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Environment and Communications References Committee
20/08/2019
Australia's faunal extinction crisis

SWIFT, Ms Harriett, Deputy Convenor, South East Region Conservation Alliance

Evidence was taken via teleconference—

[14:08]

CHAIR: Welcome, Ms Smith. I understand that information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. I now invite you to make a short opening statement. At the conclusion of your remarks, we'll ask you some questions.

Ms Swift : Thanks for inviting me—and especially thank you for allowing me to do this via phone, because I'm a long way from Sydney.

CHAIR: Whereabouts are you, actually? Let's start with that. Where are you based?

Ms Swift : I'm actually based in Bega on the far South Coast of New South Wales. SERCA, which is the body I represent, for many years now has had a focus on the threats to forest-dependent species from the woodchipping industry. The woodchipping industry started in this region, and we're now coming up to its 50th anniversary. During that time, it's taken quite a toll on the forests of this region. During that time, we've had loss of hollow-bearing trees and clearing of native vegetation, both of which are listed as key threatening processes in New South Wales—and they are certainly the main problems that we're looking at here.

Hollows are really the key to it for most species, although one notable exception is the koala. Indeed, for many years, the woodchipping industry actually adopted the koala as its pin-up species. It used images of the koala in its corporate letterheads and logos and that kind of thing because they saw it as evidence that koalas and woodchipping could coexist, but they no longer do that! I think it's pretty widely recognised that they don't coexist at all well. We've probably got only about 60 left in the whole region.

In the early years of woodchipping, there was no monitoring of ecological impact at all. It was only after about five years that scientists started to get worried enough to suggest that they should do some, and the way that they did that was to ask the loggers, after each day of work, to count the bodies of the animals that were killed during that day. And, at the end of the week, they'd burn them all. They don't do that anymore, but maybe they should. The Forestry Corporation doesn't even acknowledge now that animals are harmed by logging, but, if anyone's ever been to an active logging operation, they would know that's true. You can see predators circling around the logging operation waiting for displaced mammals and reptiles; they can get an easy feed from them—but not for long, because that source of food rapidly dries up.

These days, we have a lot more control over how logging is done, but there are still very big question marks about how effective those controls are and how enforceable and enforced they are. One of my colleagues, Sean Burke, has done a very good submission, which I'd recommend to senators, on the industry's lack of accountability as to abiding by the rules that exist. His submission was made to the committee some months ago I think.

A related problem that we see in all this is the exemption of regional forest agreement areas from the EPBC Act. I think it's the only industry which doesn't have to operate within that act. There seems to be an assumption—although there is some vagueness about this—that an equivalent level of protection will be provided by the regional forest agreements, but we have never been able to get any confidence that either the state or the federal government has any interest in finding out whether an equivalent level of protection is provided. There has never been research or monitoring done after logging to find out what the impacts were and whether they were equivalent to what might've been expected under a federal plan.

There have also been occasions in New South Wales when threatened species listings have been suspended by state ministers to allow logging and have then been restored after the logging has been completed, which is quite ridiculous. It makes a joke of the whole idea of having a threatened species listing. Those are the main points I would make, but I would be very happy to elaborate on any of that or answer any specific questions that members have.

CHAIR: Thanks, Ms Swift. I'll kick off. I'm interested in your reflections on the level of knowledge about what the impact of forestry operations in your region has been. You said there has been woodchipping going on for 60 years. You gave the example that there are only 60 koalas left, which is an awful thing to think about given the numbers that used to be there. So what is your assessment of how effectively managed those forestry operations are? In a forest area, before logging, and the impacts of logging—what is that knowledge base like?

Ms Swift : The pre-logging information is a lot better than the post-logging information. But even that is pretty superficial. They are moving more towards what they call desktop surveys, which means they are relying on members of the public to have reported sightings of various species within the logging compartment and for that to be available to the Forestry Corporation staff before the logging is approved. The official documentation for a lot of the logging approvals and RFA documents is actually quite defective; we know of threatened species existing in this region that have simply been left off a lot of those lists. They don't even appear in the documents. It's not good.

CHAIR: What happens when species are left off those lists? What recourse do you have? Have you notified the authorities, and does anything happen? What's the process?

Ms Swift : You can notify the authorities, but nothing tends to happen. With the koala, for example, we came to an agreement with the Forestry Corporation a few years ago that every time they were about to log a compartment that had historical records of koalas within it they would let us know and we would provide them with any information that we had. On every occasion that that has happened, we were told that they had applied the cautionary principle and that they supported the listing of this area as koala habitat. But then they have just done nothing; they have gone and logged it anyway. Even when the sightings of koalas have been quite recent, like within the last five years or so, they have just ignored it.

CHAIR: So neither state nor federal laws have any impact then?

Ms Swift : No. We've had questions on notice in both state and federal parliaments about what efforts each one has made to ensure that protections under the regional forest agreements are as you would expect from the EPBC Act. And the answer that has come back is nothing; they don't make any effort at all to try and find that out.

CHAIR: We have recently had the regional forest agreements in New South Wales extended for another 20 years. Do you have any comments about the process and the scientific basis of that process?

Ms Swift : The process was not what you would call rigorous. There was very superficial public consultation and it was all done very quickly. I think they had made up their minds, more in a political way than in a scientific way, that they would renew them. The consultation was really just a pro forma thing that had to be done.

CHAIR: With a lot of expertise and deep knowledge of the forest areas, I presume SERCA put in a submission.

Ms Swift : Oh yes, and most individuals in the organisation did too.

CHAIR: Did you have any evidence of any of the issues that you raised being taken account of in the final decision?

Ms Swift : No. There didn't seem to be any relationship between what the public said to governments and what was done at the end of it. But the overwhelming majority of public submissions were to not renew the regional forest agreements—and that was ignored.

CHAIR: I am interested in the fact that the loss of hollow-bearing trees is a key threatening process in New South Wales. It is not a key threatening process under the EPBC Act. Reflecting on it as a key threatening process in New South Wales, what does that actually mean in the context of logging operations? Does it actually stop them?

Ms Swift : No, it doesn't. It does mean that if they see hollow-bearing trees in tree logging surveys they are supposed to protect them. But they are not always easy to see and, even when they are protected, quite often the retained trees are burned in the post-logging burns. That is a very common thing to happen. The other thing is that there is no provision for trees which may become hollow-bearing trees in the next couple of decades. It generally takes 150 to 200 years for most eucalyptus in this region to form useful hollows. So provision has to be made for those trees to renew themselves a long way ahead.

CHAIR: Over the 50 years of woodchipping operations has any assessment been done of the reduction in the number of hollow-bearing trees across the region?

Ms Swift : Not that I have heard of.

CHAIR: Given that the loss of hollow-bearing trees is a key threatening process, you would think that would be a pretty useful indicator.

Ms Swift : Yes. And quite often there are species that will be competing for hollows—owls and gliders. They can't all time share! They have to have one each.

Senator URQUHART: Ms Swift, I am looking at your website. Halfway down the page, it says that conservation, environment and concerned citizen groups form the South East Region Conservation Alliance. At the top of that, there is the number of your committee. Can you give me some idea of the expertise? Do people on your committee have scientific credentials around these sorts of issues, or is it more concerned citizens et cetera?

Ms Swift : We are more a community based group of concern citizens rather than scientists. Some of us have acquired a bit of scientific knowledge along the way, but I wouldn't say we have formal qualifications.

Senator URQUHART: So you effectively are sort of a group of concerned residents from a particular region that have formed a conservation alliance to deal with the issues in your region?

Ms Swift : Yes.

CHAIR: Ms Swift, at the end of your opening statement, you spoke about the threatened species listing being suspended for logging operations to occur. Can you talk us through examples of that occurring? What were the processes where that occurred?

Ms Swift : Yes. The one that really stands out was about seven or eight years ago now in the Bago State Forest. There is an endangered population of yellow-bellied gliders there. The Forestry Corporation wanted to log part of the Bago forest, and the minister responsible in the state government, the Minister for the Environment, Robyn Parker, actually suspended the listing of those gliders for long enough for the logging to occur and then restored it afterwards. They are still listed today and, in fact, they're probably more endangered now than ever. It's just incredible that that can happen.

CHAIR: To your knowledge, would it still be possible for that to occur now?

Ms Swift : Yes. The law hasn't really changed in that regard, as far as I know.

CHAIR: That's pretty extraordinary. I have a final comment. With the RFAs having just been extended, there are now new forestry rules, the IFOAs, integrated forestry operations approvals. Have you got some comments about how they are likely to change controls in your region?

Ms Swift : There's going to be one set of rules that'll cover the whole of the coastal forests of New South Wales, which is pretty extraordinary because they vary so much. You would think they'd require some more specific rules appropriate to each region, but that's not going to be the case. There'll be less on-the-ground surveying done before logging occurs; there'll be more desktop surveying. It's very hard to know how it's going to work in practice yet because we're still in a transition stage. Probably most of the logging that's happening now is still being done under the old rules. It was approved before the new rules came in, so we can't really be sure how they're going to operate, but there is a lot of apprehension around about how rigorous the new ones will be.

CHAIR: Essentially, other provisions of the EPBC Act don't apply, given that you've got the RFA. Have these new rules been approved as part of the RFA rollover process?

Ms Swift : Yes. They're part of that.

CHAIR: In conclusion, how do you feel? What are the prospects like for the threatened animals of the south-east region under the current suite of state and federal laws?

Ms Swift : There are quite a few species that have become listed at a higher level since the regional forest agreements began 20 years ago, and I can only see that continuing. There will probably be regional extinctions. Even though there has been a flora reserve created for it, the koala is still at a very precarious stage in its recovery. We really are very anxious about quite a few species like that. The quoll is another one. Another one of national interest more than regional interest is the swift parrot. The swift parrot comes to this region on its winter migration most years. Exactly where it goes varies a bit, but it's very usual for it to spend several months in the forests of the far South Coast, feeding during the winter. If those birds can't have protection and a reliable food source while they're here, they're not going to be well-placed to breed successfully when they return to Tasmania. There are provisions to protect them when they are in this region, but they are meaningless. They protect, I think, five trees per hectare when a logging operation is taking place, but they are the same five trees that are being protected for everything else. They just add another label to all the other labels that are on those five trees. It's meaningless.

CHAIR: And those five trees, with logging having occurred all around them, are at risk post logging anyway.

Ms Swift : Yes.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, Ms Swift, for your evidence this afternoon. It's been of great value to the committee.

Ms Swift : Thank you very much.