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Why the BLEEP is the Tasmanian forestry industry exempt from the EPBC Act?

We are in the grips of an extinction crisis. Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek has vowed no species will go extinct on her watch. But she is not watching very closely here in Tasmania.

Two key pieces of Australian legislation regarding the protection of biodiversity and forest management are the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999 and the Regional Forest Agreement (RFA) Act. Both have significant deficiencies when it comes to protecting endangered species in Tasmania.

The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (the EPBC Act) is the Australian Government's central piece of environmental legislation. The EPBC Act provides a legal framework to protect and manage nationally and internationally important flora, fauna, ecological communities and heritage places defined in the EPBC Act as matters of national environmental significance.

The Tasmanian Regional Forest Agreement (RFA) is a bilateral agreement between the Tasmanian and Australian governments, first signed on 8 November 1997. In 2017 Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Liberal Tasmanian Premier Will Hodgman signed a 20 year extension of the Regional Forest Agreement (RFA) in order to provide security for the timber industry in Tasmania. The RFA allows for the logging of native forests on public land, and provides exemptions to Commonwealth environment laws such as the EPBC Act. This means that the native forest logging industry is exempt from complying with Federal environment laws and native forest habitat can be logged despite the presence of federally listed threatened species on the brink of extinction. This ludicrous situation means that an RFA can trump endangered species conservation. The RFA has locked in unsustainable native logging practices that have significant impacts on environmental and conservation values. It has fuelled a forestry industry driven by paper pulp (not sawlogs) that survives only with taxpayer subsidies, and runs at a financial loss every year.

EPBC Act Exemptions

There are a number of exceptions and exemptions from the assessment and approval regime in the EPBC Act. For example, forestry operations conducted in accordance with Regional Forest Agreements do not need approval under the EPBC Act. There is also a broad discretion for the Minister to issue exemptions under section 158 for projects in the ‘national interest’. The term ‘national interest’ is not defined, but the Minister may consider matters such as Australia’s defence or security, or a national emergency.

The Tasmanian Devil, Sarcophilus harrisii, was listed by the federal government as endangered in 2009. You would think that being listed as a threatened species would offer some sort of protections when it comes to all activities that put pressure on the dwindling devil population. You may be surprised to find out that Forestry Tasmania can indiscriminately log their habitat and are exempt from the rules and regulations of the EPBC Act.

Under section 38 of the EPBC Act, forestry operations undertaken in accordance with Regional Forest Agreements (RFAs) are exempt from Part 3 of the EPBC Act, in this case the provisions relating to listed threatened species.

Forestry Tasmania (Sustainable Timber Tasmania) is required to have operational procedures in place to protect and manage listed threatened species on forestry managed land as part of the Tasmanian RFA. I have written to STT and the FPA and asked for details about their operational procedures relating to Tasmanian devils but have yet to have received a reply, implying that there are none. It seems that the FPA is a toothless tiger that makes suggestions to STT about how to conserve endangered wildlife, and STT is a law unto itself when it comes to regulating its own activities and often chooses to ignore the recommendations of the RFA.

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