WHILE Tuesday's bleak State of the Environment report came with a promise from the new federal government to do better to address the rapidly declining state of Australian land and wildlife, Victorian conservation groups argue federal environmental policy must be able to override state policy if Victorian forests are to have any chance of survival.
The long-awaited five-yearly report released by Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek made for grim reading, finding more than 200 plant and animal species listed as threatened since 2016, with the number expected to rise as species continue to struggle to recover from the 2019-2020 bushfires.
The report found land clearing largely to blame for the wildlife loss, with more than 6.1m hectares of primary native forest - more than six times the size of suburban Melbourne - cleared in the last two decades.
Despite the Victorian Premier committing to phasing out native logging by 2030, between 2011 and 2018, 177,900 hectares were cleared in Victoria, with 16,300 of that classified as forest over 30 years old.
Victorian National Parks Association (VNPA) director Matt Rutchel said while the report was welcomed, as long as Regional Forest Agreements (RFA's) continue to allow states to bypass federal environmental protection laws, habitat loss will only continue.
"You can list as many species as you like, and write recovery plans, but they have no impact unless you renegotiate things like RFA's and some of the other arrangements that have been put in place for decades," he said.
In response to the 'forest wars' of the 1980's and 1990's, the federal government legislated RFA's - designed to deliver certainty to forest industries while simultaneously guaranteeing environmental protection for vulnerable species.
Current Australian federal environmental laws require environmental impact assessment of any action likely to significantly impact a matter of national environmental significance, such as a listed threatened species.
However, RFA's effectively allow state's to bypass federal environmental law, so long as they meet their own accredited systems of forest management as laid out in their agreements.
In June 2020, a small community conservation group took VicForests to court for unlawfully logging 26 coupes - home to the Leadbeater's possum and the (now endangered) greater glider.
The court found VicForests breached a number of aspects of the Code of Practice for Timber Production 2014 - its own key environmental standard set out under the state's RFA.
Mr Rutchel said the RFA's are the state's biggest threat to native plants and wildlife.
In April this year, the Victorian environment department updated and extended five RFA's covering native forest logging in different parts of the state.
"From the Hume Highway all the way to the South Australian border - including places like the Wombat State Forest, is all covered by a RFA," he said.
"Whatever the federal government does to national environmental laws will have limited effect unless the RFA's are renegotiated with states," he said.
"Because what it does is it switches off the federal environmental laws where forestry is involved."
In her address to the National Press Club on Tuesday, Ms Plibersek said she had been working with the state's and territories to address the "shocking" findings of the report.
"They are up for change as well, they want to co-operate and see environmental outcomes and faster and better decision-making as well," she said.
The minister will hand down a formal response to the report by the end of year and promised to legislate new environmental laws by 2023.
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