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Oliver Milman 

The Guardian, Thursday 27 June 2013 17.47 AEST

The Victorian government has amended the state’s logging laws in a move conservationists fear will transfer control to the timber industry and could doom endangered species such as the Leadbeater’s Possum.

The Sustainable Forests (Timber) Amendment Bill, which passed the lower house on Thursday, reduces the regulations binding VicForests, the state-backed forestry business.

The bill removes the second part of the two-stage process that VicForests has to go through in order to secure and log tracts of Victoria’s native forests.

Once allocated an area of forest to log, VicForests will no longer need to show the government a plan of exactly where and when it will harvest timber.

The bill also relaxes scrutiny of the timber allocation to VicForests by scrapping a mandatory five-year review of the decision and removing the current 15-year time limit, meaning that native forest could potentially be cut down indefinitely.

The Victorian government said that the amendment will provide clarity and long-term certainty to VicForests, while not diminishing environmental standards.

However, conservationists claim that the move will lock Victoria into the long-term logging of its native forests and reduce regulatory oversight of VicForests.

There are fears that widespread logging of old-growth forests in the central highlands region of Victoria will wipe out the endangered Leadbeater’s Possum, the state’s faunal emblem.

On Monday, community activist group MyEnvironment challenged a supreme court decision that allowed VicForests to log three areas of native forest near Toolangi.

The court of appeal hearing saw QC Julian Burnside, acting on behalf of MyEnvironment, claim that VicForests should be banned from the three areas, or coupes, due to provisions that protect the Leadbeater’s Possum habitat.

Felicity Millner, a lawyer at the Environmental Defenders Office, which is also handling the MyEnvironment case, told Guardian Australia she had deep concerns over the new logging laws.

“The amendment provides less oversight of VicForests and less opportunity for the government to intervene,” she said.

“The problem is whether it’s really sustainable to log native forest for decades.”

“It also locks taxpayers into contracts for native forest logging for the long term. It reduces options for the future and the taxpayers will have to foot the bill for any compensation for VicForests if the government changes its mind.”

The Wilderness Society claimed that the timber amendment will “likely secure the extinction” of the Leadbeater’s Possum.

“If the state government is serious about protecting the (Leadbeater’s) Possum, it would immediately suspend logging in all known habitat, and avoid locking in long-term logging contracts, which this bill would allow for,” said Luke Chamberlain, The Wilderness Society’s Victorian campaigns manager.

The state government has dismissed concerns over the bill, claiming that it merely puts logging on a similar regulatory footing as the mining industry.

It reduces red tape and compliance, which we’ve committed too, and it provides better resource security,” Peter Walsh, Victoria’s agriculture minister, told Guardian Australia.

“(The concerns) are absolutely not true. It leaves in place the same environmental standards and it doesn’t give out longer contracts. The government will still be able to assess long contracts. It just means VicForests can make vital investment decisions around machinery and other matters.”

Labor said that it broadly supported the bill although it unsuccessfully pushed for a committee to analyse the bill, given the current review of VicForests by Victoria’s auditor general.

“The parliament is being asked to give an instrument more authority while it is going through a performance review,” John Lenders, shadow agriculture minister, told Guardian Australia. “I’m not saying that they can’t do their job properly, but when we are being asked to sign off on arrangements for perpetuity, we’d like more than the government’s word on it.”