am relieved and there is a huge part of my heart that is suddenly settled that we can say on February 5 native forest logging did end in Victoria,” she said.
Ongoing court battle
Wombat State Forest has been a central battleground between environmental campaigners and VicForests.
The forest was one of the hardest hit during wild storms in June and October 2021. Environmental campaigners were opposed to VicForest’s decision to clear debris after the storms, saying the fallen trees would become habitat for threatened species.
The Supreme Court granted an injunction temporarily halting harvesting operations in a Wombat Forest coupe in September 2023 after Wombat Forestcare brought court proceedings alleging the company had not surveyed for threatened species.
The group expanded its case in December to allege breaches of surveying requirements in multiple western Victorian forests, including Cobaw, Mount Cole, Pyrenees, Lerderderg, and Enfield.
At that hearing, the court heard VicForests had found nine endangered mountain skinks in the Wombat Forest harvesting coupe after conducting surveys brought on by the court case.
In a statement, VicForests said community forestry operations could not continue because of “risk of litigation” and “the cost it would burden the taxpayer with”.
“The court is also likely to require a disproportionate survey effort before any operations can occur,” the statement said.
“VicForests does not consider that it has the capacity to provide coupes to licensees and to manage community forestry operations.”
It is unclear what will play out in the court proceeding.
Wombat Forestcare convenor Gayle Osborne said the cessation of timber harvesting was important for ecological recovery.
“The public land in the west sits within a highly fragmented and cleared landscape and is critically important for the survival of a large number of threatened plants and animals,” she said.
“There is now nothing standing in the way of the Victorian government legislating the promised Mount Buangor and Pyrenees National Parks.
“These areas were to be logged until 2030, but now there is no impediment to their legislation.”
Operators out of work
There are approximately 50 community forestry operators across Victoria.
The Victorian government announced in December a support package for community foresters and their workers to transition out of native timber harvesting.
This included compensation for undersupply of timber and equipment no longer required, reimbursement for worker redundancy payments, and one-off hardship payments for workers.
Paul Beaton is one of the community forestry operators who had been harvesting fallen timber in the Wombat State Forest for firewood and to supply a local sawmill.
He told ABC Ballarat Breakfast in January his business had to shut abruptly and he was not sure what he would do next for work.
“We were firewood licensed for 3,500 tonnes in a season,” he said.
“People are going to have to look at an alternative because there won’t be any firewood available. How far are we going to transport it?”
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