The Victorian and Commonwealth governments have agreed to extend the five Victorian Regional Forest Agreements (RFAs) for 10 years without taking into account the impacts of the catastrophic summer bushfires on native forests and wildlife.
Ten-year extensions with 5–year reviews were formalised yesterday for the five RFAs covering the Central Highlands, East Gippsland, Gippsland and the North East and West Victorian regions.
The revised Agreements have not been released. The Commonwealth government has advised that variations to the five Victorian RFAs will be made publicly available when they are tabled in the Australian Parliament. 1
The impacts of the recent bushfires on forests and wildlife have not been taken into account in extending Victorian RFAs.2
Environmental Justice Australia (EJA) has released a report, No longer tenable: Bushfires and Regional Forest Agreements, that calls on the Morrison and Andrews governments to throw out RFAs to protect vital threatened wildlife in the wake of the summer bushfires.
RFAs are intergovernmental agreements between Commonwealth and the Western Australian, Tasmanian, New South Wales and Victorian governments. These agreements attempt to resolve competing demands on native forests for resource extraction and industry certainty on one hand, and conservation on the other.
RFAs for Western Australian, Tasmanian and New South Wales were renewed for another 20 years before this summer’s catastrophic bushfires.
Brendan Sydes, CEO and Lawyer from Environmental Justice Australia said:
“Renewing these agreements without accounting for the unprecedented and catastrophic impacts on Victoria’s forests and wildlife from the recent bushfires is a massive failure of leadership. This shows both the Morrison and Andrews governments are continuing to put the logging industry before our native forests and threatened wildlife.
“Details of the revised Victorian Regional Forest Agreements won’t be made available until the agreements are tabled in Parliament – which might not be for months. This will make it impossible to scrutinise how the agreements attempt to protect forest ecosystems and threatened species – critical information in the wake of the bushfires.
“The Comprehensive Adequate and Representative reserve system that is the basis of these Regional Forests Agreements has been smashed by this summer’s bushfires. Huge areas of national parks and reserves as well as special protection areas have burned. To roll over this agreement for another 10 years is grossly irresponsible.
“This summer’s devastating fires mark the start of a new, more threatening and uncertain era for forests and wildlife. To avoid extinctions and ecosystem collapse, governments must throw out Regional Forests Agreements and end the exemption for native forest logging under national environmental laws.”
Key points from the report, No longer tenable. Bushfires and Regional Forests Agreements
- Conservation provisions of RFAs are underpinned by regional systems of what were claimed to be Comprehensive, Adequate and Representative (CAR) reserves. They comprise formal and informal reserves and prescriptions to protect the environment in forests where logging is permitted. Even before the fires, RFAs were failing to protect wildlife threatened by logging and to secure environmental values more broadly.
- This summer’s bushfires were unprecedented in scale, intensity and severity. Their impacts on forests and wildlife have been catastrophic. The CAR reserves have been severely affected with over three million hectares of dedicated parks and reserves burned. This must be met with a shift in policies, prescriptions and other protections of forests available for logging, including RFAs.
- The fires, particularly through their impacts on the CAR reserves, have destroyed the policy foundations of the RFA system, rendering it untenable. Governments have so far failed to respond to the changed circumstances, continuing instead to operate on a ‘business as usual’ basis.
- The consequences of the fires and the impact on CAR reserves also raise legal issues in relation to whether the agreements continue to be binding, whether RFAs are legally valid, and whether exemptions to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act 1999 founded on RFAs continue to apply.
- RFAs today are legally uncertain and failing in practice. Their problems cannot be fixed within the RFA framework because the agreements are predicated on gradual change, not catastrophic events. They contain no mechanism for comprehensively altering the terms of the agreement to reset the balance between conservation and production, made necessary by the fires.
- To protect Australia’s unique forests and wildlife in the face of more frequent and intense bushfires, governments must throw out RFAs and put an end to logging native forests.