Endangered species found 'smashed up' under bulldozed trees: 'Grave concerns'

A bombshell report alleges tree geebungs could have been destroyed by the state logging agency.

Victorian authorities are investigating allegations critically endangered trees were illegally cleared in the state's Central Highlands. One specimen photographed buried under a pile of bulldozed flora is believed to be hundreds of years old.

Inquiries began after the state’s Conservation Regulator was handed a report by two environment groups last week. It documents the destruction of several rare tree geebungs inside an area understood to be managed by the government-owned timber harvester VicForests.

The shrubby tree species is endemic to Victoria and extremely slow growing — a 20cm specimen can be hundreds of years old. Increasingly scarce, the species is listed as endangered in Victoria and critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

A red circle around a tree geebung in a pile of dead trees. Taken from above with a drone.
An endangered tree geebung was found buried under a pile of other trees. Source: VFA

What do the images of the land clearing show?

Images supplied to Yahoo News Australia by the Victorian Forest Alliance (VFA) show several destroyed mature trees, some with apparent machinery damage, at the Saxtons Bend logging coup. One specimen described as "ancient" couldn't be fully accessed as it was discovered underneath a pile of other trees, but it's estimated to be between 20 and 30cm in width.

The surveyors did not see any signage at the site indicating harvesting was ongoing, so they used a drone and handheld cameras to gather pictures and data. “One Tree Geebung was particularly large and ancient and must have been protected during the initial logging operation,” the report alleges.

Left - a map of the coup with green dots indicating where the trees were allegedly found. Right - a felled tree geebung.
The green dots on the map indicate where the trees were allegedly photographed. Source: VFA

The trees were found in what the state government designated an Immediate Protection Area in 2019, however, the site is yet to be protected meaning logging of non-protected species can continue there. The president of Wildlife of the Central Highlands (WOTCH) which compiled the report with VFA accused the government of being “slow to formalise” the process. “Now threatened species are being smashed up,” she said.

It’s believed the site was logged between 2013 and 2015 and burned in 2016. The report alleges the trees could have been felled during regeneration works in 2023.

Geebung fast facts:

  • Tree geebungs are restricted to a tiny part of Victoria between the La Trobe and Yarra Rivers.

  • They have declined by 80 per cent in 300 years.

  • Their name is believed to have been derived from a NSW Indigenous word.

  • They were made famous by Banjo Paterson's poem The Geebung Polo Club.

Timber harvester responds to tree geebung report

VicForests did not respond directly to four questions sent to it by Yahoo News Australia, however, it did provide a statement. “VicForests has recently been made aware of this report and we are considering it,” it said.

A smaller tree geebung on its side.
Some tree geebungs were allegedly found pushed over. Source: VFA

The Conservation Regulator said it “takes all allegations of illegal timber harvesting seriously,” but declined to comment further as its investigation is ongoing.

Under the timber harvesting code, “where practicable” all tree geebungs with a diameter of at least 10cm at breast height require “protection from disturbance”. If timber harvesters are suspected of a breach, the Conservation Regulator is able to compel it to produce documents in relation to the allegations, issue warnings or prosecute the matter.

Breaches of the separate Sustainable Forests Act carry a maximum penalty of $110,952 for a body corporate if the matter is taken to court.

Andrews government set to end logging in 2024

In May, the Andrews government made the surprise announcement it would end all native logging by 2024 — six years earlier than scheduled. The move brings it in line with the Western Australia Labor government which announced the same goal in 2021. Last month, Yahoo confirmed NSW environment minister Penny Sharpe’s office currently has no plan to end native logging in her state.

After releasing the report, VFA spokesperson Chris Schuringa called for VicForests to be “wound up”.

“Despite the government’s plan to bring an earlier end to native forest logging, we hold grave concerns for forests and endangered species like the tree geebung,” she said.

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