Australian court calls into question Regional Forest Agreements

The days of RFAs may be numbered if the successful challenge by Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum is anything to go by

By Peter Burnett

The recent decision of the Federal Court in Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum Inc v VicForests (hereafter, the Possum Case) could have significant and possibly profound implications for the logging of native forests in Australia. In this case the court found that VicForests, a Victorian Government forestry corporation, was in breach of a statutory Code of Practice for Timber Production that had been accredited under a federal-state Regional Forest Agreement (RFA).

Being covered by an RFA has meant that VicForests was exempt from the normal requirements of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act). Because of this exemption, VicForests didn’t have to go through an environmental assessment and approval process each time it wanted to log in new areas that might contain endangered species or other ‘matters of national environmental significance’.

Of course, being in breach meant that this exemption was lost.

No simple fix

You might think that VicForests could deal with such a finding by simply bringing itself back into compliance with the code. It’s not that simple, however.

The code of practice required VicForests to comply with the precautionary principle. This in turn required them to conduct on-ground ecological surveys, with a view to avoiding serious and irreversible environmental damage. In this case, damage was possible to two endangered possums, the Leadbeater’s possum and the greater glider.

In considering impacts on the possums, VicForests had relied on desktop modelling (including habitat mapping) instead of conducting surveys. The court said this was a flawed approach. It also found that policies such as VicForests’ Interim Greater Glider Strategy didn’t represent the required ‘careful evaluation of management options’ but rather were defensive documents. The content of these documents suggested that VicForests developed policies out of a sense of obligation and were reluctant to implement them.

The implication is that coming into compliance with the Code would be no small thing. It would require significant changes of approach and attitude. More significantly, given expert evidence that the possums had been detected in or around all of the 66 logging coupes considered in the case, it was likely that the possums, let alone any other environmental value, could severely restrict or even prevent logging altogether.

Playing possum

The Possum Case is on appeal, and of course the appeal could be successful. If it is not successful (and I think Justice Mortimer’s 444 page judgement will be difficult to pull apart in an appeal court because it rests much more on scientific evidence and practice than on the points of law to which an appeal court is confined) the Victorian government’s hand will be forced.

The government will either have to underwrite further losses as VicForests brings itself into compliance with environmental standards, or it will decide to accelerate the transition out of native forest logging. The option of watering down the rules, which is what the federal and Tasmanian governments did in an earlier case, is less likely because, again, the issues relate more to good science and practice than to legalities, making a lowering of the bar more obvious and thus harder to defend.

This is not the first challenge to Australia’s ten RFAs. Green activist and former Senator Bob Brown challenged the Tasmanian RFA in 2006 in the Weilangta case. He won in the first instance but lost on appeal. The Possum Case seems to have prompted him to try again: Brown has already commenced a fresh challenge to the Tasmanian RFA.

The main implication of the Possum Case may be that the days of RFAs are numbered.

A fresh approach

In one respect the end of RFAs would be unfortunate, as the underlying model of regional environmental assessments and approvals is a good one.

In another respect, if RFAs simply provide cover for defensive box ticking and green-washing rather than substantive conservation (something I discussed in an early blog), this would be no great loss.

RFAs provided a mechanism to settle the ‘forest wars’ of the 1990s. So, if RFAs are rendered inoperable by court challenges, will it be back to the forest wars?

Or do we now have a much better appreciation of the many values that our native forests provide; values that include a whole range of ecosystem services beyond timber production, such as carbon sequestration, water yield, habitat provisioning and recreational amenity? Heather Keith and her colleagues reached this conclusion in an important article published in Nature in 2017.

Sometimes we need a jolt to the system to get us thinking differently.

Image: This possum is stuffed: George is a taxidermied male Leadbeater’s Possum (Gymnobelideus leadbeateri) that Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum uses for its educational work relating to this threatened species. George was found dead but intact on the side of a logging road in 2011 in the Victorian Central Highlands. It is assumed that George’s home in the mountain ash (Eucalyptus Regnans) forests was a victim of logging, and as his home was being carted away he fell off the logging truck. (Image by Tirin (www.takver.com) and used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)

Trust us? Well let’s look at your record

Can governments be trusted to set and enforce effective environmental standards?

By Peter Burnett

Can Governments be trusted to set and enforce effective environmental standards? By ‘effective’, I mean standards that protect the environment to the point of halting long-term environmental decline?

I’m asking this question because in the current debate about reform of Australia’s national environmental law, the EPBC Act, environment minister Sussan Ley is saying ‘trust me’ on two major issues, both arising from Professor Graeme Samuel’s Independent Review of the EPBC Act.

First, she is rushing through a small but controversial set of legislative changes while promising more extensive reforms to come.

These initial changes are about reducing duplication and ‘green tape’ by introducing ‘single touch’ environmental decisions. They are posing as the first tranche of reform but are in fact a recycled version of the Abbott government’s ‘one stop shop’.

Second, the Government has rejected the recommendation of the Independent Review that there should be an ‘independent cop on the beat’ to regulate States accredited to make ‘single touch’ decisions. Without such a regulator, it would be up to Minister Ley to call to account any State making decisions that didn’t comply with Samuel’s proposed National Environmental Standards.

Unfortunately, I don’t think the government can be trusted on this. But it’s not about anyone’s personal qualities. It’s about the politics. I base my argument on two examples, Regional Forest Agreements (RFAs) and the Environment Restoration Fund (ERF).

Trust us on the forests

RFA’s were developed in the 1990s as the solution to the ‘forest wars’, especially over the harvesting of old growth forests to produce wood chips. The idea was that, following an environmental assessment, Federal and State governments would produce a 20-year plan, in the form of an RFA, for each forestry region.

There are 10 RFAs across southern Australia. Each one identifies areas for harvest and sets out how the State will conserve ecological values such as threatened species. In return, the Commonwealth grants export licences for forest products covered by the RFA and exempts forestry in RFA areas from the need for development approvals under the EPBC Act.

In 2006 Bob Brown challenged a Tasmanian RFA on the ground that Forestry Tasmania were failing to deliver the protection required by the RFA for several threatened species. He won the initial challenge but lost on appeal.

The interesting point however is not who won or lost but what happened between the initial case and the appeal.

Obviously the Federal and Tasmanian governments were concerned that the appeal court would uphold Brown’s win. So they changed the wording of the RFA. Instead of requiring that the species be protected (by applying agreed management prescriptions), the amended RFA specified that the establishment of the CAR (Comprehensive Adequate and Representative) Reserve System, together with the application of the agreed prescriptions, protected the species.

In other words, instead of requiring an actual environmental outcome, the RFA deemed the agreed inputs to be delivering the outcome.* The two governments were concerned that the law might require, not just that they take action, but that they actually achieve a result!

Trust us on endangered possums

Similar sentiments can be seen at play in the Leadbeater’s Possum Cases of 2018 and 2020, in which environment group Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum took VicForests to court, twice, arguing that the corporation was failing to comply with the RFA and that as a result it had lost its RFA exemption under the EPBC Act. (The cases also related to the Greater Glider.)

The cases are complex, but in brief the Court held that to maintain its EPBC Act exemption, VicForests had to conduct its forestry operations ‘in accordance with’ the RFA.

The first challenge failed because it was based on the failure of the Federal and Victorian governments to conduct, in a timely way, the five year reviews required under RFAs. The court said these reviews, though performing a ‘critical’ role in preserving the currency, appropriateness and effectiveness of the RFA, were not integral to forestry operations.

The second challenge was based on VicForests’ failure to comply to apply the precautionary principle, as required by the Victorian Code of Practice for Timber Production, in planning its logging activities. This time the challenge succeed, because the planning process was integral to forestry operations.

Again, the interesting point here is not so much the outcomes of the cases but the attitude of governments.

First, the Federal and Victorian governments were significantly late in conducting regular reviews of the RFAs. In fact, they missed the first one altogether. And, in playing ‘catch up’, they didn’t review the five Victorian agreements individually but rolled the reviews into one.

This creates a strong impression of initial neglect on both sides, followed by a scramble to get into compliance.

Second, rather than comply with the precautionary principle by undertaking serious on-ground monitoring work, VicForests relied on ‘desktop and other theoretical methods’ which the Court found to be flawed. In fact, the Court said that VicForests had prepared ‘defensive documents … suggesting VicForests felt obliged to have a policy addressing further protection for the Greater Glider, but was reluctant to implement it’.

Again, one is left with the strong impression that protecting the environment was far from the minds of those concerned.

Trust us on restoration

As I’ve written about the Environment Restoration Fund before, I’ll just recap briefly.

This $100m fund was announced in the 2019 Federal Budget, just before the election. The fund was presented as representing ‘practical environmental action’.

The government committed nearly 80% of the funds in the form of election commitments, ie. immediately, without calling for applications and without access to the usual expert advice about how to prioritise the spending for best environmental effect.

In other words, despite serious and ongoing environmental decline, the government’s ‘practical environmental action’ was, in reality, a pork barrel. When challenged about their approach in the Senate, the government’s main defence was that the Opposition did this sort of thing too.

So, who do ya trust?

I could go on, but in my view these two significant examples alone suggest strongly that governments, irrespective of political persuasion, or whether Federal or State, cannot be trusted to implement good environmental policy. Without ginger groups such as Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum to keep them honest, or Professor Samuel’s ‘independent cop on the beat’, they have a strong tendency to ‘talk the talk’ but not ‘walk the walk’.

The politics are just too hard.

With the RFA’s, I’m betting politicians still have an indelible memory of the timber trucks encircling Parliament House, like ‘Indians’ riding around the circled wagons in an old Western, even though this occurred more than 25 years ago. Once bitten, not just twice shy but pathologically averse to stirring up the timber industry.

With the ERF, the Morrison Government was widely expected to lose the 2019 election and perhaps this was an initiative born of desperation. The fact that it worked will only suffice as justification to the most rusted-on Coalition supporters. For the rest of us, it’s only helped to reinforce the widely held view that governments can’t be trusted.

So, while it’s possible that we’ll get a reasonable set of National Environmental Standards out of the current national environmental law review, because talk and even laws are cheap, it’s much less likely that governments would implement them effectively, if left to their own devices.

Bring on Professor Samuel’s independent cop on the beat!

Image by Pixabay

*On appeal, the Full Federal Court said that the change was unnecessary and that, as a matter of interpretation, the original words only required the application of the agreed prescriptions and not the achievement of protection, but this is beside the point.