First published in The Age - February 13th 2019
Remote Victorian forest the Andrews government promised just days before the state election would become home to a future “world-class hiking trail” is already being cleared for timber, with the state's forestry corporation insisting it was not told about the pledge.
Conservation advocates said the clearfelling risks ruining the forest walk before it even opens, but VicForests has hit back, saying that it was not consulted about the promised trail, which runs through dozens of areas where it has already signed contracts for timber harvesting.
Eight days before last year's election, Labor promised to spend $1.5 million planning an “iconic multi-day hiking trail” in East Gippsland.
The 120-kilometre trail would extend from the Cape Conran Coastal Park to the summit of Mount Ellery and the alpine forests of the Errinundra Plateau, meandering through some of the state’s largest remaining areas of unspoiled wilderness.
New huts, campsites and elevated timber walkways would potentially be built along the trail, the government said in November, as part of its $105.6 million pitch for the outdoors vote.
But the government did not say the trail would also pass through 47 allocated logging coupes, 26 of which have been confirmed for timber harvesting since January 2017.
Clearfelling along the proposed hiking route began in one of those coupes earlier this month.
State-owned forestry company VicForests has started harvesting timber in native forest along part of the planned walk near the small town of Bemm River, where the multi-day walk is intended to begin.
"The route in remotest east Victoria utilises roads designed for timber haulage, not to optimise scenic tourism experience," Mr Messina said.
He said VicForests was not consulted on the route.
The Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning has proposed a range of options to reduce the impact of logging on the proposed hiking trail, including postponing timber harvesting, increasing the buffer between the trail and the logging coupes, or reshaping the timber coupe area to distance them from the walking trail.
Ed Hill, a campaigner with the Goongerah Environment Centre, said the Andrews government had told voters just days before the election that it would commit funds to plan and establish the trail, but not that parts of the forest would soon be destroyed.
"No one wants to visit and walk through logged and burnt forests," Mr Hill said.
He said the logging work was undermining the tourist attraction the government pledged to build.
“The sea-to-summit trail will showcase this world-class landscape but unless these forests are protected from logging this precious and unique environment is gravely threatened.”