PARK WATCH Article March 2022 |

It doesn’t matter how many times you say it; you need to deliver it before you can claim it, writes Executive Director Matt Ruchel. 

The Victorian Government announced in November last year its “Next Steps To Guide The Future Of Our Protected Forests”. It was welcome progress on what has so far been a drip-fed, drawn-out process since the initial announcement back in November 2019.

Part of the Andrews Government’s Victorian Forestry Plan, Immediate Protection Areas (IPAs) are more than 146,000 hectares of state forest located in Mirboo North, Strathbogie Ranges, Central Highlands, and East Gippsland to be “immediately” protected. 

Finally kicking off the process last August, the Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio announced an Eminent Panel for Community Engagement “to lead conversations with Victorian communities on the future care and management of the land”. The process will also include inputs of two technical assessments from the Victorian Environmental Assessment Council (VEAC).

It is an extensive, multi-layered process. VEAC is already assessing the environmental, recreation and other values for IPAs in Mirboo North and Strathbogie Ranges. Similar efforts in the Central Highlands and East Gippsland will start in mid-2022. This will then be fed into the Eminent Panel for Community Engagement, to do more consultation and make recommendations. 

It is hard to fathom why it is such a slow, gradual process, when the boundaries for the IPAs have already been drawn, and the Minister is already claiming them as protected. 

There is also little willingness to revisit the basis of the boundaries or the underlying science, even within this long consultation process. 

There seem to be commitment issues – grand declarations have been made, but we are still waiting on tangible outcomes.

The Andrews Government needs to be careful with its various, inconsistent claims describing the IPAs. In the one media release, both 96,000 and 146,000 hectare figures were used. Both figures are correct, with the 96,000 hectares actually scheduled in logging coupes within the total 146,000 hectares of the proposed IPAs. More recently, the government has publicly used the larger 146,000 hectares figure, after previously being careful to use the 96,000 hectares figure.

The original announcement of the Victorian Forests Plan in November 2019 released a Greater Glider Action Statement “to protect the future of the Greater Glider – alongside the Leadbeater’s Possum and more than 35 other threatened species – the Action Statement maps out more than 96,000 hectares of forest across Victoria immediately exempt from logging” (emphasis added). It also stated that “this habitat has been identified by experts as being critical to the survival of the Greater Glider and a range of other precious flora and fauna – many of which are not found anywhere else on earth”. 

Conservationists and scientists have questioned the scientific basis and design of the IPAs to maximise protection of key threatened species such Greater Glider and Leadbeater’s Possum. A coalition of 12 groups wrote to the Minister in October 2020, asking for information about the basis of the design, but no response has been received. 

The  Minister’s media release on 18 January 2021 claimed that: 

“Since 2019 the Victorian Government has added more than 250,000 hectares of protected forests in Victoria – including 96,000 hectares of Immediate Protection Areas, 65,106 hectares for the new Central West National Parks and 90,000 hectares of old growth.”

While announcements have indeed been made, none of these areas have been legally “added” to the formal protected area system, or new national parks created. It all seems dependent on even more consultation process. 

The claim of 90,000 hectares of old growth protected is speculative and (despite what is claimed) not actually protected. The government’s qualification of ‘old growth’ depends on an on-ground assessment prior to logging that has raised serious questions as to how they define this important and dwindling forest habitat type. A serious concern is that the definition deployed will protect some individual stands of old growth; it will not protect old growth overall. (see Park Watch December 2020 article 

The impact of the 2019-2020 bushfires on old growth has also not been comprehensively assessed. When old growth forests are burnt, they are no longer considered to be old growth. This leaves the old growth forest estate vulnerable to exploitative logging following fire, even if values on the ground remain and fire severity was less than modelling showed. This loophole is of great concern. It also begs the question of how much old growth is actually left. Old growth was not even mentioned in the summary report by the Major Event Review Panel, set up to assess impact of the fires. (The final report of this process was original due at the end of 2021 and has been delayed some months.) 

The announcement to commit to new central west parks was welcomed, but the proposed parks are yet to be legislated. Critically, important areas will be logged at Mount Cole and Mount Buangor, the Pyrenees Ranges and smaller parts of the Wombat Forest before being turned into parks at some stage in the future (up to ten years). 

It makes no sense to go through a formal expert investigation process taking years to identify the areas with natural values warranting becoming national parks, and then add a clause that allows them to be logged first. It is basically the same impact as logging a national park.

There is no clear policy commitment, timeline or plan for when legislation will be forthcoming to create the new central west parks, which now seems unlikely in 2022 before the state election.

As many of these commitments are both significantly flawed and yet to be completed or fully delivered, it’s hard to believe the repeated claims of the Minister’s office for “one of the largest environmental initiatives in our state’s history …”  

As we said, it doesn’t matter how many times you say it; you need to deliver it before you can claim it. 


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