The government has gazetted the transfer from April 30 of authority for private native forestry to Local Land Services (LLS), an agency under the Department of Primary Industries.
“Private native forestry makes a substantial contribution to the supply mix for the NSW native timber sector and plays an important role in our vision for the NSW forestry industry,” he said.
An EPA spokeswoman said the agency would “continue to perform its regulatory and compliance role for both private and public native forestry”.
But Chris Nadolny, a former senior ecologist with the Office of Environment and Heritage, pointed out that Mr Toole’s statement includes a plan for the LLS, and not the EPA, to “review the Private Native Forestry Codes of Practice later in 2018″.
“This could result in a significant watering down of the code,” Dr Nadolny said.
“Currently it is illegal to sell timber from land that is not actually continuing to be managed as a forest and, for example, if forests are cleared for agriculture, then the timber cannot be sold,” he said.
“There would be a big temptation to change this and also to water down protection for endangered species and habitat features.”
Last August, the government introduced the biggest changes to native vegetation laws in the state in more than two decades.
Environment groups say the Nationals have largely been allowed to drive the policy, which they say is already resulting in an increase in land clearing.
Dawn Walker, the NSW Greens forestry spokeswoman, said the shift of responsibility was a “sneaky move” that was part “of an alarming pattern of ripping up environmental protections” by the government.
“They have stripped resources and responsibilities from the EPA and National Parks and are allowing the National Party to run rampant with land clearing, over-extraction of water and unsustainable logging,” Ms Walker said.
Mick Veitch, Labor’s forestry spokesman, said his concerns included loading more demands on LLS staff, who were already struggling to cope with extra demands amid job cuts.
These tasks include providing advice to landholders on land-clearing in the wake of the loosening vegetation controls.
“It’s like you keep putting a lot of coats on a hook,” Mr Veitch said. “It can’t take much more without falling off.”
Dr Nadolny noted LLS staff may not have the knowledge needed to provide appropriate ecological advice.
“LLS don’t employ ecologists or those who have wildlife or conservation as their primary skills,” he said.
The Greens cited the case of logging on private land in Limpinwood, that had drawn opposition from locals and the Tweed Shire Council since 2013 amid allegations of unauthorised clearing and roadworks.
This area borders World Heritage forests and has been described as a “significant” environmental corridor between the Border Ranges and Wollumbin National Park.
In February, the landowner and the contractor of the logging operation were issued a formal warning by the EPA, according to the Greens. The Tweed Shire Council also voted that month to seek legal advice about prosecuting the logging operation for potential breaches of licensing and conservation acts, in order to stop any further breaches, the Greens said.