Great Forest National Park proposal (Victoria)

Article from Australian Deer magazine on how the Forest Industry Taskforce is ignoring the public – CLICK HERE FOR ARTICLE

The facts about National Parks are often lost in these discussions – CLICK HERE FOR THE FACTS

Background, threats, impacts and future for hunters

The “Great Forest National Park” (GFNP) is a campaign led by an anti-logging pressure group and backed by large environment lobby groups such as The Wilderness Society.

The campaign seeks to have the Victorian Government convert the status of 350,000ha of State Forest in the Central Highlands of Victoria into National Park; ostensibly to protect the endangered Leadbeater’s Possum.

Chronology

In 2013 the Victorian Government established the Leadbeater’s Possum Advisory Group to develop a plan to support the protection and recovery of the species. The group was co-convened by Zoos Victoria and the Victorian Association of Forest Industries and included representatives from Parks Victoria, VicForests and the Leadbeater’s Possum Recovery team.

The advisory group made thirteen recommendations with forty eight resulting actions. The Victorian Government accepted all of the recommendations and in April 2014 committed funding of $11 million over five years to support their implementation.

At around the same time the protagonists for the GFNP commenced intensive lobbying of their proposal which bought it to the attention of the Australian Deer Association .

ADA convened a meeting of every Victorian organisation with an interest in deer hunting and from that meeting it was agreed that ADA would educate politicians about the concerns that hunters and other recreational users have with the GFNP proposal and about the practical consequences of ill considered changes on hunters and other recreational users.

In the months leading up to the 2014 Victorian State Election the GFNP protagonists actively agitated in an unsuccessful attempt to make the GFNP a key election issue.

In late October 2014, at the beginning of the election campaign (prior to writs being issued and the official campaign commencing), Coalition Agriculture Minister Peter Walsh and his Labor opponent Jacinta Allan spoke at a dinner in Melbourne where Peter Walsh made the commitment that “a re-elected coalition government would not create any new National Parks”. Jacinta Allan made no commitments of policy announcements on this topic at the dinner. In the last week of the election campaign Labor released a policy paper “Our Environment, Our Future” which detailed Labor’s position on the creation of National Parks:

“Labor strongly supports a consensus approach in the establishment of any new national parks. We will facilitate and support the establishment of an Industry Taskforce to provide leadership to reach common ground on the future issues facing the industry, job protection, economic activity, protection of our unique native flora and fauna and threatened species, such as the Leadbeater’s possum. The taskforce will have members from the forestry and forest products industry, unions, environmental groups and scientists, threatened species experts, land owners, timber communities and other relevant stakeholders. A Labor Government will consider any reasonable recommendations and proposals reached by consensus of the major stakeholders through the Industry Task Force, but will not impose solutions.”

 Labor won the 2014 Victorian State Election and formed government. They are reliant on a diverse group of cross-bench MP’s from minor parties  for support in the Upper House.

ADA (in collaboration with Field and Game Australia) immediately prepared a joint briefing paper and begun educating the crossbench MP’s and the new Government on the issues facing hunters in Victoria, key among them being National Parks. In the three months immediately following the election representatives from ADA and FGA met personally with the new agriculture minister and every crossbench Upper House MP.

The briefing paper argued that, for the purposes of Labor’s policy, game hunters are “relevant stakeholders” and should be included on the proposed industry taskforce. This position was re-iterated at every opportunity and was supported by the Shooters and Fishers Party MP’s and a number of opposition coalition MP’s.

In late September 2015 Environment Minister Lisa Neville advised that hunters would not be included on the taskforce and that, instead, the hunting community would be consulted only after the taskforce had concluded, and then, only if it recommended that a National Park was a viable option.

It was made clear to the Minister and her colleagues that this position was unacceptable.

In mid October 2015 Agriculture Minister Jaala Pulford met with representatives from the hunting community. At that meeting she advised that the concerns raised by ADA about the composition of the taskforce had been listened to and that, whilst hunters would still not be included on the taskforce, they would have direct access to the taskforce, its chair and its members throughout the process – including a level of formal consultation. ADA advised the Minister that whilst this situation was far from ideal it was a marked improvement on what had previously been communicated and that the hunting organisations would reserve judgment until the process took effect.

In late November 2015 the Victorian Government quietly released the terms of reference for the Forest Industry Taskforce.

The Taskforce was tasked to present their final report to the Premier at the end of July, 2016. A few weeks before the deadline Professor Don Henry was appointed as the chair of the taskforce and communications began to re-frame the final report as an ‘interim’ or ‘mid-year’ report. It appears that the taskforce has now abandoned its terms of reference and will continue indefinitely.

Professor Henry was, for more than a decade, the CEO of the Australian Conservation Foundation (one of the groups supporting the establishment of a Park). In that role he was the architect of the Tasmanian Forest Agreement which effectively shut down active use of a large percentage of Tasmania’s forests.

Despite clear assurances to the contrary, recreational users, farmers and other key stakeholders have not had any meaningful consultation with the taskforce.

Potential impact

The taskforce approach adopted by the Victorian Government is an innovation not previously seen in the determination of land status in Australia. It is ambitious in that it seeks to reach a consensus position from diverse stakeholders (the forest industry and the anti-logging lobby) on a historically contentious and economically and politically sensitive issue. From the perspective of the hunting community the process is flawed as it fails to properly recognise the significance of recreational stakeholders.

If this experiment is successful the concept could fundamentally change the way decisions are reached about public land in Australia, the great danger being that it could shepherd in a regime which is predicated purely on political possibility rather than on facts and data.

The immediate threat of the GFNP proposal on game hunters is significant. The area covered in the proposal includes much of the traditional country used by deer hunters, particularly those who hunt sambar deer with the assistance of scent-trailing hounds. The popularity of deer hunting is at an all time high in Victoria. At the time of writing there were over 37,000 licensed deer hunters in the state with nearly 4,500 of them licensed to hunt over hounds. Recreational hunting with dogs is not permitted in any National Park in Australia. The GFNP proposal seeks to remove 350,000ha of State Forest which is more than 11% of all the State Forest in Victoria and around 15% of the State Forest that available to deer hunters. Locking 15% of the hunters out of 15% of the land would inevitably have a ripple effect which would impact on all public land hunters in Victoria.

State Forests are considerably less expensive to administer and maintain than National Parks owing largely to the significant infrastructure (roads etc.) installed and maintained for logging operations and to the revenue derived from logging. The GFNP proposal would increase the Victorian National Parks estate significantly. The Parks Victoria budget is already stretched to its limit, a new park of this size would require a budget of tens of millions of dollars, impacting the government’s ability to provide essential services such as bushfire mitigation, medical services and police.

Veracity of claims

The proponents of the GFNP have a professional website (www.greatforestnationalpark.com.au) on which they outline their rationale for the creation of a new National Park. Their argument is broken down into five key claims – none of which stand up to scrutiny and none of which could not reasonably be achieved in the existing land tenure.

“Conservation of near extinct wildlife and plants after Black Saturday and in light of future fire events”.

Veracity of claim:

–          The Leadbeater’s possum is listed as critically endangered under federal legislation.

–          The Leadbeater’s Possum Advisory Group was established in 2013 to provide recommendations that support the recovery of the possum, while maintaining a sustainable timber industry. The Advisory Group was co-convened by Zoos Victoria and the Victorian Association of Forest Industries, with representation from Parks Victoria, VicForests, and the Leadbeater’s Possum Recovery Team.

–          In April 2014, the Victorian Government allocated $11 million over five years to support implementation of all recommendations made by the Advisory Group. According to the website depi.vic.gov.au “The 13 recommendations and 48 resulting actions are now being implemented in pursuit of improved conservation for Leadbeater’s Possum whilst preserving the environmental and socio-economic values of our forests”.

Can this objective be achieved under the existing land tenure?

–          Commercial forestry can be excluded from areas of high conservation value under existing legislation and tenure. A process specifically aimed at conserving the Leadbeater’s Possum under existing land tenures commenced in 1998 under the Central Highlands Forest Management Plan which prescribed a series of special protection and general management zones which specifically excluded timber harvesting and associated roading.

This regime was superseded by more stringent controls with the adoption of the Leadbeater’s Possum Action Plan in 2014. Nine of the first ten agreed actions under the Action Plan specifically relate to the exclusion of commercial forestry.

–          There is no direct evidence that the incidence of wildfire, particularly of high intensity wildfire, is materially affected by land tenure or by the exclusion of commercial forestry.

On their website, the protagonists rely on a paper by Lindenmayer et al as evidence for their statement that “as forests regrow from logging, they are at increased risk of re-burning at high severity”. When considering this contention it is worth noting the following factors:

  • The lead author of the paper, Prof David Lindenmayer is also one of the key protagonists for the creation of a Great Forest National Park
  • The findings in Prof Lindenmayer’s paper are disputed by independent experts Dr Ian Ferguson (Dept of Forest and Ecosystem Science, University of Melbourne) and Dr Phil Cheney (Former head of the bushfire research unit CSIRO Forestry and Forest Products). In a paper which casts significant doubt on both the scope and intent of Professor Lindenmayer’s paper Dr’s Ferguson and Cheney characterised Prof Lindenmayer’s approach to the topic as having “a fixation on a ‘one tenure – one use’ approach that leads to missed opportunities for better management of the mountain ash landscapes”.
  • Even if one was to accept the contentions made in Prof Lindenmayer’s paper without reservation; it would be difficult to reconcile the conclusion reached on the Great Forest National Park website with the suggestion in Prof Lindenmayer’s paper that “Sustained yields of natural resources also may need to be rapidly reassessed following catastrophic events to avoid overcommitting remaining intact areas and further increasing the risk for creating a landscape trap”. Logically, under a shift of land tenure to National Park, sustained yields of natural resources (i.e. timber) would be irrevocably halted, not re-assessed based on evidence and prevailing conditions as suggested by Prof Lindenmayer.

“Water catchments of Melbourne, LaTrobe and the Goulburn Murray systems. The largest area of clean water and catchment in Victoria. Food bowl and community security.”

Veracity of claim:

–          The total are of Melbourne’s water catchments is 156,700ha consisting of 90,800ha of National Park, 56,300ha of State Forest, 7,500ha of Melbourne Water land and 2,100ha of private land. Of the 56,300ha which is in State Forest only around 310ha are available for timber harvesting each year, this equates to just 0.02% of the total catchment area. The impact of such minimal harvesting on the state’s overall water yield is negligible and water is not collected from the Yarra tributaries when timber harvesting occurs with the water being retained in the system for environmental flows.

Can this objective be achieved under the existing land tenure?

–          This objective has already been achieved under the existing land tenure. In addition to this, Victoria has a Desalination Plant with a capacity to produce 150gl of water per year in its current configuration (more than half of the state’s annual domestic consumption and over one third of the state’s total annual consumption).

“Tourism. This is Victoria’s richest ecological asset, but these magnificent forests have not yet been included in a state plan to encourage tourism. Our rural towns want and need this boost to tourism.”

Veracity of claim:

–          There is no plan focussing specifically on tourism into the forest areas, however there are a number of government backed plans, strategies and projects which focus on nature based tourism in the forests of the Central Highlands.

–          Regional Development Victoria has strategic plans for The Lower Hume (Mitchell and Murrindindi), Central Hume (including Mansfield and Alpine) and Gippsland. All of these plans include specific objectives to encourage nature based tourism in the region.

–          The Aberfeldy Track from Walhalla to Woods Point is a project initiated by the State Forest land managers which has located and installed interpretive signs at a range of sites of significance drawing on the post settlement gold mining history of the area. The project has been acknowledged as a notable driver of tourism in the towns of Erica and Rawson and is now being extended to continue from Woods Point to Jamieson.

Can this objective be achieved under the existing land tenure?

–          Arguably it already is. Opportunities exist to further promote 4×4, deer hunting, prospecting, fishing and other recognised and proven economic drivers in the area in question.

“Climate. These ash forests store more carbon per hectare than any other forest studied in the world. They sequester carbon, modulate the climate and can act as a giant storage banks to absorb excess carbon of they are not logged. The financial opportunity in carbon credits is significant and can be paid directly to the state when a system is established federally.”

Veracity of claim:

–          The concept that older trees sequester more carbon dioxide than younger trees is well accepted. It is not possible however to determine what the variation would be especially in a land area as vast and as affected by factors such as wildfire as the area in question.

–          The claims of financial opportunity are purely speculative and, as such cannot be verified. Recent experience in Australia however suggests that the prospect of such predictions proving accurate is highly unlikely.

The ‘Carbon pollution reduction scheme’ proposed by the Rudd Government included allowance for carbon credits for re-forestation with no penalties for de-forestation – under such as scheme there would be scope for a state to derive revenue from State Forests which would be denied under a National Park tenure which would disallow commercial harvesting.

Can this objective be achieved under the existing land tenure?

–          The carbon sequestration claims are unquantified and, as such, it is impossible to accurately determine whether or not the stated objective of the protagonists is feasible. It should be noted however that the area in question accounts for less than 0.3% of Australia’s forest area and less than 0.0003% of the world’s forest area; the effect of any minor variance would be infinitesimal in practical terms.

“Places of spiritual nourishment. These magnificent forests have been described as a ‘keeping place’ by the traditional owners, a place to secure the story of the land and places of spiritual nourishment that we pass on to future generations. There should be no price tag on the value nature brings to mental health and spiritual well-being.”

Veracity of claim:

–          The nature, form and value of spirituality vary from individual therefore this claim is impossible to verify.

–          The Taungurung Clans have an application in process covering much of the land in question under the Traditional Owner Settlement Act 2010. The act provides a framework for settling Native Title Claims out of court and, in the event that a claim is successful, it facilitates consultation and agreements on land use.

Can this objective be achieved under the existing land tenure?

–          The Traditional Owner Settlement Act claim is not materially influenced by land tenure.

–          The spirituality claim is impossible to verify.

Where to from here?

It is clear that the groups behind the GFNP proposal will not give up. They are dedicated and have significant resources behind them. They have demonstrated an ability to gain a significant amount of traction for a proposal that lacks detail and credibility.

This issue has implications for all hunters and indeed for all recreational users of public land. It is critical that we harness what resources we have available and use them to the best effect. The ADA have been clear and consistent in insisting that Victoria’s hunters will accept nothing less than the level of access they currently enjoy.

For the majority of hunters that means staying aware and up to date on issues such as this, knowing your facts and being prepared to put the contrary perspective and share factual opinion whenever this issue is discussed within your networks. It means being prepared to write to and perhaps even visit your local MP’s when you are asked to. In short if hunting, and public land in particular, are to survive and prosper in Victoria every hunter needs to become an activist, at least among their own networks. This is what the Green lobby does exceedingly well.

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