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As Australia’s logging ‘madness’ fuels more fires, will it hasten ecosystem collapse?

In the aftermath of the 2019-2020 Australian bushfires, logging has recommenced in the Australian state of Victoria, despite intense criticism from scientists and conservationists.

A thick, acrid scent of smoke marks the last summer season in Australia, which has become known as the “black summer.” Between June 2019 and March 2020, a series of bushfires ripped through more than 11 million hectares (27.2 million acres) of bushland, forest and parks in Australia, killing about a billion native animals, including scores of iconic species like koalas, kangaroos and wallabies.

During the worst months, December 2019 and January 2020, a dense, billowy haze glided over the country, and even across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand, coloring midday skies an eerie shade of red, and filling lungs with fine particles that made breathing difficult. The recovery process for the country’s flora and fauna will take decades, or even centuries, experts say.

Yet, in Victoria and New South Wales, the two Australian states that were affected the most by the fires, logging companies have continued to saw down swaths of native trees to produce paper pulp for toilet tissue and paper towels.

In Victoria, where fires raged through more than 1.2 million hectares (3 million acres) of land, a regional forestry agreement (RFA) was recently renewed for 10 years, allowing the state’s own logging company, VicForests to oversee and manage logging in the state, including logging inside the critically endangered mountain ash forest ecosystem. While the Victorian and federal government in Australia insist that the industry helps preserve jobs and boosts the economy, scientists and conservationists say continued logging doesn’t make economic or environmental sense.

Logging for another 10 years

It’s estimated that nearly five football fields of native forest are logged in Victoria each day, according to a policy paper published last year by the Australian Greens Party. The authorization for this logging lies in a series of documents collectively referred to as the state’s RFA, which are available for public view on the Victoria state government’s website.

The RFAs, which were established in 1998, excuse logging companies from certain state and federal legislation, such as the Environmental Protection Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, meant to protect vulnerable flora and fauna in Australia’s forests. Despite these exemptions, Victoria’s RFAs pledge to properly and sustainably manage forests in order to protect biodiversity.

However, Janet Rice, an environmentalist and acting member of the Australian Greens Party, says she doesn’t believe the state’s RFAs haven’t done anything to safeguard native forests over the last 20 years.

I think the fact that it was released … in the middle of when everyone’s focused on Covid-19 means that they know that people weren’t going to be happy with it.

Janet Rice, environmentalist, Australian Greens Party

“Regional Forests Agreements … are bilateral Commonwealth and state agreements which are failing our native forest ecosystems and the species which reside in them,” Rice wrote in recent submission to the EPBC Act that she shared with Mongabay. “These Agreements were established over 20 years ago with the aims of protecting forest ecosystems and maintaining an economically viable native forest based forestry industry. They have failed in both regards.”

Politicians aren’t the only ones dissatisfied with the logging industry’s forest management. In 2019, the Victorian government conducted a public survey to assess how the public would like the state to manage its forests. The majority of respondents said that forests should be used for “conserving plants and animals,” while only a small number of respondents emphasised the importance of “providing jobs and economic benefits from timber and wood products.”

Following this survey, Premier Daniel Andrews, the current state leader of the Victorian Labor party, announced that logging in old-growth forests in Victoria would cease by 2030. About 90,000 hectares (222,000 acres) of native forest would be protected, and an additional 96,000 hectares (237,000 acres) of forest would be exempt from logging because it provided critical habitat for the greater glider (Petauroides volans), a tiny, threatened marsupial that shelters in tree hollows. The Andrews government also said it would invest A$120 million ($78 million) to help the logging industry transition to a plantation-based supply over a 30-year period.

“This industry is going through a transition,” Andrews said in a statement. “It means it’s not good enough for us to merely cross our fingers and hope for the best. We need a plan to support workers and support jobs. With a 30-year plan for transition, we’re providing much-needed certainty for workers and their families.”

Victoria’s RFAs has also been undergoing a so-called modernisation process that promises to reinforce existing protections of forests, to provide “more timely interventions” to protect vulnerable species.”

In April 2020, the Victorian government extended the state’s RFAs  for another 10 years, shortly after the state went into lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I think the fact that it was released … in the middle of when everyone’s focused on Covid-19 means that they know that people weren’t going to be happy with it,” Rice told Mongabay. “They wanted to get it out of the way in a low profile way.”

Chris Taylor, a research fellow at the Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University (ANU), said that neither the Andrews government’s 2030 pledge nor the modernization process is doing anything to protect the state’s forests.

“Forest management and logging practices are not being reviewed, amended or revised,” Taylor told Mongabay. “Things are going ahead as business as usual.”

Taylor also pointed out that the 2030 logging phaseout date is “really misleading” since that’s the same year that an agreement between the Victorian government and Australian Paper, the country’s big paper manufacturer, runs out. Up until 2030, the state will continue to supply wood pulp to Australian Paper so it can produce office, printing and packaging papers. But if logging continues as it does now, there won’t be much native forest left in 10 years, Taylor said.

“They’re literally going to run the forest off the edge of the cliff,” Taylor said. “They’re going to exhaust the resource, and that’s their intent. It’ll be highly unlikely that we will even make it to 2030 in terms of the capacity of the forest to supply wood.”

Forest management and logging practices are not being reviewed, amended or revised.Things are going ahead as business as usual.

Chris Taylor, research fellow, Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University

‘Damaged and destroyed every day’

The word “logging” may conjure up an image of tree stumps dotted across a patch of raw, empty earth. This kind of logging, known as clearfelling or clear-cutting, removes all trees and vegetation from an area, and is often followed by the deliberate setting of fire to clear the land and allow regrowth.

While clear-cutting is commonly practiced in Victoria, loggers also use a technique called selective logging. As its name suggests, workers will select certain trees, while leaving other parts of the forest intact. In theory, selective logging might seem to less destructive than clear-cutting, but environmentalists and scientists warn that this form of logging is just as disruptive to the forest ecosystem, especially since loggers tend to take out the oldest and largest trees, which provide food and shelter for wildlife.

“The main habitat value of trees is when they’re old enough to form hollows,” Rice said. “[Trees in] forests around the world will form hollows much earlier on … but Australian eucalypts won’t form hollows until they’re about 120 years old. So these trees are just getting to the age where they can actually be significant habitat value for the hollow-dependent wildlife, but they’re going to be all gone. You’ve only got very, very young regrowth forests, and it’s going to take decades and decades and decades before it’s a value for wildlife.”

One animal that is particularly dependent on tree hollows is the critically endangered leadbeater’s possum (Gymnobelideus leadbeateri), a marsupial that can only be found in small pockets in Victoria’s ash forests and sub-alpine woodlands. The little animal is also the state’s faunal emblem.

“It’s estimated that there’s less than 2,000 of these little animals in the wild,” Rice said. “The whole time that I’ve been in the Senate, we have been trying to get them to finalise the recovery plan for the leadbeater’s possum, but they haven’t. Even this regional forest agreement would potentially give them [the logging companies] another two years before they finalise the recovery plan. Meanwhile, the forest that they depend upon is being damaged and destroyed, every day of the week.”

The entire mountain ash forest ecosystem, which is found in Victoria’s Central Highlands, is listed as critically endangered by the IUCN, an international organisation that keeps a comprehensive inventory of the conservation status of biological species. However, the Victorian government doesn’t recognise the ecosystem’s IUCN status, Taylor said.

“They’ve taken it upon themselves to reject that listing, which is unfortunate,” Taylor said.

Any form of logging also disables a native forest’s ability to produce water, store carbon and support tourism, according to David Lindenmayer, professor at the Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University.

“All of those uses are actually completely incompatible with timber harvesting,” Lindenmayer told Mongabay. “So when you log a forest, you produce huge amounts of carbon emissions, you reduce water production, and not many tourists want to tramp around in a forest that’s just been blitzed by clear-cutting.”

‘Fire and logging beget more fire and logging’

Logging also makes forests drier, and therefore more fire prone, according to James Watson, professor at School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Queensland.

“When you log a tree, you’re opening up the entire ecosystem, which means it gets drier,” Watson told Mongabay. “You’re allowing wind dynamics to start occurring, which dries out the system as well. And you’ve got all this dry wood on the ground — branches, bark, stumps. The fact that you’ve got these saplings over time start growing, which acts like sticks in a fire. All of these things combined mean that you affect the risk of fire flammability massively.”

Younger trees also provide a larger surface area over which a fire can burn, which is why they’re more incendiary, Taylor said.

“It’s a bit like putting straw in your fireplace — you get that flare-up,” Taylor said. “The reason why that happens is because the width of the fuel is much narrower. If you throw a big log onto a fire, you know how it doesn’t burn immediately? That’s because there’s more mass that’s inside the log that isn’t exposed directly to the fire. Whereas if you get a twig, you’ve got a far greater surface area compared to that mass … so the heat of the fire is able to ignite it more rapidly, and you get that explosive flare-up. That’s what happens in a wildfire event.”

Besides logging intact forests, VicForests has also been doing salvage-logging, which involves clearing away all the burnt trees and logs from a scorched landscape. Yet, a burnt forest can still act as an important habitat for animals struggling to recover after a bushfire by providing shade, moisture and shelter, according to Lindenmayer. Rotting wood also attracts insects and allows fungi to grow, which can supply food for birds and mammals impacted by the fire.

“The biggest concern is that it’s a double disturbance,” Lindenmayer said. “These ecosystems that have been burnt are in the process of trying to recover, and then they get smashed again. And so, very few ecosystems around the world are geared to be able to deal with two enormous disturbances in very rapid succession.

And ultimately, those effects have enormous long lasting impacts that can last for up to 200 years. And most of our species are just not adapted to be able to deal with this. And it’s not just here in Australia — all of the global reviews that have been done shows that there are problems just about everywhere where salvage logging is conducted. In fact, I don’t even think it should be called salvage logging because really, you’re not salvaging anything — it’s almost all damage.”

Lindenmayer also points out that some burnt eucalypt trees are not actually “dead,” but have the capacity to resprout if left alone. Removing these trees precludes the forest’s ability to recover.

These ecosystems that have been burnt are in the process of trying to recover, and then they get smashed again. And so, very few ecosystems around the world are geared to be able to deal with two enormous disturbances in very rapid succession.

David Lindenmayer, professor, Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University

Once a forest has burnt, trees may regrow, but since young saplings make the forest susceptible to burning again, the forest is drawn into a vicious cycle of burning and regrowing, Lindenmayer said.

“These latest big fires that we’ve had in Australia, some parts of northeastern Victoria have been burnt four times in 25 years, when the normal return interval for fires should be once every 75 to 150 years,” Lindenmayer said. “There’s simply too much disturbance over too big an area that’s happening too quickly for systems to continue to be able to deal with this.”

“It’s a really serious issue,” he added. “What happens is that fire and logging beget more fire and logging.”

Once a forest has burnt numerous times, it may eventually fail to regenerate, which can lead to ecosystem collapse, Lindenmayer said.

Logging made Australia’s fires worse 

Lindenmayer, Taylor, Watson and two other researchers recently co-authored a comment piece in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, arguing that logging exacerbated the calamitous bushfires that raged across Australia last summer. While the authors acknowledge that climate change played a significant role in fueling the fires, and that post-fire discussions should look at ways to mitigate climate change, they argue there needs to be more discussion centering around land management and forestry practices.

“This is an oversight given that land management is well within the control of Australians (unlike global action to abate climate change) and that there is an extensive body of science available to decision-makers,” the authors write in the paper.

To prevent future bushfires, the researchers say that logging needs to cease in fire-prone areas and near human settlements; that burnt forests and other landscapes need to be given a chance to recover without salvage-logging and other human interference; and that future logging should be focused on plantations rather than native forest.

“The thing that worries me the most is that these poor people who live in these landscapes are now at more risk of fire,” Watson said. “We’ve just had some horrendous fires go through, and our actions are making them more vulnerable to future fire. So it’s a human welfare issue, it’s a human safety issue, alongside a carbon issue, an adaption issue, and a biodiversity issue.”

Does logging make sense?

Scientists and conservationists say they believe that logging isn’t just environmentally unviable, but economically reckless, especially since the harvested timber is simply used to make wood chips and paper pulp.

“We’re not talking about taking the trees and making them into high quality, very valuable tables and chairs and floorboards and furniture — it just gets converted into paper pulp,” Lindenmayer said. “And the problem with burnt timber is that it’s got all this charcoal in it, so you’ve got to do lots of really nasty things to get that charcoal out, and the woodchip companies pay very little for that — so little, in fact, that some of the lobbying contractors actually go out of business.”

Lindenmayer also pointed out that VicForests routinely loses money, and relies heavily on government handouts.

“Essentially, what’s happening is that the public are paying for the ‘privilege’ of having their forests cut down,” he said. “They don’t get anything in return other than a loss. And you can kind of say, ‘Okay, I’ll get that if you were employing thousands and thousands and thousands of people. But they’re not. There’s less than 350 direct jobs in the state, right across the state for this whole industry. So how does this persist then?”

When Mongabay reached out to VicForests to ask why it continues to log, despite the environmental and financial issues at hand, a spokesperson only responded to the question of sustainability.

“VicForests is committed to the sustainable management of forest areas allocated to it for harvesting,” the spokesperson told Mongabay in an email. “We take great care to protect potential habitat and high conservation values, especially following fire.

“VicForests is proud that its ecologically sensitive approach also supports recovering regional families, communities and townships that have been impacted by the fires,” the spokesperson added.

Rethinking the future for Victoria’s forests

Rice said she believes that growing public awareness about the logging in Victoria, as well as in other Australia states, is the key to protecting old-growth forests.

“The thing that has always stood in the way of successful campaigning is that most people don’t know what’s going on or they don’t believe it,” Rice said. “When you tell them, ‘Our forests are still being logged and being devastated,’ people just seem to think that, ‘Oh, no, governments wouldn’t be doing that.’”

Besides educating the public, Rice says that legal cases against VicForests can be “quite successful” at protecting forests from destructive logging. For instance, in March 2020, members of Wildlife of the Central Highlands (WOTCH), a group of citizen scientists based in the Victorian Central Highlands, took VicForests to the Supreme Court for logging in unburnt habitat of rare and threatened species, such as the greater glider, smoky mouse (Pseudomys fumeus), and alpine tree frog (Litoria verreauxii). Represented by Environmental Justice Australia, WOTCH won its case, and logging has temporarily ceased in 26 areas in the Central Highlands.

“Whilst the defendant [VicForests] has demonstrated it will suffer some short-term loss, and that long-term loss may exacerbate any likely shortfall in production, this pales in comparison to the potential threat of irreversible environmental damage to the fire affected threatened species,” Justice Kate McMilan of Victoria’s Supreme Court said in a statement. “All five of the threatened species have been identified by the state government as on the path to extinction. It goes without saying that once these species are extinct, there is no going back.”

“They’re protecting a bit of forest by a bit of forest by a bit of forest,” Rice said.

If logging is to continue, experts say the industry should move toward plantation logging, which is already being done in other states like South Australia and Queensland.

“Plantations are where we get our best value for wood production, including paper pulp and wood chips, but also where we get most of their sawn timber in Australia,” Lindenmayer said. “The ecological science basically shows it’s madness to keep doing what we’re doing, because it reduces carbon, it reduces water supply, it increases fire risk, and reduces tourism potential, all of which are economically far more valuable than timber.”

While plantations, like regrown forests, contain young trees that are more flammable than older trees, Lindenmayer says that plantations do not pose the same fire risk.

“Plantations are in segregated blocks, and not contiguous, [and they’re] far more defendable,” Lindenmayer said. “We can get a crop faster as well, before fires occur, in comparison to slower growing native forests.”

While Taylor says he agrees that plantations can be a suitable alternative to native forest logging, he stresses the importance of proper management.

“Some of my other work has been assisting farmers who had their water supply polluted when a neighboring company felled 500 hectares [1,240 acres] of a plantation,” Taylor said. “It destroyed their water supply, and their capacity to operate their farm, so you can’t give a blanket sort of approval of plantations either. It’s not that simple.”

Turning loggers into firefighters

Experts also say it’s possible to retrain loggers to be full-time firefighters and environmental stewards, which can provide employment opportunities for anyone who loses a job in logging.

“They are the people that have precisely the skills that you need to fight fires,” Lindenmayer said. “There are no people with better skills than these harvesting operators, with bulldozers and excavators. They’re precisely the kinds of people that you want to have on your side when you’re protecting communities from wildfires.”

In fact, during the summer months, the Australian government already pays loggers to work as firefighters, and Lindenmayer says this work could be extended.

“They should actually be full-time expert firefighters, and in the winter months when Australia doesn’t burn — a dwindling amount of time — that’s the time you need to be doing hazard reduction burns close to human settlements to try to reduce the risk of fires that kill people and destroy houses and other infrastructure,” Lindenmayer said.

“Allow these people to be land stewards and managers that don’t solely focus on extraction — it doesn’t have to be like that,” Watson said “I think there’s a really easy way in here to do the right thing by those who are in the logging industry to transition to something that has to happen.

“Australia is going to have more fires,” he added. “Even if we stop logging tomorrow, the problem is that they’ve been logging the wazoo at these places for 100 years, and therefore there’s going to be more fire. Guess what? We can’t change the past. We can only change the future and our management.”

This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.

 
 

 

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