Australia

Barilaro ignored pleas to protect koalas after bushfires, insisted logging continue

Deputy Premier John Barilaro ignored pleas from the environmental watchdog to curb logging in a core koala habitat hit hard by last season's fires, instead demanding the state firm meet its contracts.

Documents reveal the Environment Protection Authority sought a voluntary halt to logging in the Lower Bucca and other state forests from March onwards. After initially supporting such a move, Forestry Corp rejected the request after intervention by Mr Barilaro, the papers show.

Forestry operations in the Lower Bucca State Forest, near Coffs Harbour, northern NSW. The EPA sought to limit logging in the forest after nearby bushfires but were overruled by John Barilaro, who is the minister in charge of forests.

Forestry operations in the Lower Bucca State Forest, near Coffs Harbour, northern NSW. The EPA sought to limit logging in the forest after nearby bushfires but were overruled by John Barilaro, who is the minister in charge of forests. Credit:Kate Geraghty

The urgency to slow logging in state forests followed spring and summer bushfires that devastated large areas, including about three-quarters of some key koala habitat sites in northern NSW.

Lower Bucca, near Coffs Harbour, "has a high proportion of high-value koala habitat; it contains a koala hub, and is an important koala refugium in bushfire recovery", EPA document written as advice to Environment Minister Matt Kean in early April shows. The EPA regulates state forestry operations.

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However, the watchdog's ability to limit harvesting was constrained by long-term plans – in this case, the Coastal Integrated Forestry Operations Approval – that provide for minimum timber take.

"The Coastal IFOA does not contemplate the degree of impacts on the environment caused by the fires," the document labelled "sensitive" said.

Forestry Corp initially agreed to a plan to avoid logging unburnt state forests and to replan logging in burnt ones.

However, the loss-making firm later changed tack, saying "the unburnt forests are needed to deliver on their wood supply agreements (to access blackbutt timber for [construction company] Boral)", the advice said. Forestry Corp also rejected a plea for extra "site-specific conditions" to protect koalas.

Mark Graham, an ecologist from Belingen Nature Tours, walks near a sign stating the Lower Bucca State Forest is closed. Logging operations were still going in mid-September.

Mark Graham, an ecologist from Belingen Nature Tours, walks near a sign stating the Lower Bucca State Forest is closed. Logging operations were still going in mid-September.Credit:Kate Geraghty

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The EPA report stated Forestry Corp logging continued "because their Minister [John Barilaro] asked them to deliver on contractual obligations".

Koala protection has lately been a sensitive one for relations between the Liberals and Nationals within the Berejiklian government.

Earlier this month, Mr Barilaro cited plans to tighten the rules on the removal of koala habitat trees as a reason to threaten to move National MPs to the cross-benches.

Mr Barilaro was forced to back down and, on September 18, began a month of sick leave to deal with mental health issues.

Mr Barilaro's office, citing his sick leave, directed the Herald's questions to Forestry Corp.

A drone image showing pockets of logged woodland within the Lower Bucca State Forest.

A drone image showing pockets of logged woodland within the Lower Bucca State Forest.Credit:Kate Geraghty

A Forestry Corp spokeswoman said the logging in Lower Bucca was "a low-intensity harvesting operation...augmented by additional voluntary precautions introduced following the fires".

The logging involved the supply of timber for "essential products like power poles and the timber flooring that many small family-run timber mill businesses produce", she said.

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"The process of agreeing on site-specific operating conditions with the EPA has been a slow and challenging process, and has not delivered enough compartments alone to get close to meeting timber supply contracts," the spokeswoman said.

Independent MP Justin Field said the Liberals and Nationals were "on another collision course when it comes to managing the impact of logging on NSW forests after the fires".

"If the NSW government is serious about saving the koala from extinction, just like with the [habitat planning], Premier Berejiklian should stand up to the Nationals and side with the science and expert opinion," Mr Field said.

Mark Graham, an ecologist with Bellingen Nature Tours who has campaigned against logging, said Lower Bucca contained many tree species, such as tallowwood and grey gum, that koalas preferred.

“Forestry Corp, driven by the Coalition government, is going through and systematically logging each of these identified koala hotspots, such as Wild Cattle Creek, the Kallang Valley, Nambucca State forest, and Bucca," Dr Graham said. “These are egregiously bad operations.”

Logs pile up near the Lower Bucca State Forest, where harvesting continues despite nearby devastating fires.

Logs pile up near the Lower Bucca State Forest, where harvesting continues despite nearby devastating fires.Credit:Kate Geraghty

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