Last week, hardware retailing giant, Bunnings, announced that it would immediately ban the sale of hardwood products derived from locally-grown native forest logs sourced from the Victorian Government's commercial forestry agency, VicForests.
In announcing the ban, Bunnings merchandising director, Phil Bishop, noted that the retail giant had a "zero-tolerance approach" to illegally-logged timber, and justified the company's decision on a recent Federal Court ruling which had found VicForests guilty of breaching Victoria's Code of Practice for Timber Production. According to Mr Bishop, this was contrary to their customer's expectations that "the timber they purchase is sourced from responsible and legal forestry operations".
Illegal logging is generally characterised as secretive felling of trees and extraction of logs from lands where it is not legally permitted; and involves operations that are unapproved, unplanned, unsupervised, non-compliant to environmental regulations, and with no attempt made to regenerate the harvested site. However, none of this applies to VicForests' timber production operations which are legally approved, pre-planned, highly regulated, regenerated after harvest, and occur only in State Forest zones which allow sustainable timber production.
Nevertheless, the recent Federal Court decision effectively rules that VicForests' past and planned future timber harvesting operations are 'unlawful' – even if not matching the accepted view of illegal logging – largely because they breach a clause in the Code of Practice relating to the 'precautionary principle' in relation to two endangered wildlife species.
The Victorian Code of Practice defines the 'precautionary principle' as:
'precautionary principle'means when contemplating decisions that will affect the environment, careful evaluation of management options be undertaken to wherever practical avoid serious or irreversible damage to the environment; and to properly assess the risk-weighted consequences of various options. When dealing with threats of serious or irreversible environmental damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation.
While the Federal Court ruling represents a Judge's adverse interpretation of the degree to which VicForests adheres to the 'precautionary principle' clause, it is worth noting that the clause has been part of the Code of Practice for at least 13 years. Over this period, VicForests' planning, protocols and practices have been certified to the world's largest forest certification scheme, involving regular independent audits which have never raised any serious questions about its adherence to the Code's 'precautionary principle' clause.
VicForests' has, for at least five years, been also endeavouring to obtain Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification in accordance with a Victorian Government directive meant to appease 'green' activist stakeholders who prefer that certification scheme. VicForests has yet to attain FSC certification primarily because these stakeholders have maintained multiple overlapping legal challenges against VicForests safe in the knowledge that the FSC cannot certify an entity while it is constantly defending itself against allegations of malpractice, irrespective of their merit.
Also, since 2014, in accordance with the recommendations of the Victorian Government's Leadbeater's Possum Advisory Group, VicForests has substantially increased the effort taken to identify the presence of threatened species prior to timber harvesting and to then exclude harvesting from places where they are found. The relative abundance of these ostensibly threatened species has led to substantial areas of new reserves being created which has reduced the already limited portion of suitable forest to which VicForests has access, and, along with the impact of recent bushfires, this has decreased the annual timber harvest to low levels not seen since World War Two.
It is also pertinent to point out that the vast majority of Victoria's public forests and their wildlife are already contained in reserves that won't be logged, and are therefore are under no threat from VicForests' operations.Indeed, as only 6% of Victoria's 7.1 million hectares of public native forest is being managed for timber supply on a long-term cycle of harvest and regrowth, it is fanciful to claim that VicForests' operations have any significant impact on the whole of any local environmental value.
Indeed, such a proportionally limited level of activity could only be considered as a 'serious or irreversible threat' to any environmental value if such background context is ignored. This is arguably what the Federal Court's 400-page ruling is based on, given its unhealthy over-reliance on ANU scientific papers which have typically ignored or grossly overstated the scale and proportional extent of timber production.
It has been clear since the Federal Court's ruling was announced in late May that there are very strong grounds to appeal against how it has re-interpreted VicForests' adherence to the Code of Practice in a manner that is so out-of-step with the past. VicForests has now announced that such an appeal will proceed, and it is not over-stating things to say that unless over-turned, the current ruling will set a precedent that will end native hardwood timber production across the nation. This would come at the cost of thousands of jobs in rural and regional communities where alternative job opportunities are either absent or very limited.