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NSW red gum logging defies Federal environment law (On Line Opinion)

The river red gum wetland forests along the Murray River provide a perfect illustration of why protected areas are so important.

The diverse red gum ecosystems straddling the Victoria-New South Wales border are teeming with unique plants, birds, marsupials and fish - including nationally listed threatened species that are recognised under Australian law.

But these internationally significant Ramsar-listed wetlands are being seriously damaged by unnecessary water extraction and logging.

Many of the red gums felled in these wetlands are destined to become low-value railway sleepers or be burned in fireplaces in Melbourne and Sydney - a terribly wasteful use of 100-year and older trees.

The dramatic decline of Ramsar-listed wetland forests in the Murray Darling Basin have contributed to waterbird populations plummeting by as much as 80 per cent.

The Australian Conservation Foundation has been concerned for many years about the impact excessive water diversion and logging are having on the red gum wetlands of the Murray River.

In December 2008 the Victorian Government declared nearly 100,000 hectares of red gum national parks and reserves along the Murray, Goulburn and Ovens rivers, delivering on ten years of promises and on the recommendations of the Victorian Environmental Assessment Council.

But on the New South Wales side of the river the wetland forests continue to be raided for firewood and railway sleepers.

The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), Australia’s central piece of environmental legislation, provides a legal framework to protect and manage nationally and internationally important plants, animals and ecological communities defined in the Act as being of national environmental significance.

In the past two years the Federal Environment Department has been investigating river red gum logging in NSW. The findings of that investigation have not been made public through a report, but aspects of it were revealed during Senate Estimates questions in Federal Parliament in May 2009. In response to questioning a Departmental officer confirmed concerns that logging in the NSW red gum wetlands was damaging the habitat of threatened species.

Peter Burnett of the Department’s Approvals and Wildlife Division told Senate Estimates:

The concern is that clear felling in patches destroys the continuity of the tree canopy and that has a very significant impact on the ecological character of the Ramsar wetland, obviously where it is occurring within the Ramsar wetland, and elsewhere. By disrupting the continuity of the tree canopy it is having a significant impact on the habitat of nationally listed threatened species.

Meanwhile the damage to NSW’s red gum wetland forests continues.

In mid 2009 ACF welcomed the NSW government’s decision to direct the Natural Resource Commission to investigate the management of river red gum forests within the Riverina Bioregion and in December congratulated the promise by then premier Nathan Rees to protect some of the State’s red gum wetland forests as new national parks.

The Natural Resource Commission’s final report found an urgent need for large scale land protection and reform of water management.

The most recent national land and water resource audit identified the Riverina region, and in particular the red gum wetland forests, as containing some of the least protected and most threatened ecosystems in Australia.

It’s time for the NSW and Federal governments to resolve this issue as a matter of urgency.

There should be an immediate moratorium on all logging in NSW river red gum forests until the two governments have sorted it out.

ACF has been told one of the main barriers to NSW achieving a good conservation outcome is the difficulty for the state to resource a comprehensive structural adjustment package for the region.

We believe a unique opportunity exists for the federal government to provide swift financial assistance to deliver a comprehensive conservation outcome and help the affected timber workers make the transition to a sustainable future.

NSW premier Kristina Keneally should grasp the opportunity to stand proud with Victorian premier John Brumby whose declaration of new protected areas in late 2008 created a net increase in local employment by bringing new job opportunities to red gum regions.

Red gum national parks in NSW would protect internationally significant wetlands and 300 threatened or near threatened native plants and animals, many of which are listed under the federal environment law.

Red gum forests are an asset for the whole community - they are not just for timber. They are a drawcard for regional tourism and the first defence for wildlife against the impacts of climate change.

A multi-state national park along the iconic Murray River would be a nationally significant conservation outcome.

National Park status would give these forests the recognition and protection they deserve.

Lindsay Hesketh is ACF's Healthy Country Campaigner.