A Federal Court judgment delivered this morning is a huge win for a community group which brought a case under national environment law to protect the threatened Greater Glider and Leadbeater’s possum from logging.
Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum (FLBP), represented by Environmental Justice Australia (EJA) successfully argued that logging by state-owned VicForests in 66 areas of habitat critical to the vulnerable Greater Glider and critically endangered Leadbeater’s Possum contravenes federal law.
The court found that VicForests has not and is unlikely in the future to comply with both state and federal laws designed to protect threatened species.
This landmark decision sets an important legal precedent applying federal threatened species protection law to the logging industry, which has operated under a special exemption from federal environment law for more than 20 years. It will have implications for native forest logging and threatened species protection around the country.
“This is a huge win, not just for the Leadbeater’s Possum and the Greater Glider but for wildlife threatened by logging across the country. No government or company should be exempt from national environment laws that are in place to protect our threatened species. We must stop the senseless logging of critical threatened species’ habitat or we will drive them to extinction.” — said Steve Meacher, President, Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum.
“When governments fail to protect our threatened species, it falls to small community groups like Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum and public interest lawyers to hold them to account in the courts. As the extinction crisis accelerates, it’s vital that our environment laws work to protect what is left,” said Danya Jacobs, Senior Lawyer for Environmental Justice Australia.
“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 and clearly finds that the exemption can and will be lost where threatened species protections are not complied with,” said Danya Jacobs, Senior Lawyer, Environmental Justice Australia.
Justice Mortimer found that logging operations in certain areas of forest in Victoria’s iconic Central Highlands failed to comply with the Victorian Code of Practice for Timber Production, a requirement under the Regional Forest Agreement. RFAs are the basis for the exemption for logging operations from national environment law. The non-compliance with the RFA means the exemption does not apply and VicForests must comply with national environmental laws.
The central breach of the Code found that VicForests did not comply with precautionary principle laws in certain forests where Greater Gliders are living, because those logging operations do not avoid serious or irreversible damage to the species wherever practical. The species is known to be threatened by logging yet logging occurred, and is planned, in habitat where Gliders have been sighted. The Court also found a number of other breaches of the Code – including relating to protection of Leadbeater’s Possum habitat.
The Court will give the parties an opportunity to agree on the appropriate orders the Court should make, given the conclusions it has reached. If there is no agreement, the parties will be able to file short submissions on appropriate orders. It will then determine what final orders should be made, including whether ongoing injunctions should be issued against VicForests to prevent any forestry operations in any of the coupes not yet logged.
The montane ash and mixed species forests of Victoria’s Central Highlands provide some of the last remaining habitat for the critically endangered Leadbeater’s Possum and the vulnerable Greater Glider.
Citizen scientists had documented sightings of Leadbeater’s Possums and Greater Gliders in more than 50 of VicForests logging coupes in the Central Highlands.
Environmental Justice Australia, acting on behalf of the Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum, commenced the case in the Federal Court in November 2017.
In May 2018, EJA and the FLBP were successful in gaining a temporary injunction to prevent VicForests from logging in five coupes in Victoria’s Central Highlands until judgment was made. VicForests also halted logging in another 36 areas in question while the case proceeded.
Logging is continuing in threatened species habitat while Regional Forests Agreements (RFAs) between state and federal governments are in place across the country. RFAs have operated for 20 years and were recently extended for another 10 to 20 years.
RFAs have meant that logging agencies don’t play by the rules of our national environment laws – they continue to bulldoze the homes of threatened species that are meant to be protected. No other industry has this kind of exemption. In the 20 years that Regional Forest Agreements have been in place, logging has pushed iconic Australian species like the Swift Parrot, Leadbeater’s Possum, the Koala and the closer to extinction.
Federal Court documentation and transcripts:
Please note key Court documents can be accessed directly from the Federal Court website here.
- While Victoria’s forests burnt, logging continued, The Age, 17/01/2020
- Plan to save endangered Leadbeater’s possum must consider timber industry, minister says, The Guardian, 24/06/2019
- VicForests banned from logging greater glider habitat pending legal challenge, The Guardian, 10/05/18
- Ministerial documents reveal Commonwealth concerns about ‘old science’ and ‘validity’ of forest agreements, ABC News, 21/03/18
- Plan to protect possum under cloud as timber industry seeks change, The Age, 26/02/18