PARK WATCH Article June 2024 |

Matt Ruchel, Executive Director, ponders the state of Victoria’s forests a year on from the surprise announcement ending native forest logging

It’s only been a year since the State Government prematurely ended native forest logging. While many continue to (deservedly) celebrate this key milestone, logging loopholes are still being exploited and significant challenges remain. We have much work to do to make sure this destructive industry is truly at its end.

Key phase out milestones to date:

Millions for transition

To date, nearly a billion dollars ($875 million) has been committed to forest industry transition. The 2024 State Budget committed $290 million to employ forest contractors for the next four years.

The Future Forest Program received $44.8 million in 2024-2025, $115.6 million over four years. While some of that includes biodiversity and restoration activities, it also includes re-employing VicForests staff in the Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action (DEECA). There’s also a grab bag of existing regulatory and policy functions, including a range of threatened species programs, something called a Timber By-products Framework, and developing a Code of Practice for forest management.

While several processes have been announced, we’re yet to see any significant permanent protection measures put in place, such as new national parks or reserves.

Great Outdoors Taskforce: bonus or boondoggle?

The Budget included $11 million for the Great Outdoors Taskforce. Announced by the Allan Government on April Fool’s Day (perhaps portentously), the Great Outdoors Taskforce will ‘…explore which areas need to be protected to safeguard threatened species, areas that qualify for protection as national parks and opportunities for Traditional Owner management’.

While a step forward in some ways, there are glaring deficiencies in the Taskforce’s composition. Of concern is a complete lack of specific ecological or zoological expertise, and limited land management experience.

All of which begs the question: are we merely treading water in a sea of endless panels, taskforces, and processes, with little progress towards meaningful nature protection? Are we stuck swimming around a duck pond. To date, the new process lacks the certainty and thoroughness of Victorian Environmental Assessment Council (VEAC) investigations, a world-leading public land assessment process for over 50 years.

Central Highlands ‘consultation’

An Eminent Person Panel for Community Engagement has been flagged for the Central Highlands and East Gippsland since 2019. A VEAC Interim Report on values of the Central Highlands was released in December 2023 (see Park Watch 295, March 2024).

Many local conservation groups have met with the panel, which is a good thing. However, despite there being no formal request for substantive submissions, local groups are providing them nonetheless.

The Eminent Persons Panel, assisted by consultants, ran local drop-in sessions in the Central Highlands in April and May. A profoundly superficial Engage Victoria online survey was also launched, inviting people to share what they like about the Central Highlands and drop pins on a map. Locals said the drop-in sessions ranged from disorganised to unsafe shouting matches dominated by hunting and other recreation lobbies (who appeared well-informed in advance).

The Eminent Person Panel also commissioned biocultural assessments for some Traditional Owner corporations that call for the establishment of a new type of park called a Cultural Reserve. It’s unclear if VEAC has begun assessing the values of East Gippsland.

Great emphasis was placed on what locals and specific user groups thought, with little context or information. This worn out tactic breeds misinformation and misunderstanding and leads to pointless debates, such as about whether you can drive a 4WD vehicle on road in national park (yes you can, the rules are the same as in state forests). Without context and substance, these types of consultations become echo chambers of half-baked myths.

The question now is how the panel will weigh the angry loud voices of user groups against evidence-based research and strong support for better protection in parks amongst the broader community, especially nature-hungry Melburnians.

No movement despite broad public support

Despite important recommendations – such as the creation of new protected areas (like the Strathbogies and Mirboo North) – vital habitats and landscapes remain unprotected and vulnerable.

Of particular concern are the future central west parks and reserves, which have idled on the Allan Government’s to-do list since 2021. Instead of being legislated, dodgy salvage logging practices and poor management continue to damage these landscapes and wildlife habitats. The process of establishing the promised parks has been obfuscated, with timelines far beyond those seen in the creation and legislation of the Box-Ironbark, Red Gum and Great Otway national parks.

Global leaders, including Australia’s, have committed to expanding protection on land and sea by 30 per cent by 2030. We know the public support better protection, including new national parks. Independent polling consistently puts the level of support in 70–80 per cent range, whether polled nationally, state-wide or at a metro level.

Planning for the future: leading not dawdling

Yes, new protections are critical to avoid the return of native forest logging once political cycles spin on. But we still need to defend against mining, inappropriate development and to properly plan and manage visitation as Victoria’s population continues to boom.

There is a legitimate and important role for First Nations management of our natural areas. The role and aspirations of Traditional Owners need to be considered and reconciled so the resources and capacity is there to successfully look after forest and biodiversity into the future, whoever manages it and whatever tenure it is.

Behind the scenes, the Allan Government is still working on a new Public Land Act, further confusing the narrative around protection. First flagged as part of the Land and Biodiversity White Paper back in 2009, it was formally recommended as part of the VEAC state-wide review in 2017 and adopted by the then Andrews’ Government.

The environment department commenced a brief three-week consultation in 2021 which committed to ‘renewing and modernising’ Victoria’s public land legislation, including new categories of parks and reserves and tweaks to the National Park Act. The consultation paper clearly states that ‘there will be no changes to the permitted uses and levels of protection currently afforded to land managed under the National Parks Act.’

This complex piece of legislation was expected to be complete before the 2022 election. Eighteen months later, there’s still no sign of the proposed reform, with mixed messages coming out of the department about when it will be done. Yet another can being kicked down the road.

The problem that arises is that various recommendations from previous Eminent Person Panels and VEAC reports, such as for Strathbogies and Mirboo North, recommend types of parks that currently don’t exist in legislation, such as ‘cultural reserve’ and ‘conservation park’. This was also true of recommendations as part of the central west.

How can our elected representatives protect nature under a category that simply doesn’t exist? Technically speaking, it just requires legislation – something the State Labor Government has been dragging its heels on for years. But it would be an exercise in futility – and only further confuse about the definition of what park protection means for the community. The existing categories in the National Parks Act exist, and can and should be embraced.

So, are these new types of parks a mirage? Are there more fundamental changes being proposed behind closed doors? Is there some sort of legislative Bunyip hiding in the shadows of DEECA? Or is there simply a dogged unwillingness to get things done.