Overview of nature protection laws
All the administrative systems and bodies of law discussed in this chapter are relevant to the protection of natural environments and built environments. The activity complained about might require planning permission, or an environmental impact assessment or environmental protection permission. All these legal processes have enforceable opportunities for input by members of the community, as described above.
Other laws specifically designed to protect nature and natural areas include the EPBC Act, Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988 (Vic) (‘FFG Act’), Wildlife Act 1975 (Vic) and National Parks Act 1975 (Vic).
In 2019, the Victorian Government established the Officer of the Conservation Regulator (OCR) within DELWP. The purpose of the OCR is to provide a central point of coordination and oversight for DELWP’s regulatory functions. These include regulating natural environments, logging, public land use, fire prevention, wildlife and biodiversity. Information about the OCR’s work and responsibilities is available at https://www.vic.gov.au/about-us-conservation-regulator.
The need to obtain a planning permit to remove native vegetation (clause 52.17 of all Victorian planning schemes) is an important part of the framework of nature protection laws in Victoria (see www.environment.vic.gov.au/native-vegetation/native-vegetation). Guidelines on the removal, destruction and lopping or native vegetation were incorporated into the planning scheme in 2017. In the assessment of permit applications, there is now greater emphasis on avoiding the removal of vegetation. Other environmental protection measures contained in overlays (e.g. the vegetation protection and environmental significance overlays) are also important elements in the framework.
Many natural systems and habitats are in the state’s forests and on public land, but outside national parks or reserves and vulnerable to logging operations. Actions under the national system of regional forest agreements (RFAs) negotiated under the Regional Forest Agreement Act 2002 (Cth) are exempt from EIA under the EPBC Act. However, the EPBC Act review found that RFAs offer a lower level of protection than the EPBC Act for other matters of national environmental significance and there is insufficient Commonwealth oversight of the RFAs.
Forestry operations are carried out under the Forests Act 1958 (Vic), Sustainable Forests (Timber) Act 2004 (Vic), Conservation, Forests and Lands Act 1987 (Vic) and the plethora of regulations and management plans made under them.
RFAs are intended to establish a substitute conservation regime for forests in which timber harvesting (logging) occurs. The EPBC Act does not apply to forestry operations if a RFA is in force, which means the conduct of forestry operations is governed solely by the RFA regime and is exempt from the state’s environmental laws.
Specific provision is made for third-party enforcement of planning schemes (see ‘Enforcement’ in ‘VCAT and environmental law‘). However, in most cases, Victorian nature protection laws do not include specific provisions that enable enforcement by individuals or environment organisations. In these cases, challenging a failure to comply with these laws may be possible at common law by way of judicial review of government decision-making – although such legal action is expensive and complicated as it must be heard in the Supreme Court. (For more information about protesters’ rights, see Chapter 11.4: Community activism.)
Reforms to the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act
On 1 June 2020, amendments to the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988 (Vic) (‘FFG Act’) commenced. These are the most substantial changes made to the FFG Act since it was first enacted.
The amendments update the FFG Act in some important ways. The amendments:
- revise and expand the objectives of the FFG Act, which now include a focus on both preventing species and ecosystems from becoming threatened, as well as enabling their recovery;
- include new principles guiding the FFG Act;
- include a new comprehensive duty on public authorities to give ‘proper consideration’ to the objectives, to a biodiversity strategy made under the FFG Act, and to other matters;
- update the listing process for threatened species and communities making it similar to national and international listing arrangements;
- update and clarify conservation tools such as critical habitat and conservation orders;
- provide new enforcement measures including enforceable undertakings.
The FFG Act now provides additional legislative guidance on the use of conservation measures, such as critical habitat determinations and various forms of conservation agreement, although use of these measures remains discretionary.
At the time of writing (1 July 2021), new regulations have been made governing threatened species listing but further regulation or guidance on other matters had not.