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Estimates: Regional Forest Agreements

Estimates & Committees
Janet Rice 26 May 2015

Senator RICE: I would like to talk about regional forest agreements and, in particular, start with the review process for the regional forest agreements. Firstly, can you provide details about the progress of the 15-year review for the Victorian RFAs?

Mr McNamara: Since last estimates, the combined first and second five-yearly reviews, the Australian government's joint response with Victoria, have been tabled. We have had some preliminary discussions with Victorian officials around the commencement of the third five-yearly review, recognising, of course, that East Gippsland comes up in 2017. They have gone back to check with both relevant ministers to get a view from them on what the Victorians' current views are on the Australian government election commitments to roll over on a 20-year basis the regional forest agreements. Once we have those views, we can start discussions on the third five-yearly reviews. They just need to check with their own ministers.

Senator RICE: I was interested in the timing. Given that that third five-year review was due in June last year, we are already a year late. It does not auger well for coming back to a timely cycle with them.

Mr McNamara: They are certainly also very cognisant, I must say, of East Gippsland coming up in 2017. But they felt that they could not progress things at this stage without going back to ministers to get a view from them about how they wanted to take this forward.

Senator RICE: If the government intends to extend the regional forest agreements, what measures are going to be put in place to make sure that this lack of timeliness in the review process does not continue? The Victorian ones are a classic case in point, where, after the first review, the five-year review did not happen and the 10-year review was years late. The response to the 10-year review was four years after the independent reviewer's report.

Mr McNamara: There are a range of things—elections, new governments et cetera—that play a role in that. But certainly the extension process is very much a bilateral process with the particular government. Certainly one of the things the Australian government would like to do, and one thing that we will be prosecuting with some real vigour, is to try to ensure that we do have more streamlined five-yearly reviews. It has come up certainly in public comments we have received and it has certainly come up in other commentaries on the RFA process that reviews should be more timely. We will be looking to work with the relevant RFA states to see what we can do to make the reviews a bit more streamlined so we can get through them a bit more quickly.

Senator Colbeck: You talk about incentive. I think that is a fair point that you make. The observation you make around the timeliness of some of the reviews is very pertinent. The concept that I bring to the process is that on completion of a five-yearly review, you get a five-year extension on the end. So the concept is to have a 20- year rolling RFA process. But the incentive that comes is that that five-year extension is part of the successful completion of a five-yearly review. So there is carrot and stick as part of that process. I think that the cycles of the five-yearly reviews are demonstrated by the actions and activities. That is one of the concepts that I have spoken of as part of the 20-year rolling cycle. To get that additional five years, you have to successfully complete your five-yearly review.

Senator RICE: The timing of the reviews, I would have thought, is one of the most basic things to be able to get right. I want to move to the relationship with the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. As we all know, the current situation is that forestry operations under an RFA are not required to have approval under the EPBC Act. The Hawke review of the EPBC Act in 2010 made it clear that the continued exclusion of RFA forestry from the operations of the act should be contingent upon improved performance. They recommended that the environment minister be given the power to apply the full protection under the EPBC Act in areas covered by RFAs in the event that reviews are not conducted on time or where performance reviews identified serious non-performance of the RFA requirements. The Commonwealth decided not to adopt the recommendations of the review in 2010, but acknowledged that accountability issues had been identified and stated that it would deal with these issues as part of the renewals process for the East Gippsland and Tasmanian RFAs. How exactly are you planning to deal with this issue with the East Gippsland and Tasmanian RFAs?

Mr McNamara: As Senator Colbeck just said, one of the things will be around the incentive provided to the states to continue to have RFAs in place, which is to have a rolling evergreen RFA process. I think they will come to the table ready to recognise that discussions around RFAs probably need to be formalised a little more than they currently have been in the past. We will be looking to try to work with RFA states, as I say, to deliver a range of things. We will obviously be putting a number of things on the table to discuss with them around accountability and how we might actually strengthen that. But they are really bilateral matters for the Commonwealth with each state government.

Senator RICE: I want to move to whether there is the serious non-performance of the RFAs in terms of whether they are delivering on ecologically sustainable forest management and should continue to be excluded from the EPBC process. As part of the review process, how are you determining or auditing whether the regional forest agreements are in fact delivering ecologically sustainable forest management?

Mr McNamara: Ecologically sustainable forest management requires that the RFAs preserve biodiversity, that they provide all the values of the forest and that they strike a good balance between economic, social and environmental values. So those matters are actually picked up in terms of the reporting under the five-yearly review process through an alignment with the Montreal process criterion and indicators, which is what is reported on in the five-yearly reviews. I am not sure that I would agree that any RFA has actually failed to date in terms of delivering ESFM, so I am not quite sure what you are referring to there, Senator

Senator RICE: Let us get down to whether they are in fact protecting biological diversity. How do you determine under an RFA whether that is occurring?

Mr McNamara: We work very closely with our colleagues in the Department of the Environment. The Department of the Environment have responsibility for the EPBC Act. If their view were that there was an issue where a matter of NES or a threatened species was not being appropriately looked after under the state environmental legislation, they would have those discussions with the state and discuss it with us. Senator RICE: We have information that the Leadbeater’s possum in Victoria has been reassessed to be critically endangered. The trajectory does not look good for threatened species such as swift parrots and the masked owls in East Gippsland and other forest areas. How are you determining that the RFAs are, as you say, delivering ecologically sustainable forest management?

Senator Colbeck: I do not think you could reasonably attribute all of the issues in relation to any of those species to forestry and regional forest agreements. Look at the decline in native species across the country. The rate of native species decline in national parks is very similar to that outside national parks. I think that you are taking a bit of a leap in suggesting that any of these issues relate specifically to forestry issues. Look at the swift parrot, for example, in Tasmania. The major concern in relation to swift parrots in Tasmania is the sugar glider and the predation of swift parrots by the sugar glider.

Senator RICE: Which is also influenced by forestry operations.

Senator Colbeck: Well, I said the greatest risk. I am not saying that there is no risk from forestry. I am saying the greatest risk. The largest tract of habitat in Tasmania for swift parrots is the Wielangta forest, and most of that is in reserve. In you look at Victoria, the greatest threat to the possum is in fact bushfire. And 85 per cent of the habitat that was destroyed by the 2009 bushfires was actually outside in alpine areas and outside the forestry operations area. So I think it is a bit of a leap. That is not to say that we do not need to undertake measures to look after the possums, because that is important. The Victorian government and VicForests have a program in place there. Of course, I would expect you to ask questions of the department of environment around the recent—

Senator RICE: I intend to.

Senator Colbeck: escalation for the possums and what measures are being taken there. I understand that there are currently discussions between the Commonwealth and the Victorian governments around how that is going to be managed. That is appropriate. We are keeping a close eye on that process, obviously, because it does have some implications. So I do not think you can specifically target RFAs and forestry operations and say that they are the major problem. They obviously have an impact. I know that there are measures that are being taken in each of the jurisdictions to help to mitigate impacts on those species that you have mentioned.

Senator RICE: With respect, I want to determine whether the forestry that is occurring is ecologically sustainable. In the case of the Leadbeater's possum, the threatened species advisory committee clearly states that they consider that ceasing logging in its habitat is the key action that is needed to prevent the species’ extinction.

Senator Colbeck: And other experts have indicated that that is not going to make the difference.

Senator RICE: What will your government do for threatened species? Senator Colbeck: There is a range of opinion on this. I think it is appropriate that we consider that range of opinion. I am aware of a number of very eminent forest and ecological scientists who have made comments recently in relation to specifically the Leadbeater's possum. That is all feeding into the process that we are considering at the moment, as it should.

Mr McNamara: Certainly the Threatened Species Scientific Committee did not recommend that. They recommended the uplisting. They recommended that the current recovery plan be retained and updated. The Australian government has agreed to both of those.

Senator RICE: They also agreed that ceasing logging was the most critically active— Mr McNamara: But they stated that as an action.

Senator RICE: A key action.

Mr McNamara: I think it is worthwhile to look at what has happened since 2009. VicForests have reduced their harvesting by 30 per cent since 2009. There was a Leadbeater's possum advisory group set up between Melbourne zoo, VicForests and a range of others. Thirteen recommendations to the Victorian government were agreed to. Earlier this year, the Victorian government announced a number of other measures. There was the threatened species committee report. The department of the environment will be working now with the department of—

Senator RICE: I come back to my question. By taking these actions, how are you determining that that is actually ecologically sustainable forest management? What are the criteria? What are the intentions?

Mr McNamara: Well, in terms of the recovery plan, all those issues will be taken into consideration around what is the best way forward for the Leadbeater's possum. If the ESFM requires that there is no more logging in the central highlands RFA area, that will come through the updated recovery plan. At the moment, that is the process by which under the EPBC Act the threatened species is best dealt with.

Senator RICE: How are we going with sustainability? One of the things I am getting to is the value of sustainability indicators. If you read through the reviews of the RFAs, there is a lot of credence and importance placed on sustainability indicators. How do you feel we are going with sustainability indicators and whether we are delivering on ecologically sustainable forest management?

Mr McNamara: Well, I think we are. There was recently a decision by the New South Wales government to reduce the wood supply in northern New South Wales, for example. In recognising a reduced yield in northern New South Wales, the wood supply therefore also had to be reduced to ensure that the ESFM was maintained. State governments that manage forests are looking at demand and supply factors and adjusting accordingly to try to maintain that balance in sustainable yield into the future. It really serves their own interests to ensure that they have a wood supply going out over a long time.

Senator RICE: I want to talk about the forest indicators to determine whether you in fact have got ecologically sustainable forest management. In the Victorian 10-year review, there was a recommendation that the Victorian government give priority to monitoring the sustainability indicators to enable comprehensive reporting in the next State of the forests report due in 2013. In the government's joint response, the comments related to that were that the parties are mindful that detection of trends in sustainability indicators over time is an important element of sustainable forest management. But there is no understanding that we are actually getting anywhere with the development of those sustainability indicators. The 2013 State of the forests report in Victoria reported: The ability of indicator species to provide a reliable view of overall forest dependent biodiversity is not well established. Victoria has not as yet identified suitable indicator species for monitoring. This is 18 years of regional forest agreements that are supposedly delivering on ecologically sustainable management. I return to my question. How can you say that it is ecologically sustainable if you do not even have the indicators established to determine whether you are achieving that?

Mr McNamara: As I said to you, in terms of providing the five-yearly reviews, the basis upon which the states do that is the Montreal process working group criteria and indicators. In the end, it is the investment states make in terms of meeting or reporting on all of those indicators. In the end, we take those indicators and we assess on the basis of them. But we can only deal with the information we are provided with.

Senator RICE: Yes. Which means that you have not got the information to say that it is ecologically sustainable. It is not there. What the 2013 State of the forests report was able to tell us was that in the six years to 2012, 14 per cent of forest vertebrate species became more threatened while only four per cent of species became less threatened.

Mr McNamara: I think it is useful to note, though, that the State of the forests report indicated that: The most significant threats to forest dwelling animal species listed as threatened under the EPBC Act are historical land use change and forest loss caused by clearing for urban and industrial development, predation from introduced predators, illegal collection, recreational pressure and genetic or breeding issues. Forestry operations pose only a minor threat compared to other identified threats, constituting only 4½ per cent of total threats to listed animal species. That is in the Australian government's State of the forests report 2013. It continues: In terms of the most significant threats to forest dwelling plant species listed under the EPBC Act, small population size and localised distribution, illegal collection, recreational pressure, pressure from urban edges and genetic or breeding issues, unsuitable fire regimes and forestry operations again pose only a minor threat compared with other identified threats, constituting only 2.7 per cent of total threats to listed plant species. So in both plant and animal threatened species, forestry is a very minor player.

Senator RICE: But you have some critical species where forestry is a significant player, particularly the owl species.

Mr McNamara: Both VicForests and Forestry Tasmania have undertaken a range of prescriptions through forestry codes of practice to try to ensure that their forestry operations provide minimum impact on those important species. So I think that they are working very closely with the relevant environmental departments to try to make sure that the forestry operations keep up to date with the information that is provided.

Senator RICE: We have a lack of good indicator species. We have a lack of monitoring. Do you think it is appropriate that we should be relying on volunteers through citizen science programs to determine the rediscovery of the brown tree frog, which had not been seen for 15 years, in the forests of East Gippsland? It was seen by a volunteer. The recent sightings of long-footed potoroos and masked sooty and powerful owls have been undertaken by volunteers in areas that were due to be logged. We would never have known that those species were there except for the volunteer citizen science program.

Senator Colbeck: The Leadbeater's possum was officially listed as extinct from about 1939 to about 1968, I think. From the information that I have been receiving lately, the more places they look, the more places they find it. These indicators are not marked in national parks either. That goes to the point I made earlier; that native species decline inside national parks is about the same rate as it is outside. To me, that is a significant concern. So the concepts that are being discussed globally at the moment around broad land scale management and looking across the entire landscape and managing it for those values across the entire landscape are things that we are talking about with the states and encouraging because that is the best way that we are going to get good results for all of these species that we are talking about.

CHAIR: Thank you. I think you should declare an interest, which is to your credit. I think Senator Rice is a bushwalker.

Senator RICE: I am proud to be a bushwalker.

Senator Colbeck: I will declare an interest too because one of my hobbies is the photography of native birds. I am in the same space. We have some common interests here.

Senator RICE: I want to move to climate change and carbon stores in relation to the regional forest agreements. As we know, climate science has progressed significantly in the years since the RFAs were struck in 1997. How is it intended that the impacts of climate change and the value of forests for carbon sequestration will be taken into account as part of the government's proposed 20-year rollover of the regional forest agreements?

Mr McNamara: Maintaining our forest carbon stock is part of ecologically sustainable forest management. I note that the store of carbon in Australian forests is being maintained over time. It varied between 12.8 billion and 12.9 billion tonnes over the decade from 2001 to 2010. In terms of climate change, Western Australia explicitly takes it into consideration through their forestry management planning process. Tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales implicitly include climate change in estimates of growth rates and harvesting schedules. So in terms of ensuring that they have over an extended period of time the correct amount of timber to provide, they have to look at the impacts on potential growth rates. There is sunshine, soil, water and, indeed, other factors like climate change that they would be taking into consideration to ensure that they have an appropriate distribution of age classes over time. CHAIR: I am moving to Senator Cameron. Can you put the rest of your questions on notice?

Senator RICE: No. I cannot. I have about another five minutes to finish on climate change.

CHAIR: I am sorry, but we are going to have to come back to you. Senator Cameron.

Senator RICE: Can I just finish my five minutes?

CHAIR: No, because we are against the clock. Senator Cameron is here.

Senator RICE: Two more questions. In terms of the regional forest agreement process, will you be doing an analysis that compares the value of protecting our forests as carbon stores with the value of clear-felling them?

Senator Colbeck: We are considering science. I do not know whether you have seen it, but there is some very good science that is being done in Australia that talks about the lifecycle storage of carbon in a managed forest versus one that is left to its own devices. That is part of our consideration. Of course, that also aligns with some of the international carbon accounting rules. So that is part of the consideration. The science is really quite clear that a managed forest over time will store more carbon than one that is just left.

Senator RICE: I dispute that science. Who do you intend to consult on carbon storage in forests?

Senator Colbeck: The science done by Fabian Szatmary and the CSIRO. If you want to dispute the CSIRO, go for your life. If you want to dispute the FAO or the IPCC, which report the same thing, it is fine if you want to go down that track. But that is the basis of it. We are considering it. 

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