Failures in NSW forestry regulation – Auditor General Report


During recent local communities’ battles to stop logging of native forests in NSW, several campaigners have lodged court actions alleging failures of the NSW Environmental Protection Authority and Forestry NSW to adequately monitor and protect wildlife in advance of beginning logging operations.

Forestry NSW is a state-owned corporation that manages commercial native and plantation forests on behalf of the NSW Government. The NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) is responsible for regulating native forestry in New South Wales. This includes monitoring FCNSW’s compliance with IFOA ( Integrated Forestry Operations Approvals) including by maintaining and enforcing a compliance program.

While court actions can highlight instances of poor compliance, a recent NSW Auditor General’s report provides a more comprehensive picture of how specific failures may reflect more systemic weaknesses in the regulation of forestry. This report, which identifies deficiencies in the compliance of forestry operations, was published in June this year. This post sets out some of the key findings in the report.

Newry State forest on the mid North coast of NSW is one of the areas where campaigners are trying to stop logging in areas which meant to be part of the Great Koala National Park.

Gaps in EPA forestry compliance

The EPA identifies native forestry as a high priority regulatory activity and undertakes inspections of Coastal IFOA harvest sites on a risk basis. However, the EPA does not assess the risk at Western IFOA harvest sites, leaving a significant gap in its inspection regime. This means that the EPA may not be inspecting all high-risk harvest sites to ensure compliance with regulations across those sites. The EPA has started to train more of its staff in conducting forestry inspections, but it currently has a limited number of trained and experienced staff to undertake this work.

The EPA doesn’t check the risks or inspect harvest sites in the Western IFOA regions. They consider these sites low-risk but didn’t provide the NSW Auditor General with any clear reason why. As a result, they haven’t done any proactive inspections in recent years, but they do respond to complaints. Unlike other regions, the Western IFOAs don’t require detailed plans to be shared with the EPA. By not determining the risks in these areas, the EPA does not have assurance that it is checking FCNSW compliance with regulations across all high-risk sites.

Insufficient training and equipment challenges

Most EPA staff have basic training in forestry matters, but few staff have the more advanced training required to effectively undertake forestry inspections. In addition, not all EPA officers have access to the technology required to undertake forestry inspections, such as internet-enabled tablets and specialised tapes for measuring tree diameter. This limits the EPA’s ability to determine the level of compliance with regulations and respond effectively to instances of environmental harm caused by public native forestry.

Some EPA offices lack the necessary equipment for forestry inspections, creating limitations for field staff. Access to specialised equipment, such as internet-enabled tablets for accessing FCNSW’s MapApp data or forestry-specific tools like tree measurement tapes, range finders, and snake bite kits, is not consistently available in all regional offices. This equipment shortage sometimes requires staff to bring their own tablets from home.

Delayed response to forestry-related complaints

In response to forestry-related complaints, the EPA conducts inspections and resolves issues through various means, such as requesting information from FCNSW or conducting desktop assessments. However, there are problems with the timeliness of responses. The EPA does not have established timeframes for responses, resulting in delays that can affect the integrity of evidence due to environmental changes.

The same harvest site can face multiple regulatory actions, such as issuing warning letters and penalties. However, the time between inspections and regulatory actions can be lengthy, sometimes taking six months or more. In some cases, regulatory actions are not resolved until years after identifying non-compliances.

Lack of guidance for Western IFOAs

The EPA provides guidance for Coastal IFOA inspections. This guidance aims to ensure consistency in assessing tree retention, rocky outcrops, and road crossings. However, the report highlights a lack of guidance for the Western IFOAs, potentially leading to inconsistent interpretations of their requirements. The EPA response to the NSW Auditor-General was that the Western IFOAs already contain sufficient details, reducing the need for additional guidance.

Medium and low-risk sites not considered priorities

The EPA prioritises inspections based on risk levels. Over the past three financial years, inspections have predominantly focused on high and medium-risk sites while still covering some low-risk sites. If complaints are received regarding low or medium-risk areas, the EPA may or may not inspect those specific areas. While the EPA prioritises inspections based on risk levels, not all high-risk sites undergo inspections. This could leave some critical sites uninspected. ( Editor: This system means that a high reliance placed on the original risk assessment.)

EPA lacks power to deal with the aftermath of disasters including bushfires

The EPA lacks power to control post-disaster forestry activities. After the 2019-20 bushfires, FCNSW sought Site Specific Operating Conditions (SSOC) from the EPA to ensure compliance at some sites. The EPA granted these conditions for 12 months. Later, the FCNSW chose not to renew them and applied their own voluntary measures during harvesting operations. Unlike the SSOCs, the EPA is unable to undertake enforcement activities for breaches of voluntary measures.

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