Environment watchdog made 'backroom deal' with state-run logging group putting endangered marsupial at risk, advocates claim

environment watchdog made 'backroom deal' with state-run logging group putting endangered marsupial at risk, advocates claim

Logging in Tallaganda State Forest. (Supplied: Forest Defence NSW)

The NSW Environment Protection Agency (EPA) has "made a dodgy backroom deal" to support loggers, angry environment groups claim, after an announcement that logging could go ahead in forests known to be safe havens for greater gliders.

The groups claimed only minimal searches were made to avoid killing the endangered marsupial and they were done during the day despite the glider being nocturnal.

In a joint statement, the groups claimed the announcement by the EPA drew a "road map to extinction" for the species.

Greater gliders — Australia's largest gliding marsupial – were once common throughout eastern Australia but due to logging, fire and other impacts were declared endangered in 2022.

The species rely on hollows in old "den trees" to live and rear their young.

Previously, the state-run Forestry Corporation NSW (FCNSW) were required to survey for the gliders to find den trees, and protect them from logging, as well as provide a 50-meter buffer zone around the trees.

However, the law was not prescriptive about how the surveys needed to be conducted.

When a dead glider was found near a logging operation in Tallaganda State Forest on the South Coast in August 2023, the EPA issued immediate stop-work orders.

The regulator then found 20 den trees in an area scheduled to be logged.

It was then discovered that searches for the nocturnal marsupial's den trees were occurring during the day.

The EPA extended stop-work orders to other areas in November after more den trees were found in areas planned to be logged.

Those orders all lapsed at the start of this year.

At the time, the EPA executive director of operation, Jason Gordon, said there were 137 glider sap feed trees in logging areas near Ulladulla on the NSW south coast.

"The EPA alleges that FCNSW has not conducted detailed and thorough searches necessary to identify all greater glider and yellow-bellied glider den trees within the Flat Rock State Forest compartment," he said.

"Den trees and their surrounding habitat are critical for the gliders' feeding and movement and removal of habitat removes shelter and food, making the gliders vulnerable to harm.

"This stop-work order is necessary to ensure required measures are in place to protect glider den trees."

Searches for nocturnal species conducted in the day

Scott Daines from the South East Forest Alliance said the group had analysed data that showed FCNSW conducted some of its surveys for the nocturnal species during the day, when he said it would be very unlikely to find them.

"It's forestry purposely not wanting to find den trees," Mr Daines said.

"They knew what they were doing. And the object is not to find den trees as then they don't get the 50-metre exclusion zone and get area taken off them."

Forestry Corporation defended its actions at the time and said the day-time searches were meant to find a range of species – a defence rejected by the EPA.

To ensure logging better protected the crucial den trees, the EPA clarified rules around surveying den trees in February.

It said each search must be conducted at night.

They also needed to be conducted when gliders were entering or leaving their den, within an hour of sunset – when the gliders were known to be most active.

Mr Daines's group submitted complaints to the EPA, detailing the alleged breaches of the new rules after finding 300 searches for dens beginning after sunset.

He said of the 13 den trees, 12 of them were found during searches that began within an hour of sunset.

On Monday, the EPA released a statement saying the rules released in February were "never meant" to require all searches for den trees to occur within an hour of sunset.

Instead, the EPA said it meant for just one search to start within half an hour of sunset while the rest could occur any time after dark.

The watchdog also released amended rules that removed suggestions all searches should start within an hour of sunset and declined to issue further stop-work orders.

It said the changed and clarified rules were needed, in part, to make sure FCNSW could log enough forest.

"Without these amendments and clarity to search and survey requirements, FCNSW has advised the current conditions would have a material impact on the state's wood supply," the EPA said.

The EPA said the new rules reflected what was a "shared understanding" between the EPA and the loggers of the rules issued earlier in the year.

A spokesperson for FCNSW welcomed the change and said it was their intention to comply with site-specific biodiversity conditions (SSBC) enforced by the EPA.

"EPA's statement today does confirm that nocturnal surveys completed by Forestry Corporation under the February SSBC were conducted in line with the shared understanding of the EPA and Forestry Corporation's regarding the timing of these surveys."

Environment groups rejected that claim.

"It makes a laughing stock of the whole regulatory scheme for forestry," Mr Daines said.

Better protections for gliders outside den trees

Kita Ashman, a forest scientist with World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) Australia said instead of protecting an endangered species, the EPA was protecting the timber industry.

"It's extremely clear we have an endangered species whose sole requirement is trees, we also have an industry whose sole requirement is trees," Dr Ashman said.

"On the sideline, we have an Environmental Protection Agency that is choosing the industry's needs over the endangered species needs."

In its statement, the EPA said it was "committed" to fulfilling statutory obligations to "protect the environment and independently regulate all licensed industries, including native forest operations".

It was also continuing to investigate FCNSW for other potential breaches of the rules.

South East Forest Rescue is currently suing FCNSW, alleging that the law requires it to search and find all greater glider den trees competently.

The case is yet to be heard in the NSW Land and Environment Court.

The EPA has strengthened rules for protections around areas where greater gliders have been spotted.

The new rules require a 25-metre exclusion zone around any siting of a greater glider — a rule that did not exist until now.

FCNSW said the rules meant work needed to be temporarily stopped at 15 locations while it figured out how to ensure its logging operations remained compliant.

"Due to the short time period for advice on these changes, we have not yet had ample time to quantify these impacts," the FCNSW said.

Environment groups said the protection rules were not enough.

Dr Ashman said the science showed that to protect the species the exclusion zones needed to be wider.

"Most gliders have a home range of two to three hectares, so we need the buffers to look a lot more like 100 metres, not 25 metres," she said.

"To my knowledge, none of us who have been studying this species and studying their home ranges were consulted on that 25-metre buffer."

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