Forests agency sued for logging
STATE-OWNED timber agency VicForests has been hit with court action by the Environment Department after it allegedly logged protected rainforest.
The court battle relates to VicForests' logging operations in the Orbost Forest District in East Gippsland, where the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment says unauthorised harvesting of rainforest and buffer areas took place.
A spokeswoman for the department confirmed the prosecution, saying charges laid on VicForests included "undertaking an unauthorised timber harvesting operation in a state forest".
VicForests has also been charged with directing its contractor to log rainforest against timber harvesting licence conditions.
VicForests spokesman David Walsh said the timber agency would defend itself against the allegations. "The charges relate to harvesting operations in East Gippsland," he said. "VicForests intends to strongly defend itself in relation to this matter." If found guilty, VicForests faces a maximum penalty of $29,000. A directions hearing will be held in the Orbost Magistrates Court on March 29.
Agriculture Minister Peter Walsh said: "Like anyone, VicForests is entitled to the presumption of innocence. They are also required, like protesters, to obey Victorian law."
The prosecution of VicForests follows the timber agency's win in the Supreme Court last week against green groups trying to stop three logging coupes in part of Victoria's central highlands near Toolangi. Conservationists had argued the coupes threatened habitat of the endangered Leadbeater's Possum, Victoria's faunal emblem.
After VicForests' win last week, Mr Walsh accused green groups of costing the government hundreds of thousands of dollars this year in protest management and legal fees in logging cases.
Opposition spokesman for government scrutiny Martin Pakula said it was obscene that two government agencies were now fighting each other in court in the Orbost case.
"So, Victoria is in deficit by almost $350 million in the last six months, and yet we've got two state government agencies wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting each other in court. It's just obscene," he said.
The Wilderness Society's Luke Chamberlain said that in 10 years, less than one in 300 coupes in Victoria had been challenged by environmentalists. "It is hardly a case for government to argue that court cases are stopping logging in Victoria, triggering a need to change Victoria's environment laws in relation to logging," he said.
The state government recently released a new plan for the timber industry, which among other things increased VicForests' ability to sign timber contracts to 20 years.
The Baillieu government is also proposing changes to the Timber Code, allowing exemptions to be granted from state environment laws for individual logging coupes.
It comes as the state environment department decided to halt operations at an education centre in the Toolangi State Forest from July 1.