PARK WATCH Article September 2023 |

Jordan Crook, Parks and Nature Campaigner, wonders when our state agencies will stop working at cross purposes and put nature first

The tree removal program  in the Dandenong Ranges National Park continues to throw up more questions than are answered by the Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action (DEECA).

Authorised by Forest Fire Management Victoria (FFMV) but executed by VicForests, the reason for the work seems to change depending on who you ask and where they work.

A very concerning line in the memorandum of understanding between the two to remove the fallen trees for ‘highest and best use’ from the park, with profits split 50/50 between VicForests and FFMV as ‘cost recovery’.

VNPA worked with local Dandenong Ranges groups to demand a more ecologically sensitive approach from DEECA than the broad acre log removal program that was planned to be finished prior to Christmas 2022.

As fire management operations are subject to both Commonwealth and state law, VNPA and local groups wrote to the federal environment department with our concerns. After months of effort, DEECA delayed their plans due to concerns about the impact on state and Commonwealth listed plants and animals in the area, such as Greater and Yellow-bellied Gliders, Gang Gang Cockatoos, Powelltown Correas and high densities of hollow-bearing trees.

We received fantastic news in mid-2023, when FFMV scaled back the log removal operation from a ‘broad acre’ program to ‘road and track side removal’, reducing the impact area of the operations by half, from 110 hectares to 50 hectares.

While good progress, the fact that it took concerned locals, wildlife experts and VNPA to highlight VicForests’ log removal technique – driving 30 tonne machines through the national park. These huge machines are rolled over bushland areas, damaging habitats and vegetation, and causing further disturbance and injury to a forest recovering from a former extreme weather event.

FFMV allowed to mark its own homework

We also learnt some very concerning facts about the regulation of fire management operations, and the transparency of planning of these operations. It turns out that the federal environment department handballed responsibility back to FFMV:

Thank you for providing information regarding listed threatened species that may occur within the proposed storm debris removal areas. The department has engaged with the Victorian Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action (DEECA) to ensure they are aware of obligations to protect threatened species under the EPBC Act. I understand that DEECA has undertaken a self-assessment to identify relevant protected environmental values and implement appropriate management controls and will refer proposals if a significant impact on a protected matter is likely to occur.
– Department of Climate, Energy, Environment & Water, Feb 2022

Communications from the Office of the Conservation Regulator, said ‘There is no regulatory body to oversee fire management, however, concerns around operational activity continue to be best brought to the attention of director forest management.’

Essentially, this means FFMV can mark its own homework. The need for more transparency in FFMV’s planning and operations, as well as independent oversight and regulation of the organisation, has never been greater Without intervention, it’s the harm it causes will spread across the state.

After meetings with FFMV representatives in mid-2023, where they outlined their plans to reduce the work area to roadside area 30-40 metres off the track, we learnt that the tree removal and commercial sale were still on the table.

This included the removal of woody debris from the national park to feed into a local bio-char facility, and the clearing of two log landing areas within the park. One of these was in an area of the forest not impacted by the previous storm event.

When given the chance to reduce the harm to the park, by taking out smaller length of wood and debris with smaller machinery with rubber tyres, the agencies  dismissed it on the grounds it would make the operation ‘unviable’.

But isn’t the point of the operation to manage fire impacts?

Setting a dangerous precedent

The proposal to remove fallen logs from the national park under the guise of fire management is both concerning and disappointing. We are without doubt that it will set a dangerous precedent for our parks and other conservation areas.

VNPA Community Learning and Communications Officer, Meghan Lindsay, detected an active Superb Lyrebird nest within the log removal area in the Dandenong Ranges National Park.

VNPA and local groups submitted a detection report to the Chief Fire Officer about this finding. We raised serious concerns that the mother would abandon its nest and egg or chick if large machinery was bought into the nesting area.

All wildlife – not just those listed under state and federal legislation – is protected in national parks. FFMV have promised a buffer zone for the nest and chick, but made no mention of a delay to allow the chick to move around undisturbed We are actively  monitoring the situation.

Another small win has been the commitment by the Yarra Ranges Council confirming that ‘Council and its contractor do not plan to source timber from the Dandenong Ranges National Park as a feedstock material for producing biochar’.

This concerning development from DEECA would have potentially seen wood and woody debris removed from the national park to be burnt for biochar.

As the climate continues to warm, impacts such as windstorm events will increase and so will the impacts on our parks and natural areas. How we manage the aftermath of these events will dictate if these areas adapt and recover (by managing pest plants and animals), or collapse (by extracting fallen trees or over-burning them).

Here we have yet another example why VicForests must be closed down. Ecologically-focused land managers must be allowed to deal with storm impacts without the threat of VicForests circling overhead, looking for at the forest as a resource to exploit, instead of a living web of nature to protect.