No bushfire expert on panel


THE Howitt Society has condemned the state government for not including bushfire expertise on the panel that is investigating the future of Gippsland’s native forest.

“The Howitt Society is astounded to note that a panel to make recommendations on the future management of the state’s public land estate, including the 1.8 million hectares of forest previously available for timber harvesting, does not include any members with a strong practical background in forest and fire management,” said the Howitt Society’s secretary, Garry Squires, in a letter to the Minister for the Environment, Steve Dimopoulos.

The Howitt Society is a group of experienced land and fire managers and bushmen concerned for the health and safety of the Australian bush and in particular fire management. They are inspired by the work of 19th Century Gippsland scientist Alfred Howitt, who wrote extensively on eastern and north-eastern geology, ecology, forests, fire and Gippsland’s indigenous people.

Mr Squires said Howitt Society members recognise that the bush faced an immediate, intensifying and ultimately existential threat from large, high intensity wildfires.

“In addition, multiple pest plants and an explosion in feral animal numbers adds further pressure to native flora and fauna, as do increasing and often conflicting demands for access and use,” he said.

“Fire is by far the biggest threat to the future of the forest areas of Victoria and if fuels are not managed, all other management actions will be overtaken by the impacts of large intense wildfires such as those which Victoria experienced in 2019/20. In addition, the structure of forests and the flora and fauna, soils and water values will be permanently impacted by the effects of these regular intense fires.”

For this reason, Mr Squires said the Howitt Society urged Mr Dimopoulos to reconsider the membership of the taskforce and add a person with a strong background in practical forest/fire management. This way, the review by the taskforce can contribute in a positive way to improved outcomes for the future of the forests of Victoria, he said.

Traralgon consultant, John Cameron has made similar criticisms of the lack of bushfire expertise in the native forest investigation by the state government’s Victorian Environmental Assessment Council.

The Howitt Society’s bushfire fears come as a cross-section of bush users, miners and prospectors that are rebelling against the possibility that several hundred thousand extra hectares of forest could be included in a Great Forest National Park.

Last December, the Victorian Environmental Assessment Council (VEAC) noted that a national park could be created from three areas in the north and south of the Central Highlands that would link the Yarra Ranges, Kinglake, Lake Eildon and Baw Baw national parks and the Bunyip, Cathedral Range and Moondarra parks.

Engage Victoria, is due to make recommendations to VEAC on the Great Forest National Park later this year. A rally of more than 1000 people in Drouin a month ago, attended by Victorian Liberal leader, John Pesutto, voted overwhelmingly against closing the Central Highlands State Forest, by incorporating it into a Great Forest National Park.

No detailed analysis for mining potential

Apart from Baw Baw Shire residents, people came from central Victoria, Omeo, Woods Point, Marysville, Alexandra and eastern Melbourne to show their rejection of the proposal. The crowd consisted of business owners from forest towns, unemployed timber workers after the closure of the native forest industry, hunters, fishermen, campers, train bike riders, 4WD owners, prospectors and fossickers. Miners and small prospectors fear that the proposal, by locking up swathes of forest, could shackle mining as a driver of economic growth and jobs in west and central Gippsland.

The executive director of the Victorian division of the Minerals Council of Australia, James Sorahan, told the Gippsland Farmer earlier this year that VEAC was considering extending areas of forest into protected conservation zones that are mineral rich.

“A proper analysis of impacts on economic opportunities for regional Victorians needs to take place to ensure a balanced analysis of the economic, social or environmental impacts of mining and minerals exploration in the study area,” he told the Gippsland Farmer.

“There has been no detailed analysis.”

Mr Sorahan said active exploration and mining in the region showed the potential for minerals which can benefit the local and broader state economy. More than 20 mining and exploration companies with 38 exploration licences (EL) and eight EL applications are in the study area.

“Explorers are looking for not only gold exploration, but at least one other commodity including antimony, tungsten, tin, molybdenum, bismuth and base metals such as copper and zinc,” he said.

Many critical minerals needed for renewables were available.

Mr Sorahan said Geological Survey Victoria (GSV) estimates there is “significant potential” for gold and critical minerals worth at least $3.4 billion.

“MCA Victoria is not against extending protected areas, but they need to be areas that don’t risk sterilising minerals rich regions because exploration has effectively no impact on the environment, and mining’s is minimised and highly regulated,” he said.

“Conservation and modern mineral resource development are not mutually exclusive outcomes.”

Mr Sorahan said minerals development had not been identified as a major driver of biodiversity loss in Victorian state of environment reporting.

“The footprint is small, and most exploration is low impact,” he said.

A Prospectors and Miners Association of Victoria (PMAV) Committee member, David Bentley, told the Gippsland Farmer that a major mining area like Walhalla-Woods Point could be lost.

Mr Bentley said the process in Gippsland was akin to the Central West Investigation area, which resulted in the loss of more than 70,000ha of goldfields into national parks.

The interim VEAC report into the forests of the Central Highlands, based largely on desktop assessment of previous research and talks with experts, emphasised that forest values were particularly threatened by climate change: heatwaves, floods, higher temperatures, declines in annual rainfall, and increased bushfire frequency and severity. Other threats were invasive plants and animals, such as blackberry and deer, and loss and fragmentation of habitat.

Melbourne’s growing population was also placing more pressure on the forests for recreation and other uses.

VEAC said it had identified large areas of high-quality natural values with relatively low conflicting uses that could be protected in a national park, and that link the existing parks in the region.

“The upper Thomson catchment also contains outstanding natural values commensurate with a national park designation and would link to the Yarra Ranges National Park to the west. More detailed consideration is needed however as there are potentially high value uses such as mineral extraction that would conflict with such a designation,” VEAC said, noting there was significant potential for gold in the state forests in the east of the Central Highlands RFA area.

Gippsland Farmer

The Gippsland Farmer is a monthly agricultural newspaper reporting on rural news and distributed FREE and direct to an area covering from Cann River through to South Gippsland. For more than 40 years Gippsland Farmer has reported on a range of issues and industries including dairy, beef, vegetables, sheep, goats, poultry, organic farming, and viticulture.