Bushfire-affected forestry operations

Five million hectares in NSW were burnt in the 2019-20 bushfires, including more than 890,000 hectares of native State Forests. This is over 40% of the coastal and tablelands native State Forests in NSW.

Following the bushfires we worked with other NSW Government agencies and the Forestry Corporation of NSW (FCNSW) to understand the impact of the fires on the environment and wildlife, local communities and the forestry industry, and to encourage a precautionary approach to where and how forestry operations occur. This work informed our regulatory decision-making about logging in areas affected by the fires and logging of burnt timber.

We consider the rules for timber harvesting in coastal State forests, the Coastal Integrated Forestry Operation Approval (IFOA)  were not designed to manage the environmental risks associated with harvesting in landscapes that have been so extensively and severely impacted by fire. 

Initial precautionary rules for managing the impacts of the 2019–20 bushfires

FCNSW are authorised by the NSW Government to undertake forestry operations under the Forestry Act 2012, and must comply with environmental rules called Integrated Forestry Operations Approvals (IFOAs).

The IFOAs set out conditions designed to manage the impact of native forestry operations on the environment, including rules which protect soils, water, ecosystems, native plants and animals, including koalas. However, these rules never contemplated the scale and severity of the 2019–20 bushfires on our landscapes, waterways and native plants, animals and ecosystems.

In the aftermath of the 2019–20 fires we issued FCNSW with a set of supplementary site-specific environmental conditions that applied to forestry operations in selected areas of fire-affected State Forests to help in bushfire recovery efforts for fire-affected regional communities. The conditions were required in addition to the prescriptions set out in the Coastal Integrated Forestry Operations Approval, and were issued on a case by case basis, only where it was determined that the environmental risk associated with harvesting operations could be reasonably mitigated.

The additional conditions aimed to mitigate the specific environmental risks caused by the bushfires at each site, and were tailored for the specific impacts on plants, animals and their habitats, soils and waterways at each site. The additional conditions aimed to maximise the protection of unburnt or lightly burnt forest and limited harvesting intensity to assist with wildlife and biodiversity recovery efforts.

Forestry Corporation of NSW decision to return to operating under the Coastal IFOA

FCNSW wrote to us in September 2020 to advise of their intention to return to harvesting under the standard conditions of the Coastal IFOA, and to no longer seek site-specific conditions. A copy of FCNSW’s letter to the EPA (PDF 155KB) is available.

FCNSW provided a report to us explaining these factors 2019–20 Wildfires-Environmental impacts and implications for timber harvesting in NSW State forests (PDF 8.4MB). The report provides FCNSW’s assessment of the impact of the 2019–20 fire season on biodiversity, soil and water values and implications for managing ongoing timber harvesting operations in native State forests.

We commissioned a report by independent ecologist Dr Andrew Smith (PDF 2.4MB), which considered the Coastal IFOA and site specific operating conditions in the context of the environmental risks of harvesting timber in burnt landscapes. The report also considered the principles of ecologically sustainable forest management and the precautionary principle.

The findings of Dr Smith’s report, in conjunction with additional and current information used to support the development of site-specific prescriptions and operational advice from EPA officers working in areas affected by the bushfires informed our position, that a return to operating under the Coastal IFOA alone, was not tenable at the time.

We wrote to FCNSW (PDF 148KB) and advised them of our concerns. We reiterated our commitment to working with FCNSW to rapidly identify and implement a long-term approach to manage the risks posed by timber harvesting in the post-fire landscapes of coastal NSW.

See status of operations for our current position.

EPA’s current position on forestry operations in fire affected forests

We continue to advocate that FCNSW obtain site-specific operating conditions in areas recovering from the 2019/20 wildfires. This approach will ensure that harvesting activities in fire-impacted forests are carried out in an ecologically sustainable manner, and therefore meet the requirements of the Forestry Act 2012, the CIFOA and relevant Regional Forest Agreements.

In June 2021, the Natural Resources Commission provided the former NSW Government a report on Coastal IFOA operations post 2019–2020 bushfires. This report remains under consideration by the NSW Government.