Forest Thinning: Code of Practice a Way to Bypass the Green Mafia

Bureaucracy is strangling industry in Western Australia.

Thu 18 Apr 24


There’s an ocean separating the meaning of ‘ecological thinning’ and ‘clearing’, yet the WA government, exasperatedly, seems to believe they mean the same thing!

Only trouble is … it’s goodactivity in state forests and a bad one on private property.

The good one gets gold-plated treatment – 80,000 ha approved for 10 years in one application dealt with in just four months; funding by government by at least $5000 per hectare (= $40 million a year); the EPA conditions have been set but ignored; no prescriptions or operational standards published; no public consultation; no routine external scrutiny; and minimal accountability.

The bad one is strangled before it can breathe. Felling one tree requires a permit, the applicant needs to navigate a convoluted bureaucracy, approvals have taken up to five years, there are no defined rules for getting approval, no set of guidelines to ensure that proposals are satisfactory, allowing information requirements to change, applicants have to pay up to $6000 to have their application read, anyone can lodge an appeal (at no cost) and defer a decision for years.

Keeping up with this?

How is it that there is such blatant discrimination between identical activities?

Clearing control legislation was introduced under the hot (green) breathe of the Gallop Labor government 20 years ago. The loss of native vegetation was considered an environmental disaster and the impact on biodiversity in Western Australia was profound.

Any cutting down of native trees now requires a permit from the central government. This heavy-handed control has snuffed out most clearing, except, of course, where there are approved exemptions. These exemptions include government business.

Mining is given special treatment with application processes dealt with in the Mines Department.

All the activities of the government’s forest managers were exempt. This could be argued as reasonable – no native species had been lost from the forests after 130 years of continuous timber production.

The threats to biodiversity were seen as total removal of vegetation – as had occurred in the wheatbelt – and feral predators.

The separation of the forest managers from timber harvesters proved the checks over activities. Moreover, both agencies were required to implement an environmental management system to ensure a systematic approach was adopted and it was to be independently audited (Forest Management Plan 2004).

The timber production agency successfully introduced an environmental management system, but the conservation agency did not, and its activities have only been subject to self-assessment.

With the new FMP, this system of checks and balances has been abolished.

The Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions is now totally responsible for ecological thinning and there is no day-to-day oversight to its activities as occurred previously. It has just commenced operating without publishing its prescriptions. As indicated in Wood Central, forest governance is now based on a ‘trust-me’ approach.

In southwest WA many landowners have no such freedom. Areas of forest on their farms are governed by layers of bureaucracy that are almost impossible to crack. These were captured by the clearing legislation even when practising sustainable forest management, and they are thinning the forest – as does the DBCA.

One forest owner has been trying to get a permit since 2019. This forest is in the Boddington area and, according to the Conservation and Parks Commission, is one of the most vulnerable areas to climate change. Therefore, it should be the highest priority for thinning.

Unfortunately, the wheels turn very slowly, and the landowner can’t proceed unless agreeing to onerous conditions.

Another landowner was asked to undertake an assessment for cockatoo nesting hollows, a need to assess the impact on cockatoo foraging.

How can private properties of 10 or 20 hectares bear responsibility for maintaining cockatoo nesting and foraging? 

The government controls about 2.5 million hectares or 90% of the forests in the southwest. There are around 140,000 hectares in private hands.

Consultant forester John Clarke has been assisting private landowners in applying for permits. He is frustrated by the process’s lack of transparency.

“How can the government give itself approval for 80,000 hectares of thinning in just four months, while my client is still waiting for approval for less than 20 ha after nearly a year?” he asks.

“There are no clear rules as to what a private landowner must to do. It seems they are made up as they go along.”

Worse news awaits private forest owners. If they are lucky enough to get a permit, this will be subject to public review. Anyone can appeal at no cost to the appellant. The process of appealing permits is standard for environmental groups, and this can delay a final decision for many more months.

“Some landowners have given up at this point,” notes John Clarke.

“It feels like there is a green mafia out there trying to stop sustainable forest activities based on an emotional ideology.”

The requirement that small private landowners take responsibility for cockatoo habitat when there is no assessment of the government’s own landscape scale activities is ludicrous.

It’s known that cockatoo numbers are much greater than earlier thought (counted populations have increased nearly threefold in the Great Cockie Count between 2010 and 2023), and thinning the forests is most unlikely to result in a long-term adverse effect. If the government is to be believed, thinning the forest will be good for biodiversity.

It’s time the government applied the same approval standard to private forests as its own. In this way all the forests of the southwest could be thinned and helped to withstand climate change.

The Environmental Protection Authority should urgently establish and approve a code of practice for forest thinning to promote consistency between government and private forestry. This would then provide an exemption to all sustainable forest management and bypass the green mafia.


  • Gavin Butcher

    Gavin Butcher is a former director at the WA Forest Products Commission. With a career in plantation and native forest management spanning more than 25 years, he is a specialist in the strategic, analytical and financial fields of forestry management. Mr Butcher holds a Bachelor of Science in Forestry and has lectured at Edith Cowan University.


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