A Tasmanian old growth forest area has been earmarked for logging despite the state-owned forestry agency receiving scientific advice that it is vital habitat for the survival of a critically endangered species.
Its inclusion in a “wood production plan” has angered scientists and conservationists, who say there is clear evidence it contains large, hollow-bearing trees used for nesting by the swift parrot, a nationally protected migratory species that breeds in Tasmania and that peer-reviewed science has suggested could be extinct by 2031.
It follows a neighbouring area in the Huon Valley, south of Hobart, with similarly large trees being clear-felled last year despite an ecologist hired to advise government authorities that it should also not be logged.
Dr Jennifer Sanger, a forest ecologist and member of the volunteer campaign group Forestry Watch, said the entire area was particularly significant for swift parrots and should not be logged.
“All of the forest there provides excellent habitat for swifties. The hollow-bearing trees are needed and they got logged without any real mention of, or consideration of, swift parrots,” Sanger said.
The wood production plan, released last week by the government agency Sustainable Timber Tasmania, lists areas – coupes – for “harvest and regeneration” over the next three years.
It was issued as the Morrison government received a report from the former consumer watchdog chief Graeme Samuel, who is leading a once-a-decade review of national environment laws. Scientists and conservation groups say the laws are failing to stem an extinction crisis, in part because forestry has been exempted.
The newly earmarked coupe had been removed from logging plans in 2018 after officials sought advice from Matt Webb, a conservation ecologist at Australian National University’s Fenner School of Environment and Society, before being reinstated last week as a “contingency coupe” that foresters can access to ensure logging continues if circumstances change in other areas.
Webb has given advice on the coupe and surrounding area, including the neighbouring coupe logged last year, twice. A report seen by Guardian Australia says he found it supported high-quality parrot breeding habitat, and logging would further destroy nesting and foraging trees that had already been heavily affected by forestry. He said the replacement time for the large trees in the area would be more than 150 years.
Webb said no further advice was sought from him or, as far as he knew, anyone else before the area was logged last year. Asked this week to respond to another part of it being logged, he said: “You may as well put national parks on your logging plans.”
He said it was part of a broader problem. “There are multiple other coupes I’ve offered advice on in the past that have been removed from previous logging plans that have now come back,” he said.
Webb last year told a Senate inquiry into Australia’s faunal extinction crisis that senior state department officials had repeatedly expected him to alter his scientific opinion, mostly on whether it was safe to log swift parrot habitat, when he worked on threatened species for the Tasmanian government between 2003 and 2015.
A Sustainable Timber Tasmania spokesman did not respond directly when asked why a coupe had been returned to the logging schedule after being removed. He said a comprehensive planning process would be undertaken for every coupe in the plan, including to identify the location of swift parrot habitat and inform how it was managed.
The agency’s website says the plan focuses on coupes that are unlikely to include significant swift parrot habitat. Where some do, it says its operational planning will exclude the habitat from logging.
Jenny Weber, from the Bob Brown Foundation, said an initial assessment suggested it was likely there were coupes in the plan containing swift parrot habitat. “Experts warn that there is a failure in conservation policy for the swift parrot due to the deficiency in mapping... and the lack of on-ground assessment,” she said.
Chris Timewell, from BirdLife Australia, said the parrot was being hit by bushfires and ongoing logging in its feeding and breeding habitat in both New South Wales and Tasmania, and unless decisive action was taken to stop the destruction, it faced extinction within 15 to 20 years.
“Every piece of its habitat is now precious,” he said. “The review of [national environment laws] is a crucial moment to strengthen protection for swift parrots so they can continue to amaze us forever.”
Steve Pearce, a Forestry Watch member and self-described “tree nerd”, said the area listed as a “contingency coupe” last week was full of trees with hollows that were perfect for swift parrots to breed in. “They’re old, gnarly and 60 metres tall – old beasts basically,” he said.
He said both the logged and listed-for-logging coupe were near a 92-metre blue gum that was the first place he brought tree enthusiasts visiting the state. He shot a video from high in the tree last summer, including footage of swift parrots feeding and the hollows in nearby mature eucalypts used for breeding.
“It’s the most magnificent tree in Tasmania and, I would say, probably Australia,” Pearce said. “We climbed it last summer and it was a pillar of flowers. We counted eight swift parrots and got one in shot that landed about two metres away from us.”
Logging is largely exempt from the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act under a series of regional forestry agreements between Canberra and the governments of four states.
The Morrison government has promised Graeme Samuel’s review of the legislation will lead to it cutting “green tape” to reduce approval times for developments while maintaining environmental standards. It has received an interim report, but is yet to release it. A final report due in October.
Scientists and conservation groups say the forestry exemption is one of a series of failures in the design and implementation of the legislation that favours industry and agriculture over wildlife.
The exemption was called into question by a landmark Federal Court judgment in May that found the Victorian government forestry agency, VicForests, repeatedly breached breached a code of practice in a regional forestry agreement (RFA).
It means, for the first time in 20 years, forestry operations may have to be assessed under the EPBC Act. The forestry industry has called on state and federal governments to clarify what the judgment means for logging.
Guardian Australia reporting has uncovered widespread problems with the EPBC Act, including poor monitoring of endangered species, major delays in the listing of threatened species and ecosystems, failure to develop, update and implement recovery plans for species and habitats threatened with extinction, failure to protect important habitat, and threatened species funding being used for projects that do not benefit threatened species. The laws also do not address the effects of climate change.