Regional forest agreements have failed in the 20 years since they were established by state governments, says a new report, which reveals that record numbers of threatened forest dwelling fauna and many species are heading towards imminent extinction.
The report, Abandoned – Australia’s forest wildlife in crisis, has assessed the conservation status of federally listed forest-dwelling vertebrate fauna species affected by logging and associated roading and burning across Australia’s regional forest agreement (RFA) regions in New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania and Western Australia.
Released by the Wilderness Society this week, the report identified 48 federally-listed threatened species of forest-dwelling vertebrate fauna living in areas subject to state-run logging operations.
Four of those species – the leadbeater’s possum, swift parrot, western ringtail possum and regent honeyeater – are among the 20 bird and 20 mammal species most likely to become extinct within 20 years.
It also found that since the time the RFAs were signed, 11 forest vertebrate species had been raised to “endangered” or “critically endangered” categories, bringing the total to 24, and none had been lowered. Another 15 species were listed as threatened for the first time.
The report called for an end to exemptions for logging operations from federal environmental laws, an overhaul of those laws, and the establishment of new assessment and regulatory bodies.
“The report calls on the next Australian government to commit to a policy that no more of Australia’s unique wildlife species will be allowed to go extinct, and to ensure, backed by the necessary laws and resources, that this policy is fulfilled,” said the Wilderness Society’s national forest campaigner, Peter Roberston.
The RFAs, negotiated between state and federal governments in the 1990s, gave state logging agencies a “free pass from federal environmental assessment”, the report said.
The NSW and Tasmania RFAs were recently revised and extended until 2039 and 2037 respectively, effectively exempting state-sanctioned logging operations from federal environment and nationally threatened species laws for another 20 years. Victoria and WA have both agreed to extend their RFAs with the federal government.
The agreements were negotiated as a way to balance the demands of the logging industry with environmental concerns, while removing the federal government from the logging operations assessment process, the report said, but in the past 20 years the threat to wildlife species has increased.Advertisement
The report called for the WA and Victorian agreements to be allowed to expire, and for those of Tasmania and NSW to be terminated and replaced with agreements that “reflect changed conditions environmentally, socially, economically and climatically” while new federal laws were developed.
Australia has the highest rate of mammal extinction in the world, and a Senate inquiry is examining why the laws are failing to arrest the trend.
Fewer than 40% of Australia’s threatened species have recovery plans in place – established under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act – to try to prevent extinction, and last week the federal environment department conceded it had no idea if those were even being implemented.
The Wilderness Society report said deficiencies in the EPBC Act, Australia’s key piece of environmental legislation, were compounded by RFA exemption clauses.
“Our forests and their threatened species cannot survive RFAs of any length that continue to prioritise logging over all other values and uses of forests,” the report said.
“The next Federal Government and Environment Minister must act quickly to fully implement science-based Recovery Plans (or where no such plans exist, cause them to be prepared and implemented). Any logging operations likely to have a significant impact on these species and their habitat should be ‘called in’ for formal Federal environmental impact assessment.”
The report cited Senate inquiry submissions from forest ecologists, which claimed that RFA performance reviews were incomplete or years behind schedule.
“RFAs do not adequately protect biodiversity, threatened species, or threatened ecosystems,” the submission by scientists from the Australian National University said.
“They also have failed to maintain key ecosystem processes on which threatened species depend. RFAs are based on outdated information and are characterised by poor governance.”
In a statement, the federal environment minister, Melissa Price, rejected criticisms in the Wilderness Society report on threatened species, which she said were protected in RFA areas through conservation reserves.
“The suggestion that species are being pushed relentlessly and knowingly to extinction is both inflammatory and incorrect,” said Price.
“RFAs have played an important role in balancing the environmental, economic, cultural and social values of state native forests.
“Renewed (RFA) agreements also include important new clauses focusing on environmental outcomes reporting, including reports on the status and trends of threatened species in RFA areas and the inclusion of new dispute resolution processes such as annual meetings and new audit provisions.”