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Damning logging report finds Victorian department neither 'effective nor respected'

First published in The Guardian by Lisa Cox

Victoria’s environment department has been so ineffective at regulating logging in state forests that the government-owned forestry enterprise VicForests has effectively been left to self-regulate, according to an independent review.

The report, quietly released on the day of the school climate strikes and the Christchurch terror attack, finds the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning is “neither an effective nor respected regulator” and the state’s logging regime is “dated, complex, convoluted – indeed labyrinthine – and difficult to use”.

The review of the regulation of timber harvesting in Victoria has recommended several changes to the way compliance with logging rules is managed and enforced.

The inquiry was ordered by the environment minister, Lily D’Ambrosio, after the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning botched an attempt to prosecute allegations of illegal logging in East Gippsland by VicForests.

The case was struck out last year on the basis that the charge laid did not meet the requirements of the state’s Criminal Procedure Act.

In its report, the three-person panel said the department’s “regulatory practice and capability” was weak.

The government has responded by saying a chief conservation regulator will be appointed to oversee a range of reforms.

Environment groups consulted as part of the review said the findings were “scathing” and exposed a regulatory system that was “not working and not at all effective”.

Among its findings, the panel said:

VicForests is “in a practical sense acting as self-regulator”, with day-to-day supervision of logging coupes carried out by foresters employed by VicForests.
The department has no clear compliance and enforcement policy.
The department’s prosecutions policies are unclear, outdated, too “high level” and inconsistently applied.
DELWP is unclear about its role and purpose as a regulator and there is no “single, identifiable” regulator of compliance with logging rules within the department.
VicForests does not have a clear understanding of the department’s role as a regulator of native timber harvesting.
The department’s timber harvesting compliance unit has “neither the capability or capacity to achieve its objectives”.
The regulatory framework governing timber harvesting is not fit-for-purpose and is difficult to apply.

Among its 14 recommendations, the panel suggested the department develop and make public a multi-year regulatory strategy, a compliance and enforcement policy, and an annual internal regulatory work program.

It also said the department should consider modernising the legal framework for timber harvesting.

In its response to the panel, the department said it was “committed to making the significant changes that are required” and that implementation of the changes had already commenced.

It said it would establish an Office of the Conservation Regulator within DELWP and appoint a chief conservation regulator.

Ed Hill, the forest campaigner for the Goongerah Environment Centre, said the report “shows the department aren’t regulating at all”.

He welcomed the findings but said the review did not offer a solution “to the ongoing environmental crisis in our forests caused by unsustainable logging”.

“The absence of policy certainty for industry and conservation must be resolved before any more effort is directed to working out how to better regulate an industry that is already on a pathway to inevitable change,” he said.

Tim Johnston, the chief executive of the Victorian Association of Forest Industries, said the association was considering the recommendations and couldn’t make further comment until the potential impact of any changes was clear.

“As the peak body representative of the timber and forest industry, regulatory clarity that provides operational certainty is vital,” he said.

“The review has highlighted the ambiguity that arises from the extremely complex regulatory environment that the timber and forestry industry operates in.”

Guardian Australia sought comment from VicForests and D’Ambrosio. 

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