The arrest of three men in relation to the large-scale theft of firewood in the Enfield state forest highlights the damage these actions commit upon public resources and trust.
Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning environmental compliance regional manager Grant Allan told The Courier the arrests of the Smythesdale men were the result of months of collaborative work with Victoria Police, stemming from the reports of a concerned member of the public.
The men were arrested in late April with search warrants being issued and vehicles, chainsaws, machinery and tools being seized, along with 14 cubic metres of processed firewood, worth over $2000 at current value.
"There are three main areas of impact," Mr Allan said of firewood theft.
"The first one for us will always be the impact to the local habitat and to biodiversity values. A lot of our species rely on these areas for roosting sites and nesting sites for birds; for reptiles, the logs on the grounds are habitat. These kinds of actions remove that habitat."
The Enfield state park, south of Ballarat, is a popular hiking, camping, picnicking and fossicking site, and is used by a wide variety of community groups for recreation.
It's surrounded by state forest managed by DELWP, and covers 4,400-hectares.
Mr Allan says theft also disadvantages licence-holding commercial woodcutters who pay for the right to take timber and have strict conditions placed on the way they can operate.
"Even if it's not removed from their allocated plots, illegally-removed firewood flooding the market at a cheaper rate obviously has an impact on their legitimate business," Mr Allan says.
These blokes, they won't cut the front of the tree and then the back; they'll just cut the back and it'll split. It's very dangerous. They leave a mess which hinders not only our operations; it hinders firefighting operations as well.Alistair Hull, licenced firewood operator
"In this case there are a number of trees that have been attempted to have been felled, which have been caught up in other trees or are hanging up; they're left in an unsafe situation and then public safety is a pretty high consideration."
He says DELWP is responsible for free firewood provision in these zones, and advocated for the public to act responsibly when they collect wood. The actions of the men in removing more timber than they were permitted and also felling trees illegally means the public acting lawfully were left with less wood to gather.
"This group has been engaging in these activities over a prolonged period of time and on an unprecedented scale," Mr Allan said.
"We have pursued the group for many months. It is gratifying that we've obtained the evidence required to take these matters to court.
"Potential fines of up to $8059 and/or a maximum penalty of one-year's imprisonment exist for each offence. Apart from cutting and removing timber unlawfully, the men were using and damaging the natural resources and values set aside for the benefit of all Victorians, for their own personal gain."
Mr Allan says it is broadly known there are legitimate ways to gather wood, and the idea that the theft is 'lower level offending' is mistaken. He says there are steady number of reports coming into DELWP about illegal activity in the Grampians region, and a number of investigations are underway.
"It's happening frequently enough that it's certainly something that's on our radar; we take it seriously and advise anyone with reports or suspicions to contact us."
Licenced firewood operator and owner of Talbot Timbers sawmill Alistair Hull says the illegal operators are unwelcome in the industry.
He says aside from the theft, the thieves are rarely trained in the proper method of dropping trees, and leave half-fallen timbers in precarious and dangerous positions.
"We're trained in falling trees to minimise damage to the next tree and things like that," Mr Hull says.
"These blokes, they won't cut the front of the tree and then the back; they'll just cut the back and it'll split. It's very dangerous. They leave a mess which hinders not only our operations; it hinders firefighting operations as well."
Alistair Hull says the public don't understand the level of regulation applied to licenced firewood operators. When they see the damage done by amateurs or thieves, it gives a well-administered industry a bad name, he says.
"We all get tarred with the same brush," he says.
"I've seen hollow trees cut down. Being a licenced operator, we have to follow the rules and regulations; we leave habitat trees for the environment. Illegal cutters, they don't discriminate."
DELWP's Grant Allan says people considering stealing wood and damaging state assets should be aware the department is focussing on the problem.
"This investigation is an outcome of State Government's $36.6 million 'protecting our forest and wildlife' initiative that has enabled the establishment of the Office of the Conservation Regulator (OCR) and doubling of DELWP's capacity to identify, investigate and prosecute serious environmental crimes such as this one.
"Through OCR, the lessons from this and other regulatory actions will be used to enhance DELWP's regulatory performance to better protect environmental, heritage and other values, and to promote sustainable and equitable use of these where appropriate.
"Our authorised officers will continue patrolling parks, forests and reserves to ensure people are doing the right thing while collecting their firewood. We will continue to investigate reports of suspected illegal firewood collection.
"When purchasing firewood, you should ensure that you are dealing with a licensed commercial firewood operator."