​​​1.1 Introduction

1.2 What is a regional forest agreement?

1.3 Objectives and benefits of a regional forest agreement

1.4 Developing a regional forest agreement

1.5 Managing the process

1.6 Implementing regional forest agreements

1.7 Reviewing regional forest agreements

1.1 Introduction

The National Forest Policy Statement and the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment identify circumstances that may involve the Commonwealth in making decisions about forest management. The Commonwealth has obligations under international conventions and in relation to export or foreign investment approvals and interstate and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues. When Commonwealth decisions are required, or if Commonwealth land is involved, a number of legislative obligations and assessment processes are activated. The Commonwealth also has broad interests in national and regional economic development, efficient resource use and social policy.

Similarly, State governments consider a range of obligations before decisions are taken on forest resource development projects and land use allocations for conservation or resource development. Under the National Forest Policy Statement, governments expressed a commitment to strengthen the integration of Commonwealth and State decision-making and to promote cooperative planning. They endorsed the use of intergovernmental agreements to formalise resource-related decisions and identify appropriate management arrangements.

The regional forest agreement approach has evolved in response to this commitment to integration and coordination. A regional forest agreement will be based on joint assessment of environmental and heritage values and of economic opportunities and social impacts of resource use options for a region, and it will take account of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander concerns.

1.2 What is a regional forest agreement?

A regional forest agreement will establish the forest management and intergovernmental arrangements required to meet the obligations and objectives of both the governments involved. The agreement may therefore specify land use boundaries, forest management guidelines, and consultative arrangements between government. Of course, the duration of each agreement will be subject to negotiation between governments and may vary, but it is expected that agreements will operate for ten to twenty years, subject to a regular review cycle.

1.3 Objectives and benefits of a regional forest agreement

1.3.1 Objectives

The Commonwealth has five principal objectives for regional forest agreements:

to use an integrated cooperative assessment and planning process to reduce uncertainty about outcomes and to reduce duplication between government requirements and processes in land use decision-making;

  • to produce durable, long-term decisions that meet the requirements of the governments involved, the community and industry and are consistent with the principles of ecologically sustainable development;
  • to equitably balance competing sectoral objectives and coordinate the policies and activities of governments;
  • to maintain regional environmental, heritage and social values;
  • to provide secure access to resources for forest-based industries.
1.3.2 Benefits

The regional forest agreement process is designed to contribute to predictable and stable conditions for land use planning, commercial investment in new and existing forest-based industries, short- and long-term timber harvesting, recreation management, and conservation planning. A regional forest agreement can be used to provide land use boundaries, environmental protection and wood availability that remain fixed for the duration of the agreement. Precise regionally defined quantities of wood resources and access arrangements available to industry over a specified time can therefore be determined and incorporated in the agreement.

An agreement will also clarify the management expectations of State and Commonwealth governments. The pooling of information about both public and private native forests and plantations in the regional forest agreement process should be valuable for regional organisation and marketing by forest industries.

A regional forest agreement will provide conservation planners with the opportunity to achieve a high level of certainty about the protection of environmental and heritage values. Identification of forest values and conservation requirements enables regional forest agreements to provide for specific management responses to protect identified conservation values, such as biological diversity and endangered species and communities. The regional forest agreement process will provide the basis for meeting the conservation commitments of the National Forest Policy Statement at the regional level, including the establishment of a comprehensive, adequate and representative reserve system and the implementation of the strategy to protect high conservation value old-growth forests and wilderness areas.

On 22 December 1994, the Prime Minister announced the phase-out by the year 2000 of woodchips exported from native forests that are not covered by, or where there has not been significant progress made toward, a regional forest agreement incorporating a comprehensive, adequate and representative forest reserve system.

In the National Forest Policy Statement, the Commonwealth stated that, where a regional forest agreement is in operation, it will consider extending export approvals for unprocessed wood beyond the current annual renewal cycle. A regional forest agreement will address the details relating to downstream processing and longer term woodchip export approvals The Commonwealth sees a path to cooperative and sustainable forest management through a national framework of agreements which protect environmental values and at the same time maintain a vigorous and internationally competitive wood products industry.

1.4 Developing a regional forest agreement

Developing a regional forest agreement is in many respects a strategic planning exercise that recognises potential economic and social development opportunities offered by the forests in a region. It is the Commonwealth's opinion that a full context for conservation and industry planning necessitates the consideration of all of the forests and forest resources in a region-private and public lands, plantations of exotic and native species, and native forests. A 'whole forest' approach is consistent with the National Forest Policy Statement and Commonwealth legal obligations for native forests; many of these obligations apply regardless of tenure.

Figure 2 shows the stages in developing a regional forest agreement; Box 1 summarises the elements of each stage in the process. Together, they are an elaboration of the stages outlined in the executive summary and in Figure 1.

Box 1 Stages in developing a regional forest agreement

The following stages characterise the development of a regional forest agreement.

1. A State government will invite the Commonwealth to jointly undertake a comprehensive assessment of regional forests with a view to formulating an agreement.

2. A preliminary information audit will be undertaken to support the development of the scoping agreement on data requirements, assessment responsibilities, potential forest uses and prospective time frames and costs.

3. State information collection and decision-making processes that may be accredited by the Commonwealth as part of the regional forest agreement will be identified and assessed.

4. Governments will negotiate the management arrangements needed for the agreement process, possibly including the establishment of a joint regional assessment management committee.

5. The governments will sign a preliminary scoping agreement on specific administrative and operational arrangements, among them the following:

  • Scope and objectives-scope of assessment and objectives of the regional forest agreement, potential forest uses, obligations and requirements to be met through the regional assessments, State processes to be considered for accreditation;
  • Management issues-intergovernmental management and negotiation structures and membership, time frames for assessment, consultation and agreement, responsibilities between and within governments for meeting obligations, governments' and government agencies' roles in, and responsibilities for, data collection and assessment, requirements of statutory processes under impact assessment legislation (determination of proposal, proponent, and 'Action Minister', where appropriate), handling and, where necessary, development or modification of processes to be considered for accreditation, allocation of funds and resources, conflict resolution mechanisms, public consultation mechanisms, arrangements for consultation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and for the protection of traditional knowledge and intellectual property, links with other Commonwealth and State programs;
  • Data and information issues-consistency with data standards being established under the National Forest Inventory and the Environmental Resources Information Network, access to data, data collection, analyses, and storage, quality control mechanisms (data and analyses).

6. Social, environmental and economic values, resource use opportunities and community and industry aspirations will be identified through the assessment process.

7. Assessment reports will be produced for the consideration of governments and public comment.

8. Options for forest use based on resource demands and allocations will be developed in consultation with industry and the community. Forest use options will be assessed in terms of impacts and implications for government objectives and obligations.

9. An agreed forum will be used to negotiate the draft regional forest agreement.

10. The draft regional forest agreement will be submitted to the relevant Ministers.

1.4.1 The Scoping Agreement

The regional forest agreement process will be initiated through an invitation from a State government to the Commonwealth. The next step will be a preliminary investigation of the size and nature of the task, including an audit and analysis of the adequacy of available information, identification of the two governments' legislative and policy obligations, clarification of possible forest uses, and assessment of the required consultative and management arrangements.

This information will be used to develop a scoping agreement between governments, which will set out the broad parameters of the regional forest agreement process. In particular, the scoping agreement will identify the following:

  • the region to be covered by, and the broad objectives of, the regional forest agreement;
  • potential forest use and resource allocation options;
  • the need for any further information collection and assessment;
  • specific information collection and decision making processes to be considered for accreditation under the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment;
  • the estimated cost of the agreement process (including administration, staff, data and research costs);
  • a broad administrative framework for managing assessments and negotiating the regional forest agreement;
  • proposed community, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (see Section 4), and industry consultative opportunities, structures and time frames;
  • firm time frames for accreditation processes, for assessment and for negotiation of the regional forest agreement.
1.4.2 Information collection and assessment

To accommodate the diverse goals of the National Forest Policy Statement and the many obligations of governments, a regional forest agreement will need to draw on information and assessments covering the full range of forest values. Such information may already exist, it may be obtained through State processes accredited under the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment, or it may need to be obtained jointly or independently by the governments concerned.

Existing information

The information needs of the Commonwealth frequently overlap with those of State governments. Much of the information the Commonwealth needs to discharge its responsibilities might have already been collected by State governments.

Accredited processes

If State information collection and resource planning processes meet Commonwealth requirements, the Commonwealth will consider accrediting them under the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment. Although the Commonwealth is unable to delegate many of its statutory decision-making powers, it will give 'full faith and credit' to the results of accredited State processes when making its decisions. Most State processes have not been developed to take Commonwealth interests into account, but the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment does provide for State governments to modify their processes and so accommodate Commonwealth interests. The Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment also provides for the accreditation of Commonwealth processes by State Governments. Box 2 describes the accreditation process.

Additional information collection activities

If existing information or processes are not able to satisfy Commonwealth needs, additional survey and assessment exercises may be conducted. This can be done by either party, as agreed between them, or in collaboration.

Some information needs and assessment criteria outlined in this paper must be met if the Commonwealth is to properly discharge its responsibilities. While recognising that the existing information base will vary considerably from region to region, the Commonwealth is obliged to apply consistent standards for information collection for some of its assessments. If key information is lacking, the precautionary principle may need to be applied to avoid unacceptable environmental degradation.

Box 2 Accreditation of State processes under the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment

Under the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment, the Commonwealth and States have agreed that the Commonwealth can approve or accredit a State's environment-related processes if a Commonwealth interest in an environmental matter has been identified. The Agreement also enables a State to use the same process if it considers that its interests can be accommodated by accrediting Commonwealth processes. Schedule 2 of the Agreement specifically allows for the possibility of the Commonwealth accrediting State land and resource use planning systems.

This is consistent with the provisions of the National Forest Policy Statement; that is, wherever possible the Commonwealth will accredit State processes and give 'full faith and credit' to the results of those processes. Similarly, the Commonwealth will give 'full faith and credit' to assessments of National Estate values conducted jointly by the Australian Heritage Commission and State authorities.

In the context of regional forest agreements, the Commonwealth will seek to accredit existing State processes where these are considered to meet the information requirements of developing an agreement. A State may seek Commonwealth accreditation of new or existing processes that it believes will meet Commonwealth requirements. Regardless of whether a State requests accreditation, the Commonwealth will use existing information wherever possible, with new data being collected only when necessary. Accreditation may be sought at the developmental stage of a new process to enable Commonwealth requirements to be built into a process. It may also be sought for existing processes that a State intends to use as the basis for more than one regional forest agreement.

Consistent with the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment, acceptance and reliance on the outcome of an accredited process do not preclude the accrediting jurisdiction from taking other factors into account in its decision making. In the context of a regional forest agreement, if the Commonwealth gives 'full faith and credit' to the results of an accredited process, it means that the Commonwealth will use the information produced by a process as the basis for a regional forest agreement and will not re-collect information. However, giving 'full faith and credit' to a relevant process does not imply automatic endorsement of the outcome of that process, including any resource use or allocation decisions made on the basis of that process.

Some States may seek accreditation of forest management planning systems or components of those systems, including information collection processes. In assessing a State process, the Commonwealth will identify its requirements for a regional forest agreement and determine the extent to which they are met by this process. The Commonwealth will then negotiate with the State on the elements of the process that may be accredited and determine whether any additional information and assessments are necessary. The Commonwealth will then give 'full faith and credit' to the outcomes of accredited processes.

In summary, the process of accreditation will be pursued in accordance with the approach outlined in the Commonwealth's 1994 position paper entitled, Accreditation under the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment.

1.4.3 Regional assessments

The Commonwealth strongly supports the principles of integration and cooperation inherent in the regional forest agreement process. Agreements will be based on regional assessments covering all forest values-environmental, heritage, economic, and social values. Sections 2 and 3 detail the arrangements proposed for these assessments. It is, of course, vital that there be communication between assessment groups, that assessments of potential impacts be integrated, and that procedures be established to assess any significant post-agreement impacts.

Communication between assessment groups

All assessments will need to be coordinated, to ensure that data and methodologies are compatible, that duplication is avoided, and that results can be readily incorporated in the decision-making process. Regular liaison and interchange of information will also be necessary, so that recommendations are made with full awareness of their broader potential impacts. Although separate, public reports on environmental and heritage assessments and economic and social assessments are envisaged, liaison and the use of a common information base should help to keep the reports as consistent as possible and enable major points of possible contention to be identified early.

Integration of impact assessment

All governments in Australia have statutory requirements for environmental impact assessment. The Commonwealth Environment Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act 1974 requires decision makers in the Commonwealth to refer to the Minister or Department responsible for the environment any decision or action that is likely to affect the environment to a significant extent. The States have similar obligations.

For regional forest agreements to be durable, it will be important for environmental impact assessment processes, particularly assessments of the impacts of resource use, to be incorporated in the regional assessments. A decision to engage in a regional forest agreement would provide the trigger for assessment under the Administrative Procedures of the Commonwealth's Environment Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act 1974. The requirements of the Administrative Procedures would be satisfied in the manner described broadly below.

A proponent would be designated at the beginning of each regional forest agreement process, bringing the process and its outcomes within the operation of the Act. Limited public interaction of less than one month would be conducted of a document setting out the scope of the assessments to ensure that they covered all of the principal issues of interest to the key public stakeholders. The assessments and preparation of a draft regional forest agreement would then proceed. Advice would be taken from environmental impact assessment authorities from time to time to clarify assessment issues that might arise.

The draft regional agreement together with a document explaining how it was arrived at would be released for public review for a period of about 3 months. The agency responsible for environmental impact assessment would then prepare its report on the regional forest agreement process and the draft agreement taking into account the content of public submissions received. The Environment Minister would consider the draft agreement together with the report and public review outcomes. Finally, the draft agreement would be amended to take into account the Environment Minister's recommendations before being submitted to the Government. This environmental impact assessment process would need to be coordinated with State requirements.

Assessing impacts after agreement

Although the regional assessments will consider a range of forest use and management options, no assessment or agreement will be able to predict or plan for all possibilities. Resource development proposals arising after the agreement has been reached might require additional impact assessment if major changes to resource allocations and management arrangements are involved.

1.4.4 Evaluation of forest use options

One of the key purposes of the regional forest agreement process is to resolve competing demands on forest resources. Before reaching agreement on the appropriate use of the forest resources of a region, governments will need to identify and evaluate the available options for forest use and management. This will involve taking account of existing legislation, international agreements and policies, economic feasibility, ecological sustainability, and the views of forest-based industries, unions, regional economic development organisations, conservation groups and other interested parties.

1.4.5 Issues to be considered in a regional forest agreement

Regional forest agreements will vary according to regional needs and the obligations of the governments involved. A number of broad themes will, however, be common to almost all regions. In general, the agreements will establish arrangements for relationships between governments, to protect identified values and the resources available to industry, and to implement defined management guidelines.

Specifically, regional forest agreements may cover the following:

  • particular tenure, land management and resource use arrangements to facilitate protection of identified environmental, heritage, economic, social and other values;
  • particular tenure, land management and resource use arrangements to facilitate present and future industry development opportunities;
  • continuing consultation, conflict avoidance and dispute resolution involving governments, industry and the community (including special arrangements for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities);
  • arrangements for monitoring progress in implementing the agreement, the effectiveness of management, and the sustainability of wood supply (with the governments involved having equal access to monitoring data);
  • processes for acquiring new information where there is a need for more information, and processes for incorporating new information in databases and forest management;
  • future government access to data and information (for example, for project-specific environmental impact assessment);
  • any joint regional funding after the agreement has been concluded;
  • linking State and Commonwealth programs to the objectives of the agreement;
  • Commonwealth-State consultative arrangements for the adjustment of management plans and practices in response to monitoring, and improved knowledge and technical capability;
  • arrangements for reviewing the agreement in defined exceptional and unforeseen circumstances or within an agreed time frame.
1.4.6 Regional forest management plan

A regional forest agreement couldestablish a regional forest management plan dealing with detailed operational and implementation matters. The plan could build on an existing State management plan, strategies and practices, taking into account the existing regulatory framework. Management plans could incorporate monitoring provisions, and flexibility for minor adjustments to operational and implementation arrangements without the need to reformulate the agreement. Consultation between governments would be necessary when making adjustments.

The management plan could cover specific regional forest management objectives, arrangements for implementing strategies to protect identified environmental and heritage values, land use and resource allocations for wood production and conservation, and detailed forest management guidelines, prescriptions and standards.

In keeping with the National Forest Policy Statement, a regional forest agreement will incorporate guidelines for all aspects of the ecologically sustainable management of forests in a region. The guidelines will cover, for example,management for sustainable yield, the application and reporting of codes of practice, and the protection of rare and endangered species, National Estate values and biodiversity. The guidelines may also specify levels and types of disturbance that are acceptable for particular forests without diminishing the conservation values of those forests. The agreement may also contain provisions linking management guidelines to specific performance indicators and monitoring and enforcement arrangements.

Changes in social or economic conditions which require government action could also be dealt with through additional initiatives which complement the agreement.

1.5 Managing the Process

1.5.1 Regional assessments

The Commonwealth and the State involved will jointly determine how the assessment process is managed; Figure 3 shows a structure that could form the basis for efficient management arrangements. A collaborative mechanism will be necessary to ensure that the interests of both governments are taken into account. The Commonwealth proposes that a regional assessment management committee be established to coordinate assessments, its membership reflecting the interests of the governments involved.

The regional assessment management committee would be responsible for identifying processes to be considered for accreditation, for developing forest use scenarios for consideration in the assessments, and for guiding and coordinating any joint assessments that may be required. Following the production of reports from the two streams of accredited or joint assessments-environmental and heritage and social and economic-the committee would prepare analyses to be a basis for the negotiation of the agreement, establishing administrative and consultative arrangements as required. It is expected that government conservation and forest industry agencies will be equal participants on the committee.

1.5.2 Regional agreements

It is envisaged that a small, high level negotiating group would be needed to draft the terms of the regional forest agreement and coordinate the regional forest agreement process. This group would have a core membership of senior representatives from the major environment and forest industry agencies and from central agencies in each government. Participants in the regional assessment process could be coopted where necessary. The negotiating group would be required to translate the findings and recommendations of the regional assessments into accountable planning and management decisions to be reflected in the agreement. In drafting a regional forest agreement to honour government obligations, the group would be guided by current government policies and objectives (including the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development and the National Forest Policy Statement) and would take account of the community values, attitudes and aspirations revealed in the consultative process.

1.5.3 Data management

The Commonwealth Regional Forest Agreement Interdepartmental Committee will coordinate the full range of analyses required by Commonwealth agencies. The Australian Heritage Commission will be the Commonwealth's agent for coordinating the collection of information required for environmental and heritage assessments.

The Environmental Resources Information Network will assist in the provision of technical facilities and support for data management (including access, storage and quality control) and network-based modelling and analysis tools for environmental and heritage assessment.

The Department of Primary Industries and Energy and its relevant research agencies (the Bureau of Resource Sciences and the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics) will have responsibility for coordinating the collection of information and managing analyses of the economic and social values of forests.

Information will also need to be made available in a form suitable for supporting public participation in the assessment and decision-making process-subject to the need to safeguard traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge and commercially sensitive information.

1.5.4 Funding

The scoping agreement will need to delineate funding responsibilities. Because regional assessments are a joint exercise, offering mutual benefits, it is expected that they would be jointly funded by the Commonwealth and the relevant State government. Subject to budgetary priorities and constraints, the Commonwealth will contribute funds and resources to those elements of the assessments that have direct bearing on Commonwealth obligations. Each regional forest agreement process will, however, need to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis, in light of particular requirements and circumstances.

1.5.5 Consultation

At the outset it will be necessary to develop a consultation strategy that takes account of statutory requirements under Commonwealth and State impact assessment and planning legislation. This strategy may vary from one regional forest agreement to another, depending on the interests of the Commonwealth or the State involved in the region being assessed. While public consultation will be an integral part of the process, its precise nature will vary with each regional forest agreement. It could be expected, however, that stakeholder consultation would be sought during the development of the scoping agreement, particularly in relation to identifying possible forest use and management scenarios for the region. It might also be sought during preparation of the draft assessment reports and after the regional forest agreement has been drafted.

The nature of consultation-circulation of draft documents, meetings with particular organisations, representation of organisations on special consultative committees, the establishment of groups to participate in assessment processes, and so on-will be determined by the Commonwealth and the State, and will be specified in the scoping agreement. Section 4 discusses arrangements for ensuring that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have ample opportunity for participation.

1.6 Implementing regional forest agreements

Consistent with the Australian Constitution, direct implementation of regional forest agreements will largely be the responsibility of the State government concerned, through its forest management agencies. Agreements and their associated management plans and guidelines, will probably contain a mix of specific and general provisions. They may provide for continuing consultation with the Commonwealth over the translation of the more general provisions into practical management plans and prescriptions to ensure that Commonwealth requirements are met.

1.7 Reviewing regional forest agreements

It is expected that regional forest agreements will identify a time frame for review and a range of potentially exceptional and unforeseen circumstances that might warrant review. Scheduled review intervals and arrangements will be determined by governments when negotiating the agreement. It may be appropriate to review an agreement well before its expiry date, and extend the duration of the agreement subject to the results of the review. The agreement could be organised in a series of schedules, based on themes, obligations or management functions, to simplify the review process.

The way exceptional and unforeseen circumstances are handled will be agreed to by the Commonwealth and the State concerned and may vary according to the circumstances. Among the possibilities are revising management practices, plans or conditions, renegotiating a specific part of the regional forest agreement, and undertaking an impact-specific assessment. Box 3shows examples of unforeseen and exceptional circumstances that might warrant a review of a management plan or the entire agreement.

It would be a matter for the Ministers responsible for the environment and resources in the relevant governments to determine whether an unforeseen and exceptional circumstance existed in relation to their jurisdiction. Any review of the agreement should involve all the participants in the original agreement process; it would need to examine the implications for forest management and take into account the views and interests of all parties affected.

Box 3 Reviewing a regional forest agreement: exceptional and unforeseen circumstances

The following are examples of exceptional and unforeseen circumstances that could be handled through amendments to management plans and practices, or through initiatives outside the regional forest agreement process, rather than revision of an entire regional forest agreement:

  • if it is found that forest use activities or a wood processing project would cause
    • a species of flora or fauna to become threatened (that is, rare, endangered or vulnerable)

    • a species of flora or fauna that is already threatened to become more threatened
    • a major decline in species population levels or a major disruption to important ecological processes
    • a major short- or long-term, or cumulative, physical impact on the natural environment or Australia's cultural heritage that was not taken into account in the development of the agreement
    • in light of new information, significant impacts on World Heritage, National Estate or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander values that have not been assessed or taken into account in the development of the agreement.
  • if a natural disaster occurred which severely reduced the availability of resources to an industry, requiring government action to avert or alleviate significant social and economic impacts.

The following are examples of circumstances that would probably warrant review of the entire regional forest agreement:

  • the exercise of a Commonwealth decision-making power in relation to a matter that was not previously considered in the development of the agreement and that does not involve environmental, cultural, heritage, economic or social issues-for example, the acquisition of land for defence purposes or the blocking of exports under United Nations sanctions;
  • a material breach of the agreement or any condition imposed as a result of the exercise of a Commonwealth or State decision-making power;
  • if it is found that any aspect of the agreement or anything arising from the agreement's implementation would result in an unintended extinguishment or impairment of native title.
Last reviewed: 4 November 2019
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