Timber harvesting banned to protect rare species


Vicforests is not allowed to harvest timber in areas the rare species have been sighted. Photo: Steve Lacy (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Two Victorian organisations have succeeded in bringing an interlocutory injunction against VicForests in a bid to protect some of the state’s rare and endangered species.

The injunction prevents VicForests – a state government-owned business which conducts timber harvesting operations – from harvesting timber in a forest where there has been a sighting of a Greater Glider, or within 240 metres of such an area.

The injunctions sought by Environment East Gippsland Inc (EEG) and Kinglake Friends of the Forest Inc (KFF) from the Supreme Court of Victoria were the result of proceedings that began separately but have since become linked.

Both associations filed their summonses last month; EEG sought their injunction in relation to forest management areas in the East Gippsland region, while the injunction sought by KFF related to forest management areas in the Central Highlands.

The Greater Glider is one of three species EEG and KFF seek to protect with the injunctions.

The Yellow-bellied Glider and the Common Brush-tailed Possum are also classified as rare or threatened fauna, for which numerous East Gippsland and Central Highlands forest management areas provide a habitat.

The interlocutory relief granted to EEG and KFF is significantly in line with the injunctions they sought.

Justice Melinda Richards found that EEG and KFF had provided “cogent evidence that logging poses an existential threat to the Greater Glider as a species”.

According to the Code of Practice for Timber Production 2014, which as of November 2021 incorporates the Management Standards and Procedures for timber harvesting operations in Victoria’s State forests 2021, management actions include applying a protection area of approximately 100 hectares where records report a relative abundance of rare or threatened fauna.

The three species listed in the injunctions sought by EEG and KFF are all reported “in relative abundance”.

The court heard evidence from Associate Professor Grant Wardell-Johnson, a forest ecologist at Curtin University’s School of Molecular and Life Sciences and Centre for Mine Site Restoration in Western Australia.

“The protection of the Greater Glider and Yellow-Bellied Gliders habitats are critical to the survival and protection of the species,” Professor Wardell-Johnson stated.

“If the Gliders habitats are damaged or worst still lost, the species survival is potentially in jeopardy; they cannot be replaced.

“On the other hand the cost and inconvenience to VicForests in the affected coupes can be met by an undertaking of damages,” Professor Wardell-Johnson said, “and the trees of course will still be there if VicForests eventually succeeds.”

Professor Wardell-Johnson referred to the argument submitted by VicForests in their defence.

The state government-owned organisation maintained that ceasing operations in the forest management areas outlined by EEG and KFF would be costly and difficult.

In addition, VicForests has expressed that it cannot and will not implement the forest surveying method that EEG and KFF say is required to ensure the safety of these threatened species, citing “acute safety risks for VicForests staff and contractors”.

VicForests stance means that there is a lack of scientific certainty about the extent to which Greater Gliders can be found in the regions of forest scheduled for harvesting.

This uncertainty, Justice Richards found, was central to the case. EEG and KFF successfully demonstrated that under the Code, VicForests bore an obligation to apply the precautionary principle to the conservation of biodiversity values.

The principle states that “if there are threats of serious or irreversible environmental damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation.”

As such, Justice Richards said, if VicForests cannot conduct a comprehensive survey in line with the requirements of preserving the threatened species, their timber harvesting operations cannot go ahead.

In delivering the judgment, Justice Richards observed that “the risk of permanent and irreversible harm to Greater Gliders, a threatened species, outweighs the cost and disruption [to VicForests] that is likely to result from the injunctions”.

The injunctions “remain in force until further order”.

The question of VicForests’ survey obligations will go to trial on the 7th of March 2022, while a trial of remaining issues will commence 16 May 2022.