The three things stopping Tanya Plibersek from protecting native forests

There are three roadblocks holding the Albanese government back from tougher regulation of native forest logging, following Victoria’s declaration it would shut the industry down in its state by January: unions, lobbyists and the fear of a political backlash if it does anything at all.

Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek supports ongoing native forest logging, with appropriate regulations, despite her pledge to put an end to any future extinctions of native wildlife.

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek may be asked to approve up to 140 developments that could worsen the koala extinction crisis.

James Brickwood/Peter Rae

But now that Victoria will stop logging native forest by the end of the year, the greatest pressure on Plibersek comes from the NSW state-owned forestry corporation.

Plibersek is responsible for the federal government’s Regional Forestry Agreements with state governments, which shield state logging corporations from federal laws under the Environment Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act.

Right now, NSW is allowing logging within the boundaries of the proposed Great Koala National Park, a potential future refuge for the endangered marsupials that was promised during the March state election.

Conservationists claim years of repeated breaches by the logging corporations should force Plibersek to revoke the state exemption and apply federal laws, which protect threatened species like koalas, from further losses.

The minister says she will impose new national environmental standards on the Regional Forest Agreements.

“We are committed to reforming Australia’s environment laws. These laws are broken. They don’t protect our environment and they don’t work for business,” Plibersek said, in response to questions from this masthead.

“Endangered animals like koalas, leadbeater’s possums and greater gliders are all impacted by native logging.”

But while Plibersek awaits final drafts of the reforms, the loggers’ chainsaws have not been idle.

Nationals MP Darren Chester took aim at the Albanese government for its lack of action over the Victorian logging ban.

Simon Schluter

Forestry Corporation NSW plans show that over the next 12 months it intends to log 30,813 of a total 175,000 hectares of state forests within the boundaries of the proposed Great Koala National Park, home to one in five of the state’s surviving koalas.

NSW Environment Minister Penny Sharpe said the new Minns government wanted to create the Great Koala National Park “as soon as possible”.

“During the election we laid out a process for its creation,” she said. “As the process is being established, the EPA is engaging with Forestry Corporation of NSW to encourage them to take a precautionary approach to conducting forestry operations in areas with highly suitable koala habitat.”

The federal government declared last year that koalas are an endangered species in NSW and Queensland. The species that serves as Australia’s unofficial tourism mascot is at imminent risk of extinction in these states, largely due to habitat loss.

Australian Forest Products Association chief executive Joel Fitzgibbon, a former federal Labor Minister, said Victoria’s end to native forest logging was an “unnecessary surrender to environmental activists”. He called on Plibersek to bolster the Regional Forest Agreements to shield the industry from “activist lawfare”.

Federal Greens environment spokesperson Sarah Hanson-Young said her party, which holds the balance of power in the Senate, would push Plibersek to impose a national ban on native forest logging in her reforms.

Environmental concerns are not the only pressure on the industry. In recent years, native forest logging has run at a loss in NSW, Victoria and Tasmania and been subsidised by taxpayers.

In Tasmania the industry has lost $1.5 billion since 1997, says Professor David Lindenmayer, an eminent conservation scientist who has long argued that the industry should be shut down on economic and environmental grounds.

“For that sort of money, Tasmania could buy itself a football stadium and the public housing it needs. But instead, its taxpayers are paying for the privilege of cutting down their forests, undermining their tourism industry and the nation’s climate targets.”

The Albanese government also has to reckon with the grassroots Labor Environment Action Network, which has won support from 150 local branches for a push to wind down the native timber industry – a policy it will take to the national conference in August.

CFMEU official Michael O’Connor, who represents timber workers, is campaigning hard against the Victorian government’s native logging ban, accusing it of abandoning regional workers.

“If you are in any other part of the state, you don’t get a look in. That’s a clear message from this decision today,” O’Connor said.

Nationals MP Darren Chester, who represents Gippsland in the heart of Victoria’s Timber industry, on Tuesday gave the Albanese government a taste of the potential backlash its opponents would seek to foment over a logging ban – particularly in Tasmania where native forestry is a hot button issue and there are three marginal seats up for grabs.

“The [Victorian] government has kicked every hardworking native timber industry family in the guts today and not one of those opposite has raised a single word of protest,” Chester said.

With Nick O’Malley

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