PARK WATCH Article December 2023 |

Matt Ruchal, VNPA Executive Director, on VicForests’ death rattles

Despite the imminent end to native forest logging in Victoria the state-run zombie institution VicForests still lurks in our landscapes, and in our courts. The fact that one of the most egregious examples of public mismanagement in this state’s history is still in operation is scandalous.

On 10 August 2023, the Office of the Victorian Information Commissioner (OVIC) released a report into potential breaches of the Privacy Act by VicForests after allegations of covert surveillance of conservationists Sarah Rees, Steve Meacher and leading scientist Professor David Lindenmayer.

The report considered an allegation that VicForests hired a private investigator to conduct covert surveillance – or ‘collect dirt’ – on members of the public in 2010/11. It concluded that the collection of personal data breached information privacy principles. OVIC commissioner Sven Bluemmel was quoted in The Age describing the Privacy Act breaches as ‘serious and flagrant.’  The report states:

Collecting this information for the purposes of seeking to discredit the environmentalist was not necessary for any legitimate functions of VicForests. It was also unreasonably intrusive. The contraventions resulted from deliberate conduct on behalf of VicForests, which appears to have been intended to cause harm.

On the back of this and many other failings, the government has started to move, albeit slowly. On 6 September, VicForests’ state business corporation status was changed to a ‘reorganising body’. This paves the way for it to be split up and absorbed into different government departments (or reincarnated as another entity).

VicForests has outlived its purpose and needs to be abolished in an orderly manner, conscious of any ongoing and outstanding liabilities. Nature and community groups are calling for our elected representatives to finally put VicForests out of its misery. In October we, along with over 60 environment and conservation groups, published an open letter to the Allan Government.

The letter highlighted systematic breaches of the public’s trust, abjectly failing Victorians on every measure: including:

  • Haemorrhaging millions of dollars in public funds.
  • Breaking the law repeatedly, without apology or show of remorse.
  • Decimating our iconic native forests which are on the verge of ecological collapse.
  • Destroying the habitat of threatened and endangered wildlife and plants.
  • Logging in a manner that studies show increases bushfire risk and severity.
  • Putting the quality and security of Melbourne’s water supply at risk.
  • Reducing the amount of carbon stored in forests and released millions of tonnes of emissions.
  • Not regenerating massive areas of the forest estate, leaving the state and Traditional Owners with an enormous on-going land management burden.
  • Spreading disingenuous claims about the sustainability of its operations that have had significant impact on regional workers, families, businesses and the community.
  • Extending its degradation of forests to some of Australia’s most fragmented landscapes in western Victoria.
  • Conducting covert surveillance on a Victorian citizen who dared hold them to account.

The reputational, ecological and socio-economic damage caused by VicForests has no place in our state. The commercially driven extraction of trees from native forests and bushland has lost its social licence, including under the guise of public land management.

The restoration and conservation challenge ahead provides a huge opportunity to generate meaningful, ongoing employment. Future land management regimes must be open, transparent, and underpinned by robust science.

The letter concludes that it is time to end this sorry saga, wind up VicForests, and partner with First Nations, nature and wildlife protection organisations, scientists, and the broader community. This is how we secure enduring protections for all of Victoria’s globally significant native forests, for the enjoyment of current and future generations.