Taxpayers billed $38 million as logging agency fails to supply timber

Victorian taxpayers will fork out more than $38 million after state-owned logging agency VicForests was forced to compensate customers and contractors it could not supply with timber.

VicForests chief executive Monique Dawson told a Supreme Court hearing on Friday it had paid out more than $12 million to contractors and $25 million to customers, and sent the invoice to the government.

Post logging fires at Big Pats Creek, near Healesville.

In the past financial year, VicForests recorded an unprecedented $52.4 million financial loss, which it blamed on the cost of court cases brought against it by community environment groups seeking to protect endangered species. The figure is significantly higher than the previous year’s loss of $4.7 million.

On Friday, Dawson said court orders preventing timber harvesting until surveys for endangered species have been completed meant VicForests did not currently have any coupes – logging areas – it was able to log.

The court orders are from a case last November, where the Supreme Court found VicForests had failed to follow the law and the agency’s timber-harvesting operations in East Gippsland and the Central Highlands had presented a threat of “serious or irreversible harm” to endangered gliders.

At the time, Justice Melinda Richards put a number of injunctions, or logging bans, in place, with conditions that required the logging agency to search for gliders. VicForests is appealing this court decision.

On Friday, in a case brought by the community group WOTCH with legal support from Environmental Justice Australia, Dawson said VicForests had found that the prospective coupes it wanted to log had greater gliders and yellow-bellied gliders in them than expected.

“They are really very prevalent in most of the areas that we operate in … which means that coupes … are not viable [to log] because of the amount of the buffers and the additional reservations that are required under her Honour’s orders,” she said.

“We are working very hard to try to find some handful of coupes that we might be able to move into in the near time, but the combination of those two things is making that very difficult for my planners.”

The WOTCH case alleges VicForests failed to put protections in place for four threatened species heavily impacted by the black summer Bushfires – the greater glider, smoky mouse, sooty owl and powerful owl.

Meanwhile, the state’s Information Commissioner today published a report critical of VicForest’s handling of a series of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.

A woman who believed VicForests had spied on her and attempted to harm her reputation unsuccessfully made multiple FOI requests over two years to try and access relevant information. The commissioner found VicForests focussed on technical legal processes above other considerations and missed opportunities to help the applicant make a valid FOI request, which came at the expense of providing her fair access to information.

Minister for Agriculture Gayle Tierney said the government had provided VicForests with industry support payments for sawmill businesses and harvest and haulage contractors.

“We have put measures in place to support businesses and workers to keep their mortgages paid and food on the table while we work through the implications of the Supreme Court’s decision and the appeal.”

Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek last year upgraded the listing for greater gliders from vulnerable to endangered because habitat destruction from logging and land-clearing has turned the large gliding possum into a rarity.

The Victorian government says logging has ceased across most of the state. Dawson told the ABC that timber was being imported from NSW and Tasmania.

In 2019, Premier Daniel Andrews announced the logging of native forests would be phased out in Victoria over the next decade, with a reduction in the current level of native timber available for logging from 2024-25.

Victorian Forest Alliance spokesperson Chris Schuringa said it was unreasonable to expect the public to continue to support native forest logging.

“The Andrews government has a plan to continue logging for another seven years. It’s simply not sustainable,” Schuringa said. “Transitioning workers now would be a win-win, rather than keep them hanging on relying on wasteful government welfare in a destructive, declining and unpopular industry.”

A VicForests spokesperson said it was being financially supported by the government to enable it to provide compensation and stand down payments to customers and contractors.

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