Two landmark court wins for our forests in two weeks

The Supreme Court of Victoria has handed down two landmark judgments, both finding state-owned logging agency VicForests has logged illegally.

In a win for forests and community, both judgments will require VicForests to survey for and protect threatened species.

In both cases, VicForests was found to have logged in breach of the Code of Practice for Timber Production, including the precautionary principle and requirements to identify and protect certain species.

Warburton Environment v VicForests

In this case, Warburton Environment successfully argued VicForests had illegally logged in areas that were home to endangered Tree Geebungs.

This incredibly slow-growing tree species is only found in wet forests in Victoria’s Central Highlands, just east of Melbourne. Tree Geebungs only reach maturity after 100 years, and have been found to be up to 510 years old.

In finding for Warburton Environment, Justice Garde held:

“Given the evidence as to the past harvesting and burning practices of VicForests, it is highly likely that significant numbers of mature Tree Geebungs have been lost in the Central Highlands in the past through harvesting and regeneration burning. The precise extent of the loss will never be known, but on the basis of recent records it is likely to amount to many hundreds or even thousands of mature trees.”

Justice Garde granted injunctions which stop VicForests from logging in wet forest in the Central Highlands unless it surveys for Tree Geebungs and puts protective buffers around mature Tree Geebungs where reasonably practicable.

VicForests must also ensure that Tree Geebungs are not damaged in logging burns.

This case builds upon a similar finding in the 2020 Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum (Possums) case in the Federal Court, where VicForests was found to have unlawfully destroyed Tree Geebungs in one area. This case now requires the plant to be properly surveyed and protected throughout its range.

The Warburton case is the first Supreme Court judgment to protect Victoria’s unique endangered plants from logging.

Read the judgment: Warburton Environment Inc v VicForests (No 5) [2022] VSC 633

Environment East Gippsland vs VicForests

A week later, VicForests was again held to have illegally logged, this time in a case brought by two community groups – Environment East Gippsland and Kinglake Friends of the Forest.

The groups argued VicForests had failed to meet its legal obligations in relation to Greater Gliders and Yellow-Bellied Gliders.

Justice Richards found that Greater Gliders and Yellow-Bellied Gliders that “live in coupes that are harvested in accordance with VicForests’ current practices will probably die as a result of the harvesting operations.”

Justice Richards will grant injunctions that stop VicForests logging in East Gippsland or the Central highlands unless it has completed surveys for Greater Gilders and Yellow-Bellied Gliders, excluded logging from the home range of Greater Gliders and retained a higher proportion of trees in the rest of the coupe. The final form of the orders will be decided in coming days.

The case also builds upon a similar finding in the Possums case in the Federal Court in 2020, where VicForests was found to have unlawfully failed to address threats from logging to the Greater Glider in breach of the precautionary principle in more than 60 areas.

This case now requires Greater Gliders to be properly surveyed and protected throughout East Gippsland and the Central Highlands forests.

This the first Supreme Court judgment to require protection of endangered animals from logging.

Justice Richards pointed out that VicForests’ approach to surveying, logging, and to its legal obligations, had barely changed since the Possums decision in 2020, where it was found to have logged unlawfully.

The Possums case contributed to the interpretation of the precautionary principle and its application in both of these two judgments.

Read the judgment: Environment East Gippsland Inc v VicForests (No 4) [2022] VSC 668

EJA is also currently in the Supreme Court representing Wildlife of the Central Highlands in WOTCH v VicForests.