Regional forest laws a dismal failure, report says

Australia’s Federal government has failed to protect State and regional forests aggravating the risks faced by endangered species and iconic trees, a report released today said.

The Environment Defenders Office (EDO) released the ‘One Stop Chop’ , a report containing an assessment how State governments failed to enforce effective environmental protection laws without Federal laws supporting them.

Friends of the Earth (FOE) said the report reveals environmental protection standards under state governments are far lower than under federal laws “and is a sombre warning for the fate of Australia’s wild places if plans to hand over federal environment powers are enacted.”

FOE Campaigns Coordinator Cam Walker said  the ‘One Stop Chop’ shows that “contracting forest management out to state governments is systematically failing our threatened species and iconic forests” adding that “Regional Forest Agreements (RFAs) are the living example of what transferring federal environment powers to the states  would look like for our environment.”

As a result of the federal government’s oversight, forests have suffered, along with threatened species like Victoria’s critically endangered Leadbeater’s Possum, Walker said.

The report has sought to address the fundamental question whether the State and regional forestry laws have delivered equivalent environment protection standards to those likely to be achieved if the Federal laws have been applied directly to forestry operations in States and regional areas.

The Federal law is embodied in The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act of 1999 (EPBC Act). It  is the federal government’s key piece of environmental legislation which took effect 16 July 2000– while the State and regional forestry laws are embodied in the RTAs.

Photo: MyEnvironmentInc

‘One Stop Chop’ focuses on biodiversity, particularly those threatened species which are matters of national environmental significance.

The overall finding, however, shows that RTAs never delivered the benefits claimed for them “for a mix of political, economic, cultural and legal reasons.”

From a legal perspective, the main reason the RFAs have failed is that the States do not take the regulatory and legal actions required to adequately protect matters of national significance. The failure is fundamental to the concept of the RFAs and of devolving control of matters of national environmental significance from the Commonwealth to the States.

The EPBC Act provides guidelines to the conservation and protection of nine matters of national environmental significance (MNES). These include world heritage properties, national heritage places, wetlands of international importance, nationally threatened species and ecological communities, migratory species, Commonwealth marine areas, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, nuclear actions (including uranium mining), water resource in relation to coal seam gas development and large coal mining development.

The RFAs have different focus. They are 20-year plans for the conservation and sustainable management of Australia’s native forests. The Federal and State governments signed the 10 RFAs between 1997 and 2001. These 10 are already put in place in four States including Western Australia, Victoria, Tasmania and New South Wales. The Agreements provide certainty for forest-based industries, forest-dependent communities and conservation.

The RFAs sets the guidelines, tasks and responsibilities for sustainable forest management; and they are ongoing. The forest debate ranges over a variety of topics, including regeneration and regrowth forest,  old-growth forests,  woodchips, management on and off reserves, private land, plantations, fire, forest operations and regulations, other land uses, and endangered, threatened, vulnerable and rare species and ecological communities.

Last year, the Council of Australian Governments agreed to reform environmental laws that seek to give States an autonomy over local environmental laws. The One Stop Chop report, however, opposes the prospect.

Relevant Links:

Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water,  Population, and Communities

Department of Agriculture and Fisheries

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Transfer of power to State poses threat to environment

This might be a good news for Santos, Chevron, Woodside, Shell, BHP Billiton, ExxonMobil, Origin, Ta Ann—name it—and all those other giants engaged in the business of “exploiting” Australia’s natural resources. They will have more freedom to dig and rig, build dams, or haul native logs—if the power to enforce environmental laws will be transferred from the Federal Government to the State Government.

Undated photo shows BHP Billiton running this machine at Mt Newman mine in Western Australia. (AP Photo/BHP Billiton,HO)

The Council of Australian Governments earlier this year agreed to reform controversial environmental laws. It proposes changes that would give states autonomy to take control over local environmental laws.

The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act)  administered by the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts covers the assessment and approval process of national environmental and cultural concerns. It also administers specific Acts that oversee activities relating to marine resources, importing, heritage issues, hazardous waste, and fuel quality.

State and territory environment laws apply to specific business activities and are administered by both state and local governments in the form of licences and permits.

The plan to hand over control of national environmental powers to state and territory governments has outraged the Greens. Last month, an alliance of more than 35 environmental organisations sent more than 10,000 petition signatures to Environment Minister Tony Burke to oppose the proposals.

The Wilderness Society of Australia warned that without Federal powers to override the states, places of high conservation values would be exposed to exploitation. This is the case of the Great Barrier Reef, the Franklin River, the Daintree Rainforest and Fraser Island, for example. If left to the State Government, they would have been destroyed, the group said.

The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) notes that in the past, under the national environment law, the Federal Government has been able to save  the Great Barrier Reef from State Government plans to allow oil rigs.

However, the reef is still at risk from climate change, catchment run-off, coastal developments and shipping. Recent reports show it has lost 50 per cent of its coral cover since 1985.


Protestors at Franklin Dam site in 1982. In 1978, the Tasmanian Hydro-Electric Commission announced plan to build Franklin Dam, but failed. In 1982, the Federal Government declared the area as a World Heritage Site. (Photo: Tasmania Wilderness Society/National Archive of Australia)

Lonergan Research poll in November said the vast majority of Australians, about 85 per cent, believe the Federal Government should be able to block or make changes to major projects that could damage the environment.

Last week, the plan sounded to have been resolved. The Wilderness Society thought it could sit back and relax—at least for now. In a press release dated 7 December, the Society said the Federal Government has saved business and environmental organisations from a legislative and litigation nightmare by not handing over environmental approval powers to the states.

Wilderness Society National Director Lyndon Schneiders noted, “The business community has avoided a train wreck. The Federal Government seems to have recognised that our environment is essential to our national interest.”

Now is the time to put in place a robust system that guarantees the highest level protection of areas of national and international significance and for the Federal Government to continue to be the guardians of those values.

Greenpeace flashes a banner to support a UN team dispatched to assess the Great Barrier Reef in early 2012.

However, the ACF today pushed the red button: “Our federal environment laws – the last resort of protection for our precious places and species – are under attack.” Despite a concerted campaign of environmental organisations, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) will put the plan on hold till next April, Chief Executive Office Don Henry said in a statement circulated by email. ACF Director of Strategic Ideas Charles Berger also noted, “the plan is not completely off the table and big business is bound to push the government to reconsider.”

You can bet big business will be pushing these changes, which would make it easier for developers and miners to irreparably damage reefs, wetlands and heritage areas by taking away the national layer of scrutiny and review.

So the fight to pressure politicians not to allow businesses to exploit the environment is expected to go on until the Government will “dump this reckless idea for good, “ the ACF said.

Blog Link: Asian Correspondent