I am pleased to rise and speak on this bill. This is an important bill that clarifies and strengthens the regulation of timber harvesting and illegal firewood collection in Victorian state forests, and it is amending a number of pieces of legislation. It responds to a number of concerns about the regulation of timber harvesting throughout Victoria. I have to say it has had an impact in the area I live in, and I will come to that in more detail as I go on.
It is the result of an independent review of timber harvesting regulation that was completed in 2018. The bill places new penalties on unauthorised timber harvesting operations. It increases penalties, which is something that is very important and something that I know the department and Parks Victoria have been calling for for quite a while, particularly in relation to the taking of firewood illegally. The bill increases the time period available to bring charges for an offence from two years up to three years. It places greater accountability on VicForests for actions of its contractors if they breach the offence of unauthorised timber harvesting operations. The bill expands the power for the Secretary of the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning to seek injunctions of various kinds, a broader power than has previously been there.
The 2018 Independent Review of Timber Harvesting Regulation report recommended new powers and protections be given to authorised officers to be able to require production of documents. This is an important aspect of the legislation too. It allows for newer mapping tools to be used and also harmonises legislative provisions relating to VicForests’s compliance with the Code of Practice for Timber Production 2014.
The illegal taking of firewood in my electorate has been a very big issue for the last 12 months or so. I have had a number of constituents come into my office who live on the edge of Reedy Swamp or Gemmill Swamp down by Loch Garry and who hear chainsaws going throughout the night. When they go and investigate in the morning they are finding huge trees that have been logged. It appears to be some sort of illegal firewood gathering activity where large amounts of firewood are being gathered, put in trucks and brought to Melbourne to sell to the public who need wood for fire. This is highly illegal. I have seen pictures of some of the trees that have been cut down. They were really huge old-growth trees in some instances. It has been very concerning to members of my community. People have taken it upon themselves to go down at other times in daylight to video this sort of behaviour and have provided that sort of evidence to the department, so I think people in my community are very keen to see some successful prosecutions out of this. I would say that this piece of legislation certainly increases the penalties for that sort of behaviour, but let us hope it also creates more ability to prove the offences. Some of these tools that are effectively being brought in through this legislation may also help with some of the investigations and capturing people, because I think very often there is a good idea of what is going on but it is hard to gather together the proof that is needed.
The Northern Victorian Firewood & Home Heating Project report was published in 2018. That was an important piece of work that identified people in our northern Victorian community who actually rely on firewood for a number of reasons. This might sound surprising, but out of all households in northern Victoria, firewood is the primary source of heat for 51 per cent of the population. Now, this report also looked at vulnerable communities in northern Victoria, and it found that 55 per cent had no other source of heating, 14 per cent rely on firewood for cooking, 7 per cent rely on firewood for heating water and 43 per cent had to collect their firewood from public land.
So the issue of firewood collection for regional communities remains very important; you see that level of dependency that there still is in our communities, particularly for those people who have no other source of heating. I have the Barmah forest and the Barmah National Park in my electorate, and I often get representations from people who live up in Nathalia and Barmah, bordering the forest, about a number of vulnerable families. I know Peter Newman has talked to me about the very aged woman who is a neighbour of his for whom he collects firewood and leaves for her because that is the only form of heating and indeed cooking that she uses.
There is still quite a need out there, and I know that Parks Victoria at times will say that they are concerned that there is not enough firewood in available spaces. Over the last few years it has been a concern to a number of people that when firewood collection areas are declared, the closest one might be way up in the Gunbower forest or somewhere like that, which really makes it very difficult for local communities to access it if they do not have their own vehicles, trailers and suitable equipment to do it.
I think it is time that some serious thought is put into how we look after those vulnerable communities. No doubt that report that has identified those groups of people will be the instigator of that. I hope that some solutions can be achieved to really assist families, because our regional communities, we know, are ageing communities, and they are unlikely to switch to new ways of doing things.
We saw the rollout of natural gas to Nathalia, probably about four years ago, and I could not help but think at the time what a great pity it was that we were spending so much money on rolling out gas when the money that that costed could probably quite easily have been translated to solar on every rooftop in a town the size of Nathalia. That would have allowed people to use all the existing appliances they had. I believe the uptake of gas has not been terrific in that town, because you need a gas oven and you need a gas heater—it really changes the way you do things—whereas solar would have been just a really nice way of enabling people to continue to use those appliances that they had, which were electric appliances. Sometimes there is a bit of short-termism in all of this. As it stands at the moment it has created a circumstance in a town like Nathalia where you have got some people on gas and some on electricity. And what will the uptake of solar be? It is a bit of a dilemma in a town like that.
I had occasion over the holidays to read a book called Barkskins, an incredible book about the history of timber harvesting and logging in North America and how way back in those early days of the colonisation of North America the reliance on timber was so great, the wealth that could be derived from it was so great and the destruction of so many huge forests was so great. We have seen so much of that happen in our own country, because for so long timber was the only product that we could rely on. And I think of the historic times with the Barmah forest. All of those forests were cleared for red gum timber to build railways, to build ships and to build wharves; the wharves in Echuca are red gum.
The need for that sort of timber at that time was great, but it has left our forests often just with new growth, not like they once were and now much more in need of care. And they very often are not getting the level of care they need. It is incumbent upon governments to take something like the Barmah National Park, an iconic red gum forest—Ramsar-listed—to really preserve it and bring it back to its former glory to the extent that it can. It has management plans which are about to be released, and some of those will be met with some concern in local areas, concern about whether people will have to pay to get into them, whether they will be able to camp the way they used to camp and whether they will be more regulated. All these things are important issues, and I commend the bill to the house.