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Federal Court says VicForests unlawfully logged rare possum habitat

“Not only do VicForests’ forestry operations damage or destroy existing habitat critical to the survival of the two species, they also prevent new areas of forest from developing into such habitat in the future,” the case summary says.

“Although suitable habitat may be found in reserves already protected from logging, the court has accepted … the increasing risks (in frequency and intensity) posed by wildfire to these reserves renders habitat in the impugned coupes all the more important.”

Steve Meacher (centre) and other Friends of the Leadbeater's Possum celebrate their success.

Steve Meacher (centre) and other Friends of the Leadbeater’s Possum celebrate their success.Credit:Eddie Jim

Steve Meacher, the president of FLBP, said the applicants were elated, and hugely relieved, at the court outcome. “No government or company should be exempt from national environment laws that are in place to protect our threatened species,” he said.

“We must stop the senseless logging of critical threatened species’ habitat or we will drive them to extinction.”

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Justice Mortimer found VicForests had not developed its own in-house forest survey system before it began logging but relied on Victoria’s Environment Department, even though the department insisted this responsibility lay with VicForests, a fact the court confirmed.

When conducting its forestry operations, VicForests paid “insufficient regard” to matters such as the quality of habitat for possums in the disputed coupes and the effects of bushfire on possum habitat in reserves and national parks, the court found.

Instead, it relied on “desktop” and other theoretical methods, which the court found to be flawed.

The agency’s own policies, such as the “interim greater glider strategy” were “defensive documents”, with the content suggesting VicForests felt obliged to have a policy to protect the greater glider but was reluctant to implement it, Justice Mortimer ruled.

Although VicForests has said it will move to less intensive timber production practices to try to secure accreditation for its products from the Forest Stewardship Council, the court was not persuaded it would do this in the unlogged coupes.

Justice Mortimer ordered parties to return to court in mid-June to determine what further orders for relief should be made, including whether ongoing injunctions should be issued against VicForests to prevent any forestry operations in unlogged coupes.

Greater gliders in the wild.

Greater gliders in the wild.

Mr Meacher said the form of relief was still to be decided.

“We’re not interested in being paid off. We don’t want money from logged coupes; we want protection for forests,” he said.

Most of the community group’s $300,000 costs for the court case had come through crowd funding on social media, he said.

“It has been thousands and thousands of people giving their $20 or $50 … from members of the public who believed in protecting forests.”

In Australia, the Commonwealth enters into agreements with the states about the conservation and management of their native forests, called regional forest agreements.

Regional forest agreements are exempt from provisions in national laws that protect threatened species.

“The logging industry has operated for 20 years as if it doesn’t have to comply with our federal environment laws because of regional forest agreements. This case overturns that position,” said Danya Jacobs, a senior lawyer at Environmental Justice Australia.

A VicForests spokesperson said the agency acknowledged Wednesday’s Federal Court decision and would carefully consider the implications on its harvesting program.

The Australian Forest Products Association said the court’s decision meant the future of regional forestry agreements was uncertain and called on state and federal governments to “urgently” respond.

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