Urgent Reforms Needed as EPBC Act Fails

Article is the fourth in a series written by Kyogle Environment Group

The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) is facing scrutiny amidst a backdrop of concerning environmental degradation. As native species vanish and habitats shrink at an alarming rate, urgent reforms are needed.

Under the stewardship of the Federal Minister for the Environment and Water, Tanya Plibersek, the EPBC Act is undergoing a comprehensive overhaul as part of the Department’s Nature Positive Plan. This is the most significant evaluation of the Act since it began in 1999, with three overarching objectives: to protect more of what’s precious, manage nature better for the future and repair more of what’s already damaged. On the surface, these aims promise a step towards a more environmentally conscious future.

One particular area of focus within this review relates to the Regional Forest Agreements (RFA), established by the NSW State Government in 2002. These agreements delineate the parameters, duties, and accountabilities for the sustainable management of forests, renewing every two decades. However, RFAs have enjoyed exemption from the EPBC Act since its inception, under a policy of exclusivity referred to as ‘RFA exceptionalism,’ a term coined by Thomas Baxter of the University of Tasmania. Initially perceived as providing the same legal protection as the EPBC Act, this presumption has proven misguided.

By exempting the RFA regime, the Federal Government has neglected its obligations under international environmental treaties concerning forests, effectively relinquishing oversight to State Governments. Unfortunately, the NSW Environmental Protection Agency is frequently under-resourced, armed with fines and penalties that are inadequate deterrents against any significant and reckless ecological harm incurred by forestry operations.

Take a trip to a recently logged coupe and you will see a landscape of cut and crushed habitat, weed infestation, erosion, homeless koalas and glider dens smashed by bulldozer tracks. Logging is inherently destructive, and nature suffers.

In response to mounting concerns, the Federal Government has pledged to address the deficiencies in forestry regulation oversight and compliance through the ongoing EPBC review process. However, there are apprehensions regarding the level of community consultation, with fears that industry stakeholders may unduly influence the outcome, perpetuating a cycle of ‘systemic capture.’ As the review unfolds, we will ask for balanced representation to ensure that the voice of conservation is not drowned out by vested interests.

Ultimately, the hope is for a regulatory framework that prioritises environmental protection, providing native forests and their inhabitants the robust safeguards they need.

This article first appeared in the April edition of the Nimbin Good Times and is reproduced here in full with permission.

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