What’s the latest in NSW forestry reform?
The draft Coastal Integrated Forestry Operations Approval (draft IFOA) proposes a new rulebook for public forestry in NSW.
By Rachel Walmsley, Director Policy and Law Reform, EDO NSW
13 September 2018
Public consultation was open from May to July 2018 and EDO NSW wrote a guide to developments, Forest Law Frenzy in NSW, in June. Reports suggest the rules will be signed off by the end of 2018, but public details are slim.
The Draft IFOA is proposed to replace four 20-year-old IFOAs that currently operate in the Upper North East, Lower North East, Southern and Eden regions. The IFOAs regulate logging in State forests and other Crown-timber lands by the Forestry Corporation of NSW (a state-owned corporation) and its contractors.
The EDO’s high-level concerns with current NSW forestry policy
The draft IFOA has been in development for over four years. Since 2014, the NSW Government’s overarching policy aims for redrafting the IFOAs have included:
- increased clarity, consistency and enforceability
- reduced compliance costs
- ‘no erosion of environmental values’ and
- ‘no net reduction in wood supply’.
A range of evidence has since emerged to demonstrate that two original policy aims of the IFOA remake – to maintain environmental values and wood supply levels – are ‘not mutually achievable’. Yet despite expert findings that environmental standards and wood supply levels are in fundamental conflict, to date there has been no reconsideration of the overarching policy aim of ‘no net reduction in wood supply’.
The need for improved forestry regulation and outcomes that reflect a more environmentally sustainable industry is widely recognised. We strongly recommend the aim of ‘no net loss to wood supply’ be reconsidered.
We note the following further concerns with high-level forestry policy settings:
- We do not support the Government’s decision to make-up wood supply shortfalls by remapping Old Growth Forest, when alternatives such as buybacks are available. The long-term values of healthy forests for the people of NSW are highly likely to outweigh the short-term costs of buybacks.
- There is a lack of up-to-date understanding of the diverse values of NSW coastal forest resources – environmental, social and economic – including the value of ‘ecosystem services’ provided by in tact and/or harvested forests.
- There is a related lack of regional ecosystem assessments to determine how threatened species and forest ecosystems are faring, and whether the protected area network is adequate to provide refuge and habitat amidst increasing threats and pressures.
- While embedding the principles of ecologically sustainable forest management (ESFM) in legislation is a positive step, the Draft IFOA does not demonstrate how the precautionary principle and other aspects of ESFM are given effect in operational planning and management.
- Some of the Draft IFOA settings illustrate the conflict between the two overarching policy objectives. As noted below, we are particularly concerned about unsustainable logging levels being adopted via intensive harvesting allowances and proposed transitional arrangements.
- The Government has not explained how public submissions and input on the 2014 issues paper have shaped the Draft IFOA. Since then, opportunities for public engagement have been unduly short, infrequent or non-existent. By early 2018, intersecting consultations and pre-emptive decisions on the NSW Regional Forest Agreements have caused confusion and frustration. This has hindered public faith in the subsequent IFOA consultation process.
- There is no clear Government policy response to prepare for the impacts of climate change and fire regimes on the State’s forest ecosystems or wood supply – risks that are highlighted in the NRC’s review (2016) and the NSW RFA review (2018).
These are inextricably linked to the Draft IFOA’s outcomes, settings and rules. Below, we outline key positives and negatives of these more detailed aspects.
Positive aspects of the Draft IFOA – settings to retain and strengthen
A new IFOA presents an opportunity to improve the clarity and enforceability of forestry regulation, a more logical structure, increase the consistency of rules and settings, and – depending on how stringent and effective the final settings are – an opportunity to adopt modern best practice forestry management and governance.
Given the acknowledged flaws and age of the existing IFOA rules,‘no erosion of’ environmental standards – or even a slight improvement – does not mean that a proposed IFOA setting is best practice in 2018.
With that qualification, in brief we consider the following aspects of the Draft IFOA as positives:
- A clearer structure that links binding outcomes, conditions and protocols.
- Clearer definitions, more consistent terminology and clearer rules – which may increase enforceability, reduce misinterpretation and disputes, and reduce compliance and investigation costs.
- Objectives that refer to the principles of ESFM (provided these principles are operationalised in the proposed Conditions and Protocols of the IFOA).
- Adoption of new and digitised inputs and tools, such as LIDAR (laser) stream-mapping, Environmentally Sensitive Area mapping and updated threatened ecological community mapping (noting that the imperfect nature of predictive mapping requires quality assurance and complementary protections).
- Provision for updated environmental protection settings at multiple scales (which we recommend be significantly strengthened below).
- Increased data collection, data quality and reliability.
- Commitments to greater public access to forestry and environmental data.
- Greater focus on monitoring, evaluation, reporting, continuous improvement and adaptive management (subject to future monitoring plans and programs).
Concerning aspects or risks of the draft IFOA – settings that must be addressed
In brief, we note the following significant concerns with the draft Coastal IFOA:
- The overarching policy goal of ‘no net reduction in wood supply’ constrains the ability to act in accordance with ESFM principles.
- This has led to proposals for unsustainable extraction limits and short-term transitional settings that compromise long-term ecological outcomes and increase costs for future generations of forest managers and communities.
- There is a lack of monitoring and data on environmental outcomes and trends from past forestry practices under 20 years of the existing IFOAs, on which the revised IFOA should be based. Threatened Species Expert Panel members noted particular risks of data gaps on the impacts, scale and intervals of intensive harvesting.
- Given this lack of evidence, the draft IFOA settings fail to adopt a sufficiently precautionary approach to serious or irreversible risks of continued decline or extinction of threatened species and forest ecosystem function.
- The widespread adoption of controversial intensive harvesting practices and some proposed harvesting limits (including intensive and mixed harvesting) may propose significant risks to biodiversity and ESFM, without adequate complementary and compensatory protection measures (for example, an expanded reserves network).
- Inadequate tree retention rates and thresholds in harvesting areas, including for hollow-bearing trees and recruit trees, koala browse trees and giant trees.
- Stream buffer protections should be maintained at 10m, not reduced to 5m. This reflects Expert Panel recommendations. While we welcome the fact that new LIDAR mapping has discovered additional drainage lines, this is not a sound rationale for reducing buffers around sensitive ecosystems.
- A five-year transitional period that allows large-scale coupes and shortened return times, based on a legally-disputed practice of intensive harvesting, is highly problematic. We are concerned that this transitional arrangement prioritises short-term wood supply and jeopardises environmental outcomes, in a way that is inconsistent with ESFM.
These concerning aspects should be addressed as a priority alongside our high-level comments before any new Coastal IFOA is finalised.
As an independent community legal centre specialising in environmental law, our interest in the future of IFOAs is ensuring that NSW public forestry operations:
- Are consistent with the principles of ecologically sustainable forest management
- ensure that present and future generations have the benefit of productive, functional and biodiverse forests that sustain our unique and endangered ecosystems, plants and animals
- are governed by a well-resourced and independent regulator, under clear laws and requirements
- are subject to transparent public oversight through access to information, decision-making that involves communities, and access to the courts to enforce the law
- are designed to reduce community conflict around forest values and uses, and
- respect the diverse environmental, social and economic values of forests – including their long-term capacity to deliver ‘ecosystem services’ such as water filtration, oxygen turnover, pollination, carbon storage, recreation and cultural connections – values that traditional economic assessment processes often render invisible.
Our submission on the Draft Coastal IFOA makes 44 detailed recommendations on what the new forestry rulebook should look like. In summary we submit that:
- Wood supply policy aims must be urgently and transparently revised to reduce unsustainable pressure on state forests.
- Long-term values of healthy forests outweigh the short-term costs of wood supply buybacks.
- There is a need to invest in an up-to-date understanding of diverse forest values, including the value of ‘ecosystem services’ like recreation, pollination, and carbon, water and oxygen cycling.
- There is a need to clearly embed principles of Ecologically Sustainable Forest Management in the IFOA rules. including the precautionary principle (avoiding serious or irreversible damage – such as local extinctions – even though the risks are uncertain).
- Intensive harvesting limits and transitional arrangements in the Draft IFOA would allow unsustainable logging levels, and should be revised.
- Policy-making on NSW forestry is complex, but is hindered by inadequate consultation and lack of transparency on important decisions.
- The Draft IFOA doesn’t account for climate risks over the next 20 years. Forestry regulation, agencies and operators must demonstrate they are climate-ready and responsive.
 NSW Natural Resources Commission (NRC), Advice on Coastal Integrated Forestry Operations Approval remake (November 2016), p 2. The NRC was subsequently tasked to investigate remapping of Old Growth Forests as an option to resolve this conflict (see NRC Supplementary advice – March 2018).
 Threatened Species Expert Panel, Remake of the Coastal IFOA – Final Report (2018), p 8.
 The Threatened Species Expert Panel (2018, p 8) generally supported ‘prioritising streamside areas for retention… particularly where they have been protected over previous harvest cycles.’