Forestry agencies owned by the Victorian and Tasmanian governments have both conceded something they have been avoiding saying: that their logging of native forests isn’t considered up to scratch.
In the space of three days earlier this month, VicForests and Sustainable Timber Tasmania – the former Forestry Tasmania – revealed they had not achieved Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification, considered the international gold standard for forest management.
In both cases, but particularly Victoria, it could have financial ramifications for the agencies and governments as major retailers accelerate a shift away from selling products without the FSC stamp.
The pressure on the Victorian forestry industry has been heightened by a landmark federal court judgment in May that found it had breached a code of practice by destroying habitat vital for the survival of two threatened species – the critically endangered Leadbeater’s possum and the greater glider – while logging coupes in the fire-depleted mountain ash forests of the state’s central highlands.
In new orders handed down on Friday, Justice Debra Mortimer banned logging in 67 coupes. Observers said it created a situation where VicForests could be risking further legal action if it attempted to log other coupes in the region, and could set a precedent for other areas covered by regional forest agreements between the federal and state governments.
The agreements exempt logging operations from requirements under national environment laws to protect threatened species on the basis that damage needed to be weighed against economic benefits. But that exemption is now under question.
VicForests plans to appeal, but the judgment has already prompted hardware giant Bunnings to bring forward a commitment to not sell VicForests timber unless it was FSC approved. OfficeWorks is headed down a similar path, having promised the paper products it sells will come from FSC-stamped or recycled sources only by the end of the year.
Similar court action is now planned in Tasmania, where the Bob Brown Foundation has launched a federal court case that argues native forest logging in the state is inconsistent with federal laws.
Amelia Young, the national campaigns manager with the Wilderness Society, said the court action and the FSC certification failures should send a message to the state governments that own and back the agencies.
“That message is: get real. It’s 2020. Why are you still logging old-growth and threatened species habitat?” she said.
“The auditors are alive to it, the courts are alive to it, the marketplace is alive to it. The Australian public don’t want to see old-growth forests logged and threatened species sent to extinction.”
Established in Germany in 1993, the Forest Stewardship Council describes itself as the pioneer of forest certification systems, with a goal of promoting “environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial and economically viable” management of forests across the globe.
In Australia, plantations and some small native forest operators have received the top-level FSC certification, but it has proven elusive for major state agencies. Both VicForests and Sustainable Timber Tasmania have tried and failed to achieve certification before, but their responses to their non-certification this time around differed markedly.
In VicForests’ case, it released a statement saying it was postponing its goal of winning a second-tier level of FSC approval, known as “controlled wood”, in part due to Covid-19 and the federal court case. But it raised eyebrows within government and the industry by launching an attack on FSC Australia, saying it was concerned it would not get a fair assessment because three of the certification body’s directors were involved in anti-logging activism.
The claim was rejected by FSC Australia, which stressed its auditors were independent, and publicly ignored by the Victorian Labor government, which just pointed to its promise to phase out native forest logging and move to plantation timber only by 2030.
The FSC Australia board includes forestry representatives, and the auditors performing the assessment were chosen by VicForests itself from a pool of consultants qualified to perform the work. The agency did not answer questions from Guardian Australia about its criticism of FSC Australia.
Sustainable Timber Tasmania was less combative. It belatedly released its FSC audit report, dated February, along with a statement that highlighted it had succeeded on 93% of measures before acknowledging it had failed.
The points of failure were significant. The auditors found it had logged old-growth areas that could have been habitat and nesting trees for the critically endangered swift parrot despite having received expert advice that they should be protected. Scientists have found the parrot could be extinct within 11 years. The auditors found the agency considered the expert advice, but decided not to follow it.
One of the coupes that was logged despite a recommendation it should be protected is listed in the report as BB025A. When Guardian Australia visited this area in the Huon Valley, south of Hobart, in May 2019 it had been clear-felled and the stumps burned.
The auditors found Sustainable Timber Tasmania had not appropriately identified and considered threats to the parrot, generally, or made clear how they would protect its habitat. They had not demonstrated they were protecting rare or endangered stands of old-growth forest, or provided evidence that its logging of old growth was “not a threat at a landscape level”.
The Tasmanian Liberal government responded by releasing a plan that it said would boost protection of the swift parrot by excluding nearly 10,000 hectares of forest from logging. The state’s resources minister, Guy Barnett, said it would provide certainty for the industry and the parrot’s conservation: “Tasmanians can be proud of the government and Sustainable Timber Tasmania’s commitment to protecting our threatened species, like the swift parrot, and our world-class forest management practices.”
The FSC auditors had already assessed this plan – known as a public authority management agreement, or Pama – in what ended up being its final form as part of their assessment. They found while it would lead to a marked improvement by protecting swift parrot habitat on Bruny Island, in the state’s south-east, it would not prevent loss of breeding and foraging forest elsewhere and covered only a small proportion of the breeding range across the state.
Ed Hill, an environmental consultant engaged by conservation groups during the FSC assessment, said the government could have taken on board the auditors’ criticisms and updated the plan to protect all swift parrot habitat. “Instead, they approved an inept and half-baked conservation measure that the FSC auditors determined to be not good enough,” he said.
Industry groups maintain native forestry is environmentally friendly, audit findings and court judgments notwithstanding. In a statement on Friday, the head of the Australian Forest Products Association, Ross Hampton, said the latest court action by the Bob Brown Foundation was a “callous attack” on workers “predicated on the untruth” that the industry was not sustainable.
He accused environmentalists of taking steps that would put thousands of people out of work. “The facts are that native forestry operations occur on only a tiny fraction of Australia’s native forest estate,” Hampton said.
Suzette Weeding, who is responsible for land management at Sustainable Timber Tasmania, told the ABC the agency remained committed to achieving FSC certification. Its plan included running trials in which large individual large trees critical to the swift parrot would be left standing as the area around it was logged.
She said the agency hoped to have FSC auditors in the field for a new assessment within two years, but conceded the organisation would continue to cut down trees that were more than 100 years old.
Hill said the biggest impediment to the Tasmanian agency being internationally approved appeared to be the state government, which still wanted to open up more of the state’s native forests to logging, including 356,000 hectares that have been under a moratorium until March this year and that Bunnings and Japanese customers had indicated they would not accept timber from.
“Until the government securely protects all swift parrot habitat from logging and ends old-growth logging, it’s very hard to see how Sustainable Timber Tasmania will ever achieve FSC certification.”