Wednesday, December 01, 2010


The following article was prepared by myself with the help of two persons who, for professional reasons, must remain anonymous. One works regularly with the green movement providing advice on forest management. He has asked not to be named so that he can continue his current good relations with the greenies. The second person is concerned that he may be subject to personal abuse and professional retribution as he is still actively working in the forestry industry.

The recent “agreement” reached in Tasmania between environment groups, the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFEMU) and logging contractors caught in the cross fire has recommended closing the native forest products industry in that state. Negotiated behind closed doors, the agreement appears likely to be accepted by the Tasmanian Labor/Green coalition government.

The closed discussions in Tasmania were extraordinary because they consisted entirely of self appointed arbiters with limited understanding of or qualifications in forest management. That these types of people should decide the future of Tasmanian forests and the native forest products industries is anti-democratic and unscientific. The forestry profession has been involved with forest management in Tasmania for almost a century. Its members possess a wealth of knowledge and practical experience on the complexities of forest management but they were not invited to offer an opinion on the future of forestry in that state. It is the equivalent of holding a meeting to decide how the Royal Hobart Hospital will be managed from now on but without inviting medical professionals such as doctors and nurses and specialists. Instead, shop stewards, delivery drivers and visitors make the decisions about hospital management.

Environmental activists in WA have long objected to the use of native forests for timber production, their arguments being long on emotion but short on credible science. To support their position, they have recently dusted off past campaign rhetoric and rebadged it in a move to achieve the same result in WA that now seems likely in Tasmania. The first shot in the renewed anti-logging campaign in WA was in a plethora of articles and letters to the South Western Times in November. The letters brought nothing new to the debate: the script is the same one that forest activists have been preaching for the last 20 years.

There are good reasons why a native forest industry should continue in WA. The negatives listed by environmental activists are mostly unscientific opinions, unsupported by evidence-based research. Even so, their alarmist claims pale into insignificance compared to current threats to the long term viability and health of our forests in the South West. These threats are the decline in rainfall since the 1970s and damage by wildfire to the sustainable production of all the renewable products found within our forests including biodiversity, water and recreational opportunities, as well as continued production of jarrah, WA’s iconic timber species and a world class furniture timber.

Both of these major threats can be satisfactorily managed by:
(1) thinning the overstocked regrowth stands which date back to the inadequately managed logging of the 1870s to the 1920s, well before the first Forests Department was formed.
(2) conducting more prescribed burning to decrease the high fuel loads existing in large parts of forested land.

The south west has not experienced a major bushfire in our publicly-owned forests since the Dwellingup fire of 1961. The introduction and application of a science-based prescribed burning program in 1965 required a burning frequency similar to that conducted by Aboriginal people prior to the arrival of European settlers in 1826. However, successive governments have failed to apply the lessons learned from the Dwellingup fire and today large tracts of dangerously high fuel in the jarrah forest pose a major risk of very fierce fires occurring under hot summer conditions. This risk will increase each year burning is delayed.

Retaining a native hardwood timber industry provides important benefits to WA. First, more people will be working in the forest environment every day and they will have the experience and equipment to fight fires in forest fuels. While volunteer bush fire brigades are trained and competent to tackle scrub and grass fires, few are forest fire fighters and should not be exposed to the dangers involved. They have more than enough to attend to in their rural and semi-rural areas.

The government’s recent reduction of Forests Products Commission (FPC) staff levels by about 100 people, many of whom had decades of fire fighting experience in forests, makes it even more important to retain teams of logging contractors throughout the forest who can be diverted to fighting forest fires.

Some of the erroneous claims made by green activists in recent letters and articles demand the following responses.

Conservation Council stalwart Beth Schultz says fauna have ‘retreated’ to the forest areas. If she is claiming that wildlife has moved or migrated to the forest as the agricultural areas were cleared in the 19th and first half of the 20th century, she’s incorrect. Fauna do not migrate in this way: species that live in the forest today are there because they evolved a preference to live in south west forests tens of thousands or millions of years ago, well before European settlement. Different forest habitats suited different bird and animal species, with virtually all still existing there, even after almost 200 years of ‘exploitation’ of timber, water, minerals and other natural assets. Preserving most of the south west’s forests for timber production all those years ago and managing it in a suitable fashion have retained environmental conditions that in turn continue to provide homes for those species which are forest dependent. For many of the smaller species, predation by foxes and feral cats are major threats - the Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) has a fox baiting program in place to manage these predators - along with the expanding threat of invasive weeds including the soil-borne Phythopthera dieback.

Ms Schultz’s claim that there are ‘few hollows for certain bird species’ is an often repeated but largely baseless claim. The scientific evidence that hollow-dependent species in the forest are declining significantly as a result of fewer tree hollows is lacking. Many old trees with hollows are still present throughout the forest and it has been policy for decades to leave more trees with hollows than in the past. The most urgent problem relating to the availability of nesting hollows is their use by European bees which prevent birds and animals from using them.

Activist John Vukovich claims prescribed burning destroys large numbers of birds and animals, many of which are unknown. Recent research from the DEC has shown this to be completely untrue. Prescribed burning directly or indirectly results in the death of wildlife as a result of prescribed burning. However, if the burning regime is based on sound scientific principles, the years following fire allows species diversity and abundance to return to pre-fire levels as damaged habitats regenerate. Survival of young birds and animals is usually higher for most wildlife species in the years after fire than before, thanks to prolific flowering and growth of trees and understorey plants. In contrast, uncontrolled bushfires burn at far greater intensities than prescribed burns, with recent CSIRO research showing wildfires cause very high numbers of native fauna deaths.

Mr Vukovich’s statement about “unknown” species being lost is a meaningless, ambit claim which is impossible to prove or disprove one way or the other. However, common sense tells us that vertebrate fauna such as mammals, birds, reptiles and birds have been well surveyed and few new species have been discovered in recent decades. Occasional new species may still be discovered, of course, most likely amongst the frogs and reptiles, but the implication that hundreds or thousands of currently unknown species will be lost is fanciful.

Serial anti-everything campaigner Peter Murphy refers to recent comments by the WA Environmental Protection Authority about the continued harvesting of timber in medium and low rainfall sections of state forest. The EPA’s valid concerns do not relate to harvesting as such but to a large reduction of soil moisture resulting from reduced rainfall over the last 35 years. Reduced moisture levels in forest sub-soil profiles mean that far too many trees are potentially competing for the available moisture resource. All biological components in a forested ecosystem will be stressed due to inadequate soil water, but trees under stress are much more vulnerable to disease and insect attack. The inevitable outcome is that many trees will die of drought this summer and in subsequent years if current climate changes do not reverse themselves. Harvesting some of these trees before they die and begin to rot makes a lot of sense: the timber can be used, with the health of remaining trees improved. Doing nothing and just watching more trees die makes little sense.

Mr Murphy raises the question of the Forest Products Commission not running at a profit. This is a furphy, Mr Murphy! Few government agencies run at a financial profit. Main Roads, Police, Education, Health, Agriculture, FESA and DEC do not make a profit and nor are they designed to do so. The services they provide cannot be valued in monetary returns. The FPC is required by law to provide many environmental and research services to help better manage our forests; it is not just a collector of revenue from log sales.

As a former state MP and a qualified zoologist, it is my experience that anti-logging campaigns usually start in earnest whenever a non-Labor government is elected in WA. Of the people I know who support the Greens and are concerned about our environmental future on this planet, the overwhelming majority are genuine in their desire to see more and better management of our natural assets. Over the last 20 years, however, state Liberal and Labor governments have consistently reduced funding to conservation agencies, even as the conservation estate and the state’s population pressures increase. The simplistic solution of closing our forests to activities which look bad is the wrong one: as our forests are locked up and logging declines, so illegal timber removal, the spread of dieback and feral pigs, and the inappropriate use of fire increase.

The goal of the anti-logging campaigners is clear: to stop logging. Should this be achieved, it will be the death of our forests as essential management actions continue to be under-funded. Future generations will not thank us when they have to pick through the bones of decaying and aging forest ecosystems to implement urgent and expensive recovery plans for most of our natural forest assets. They will be the ones paying the price for today’s emotional but grossly misguided anti-logging campaigns.

For more information, visit for Fire Note 64 from the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre which reports that our forest ecosystems are highly resilient to appropriate fire regimes.

For a better understanding of how fires behave, CSIRO scientist Dr Phil Cheney has written an important article available at .

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