Efforts to secure more habitat for koala protection have triggered a shortage of supply of native timber in NSW that will spur more intensive old-growth logging, environmental groups say.
The Berejiklian government on Tuesday briefed the groups, unveiling plans for new Coastal Integrated Forestry Operations Approvals (IFOA), calling the overhaul "a vital step forward" for the industry.
Alix Goodwin, chief executive of the National Parks Association (NPA), said the rejig was prompted by a government decision this month to set aside about 24,000 hectares of Mid North Coast state forests to bolster koala numbers.
“We have been told that new protections for koala habitat will result in an annual shortfall of 10,000 cubic metres of saw logs promised to the timber industry," Ms Goodwin said.
NSW Forestry Minister Paul Toole has unveiled changes to the Coastal IFOAs that include merging the existing four zones into one that covers the entire NSW coast, and also starting a new mapping exercise "to gain a better understanding of key state forest sites".
Environmental groups said the remapping posed a "serious new threat" because it could result in mature forests losing their current high protection levels to make up for logging contracts lost in koala reserves.
“Removing old-growth classification through the remapping project could make thousands of hectares of previously protected high-quality wildlife habitat available to the timber industry," Kate Smolski, chief executive of the NSW Nature Conservation Council, said.
Mr Toole said "the potential supply issue" for native timber was identified by the Natural Resources Commission "during previous assessments for the Coastal IFOA", and was "unrelated to the koala strategy".
The mapping exercise "will ensure genuine old growth areas are identified and protected," he said.
"Environmental standards can be strengthened at the same time as providing long-term security of wood supply and certainty to investors and the industry," he said.
“For the proposed new Coastal IFOA, this means ensuring that we do not erode environmental values or impact the critical wood supplies that our regional economies or industry rely on," Mr Toole said, adding the state's forestry and related product industry was worth $2.4 billion.
Oisin Sweeney, science officer with the NPA, said his concern was that the remapping would carry a foregone conclusion: "Hey presto! There's less old-growth forest than we thought."
Ms Goodwin said the proposed changes would lead to forests between Grafton and Taree being "subject to a massive increase in harvesting intensity with patches of forest of 45 hectares open to clear-felling", echoing the damage inflicted on the Eden region on the South Coast.
Greens forest spokeswoman Dawn Walker said the overhaul of native logging rules threatened to revive the "forest wars" across the state, while destroying vital habitat for koalas and greater gliders.
“The Greens are equally worried by the removal of requirements to undertake pre-logging surveys for threatened species, the large reduction in buffer zones around streams from 10 metres to five metres and the removal of logging exclusion zones around known threatened species," Ms Walker said.
The moves were "a brazen attempt to increase the area of forest available to loggers and meet a shortfall in unrealistic wood supply agreements", she said.
The public will be able to comment on the plans relating to the rules and mapping, the government said.
Peter Hannam is Environment Editor at The Sydney Morning Herald. He covers broad environmental issues ranging from climate change to renewable energy for Fairfax Media.
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