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Will Vic Court Halt on Windthrow Salvage Elevate Fire Risk?

Victorian Supreme Court Justice Melinda Richards has set a five-day trial for February 4th 2024.


Mon 04 Dec 23

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Timber harvesting will be banned in the Wombat State Forest until at least February – well past when native forestry will cease in Victoria – after the Victorian Supreme Court extended an injunction and set a new timeframe for a five-day trial billed as “the battle of experts.”

The injunction will include windthrow salvage, with VicForests’ lawyer Jason Pizer warning the court that the matter could affect the intensity of any fire, which experts warn could be “moderate to severe”.

“The consequences to flora, fauna and human life could be catastrophic,” VicForests’ lawyer Jason Pizer told the court.

“Nobody wants that to occur,” Mr Pizer said.

Deciding on the Wombat Forestcare Inc v VicForests case last week, the court heard that Wombat Forestcare Inc. identified at least 25 species of flora and 33 species of fauna in the Wombat State Forest “that needed protection from logging and other activity.”

It is an extension from the 13 identified in the interim injunction on activities granted in late September.

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The endangered mountain skink has been found in Wombat State Forest. (Photo Credit: Supplied by Gayle Osborne via ABC News)

In her ruling, Supreme Court Justice Melinda Richards said the order covered timber harvesting as defined within the code of practice for timber production while also including the “movement, collection, removal and cutting of naturally fallen trees and branches”.

The VicForests team questioned whether the term “timber harvesting operations” should cover the removal of windthrow, with Mr Pizer proposing an earlier and shorter separate trial for that question alone, which was rejected outright by Justice Richards.

According to Wombat Forestcare’s barrister, Jonathan Korman, the group wanted to extend the injunction to seek urgent protections for these other forest areas. “There may be serious environmental damage going on,” he said.

Mr Korman presented a timeline of VicForests’ actions, which he suggested indicated a delayed and insufficient response to expert evidence already submitted to the court. He said lizard surveys by hand, meant to be conducted by VicForests, had been postponed despite the recommendation of experts.

VicForests, which will be dismantled over the next few weeks, is struggling to complete a reptile survey for mountain skinks due to the wet weather. Still, its lawyers confirmed that the survey would be finalised once conditions improved.

VicForests has been conducting salvage logging operations in Wombat State Forest to clear debris following wild storms in June and October 2021. 

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In June, Wood Central revealed that DJAARA Traditional Owner Corporation, a Victorian Aboriginal group, is working with VicForests to “heal the country.” It has now urged the State Government to let it take the lead on healing a 70,000ha – the Wombat State Forest – earmarked for a national park on the outskirts of Naarm (Melbourne). (Photo Credit: Supplied by DJAARA Traditional Owners Corporation)

As revealed by Wood Central in June, VicForests has a “Timber Utilisation Plan” with the DJARRA Traditional Owner Corporation, with the decision to cease harvesting having a “drastic and highly impactful decision on their realisation of healthy Country.”

Approved Timber Utilisation Plans allow for timber harvesting outside the Victorian Government’s Allocation Order 2013 – the area of coupes where state-owned VicForests are permitted to harvest.

Under the Timber Utilisation Plan, DJARRA’s primary focus is to remove windthrown timber and apply ‘forest gardening’ to this work. In this regard, the principle is to listen to what the Country needs and respond by removing the fallen timber.

In June and October 2021, major storms in the Wombat State Forest impacted more than 80,000 hectares of forest and 1,500km of the road network, affecting the landscape, Cultural Heritage, and industry in an area including the Wombat and Lederberg State Forests.

The scale of this damage created significant risks in increased bushfire conditions, limited recreational use of the area, and impacted cultural use by Traditional Owners.

Aware that the court date could well occur after a date that the very existence of VicForests is unknown, Justice Richards told the VicForests team she was “acutely conscious” of the uncertainty the company was in and said she “wish(ed) it were not so”.

Author

  • Jason Ross

    Jason Ross, publisher, is a 15-year professional in building and construction, connecting with more than 400 specifiers. A Gottstein Fellowship recipient, he is passionate about growing the market for wood-based information. Jason is Wood Central's in-house emcee and is available for corporate host and MC services.

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