Forestry didn’t get it all wrong

There is a strong push to stop all logging of native forests, but is this really justified from the point of view of conservation?

I wonder if the Australian environmental movement remains pleased with its success in relation to our native forests. According to Forests Australia, the area of native forest in public conservation reserves has reached 16 per cent of the total, up from 11 per cent in 1997. This represents an increase of almost 6million hectares. Most of this forest – almost 5million hectares – was transferred from production forests operated on public land by state forestry agencies. At the same time, the area under plantation has grown steadily, with something like 900,000ha of hardwood plantation reported in production statistics for 2011.

While many Greens will not rest until all logging of native forests has ended, there is no doubt that these changes have transformed the shape of Australia’s forest-based industries. But does this transformation represent the best outcome for Australia’s forests and the wildlife that depends on them, let alone for the timber industry and its related communities?

As with most public policy issues, there are a number of interdependent and inter-related factors to consider. When policy changes, it disrupts settled relationships, not all of which were necessarily unproductive. Regional forest agreements concluded between state and federal governments in the 1990s and early 2000s protected large areas of forest and in doing so, defused a vexed political issue. They have been rightly praised as good, practical public policy outcomes.

But the brunt of the restructuring was borne by public sector forestry. The agreements had very little impact on private native forests, which form 70per cent of Australia’s total forested area. Very little is known about how this resource is managed, and it remains patchily regulated.

The key change has been in the role of the state itself. With a reduced area of production forest to be managed, the role of state-owned forestry agencies has diminished. At the same time, with vastly increased areas of forest to look after, the role of national parks agencies has increased. But their funding has not increased to nearly the same extent. Almost everyone agrees that budget-constrained state governments do not provide sufficient support for the kinds of management that national parks and other conservation areas need. And, of course, state Treasuries are now without the revenue that the transferred forests would have produced.

From an industry perspective, the outlook for native forests is far from stable. Plantation-sourced hardwoods are used largely for pulpwood (that is, they are turned into woodchips for export). At the same time, a much-reduced area of state forest is being worked harder than in the past, with shorter rotations and lower-quality timber being produced. There is uncertainty, particularly in NSW, as to whether production targets for sawlogs, which are used for building and to make veneers, can be met. In Tasmania, it looks as though, in the deal-making surrounding the proposed Gunns kraft pulp mill, more than 500,000ha of native production forest will be transferred into conservation reserves, with further losses in employment in regional communities. At one stage, there were hopes for a burgeoning Australian furniture industry based on native timbers. But for a number of reasons, this has not happened.

Restructuring has had consequences for forestry professionals, too. Traditionally, Australian forestry was built around the activities of state forest agencies. But as we have seen, these agencies operate quite differently today. They employ relatively few foresters, while the plantation industry, which sees trees as a crop, requires quite different skills.

In this environment, the news that the Cooperative Research Centre in Forestry has come to an end is disappointing, but unsurprising. It is difficult to articulate a coherent research program for an industry that is undergoing almost continuous structural change.

Has all this change really been justified from a conservation viewpoint? There is actually little evidence that state forests, even when heavily logged for woodchips, were responsible for species losses. We now know that wildlife loss is caused by habitat destruction (as in the permanent removal of habitat for housing) and by the depredations of feral animals, not by forestry.

Compared with farming and tourism, one would have to say that forest industries have real sustainability credentials. Trees do regrow. In the 1990s, when the debate was at its height, city-dwellers were disturbed by photos of areas, particularly in Tasmania, that had been clear-felled for woodchips. But native forests were not being destroyed by these activities. Indeed, the forests that had to be saved by moving them into national parks were actually in pretty good shape. Without state forests, considerable areas of land would have been cleared for farming, or for urban development. The industry was not very sophisticated in defence of its interests. Some forest-based industries were easily branded as environmental criminals. But we are hardly further ahead if, having shut down Australian forest-based industries, we simply import more products from less sustainably-managed forests overseas. Even now, the Wilderness Society in Victoria is campaigning against the only brand of Australian-made paper now on the market, on the basis that its activities cause the ”destruction” of Australian native forests. Harvey Norman, valiantly selling Australian-made furniture, is being similarly targeted.

The shift away from native forests and towards plantations, widely supported by environmentalists, simply means that more forest products come from monocultures, in which there is little if any wildlife, and where demands on water use are heavy. Are we better off if the fibre is sourced from these artificial forests, which are far less resilient than mixed native forests?

What about climate change? Here, too, the equation does not seem to favour current policy. Rapidly growing forests that have been logged are better carbon-absorbers than those that are left untouched. And in a warming world, putting forests into national parks is no protection against their being burned. Nor is there any evidence that plantations are more fire-resistant than managed native forests.

The crux of the problem is how we understand our native forests. For many environmentalists, native forests must remain inviolate. If they are used in any way, this detracts from their value as natural places.

There is no doubt that there are many areas of forest – rainforest in particular – that should be preserved for these reasons. But to argue that no native forests should be used for timber production is a viewpoint that seems to be more spiritually than conservation-based.

In principle, there is no reason why sustainably managed native forests cannot support a variety of uses. Indeed, native forests managed in this way form the basis of the successful forest industries of Canada and the Scandinavian countries.

Revulsion at the idea of logging our native forests is understandable, but probably wrong-headed. Most of the destruction of forests and associated habitats occurred within relatively few years of white settlement. The advent of state-owned forestry agencies, staffed by professionals, should be viewed as a plus, not a minus, in Australia’s environmental history. It might not be possible to bring them back, but what they stood for was not all wrong.

First appeared in the Canberra Times – click link:

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