Whitby Abandons Accountability & Transparency in WA Forests

Putting the fox is charge of the hen house

Thu 04 Apr 24


• Exclusive:  Part 2 of a series by GAVIN BUTCHER, a former director at the WA Forest Products Commission.

New management settings approved by West Australia’s Environment Minister Reece Whitby for ecological thinning in state forests have removed the scrutiny, accountability, engagement and independent oversight against the tight controls for previous sustainable commercial timber harvesting.

The government will spend at least $200 million on the grand experiment of ecological thinning without transparency in what is a return to the ‘trust me, I’m the expert’ management style of the 1970s.

If you thought shutting down commercial and sustainable timber operations would ‘protect’ the forest, you have been misled.

The problem is that you wouldn’t know what is happening because, at the same time as ignoring timber as a legitimate forest activity, the government will shut down the processes established to ensure that there is a crosscheck on standards and external audit of forest management systems.

In 2000, the commercial timber agency (Forest Products Commission) was separated from the Conservation Department, then CALM, and now the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA).

This was a deliberate measure to separate the implementation role from that of the environmental watchdog.

Environmental groups had complained that “the fox was in charge of the henhouse”. This new arrangement worked successfully for 23 years and was difficult for the environmental movement to dispute.

The separation of roles saw the FPC develop an environmental management system that maintained international standards (EMS 13001) and supported certification with world-class standards at FSC and Responsible Wood.

image002 6
No other state forestry agency in Australia has managed to meet the level of certification standards achieved in Western Australia. (Photo Credit: Responsible Wood)

Operating independently audited systems gave a high level of assurance that the environmental objectives were systematically achieved. No other state forestry agency in Australia managed to meet this level of certification.

When the Conservation and Parks Commission assessed performance against key performance indicators, the FPC’s operational performance was better than DBCA’s.

Now we have moved to an era where DBCA has taken responsibility for ecological thinning, and with the FPC demoted to being its agent, the separation of accountabilities has been lost.

The role of the forest steward has been muddied by the new role. The axeman cometh!

We are repeatedly told that we are now managing forests just for their health, but as shown in Wood Central (March 25), harvesting to supply a timber product remains a primary driver.

As the FPC has been removed from the primary role of harvesting forests to one where it just picks up the wood, it needs to be asked whether DBCA can open itself to external assessment and audit.

Early signs in the Forest Management Plan and the start of ecological thinning suggest that it remains a closed shop focused on self-appraisal rather than external review and meeting international standards.


  • 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.


Related Articles