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7 December 2009

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News

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Australia

Premier urged to axe Rees's red gum national park

Pressure is mounting on Kristina Keneally to reverse Nathan Rees's last-minute decision to create a massive national park along the Murray River to protect threatened river red gum forests.

The timber industry, supported by the Opposition and elements within the Labor Party, want her to reverse Mr Rees's pledge, which they say will cost hundreds of logging jobs. The decision - announced in State Parliament hours before Mr Rees was toppled as Premier by Ms Keneally on Thursday - is yet to be approved by the cabinet budget committee.

The row is spilling into the federal arena. The federal Environment Minister, Peter Garrett, pointedly endorsed Mr Rees's ''magnificent'' announcement.

Mr Garrett's department has been in dispute with Forests NSW over its logging practices in the region, which contains vulnerable species including the superb parrot.

''I welcome the NSW Government's announcement of a magnificent new red gum national park,'' Mr Garrett told the Herald. ''These forests and wetlands are a refuge for threatened species and deserve proper protection.

''This announcement should also make it easier to resolve the problem of Forest NSW's compliance with Commonwealth environment law. I look forward to seeing the final report from the Natural Resources Commission and the Government's response.''

The Natural Resources Commission is scheduled to present the State Government with its final report on the state of the forests on December 21. An interim version of the report found that many of the red gums were either dying or already dead.

Ms Keneally did not say whether she would honour her predecessor's pledge to create the 42,000-hectare national park and provide a $48 million readjustment package to the region's timber industry.

"All major announcements made by the previous premier during the last week that did not go through the budget committee of cabinet will be examined by the NSW cabinet as per the usual process for government expenditure," a spokesman said.

The Opposition spokeswoman on natural resources, Katrina Hodgkinson, has already urged Ms Keneally to overturn the park decision.

The NSW Forest Products Association, representing timber companies, wrote to Ms Keneally on the same day, asking her to rescind Mr Rees's ''last desperate act''.

The association's NSW director, Russ Ainley, said Mr Rees ''undermined the integrity of the office of the NRC and destroyed the livelihoods of hundreds of hard-working forest industry employees, the communities of the Riverina and the businesses they maintain''.

Environment groups accuse Forests NSW of illegal logging of the red gums. They say the forests have not previously been assessed under state or federal environment or planning laws. They also say most of the valuable red gum timber is used for low-quality items like railway sleepers.

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