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(MELBOURNE) Victoria’s state-owned logging company VicForests has put the capitals drinking supply at risk by illegally logging on steep slopes in an important water catchment area, according to the government regulator #AceNewsDesk report

#AceNewsReport – Apr.21: The Office of the Conservation Regulator, a Victorian government body tasked with monitoring the state-owned logging company VicForests, foundbreaches of the law at two locations last yearbut decided not to take action.

Melbourne’s drinking water and catchment areas put at risk by ‘systemic’ illegal logging on steep slopes, experts say:

The conservation regulator found that the report’s allegations suggesting that there is systemic and widespread breaching of slope prescriptions could not be substantiated,” her statement read.‘This is a cowboy operation’When the ABC caught state-owned loggers illegally chopping down trees on public land, they were compensated rather than punished. Now it seems they plan to do it again

updated 7h ago

A logging coupe on the slope of Mount Matlock shows a few trees still standing.
Experts say logging on slopes of more than 30 degrees can harm drinking water quality in some areas.(Supplied: Chris Taylor)

Instead it communicated to VicForests an “expectation” that it would comply with the law in future.

In addition, new peer-reviewed independent analysis by two Australian National University scientists  — published this month — suggests the breaches have been “widespread and systematic” with 75 per cent of logging areas in the catchment subject to illegal logging of this sort.

Both VicForests and the Victorian government’s conservation regulator Kate Gavens declined interview requests by the ABC.

But a spokeswoman for the office of the conservation regulator said harvesting on steep slopes “continues to be a focus for the conservation regulator’s proactive coupe [(logging area) inspection program” and a “target for independent auditing”.

In a statement provided to the ABC, Ms Gavens queried the allegations of widespread breaches in the scientific report that sparked the investigation.

VicForests did not deny the two breaches found by the regulator, but noted the regulator didn’t find any impacts on drinking water or the environment.

“VicForests puts in place a range of protections in its harvesting operations to protect water quality,” a VicForests spokesman said.

In a letter seen by the ABC, however, the regulator said the illegal logging it discovered “increased risk to waterway health and is not acceptable to the conservation regulator”. But it said it would not be taking any regulatory action.

Melbourne’s drinking water at risk

Logging on slopes steeper than 30 degrees is banned in some areas protected for drinking water supply. Logging very steep slopes in those areas can cause soil to flow into the water, compromising water quality. 

According to Professor Jamie Pittock, an expert in water management from ANU — who was not involved in the report — soil washed into the water can increase the chance of dangerous algal blooms and increase the cost of filtration. 

“Soil tends to contain things like nitrates and phosphates and, if that gets into drinking water sources in dams, that exacerbates things like algal blooms,” Professor Pittock said. 

Dr Jamie Pittock from ANU's Fenner School of Environment
Dr Jamie Pittock is an expert in ‪biodiversity conservation‬ and water management.(ABC Canberra: Michael Black)

Elle Bowd, a soil scientist at Australian National University (ANU) — also not associated with the investigation — said logging on steep slopes was particularly problematic as gravity meant more soil would be washed into the waterways.

“Logging can increase in turbidity, salinity and nutrients,” Dr Bowd said.

A spokeswoman for the regulator said it had two regulatory actions open to it: official warnings or prosecution.

Instead it communicated its findings and expectations.

Professor David Lindenmayer, one of the two scientists from ANU who uncovered the breaches, said the regulator needed to take stronger action.

“It’s like buying lettuce from Coles and Woolworths and then slapping the wrists of people in VicForests (with it),” he said.

“It should be preventing these kinds of problems by actually doing the analysis in the first place to show VicForests the parts of the forest that they cannot log,” he said.

David Lindenmayer
Australian National University environmental scientist David Lindenmayer said the regulator wasn’t looking hard enough.(Justin Huntsdale: ABC local)

Professor Lindenmayer was critical of the regulator’s claim that no adverse environmental impacts were found.

“The problem is if you don’t look properly you don’t find a problem.”

The new breaches are the latest in a long-running string of allegations of illegal logging made against the state-owned company, which includes the widespread practice of taking timber not owned by VicForests and a recent court decision, currently being appealed, finding much of VicForests logging has been conducted illegally.

VicForests denied allegations it took timber it wasn’t allowed to, and said it was awaiting the results of an appeal against the recent federal court decision. 

‘Widespread and systematic’ illegal logging

The finding by the government’s conservation regulator of breaches in two logging areas was originally uncovered in 2019 by ANU ecologists Professor Lindenmayer and Chris Taylor. 

Dr Chris Taylor kneels beside a tree stump in the mountains.
Dr Chris Taylor tracks the slope angle of logging coupes.(ABC News: Loretta Florance)

The two ecologists have since updated and extended their analysis and concluded that in 2018, 90 per cent of logged areas in the Upper Goulburn Water supply protection area included illegal logging of steep slopes.

In total, in the years since VicForests was formed in 2004, the scientists found 75 per cent of logging areas — called “coupes” — in the same catchment included illegal logging on steep slopes, coming to a total of 160 logging coupes.

“What we found was that VicForests are systematically breaching forest laws by logging forests that are steeper than 30 degrees in slope,” Professor Lindenmayer said. 

“[That’s] more than 16 years of logging breaches right across the landscape throughout this part of Victoria.

“But we’re not just talking about areas that are 31 degrees or 32 degrees of slope. We found areas that were 34, 37 and 39 degrees of slope. So these are way over the 30 degrees. So this is not just a simple accident.”

VicForests disputed this.

“There is not systemic and widespread breaching of slope prescriptions,” a spokesman said. 

The regulator told the ABC it examined the scientists’ investigation and conducted its own.

“Minor breaches of the slope harvesting limit were identified in each investigation,” a spokeswoman for the regulator said.

Logs stacked in a pile.
VicForests says there is not “systemic and widespread breaching”.(Australian National University: David Blair)

Professor Lindenmayer said it was not possible that among the 160 breaches they found in their independent investigation there were only two that were able to be verified.

“If we’re wrong, it could be plus or minus 10 per cent at worst,” he said, noting they made 18 on-the-ground measurements, all of which confirmed their modelling 

Regulator slow to act

In April 2020, after Professor Lindenmayer and Dr Chris Taylor first told the regulator about their findings, the regulator said its own analysis did not substantiate their allegation of “systemic and widespread breaching of slope prescriptions”. 

The regulator argued the map data used by the scientists was not accurate enough and included too few on-the-ground measurements.

Despite that, the regulator investigated and found potential breaches in just two locations, which have both now been confirmed as breaches.

Piles of giant logs lying next to a forest of Australian native trees.
Logging very steep slopes in those areas can cause soil to flow into the water, compromising water quality. (ABC News: Richard Willingham)

The new work by Professor Lindenmayer and Dr Taylor, published in a peer-reviewed journal, included on-the-ground measurements of areas at 18 sites in seven coupes, to confirm the results from their map-based data.

All 18 measurements were found to be more than 30 degrees, with some measurements going as high as 40 degrees.

More illegal logging

The findings by the scientists and regulators are the latest in a string of allegations of illegal logging by the state-owned logging corporation, and comes as the industry heads towards its planned 2030 closure date.

In 2019, the ABC revealed VicForests was clear felling forests completely outside of areas that were meant to be vested in them, taking timber that was not intended to be transferred to them.

The government-owned logging company and its regulator argued the maps used by government and VicForests to determine what forests were given to it were not legally admissible, and so nobody could determine what timber was legally vested in the company.

#AceNewsDesk report ……….Published: Apr.21: 2021:

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