Beverly Law, Oregon State UniversityAsk people to find the world’s rainforests on a globe, and most will probably point to South America. But North America has rainforests too – and like their tropical counterparts, these temperate rainforests are ecological treasures.
The Biden administration recently announced new policies to protect the Tongass National Forest, the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world and the biggest U.S. national forest. It spreads over more than 26,000 square miles (67,340 square kilometers) – roughly the size of West Virginia – and covers most of southeast Alaska. The Tongass has thousands of watersheds and fjords, and more than a thousand forested islands.
For over 20 years the Tongass has been at the center of political battles over two key conservation issues: old-growth logging and designating large forest zones as roadless areas to prevent development. As a scientist specializing in forest ecosystems, I see protecting the Tongass as the kind of bold action that’s needed to address climate change and biodiversity loss.
An ecological gem
The Tongass as we know it today began forming at the end of the Little Ice Age in the mid-1700s, which left much of what is now southern Alaska as barren land. Gradually, the area repopulated with plants and animals to become a swath of diverse, rich old-growth forests. President Theodore Roosevelt designated the Tongass as a forest reserve in 1902, and then as a national forest in 1907.
The Tongass is the traditional homeland of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people. It is named for the Tongass group of the Tlingit people, who have continuously occupied the area for over 10,000 years. Alaska Natives relied on the forest’s rich diversity of plants and animals for their survival and traditions. Today the Tongass has abundant populations of animals that have become uncommon in other parts of the U.S., such as brown bears and wolves.
Most of the 900 watersheds within the Tongass are in near-natural condition. This ensures that they can provide habitat for many wild species and recover from or adapt to stresses, such as warmer temperatures due to climate change. They support salmon that spawn in the forest’s creeks and rivers, providing food for bears, eagles and other predators. Such ecosystems are incredibly rare around the world today.
How roads threaten forests
Intact old-growth forests, with trees hundreds of years old, are essential for carbon storage, biodiversity and climate resilience. They have fully developed root systems that can reach water in deep soils, and are more resistant than young forests to drought, fire, insects and strong winds – effects that are all likely to increase with climate change.
Because old-growth forests have accumulated massive amounts of carbon in their trees and soils over centuries, protecting them is an important strategy for curbing climate change. Today, however, scientists estimate that logging, agriculture and urban development have left only 6% to 14% of the forest area in the U.S. intact. And only 7% of total U.S. forest area is more than a century old.
Old-growth logging is controversial because intact forests are so rare. And forest losses often start when roads are cut through them to access timber. The roads are effectively long clear-cuts across the landscape.
Building roads through moist temperate forests can make it easier for warm air, wind and sunlight to penetrate from the edges to the interior, drying soil, mosses and ferns. It also provides entry points for invasive plants carried in by vehicles.
And roads’ negative effects extend beyond the actual driving surface. A road 30 feet (9 meters) wide may influence an additional 80 to 100 feet (25 to 30 meters) of adjacent land because of land disturbance during construction and wide buffer zones created for vehicle safety.
Road building can harm animals like brown bears through collisions with vehicles and increased poaching and trapping. In the Tongass, a strip a quarter-mile (0.4 kilometer) wide on each side of the highway system is closed to big game hunting, but this can mitigate only some of roads’ pervasive effects.
Decades of controversy
In its final days in January 2001, the Clinton administration adopted the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which barred logging, timber sales, mining and road construction within inventoried roadless areas in most national forests across the U.S. About 9.2 million acres (37,231 square kilometers) of the Tongass – more than half of its area – were designated and managed as inventoried roadless areas.
This step launched 20 years of debate and litigation. The Bush and Trump administrations, supported by conservative Western state officials, sought to limit the roadless rule and exempt the Tongass from it. The Obama administration generally supported the rule and defended it in court.
In 2020, the Trump administration opened the Tongass to extensive new logging, mining and road construction activities. Critics, including environmental advocates and tribal governments, argued that Alaska’s economy was better served by outdoor recreation and commercial fishing than by clear-cutting its remaining old-growth forests.
Now the Biden administration has restored protection for roadless areas of the Tongass. It also has pledged to end large-scale old-growth timber sales and focus on restoration, recreation and other noncommercial activities. It will permit old-growth logging only for cultural uses, such as totem poles and canoes, and for small sales that serve community needs. It also proposes a US$25 million investment in sustainable economic opportunities, with particular focus on investments that are responsive to Indigenous needs.
Forest advocates have welcomed this action and the administration’s plan to publish a new version of the roadless rule. But it remains to be seen how permanent this shift will be.
A strategic climate reserve
New hope for protecting the Tongass comes amid growing alarm over two converging environmental crises: climate change and accelerated extinctions of plant and animal species. In my view, protecting ecological treasures like the Tongass is a critical way to address both issues at once, as scientists have recommended.
The southeastern and south-central regions of Alaska, which contain the Tongass and Chugach national forests, store about 1 billion metric tons of carbon in live and dead tree biomass. This amount could increase by 27% by 2100 if the forest is allowed to continue to grow and accumulate carbon.
I believe the Tongass’ vast intactness, rich biodiversity and significant carbon storage make it an excellent choice as the first of a series of strategic climate reserves – areas that scientists have proposed setting aside to protect large carbon sinks and biodiversity of plant and animal species. U.S. old-growth forests are disappearing rapidly, but with smart management they can deliver ecological benefits for decades to come.
[Like what you’ve read? Want more? Sign up for The Conversation’s daily newsletter.]
Philip Zylstra, University of Wollongong; Grant Wardell-Johnson, Curtin University; James Watson, The University of Queensland, and Michelle Ward, The University of QueenslandThe Black Summer bushfires burned far more temperate forest than any other fire season recorded in Australia. The disaster was clearly a climate change event; however, other human activities also had consequences.
Taking timber from forests dramatically changes their structure, making them more vulnerable to bushfires. And, crucially for the Black Summer bushfires, logged forests are more likely to burn out of control.
We believe these findings are too narrowly focused and in fact, misleading. They overlook a vast body of evidence that crown fire – the most extreme type of bushfire behaviour, in which tree canopies burn – is more likely in logged native forests.
Crown fires vs scorch
The Black Summer fires occurred in the 2019-20 bushfire season and burned vast swathes of Australia’s southeast. In some cases, fire spread through forests with no recorded fire, including some of the last remnants of ancient Gondwanan rainforests.
Tragically, the fires directly killed 33 people, while an estimated 417 died due to the effects of smoke inhalation. A possible three billion vertebrate animals perished and the risk of species extinctions dramatically increased.
Much of the forest that burned during Black Summer experienced crown fires. These fires burn through the canopies of trees, as well as the undergrowth. They are the most extreme form of fire behaviour and are virtually impossible to control.
Crown fires pulse with such intense heat they can form thunderstorms which generate lightning and destructive winds. This sends burning bark streamers tens of kilometres ahead of the fire, spreading it further. The Black Summer bushfires included at least 18 such storms.
And to our knowledge, every empirical analysis so far shows logging eucalypt forests makes them far more likely to experience crown fire. The studies include:
- A 2009 paper suggesting changes in forest structure and moisture make severe fire more likely in logging regrowth compared to undisturbed forest
- 2012 research concluding the probability of crown fires was higher in recently logged areas than in areas logged decades before
- A 2013 study that showed the likelihood of crown fire halved as forests aged after a certain point
- 2014 findings that crown fire in the Black Saturday fires likely peaked in regrowth and fell in mature forests
- 2018 research into the 2003 Australian Alps fires, which found the same increase in the likelihood of crown fire during regrowth as was measured following logging.
The findings of these studies are represented in the image below. The lines a, b and c refer to the 2013, 2014 and 2018 studies respectively.
Crown fires take lives
The presence of crown fire is a key consideration in fire supression, because crown fires are very hard to control.
However, the study released last week – which argued that logging did not worsen the Black Summer fires – focused on crown “scorch”. Crown scorch is very different to crown fire. It is not a measure of how difficult it is to contain the fire, because even quite small flames can scorch a drought-stressed canopy.
Forestry studies tend to focus more on crown scorch, which damages timber and is far more common than crown fires.
But the question of whether logging made crown scorch worse is not relevant to whether a fire was uncontrollable, and thus was able to destroy homes and lives.
Importantly, when the study said logging had a very small influence on scorch, this was referring to the average scorch over the whole fire area, not just places that had been logged. That’s like asking how a drought in the small town of Mudgee affects the national rainfall total: it may not play a large role overall, but it’s pretty important to Mudgee.
The study examined trees in previously logged areas, or areas that had been logged and burned by fires of any source. It found they were as likely to scorch on the mildest bushfire days as trees in undisturbed forests on bad days. These results simply add to the body of evidence that logging increases fire damage.
Managing forests for all
For example during the Black Saturday fires in 2009, the Kilmore East fire north of Melbourne consumed all before it as a crown fire. Then it reached the old, unlogged mountain ash forests on Mount Disappointment and dropped to the ground, spreading as a slow surface fire.
The trees were scorched. But they were too tall to ignite, and instead blocked the high winds and slowed the fire down. Meanwhile, logged ash forests drove flames high into the canopy.
Despite decades of opportunity to show otherwise, the only story for eucalypt forests remains this: logging increases the impact of bushfires. This fact should inform forest management decisions on how to reduce future fire risk.
We need timber, but it must be produced in ways that don’t endanger human lives or the environment.
Philip Zylstra, Adjunct Associate Professor at Curtin University, Honorary Fellow at University of Wollongong, University of Wollongong; Grant Wardell-Johnson, Associate Professor, Environmental Biology, Curtin University; James Watson, Professor, The University of Queensland, and Michelle Ward, PhD Candidate, The University of Queensland
Brendan Wintle, The University of Melbourne; Laura Schuijers, The University of Melbourne, and Sarah Bekessy, RMIT UniversityAustralia’s forest-dwelling wildlife is in greater peril after last week’s court ruling that logging — even if it breaches state requirements — is exempt from the federal law that protects threatened species.
The Federal Court upheld an appeal by VicForests, Victoria’s state timber corporation, after a previous ruling in May 2020 found it razed critical habitat without taking the precautionary measures required by law.
The ruling means logging is set to resume, despite the threats it poses to wildlife. At particular risk are the Leadbeater’s possum and greater glider — mammals highly vulnerable to extinction that call the forests home.
So let’s take a look at the dramatic implications for wildlife and the law in more detail.
Why is this ruling so significant?
The Federal Court agreed VicForest’s logging failed to meet its environmental legal requirements. In fact, the Federal Court dismissed every single ground of appeal but one. And it takes only one to win.
The ground that won the case was that the federal environmental law designed to protect threatened species — the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act — did not apply to the logging operations due to a forestry exemption.
To understand the significance of these issues, it’s important to know a bit about the context.
In the 1980s and ‘90s, forestry was passed to the states to regulate. So-called regional forest agreements (RFAs) were struck between federal and state governments. The idea was that forestry would be conducted under these state-led RFAs, avoiding federal scrutiny.
This was meant to streamline procedures, and offer a compromise between sometimes conflicting objectives: conservation and commercially profitable forestry.
However, states weren’t necessarily meant to have absolute control, and a check-and-balance system was put in place. If a logging operation doesn’t follow the RFA requirements, then the federal law is called in.
That way, states have control, but there’s a backup safety net for threatened species (which the federal government has an obligation to protect under international law).
This backup safety net is what the original case was testing. Friends of the Leadbeater’s Possum sued VicForests, arguing the logging operations breached the Victorian RFA, and the organisation won the case.
In response to the original decision against VicForests, Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie introduced a private members bill, seeking to strengthen logging’s exemption from federal scrutiny.
If passed, the bill would make forestry activities within RFA areas exempt from scrutiny under the EPBC Act, regardless of whether they follow RFA rules.
Both the court decision and the bill respond to a need for industry certainty and seek to minimise opportunities for legal action against logging under the EPBC Act. But they remove any certainty for environmental protection.
What does this mean for wildlife?
As former competition watchdog chair Professor Graeme Samuel, who led the review, said in his final report:
there are fundamental shortcomings in the interactions between RFAs and the EPBC Act.
The RFAs haven’t been updated as they were meant to be, despite dramatic changes in the environment, such as from mega-fires, and the warming and drying climate. These factors totally change the game for forestry and forest-dependent wildlife, such Leadbeater’s possum and the greater glider, which are declining dramatically.
We are currently experiencing a global mass extinction event, and Australia is a global extinction leader. Australia is responsible for 35% of all modern mammal extinctions globally and has seen an average decline of 50% in threatened bird populations since 1985.
Cutting down trees may seem insignificant to some, in the scheme of things. But small effects can accumulate into huge declines, like a death by a thousand cuts.
Both Leadbeater’s possum and the greater glider depend on large old trees with hollows (that take more than 100 years to develop) for shelter. Without many of these trees, they cannot survive.
Logging in Victoria has led to a decline in the number and extent of these particular trees, and reduces future large tree numbers. This makes the animals more vulnerable.
To avoid extinctions, we can’t afford to lose more ground by continuing practices that damage or remove habitat.
The writing is on the wall
But things could be changing soon. The Victorian government plans to ban native timber harvesting from 2030. This happens to be the same year a decades-old contract with a wood pulp and paper company expires, currently binding the state to provide pulp logs by a legislated supply agreement.
After 2030, paper, pulp, and timber products would be logged from plantations rather than native forests. The writing is already on the wall.
Whether it’s the federal or state governments in charge, forest management needs to be scientifically robust, with strong compliance, enforcement and governance. Otherwise, as we’ve seen, there’s a significant risk of slippage and loss of trust.
Even before the mega-fires of 2019-20, most Australians didn’t support native forest logging. After the fires, their worries increased, with a majority expressing concerns that Australia’s unique environment might never be the same.
And as a result of rising community expectations on how the environment is treated, some businesses have pivoted.
Many companies now see being associated with environmentally poor outcomes as risky. Bunnings, for example, has already banned VicForests’ native timber. The World Economic Forum places biodiversity loss in the top five risks to the global economy. And a global taskforce is being established that could eventually see environmental disclosures as a new norm.
It’s clear the status quo has led to an alarming rate of species decline. This decline will only be locked in further if legal exemptions make it impossible to hold law-breakers to account.
Brendan Wintle, Professor in Conservation Ecology, School of BioSciences, The University of Melbourne; Laura Schuijers, Research Fellow in Environmental Law, The University of Melbourne, and Sarah Bekessy, Professor in Sustainability and Urban Planning, Leader, Interdisciplinary Conservation Science Research Group (ICON Science), RMIT University
David Bowman, University of TasmaniaThe Black Summer bushfires shocked the world and generated enormous global media interest. Fire scientists like myself found themselves filling a role not unlike sport commentators, explaining the unfolding drama in real time.
Scientists who engaged with the media during the crisis straddled two competing imperatives. First was their duty to share their knowledge with the community while knowing their understanding is imperfect. Second was the ethical obligation to rigorously test hypotheses against data analysis and peer review – the results of which could only be known long after the fires were out.
One area where this tension emerged was around the influential idea that logging exacerbated the bushfire disaster. During the fire crisis and in the months afterwards, some scientists suggested logging profoundly affected the fires’ severity and frequency. There were associated calls to cease native forestry and shift wood production to plantations.
But there is no scientific consensus about the possible effects of logging on fire risk. In fact, research by myself and colleagues, published in Nature Ecology and Evolution today, shows logging had little if any effect on the Black Summer bushfires. Rather, the disaster’s huge extent and severity were more likely due to unprecedented drought and sustained hot, windy weather.
These findings are significant for several reasons. Getting to the bottom of the bushfires’ cause is essential for sustainable forest management. And, more importantly, our research confirms the devastating role climate change played in the Black Summer fires.
Looking for patterns
Our research focused on 7 million hectares of mostly eucalyptus forests, from the subtropics to temperate zones, which burned between August 2019 and March 2020.
There is some evidence to suggest logged areas are more flammable that unlogged forests. Proponents of this view say logging regimes make the remaining forests hotter and drier, and leave debris on the ground that increases the fuel load.
In our research, we wanted to determine:
- the relative roles logging and other factors such as climate played in fires that destroyed or completely scorched forest canopies
- whether plantations are more vulnerable to canopy scorch than native forests.
To do so, we used landscape ecology techniques that could compare very large areas with different patterns of land use and fire severity. We sampled 32% of the area burnt in three regions spanning the geographic range of the fires.
What we found
Fire intensity is classified according to the vertical layer of vegetation burnt. A scorched tree canopy suggests the most intense type of fire, where the heat extended from the ground to the treetops.
We found several predictors of canopy damage. First, completely scorched canopy, or canopy consumed by fire, typically occurred across connected swathes of bushland. This most likely reflected instances where the fire made a “run”, driven by localised winds.
Extreme weather fire conditions were the next most important predictor of canopy damage. The drought had created vast areas of tinder-dry forests. Temperatures during the fire season were hot and westerly winds were strong.
Southeast Australia’s climate has changed, making such extreme fire weather more frequent, prolonged and severe.
Logging activity in the last 25 years consistently ranked “low” as a driver of fire severity. This makes sense for several reasons.
As noted above, fire conditions were extraordinarily extreme. And there was mismatch between the massive area burnt and the comparatively small areas commercially logged in the last 25 years (4.5% in eastern Victoria, 5.3% in southern NSW and 7.8% in northern NSW).
Fire severity is also related to landscape features: fire on ridges is generally worse than in sheltered valleys.
Our research also found timber plantations were as prone to severe fire as native forestry areas. In NSW (the worst-affected state) one-quarter of plantations burned – than 70% severely. This counteracts the suggestion using plantations, rather than logging native forest, can avoid purported fire hazards.
A challenge awaits
Our findings are deeply concerning. They signal there is no quick fix to the ongoing fire crisis afflicting Australia and other flammable landscapes.
The crisis is being driven by relentless climate change. Terrifyingly, it has the potential to turn forests from critical stores of carbon into volatile sources of carbon emissions released when vegetation burns.
Under a rapidly warming and drying climate, fuel loads are likely to become less important in determining fire extent and severity. This will make it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to lower fuel loads in a way that will limit bushfire severity.
A massive challenge awaits. We must find socially and environmentally acceptable ways to make forests more resilient to fire while the also produce sustainable timber products, store carbon, provide water and protect biodiversity.
The next step is a real-world evaluation of management options. One idea worth exploring is whether the fire resistance of native forests can be improved in specific areas by altering tree density, vegetation structure or fuel loads, while sustaining biodiversity and amenity.
Commercial forestry could potentially do this, with significant innovation and willingness to let go of current practices.
Through collective effort, I’m confident we can sustainably manage of forests and fire. Our study is but a small step in a much bigger, zig-zagging journey of discovery.
Craig Nitschke, University of Melbourne; Andrew Robinson, University of Melbourne; Melissa Fedrigo, University of Melbourne; Patrick Baker, University of Melbourne, and Raphael Trouve, University of Melbourne
The Federal Court recently ruled that a timber harvesting company couldn’t log potential habitat of the critically endangered Leadbeater’s possum.
This decision led to the immediate protection of more Leadbeater’s possum habitat and will lead to further habitat set aside over the next ten years as native timber harvesting is phased out in Victoria.
But these short-term, site-based measures will not guarantee the long-term conservation of this iconic Victorian species.
Our new study modelled changes in forests over the next 250 years, focusing on 280,000 hectares of Victoria’s Central Highlands, home to the majority of remaining Leadbeater’s possums.
We looked at different scenarios of how both climate change and timber harvesting might play out. And we identified three important findings.
First, Leadbeater’s possum habitat is dynamic. It’s transient across the landscape over time as disturbances, such as bushfires, continually change the spatial distribution of hollow-bearing trees and young forests.
Second, while timber harvesting poses a local-scale threat, at a larger scale – across hundreds of thousands of hectares – bushfire poses the greatest threat to the species’ habitat.
Last, we found less than half of the area within current parks, reserves, and timber harvest exclusion zones provided stable long-term habitat for Leadbeater’s possum over the next century.
Future habitat scenarios
We used a set of four scenarios to explore how climate change and timber harvesting impact long-term habitat availability by focusing on the where and when hollow-bearing trees and dense understorey are found in the landscape.
The scenarios included projecting current climate conditions, and projecting a 2℃ rise in average annual temperature with a 20% reduction in yearly rainfall.
For each of these climate scenarios, timber harvesting at current harvesting rates was either excluded or allowed in areas zoned for timber production.
Bushfires drive long-term habitat loss
Our simulations showed bushfire, not logging, is the biggest threat to habitat availability for Leadbeater’s possum in the Central Highlands. As the cumulative area burnt by fire increased, the quantity and quality of Leadbeater’s possum habitat decreased.
Tthe 2009 Black Saturday fires burned almost half of its habitat, causing its conservation status to jump from endangered to critically endangered.
Bushfires have always been part of Australian landscapes and many species, including Leadbeater’s possum, have evolved alongside them. Eleven years later, Leadbeater’s possum are now recolonising areas burned in the 2009 bushfires.
But as climate change increases the frequency and scale of bushfires, our models suggest the Central Highlands landscape may support less suitable habitat.
Timber harvesting is less of a threat
While timber harvesting compounds the impacts of bushfires on Leadbeater’s possum habitat, across the landscape the effect is small in comparison. Timber harvesting reduced suitable habitat by only 1.4% to 2.3% over 250 years compared to scenarios without harvesting.
Within a coupe (the area of forest harvested in one operation), timber harvesting immediately reduces nesting and foraging habitat. But foraging habitat returns within 10 to 15 years and can be recolonised by Leadbeater’s possum – as long as nesting sites are nearby.
Protecting vegetation around waterways, in particular, was critical for the development and survival of hollow-bearing trees in an increasingly fire-prone landscape.
But while timber harvesting had much smaller impacts than bushfires, the two did interact. Over time, the cumulative impacts of timber harvesting and bushfire homogenised forest structure across the landscape, leading to smaller patches of habitat that were less connected.
This increases the risk of local extinction for populations of Leadbeater’s possum living in these patches.
We need dynamic conservation areas
A core question for the conservation of any threatened species is: how well does the network of protected areas protect the species?
Our modelling framework meant we could test whether current areas set aside for Leadbeater’s possum conservation actually provide long-term protection.
Over the next 100 years, less than 50% of existing parks, reserves and timber-harvest exclusion zones will provide continuous habitat for Leadbeater’s possum due to climate change.
However, we also identified approximately 30,000 hectares of forest outside the current network of protected areas that can provide stable habitat for Leadbeater’s possum over the next century.
It’s vital we put protection zones into the areas possums are likely to migrate to as the climate changes. These areas should be a priority for conservation efforts.
A new conservation strategy
Historically, conservation planning has taken a static, site-based approach to protecting species.
This approach is doomed to fail in dynamic landscapes – particularly in fire-prone landscapes in a warming climate. For conservation planning to be successful, we need coordinated forest, fire, and conservation management that accounts for these dynamics across the whole landscape, not just in individual locations.
We need a vision for how to make our landscapes more resilient to the growing threat of climate change and provide better protection for the unique flora and fauna that inhabit them.
This will require government agencies responsible for land management and conservation to coordinate current management activities across tenures, while simultaneously implementing future-focused conservation planning. Our landscape-modelling approach provides a first step in that direction.
Craig Nitschke, Associate Professor – Forest and Landscape Dynamics, University of Melbourne; Andrew Robinson, Managing Director for Biosecurity Risk Research, University of Melbourne; Melissa Fedrigo, Remote Sensing Scientist and Ecological Modeller, University of Melbourne; Patrick Baker, ARC Future Fellow and Professor of Silviculture and Forest Ecology, University of Melbourne, and Raphael Trouve, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow Ecosystem And Forest Sciences, University of Melbourne
The Federal Court last week ruled that VicForests – a timber company owned by the Victorian government – breached environmental laws when they razed the habitat of the critically endangered Leadbeater’s possum and the vulnerable greater glider.
Environmentalists welcomed the judge’s decision, which sets an important legal precedent.
Under so-called “regional forest agreements”, a number of logging operations around Australia are exempt from federal environment laws. This effectively puts logging interests above those of threatened species. The court ruling narrows these exemptions and provides an opportunity to create stronger forestry laws.
A legal loophole
Since 1971, the Leadbeater’s possum has been the faunal emblem of Victoria. But only about 1,200 adults are left in the wild, almost exclusively in the Central Highlands region.
Official conservation advice identifies the greatest threat to the species as habitat loss and fragmentation caused by the collapse of hollow-bearing trees, wildfire, logging and climate change.
Australia’s federal environmental laws require environmental impact assessment of any action likely to significantly impact a matter of national environmental significance, such as a listed threatened species.
But thanks to exemptions under regional forest agreements, logging has continued in the Central Highlands – even in the aftermath of this summer’s devastating bushfires.
So what are regional forest agreements?
Regional forest agreements were designed as a response to the so-called “forest wars” of the 1980s and 1990s.
In 1995, after logging trucks blockaded parliament, then Prime Minister Paul Keating offered a deal to the states: the federal government would accredit state forest management systems, and in return federal law would no longer apply to logging operations. Drawing up regional forest agreements between state and federal governments achieved this.
Between 1997 and 2001, ten different agreements were signed, covering logging regions in Victoria, New South Wales, Tasmania and Western Australia. These agreements were for 20 years, which means many have now either expired and been renewed or extended, or are about to expire.
The agreements are supposed to satisfy a number of conditions. This includes that they’re based on an assessment of environmental and social values of forest areas. They should also provide for the ecologically sustainable management and use of forested areas, and the long-term stability of forest and forest industries.
But conservation experts argue the agreements have failed both to deliver certainty to forestry operations or to protect environmental values and ensure the conservation of biodiversity.
History of the court case
The legal proceedings against VicForests were initiated in 2017 by Friends of the Leadbeater’s Possum, a small community group which relied on crowd funding to cover legal costs.
Initially, the group argued Victoria’s failure to undertake a required review of the Central Highlands regional forest agreements every five years meant the usual exemption to federal environment laws should not apply.
But in early 2018, Justice Mortimer ruled against this. But she also rejected VicForests’ arguments that any operation in an area covered by a regional forest agreement is automatically exempt from federal law.
She ruled that the logging operations will only be exempt from federal law if they comply with Victoria’s accredited system of forest management. This includes the requirements for threatened species, as specified in official action and management plans.
In response to this ruling, Friends of the Leadbeater’s Possum reformulated their claim.
They argued logging operations in 66 coupes (small areas of forest harvested in one operation) didn’t meet these requirements for threatened species, and so the exemption from federal laws didn’t apply.
The court ruling
In her ruling last week, the judge found VicForests unlawfully logged 26 coupes home to the Leadbeater’s possum and greater glider, and that logging a scheduled 41 other sections would put them at risk.
The court found the company breached a number of aspects of the Code of Practice for Timber Production 2014. This code is part of the Victorian regulatory system accredited by the regional forest agreement.
In particular, VicForests had not, as required, applied the “precautionary principle” in planning and conducting logging operations in coupes containing the greater glider.
Nor had VicForests developed a comprehensive forest survey system, or engaged in a careful evaluation of management options to avoid dangers to these threatened species.
These failures meant the logging operations were not covered by the exemption from federal laws. As such, the court found VicForests had breached federal environmental law, as the logging operation had, or were likely to have, a significant impact on the two threatened species.
This case will have clear implications for logging operations governed by regional forest agreements.
In fact, the timber industry has called for state and federal governments to urgently respond to the case, and clarify the future of regional forest agreements.
Arguably, logging operations conducted under a regional forest agreement can no longer rely on the exemption from federal environmental laws if those operations don’t comply with the state regulatory frameworks accredited under the regional forest agreements, especially provisions that protect threatened species.
And while making logging operations subject to federal environmental laws is a good thing, it’s not enough. Federal environmental laws are weak and don’t prevent species extinctions.
In any case, the result is the perfect opportunity for state and federal governments to rethink forest management. That means properly taking into account the ongoing threats to threatened species from climate change, wildfires and habitat loss.
New South Wales’ Forestry Corporation will this week start “selective timber harvesting” from two state forests ravaged by bushfire on the state’s south coast.
The state-owned company says the operations will be “strictly managed” and produce timber for power poles, bridges, flooring and decking.
Similarly, the Victorian government’s logging company VicForests recently celebrated the removal of sawlogs from burnt forests in East Gippsland.
VicForests says it did not cut down the trees – they were cut or pushed over by the army, firefighters or road crews because they blocked the rood or were dangerous. The company said it simply removed the logs to put them “to good use”.
However the science on the impacts of post-fire logging is clear: it can significantly impair the recovery of burned ecosystems, badly affect wildlife and, for some animal species, prevent recovery.
We acknowledge that for safety reasons, some standing and fallen burnt trees must be removed after a fire. But wherever possible, they should remain in place.
Hollows in fire-damaged trees and logs provide critical habitat for animal species trying to survive in, or recolonise, burned forests.
Indeed, the research shows post-fire logging is the most damaging form of logging. Logging large old trees after a fire may make the forests unsuitable habitat for many wildlife species for up to 200 years.
Long-term monitoring data from extensive field surveys shows hollow-dependent mammals, such as the vulnerable greater glider, generally do not survive in areas burned and then logged. Research by the lead author, soon to be published, shows populations are declining rapidly in landscapes dominated by wood production.
Forests logged after a fire have the lowest bird biodiversity relative to other forests, including those that burned at high severity (but which remain unlogged). Critical plants such as tree ferns are all but eradicated from forests that have been burned and then logged.
A double disturbance
Fire badly disrupts forest ecosystems. Animals and plants then begin recovering, but most forests and the biota they support simply cannot deal with the second intense disturbance of logging so soon after a first one.
For example, young germinating plants are highly vulnerable to being flattened and destroyed by heavy logging machinery. And in an Australian context, post-fire logging makes no sense in the majority of eucalypt-dominated ecosystems where many tree species naturally resprout. This is an essential part of forest recovery.
Logs provide shade, moisture and shelter for plants, and rotting timber is food for insects – which in turn provide food for mammals and birds.
Living and dead trees are also important for fungi — a food source for many animals, including bandicoots and potoroos which have been heavily impacted by the fires.
Similarly on burnt private land, removing damaged and fallen trees will only hinder natural recovery by removing important animal habitat and disturbing the soil. If left, fallen trees will provide refuge for surviving wildlife and enable the natural recovery of forests.
While the sight of burnt timber can be disheartening, landholders should resist the urge to “clean up”.
It doesn’t add up
Research in North America suggests debris such as tree heads, branches and other vegetation left by post-fire logging not only hinders forest regeneration, but can make forests more prone to fire.
And the economics of logging, particular after a fire, is dubious at best. Many native forest logging operations, such as in Victoria’s East Gippsland, are unprofitable, losing millions of taxpayer dollars annually.
Timber is predominantly sold cheaply for use as woodchips and paper pulp and fire-damaged timber is of particularly poor quality. Even before the fires, 87% of all native forest logged in Victoria was for woodchips and paper pulp.
Post-fire logging certainly has no place in national parks. But for the reasons we’ve outlined, it should be avoided even in state forests and on private land. Million hectares of vegetation in Australia was damaged or destroyed this fire season. The last thing our forests need is yet more disturbance.
VicForests response: VicForests told The Conversation that timber currently being removed by VicForests, at the direction of the Chief Fire Officer, is from hazardous trees that were cut or knocked over to enable the Princes Highway to be re-opened.
It said the timber would be used for fence restoration, firewood and to support local mills “protecting jobs, incomes and families. It would otherwise be left in piles on the side of the highway”.
“Any further post-fire recovery harvesting will occur in consultation with government including biodiversity specialists and the conservation regulator, following careful assessment and protection of high conservation values,” VicForests said.
The company said post-fire recovery harvesting, particularly of fire-killed trees, does not increase fire risk.
“Sensitive harvesting including the retention of habitat trees and active re-seeding is more likely to result in a successfully regenerated forest and a supportive environment for threatened species. This regenerating forest will have the same fire risk as natural regeneration following bushfire.”
Forestry Corporation of NSW response: Forestry Corporation of NSW said in a statement that small-scale selective timber harvesting operation will begin on the south coast this week.
The company’s senior planning manager Dean Kearney said the Environment Protection Authority, with the input of scientific experts “has provided Forestry Corporation with site-specific conditions for selective timber harvesting operations in designated parts of Mogo and South Brooman State Forests. These areas were previously set aside for timber production this year but have now been impacted by fire.”
“Strictly-managed selective timber harvesting will help prevent the loss of some high-quality timber damaged by fire, including material that will be in high demand for rebuilding, while ensuring the right protections are in place for key environmental values, particularly wildlife habitat, as these forests begin regenerating,” he said.
“The harvesting conditions augment the already strict rule set in place for forest operations and include requirements to leave all unburnt forest untouched and establish even more stringent conditions to protect water quality, hollow-bearing trees and wildlife habitat.”
David Lindenmayer, Professor, The Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University and Doug Robinson, Honorary Visiting Fellow, Department of Ecology, Environment and Evolution, La Trobe University
The Victorian government’s logging business is cutting native forests on steep slopes, in an apparent rule breach that threatens water supplies to Melbourne and rural communities.
Our research indicates that across vital water catchments in the Central Highlands of Victoria, state-owned VicForests is logging native forest on slopes steeper than is allowed under the code of practice. Logging also appears to be occurring in other areas supposedly excluded from harvesting.
Logging operations are prohibited from taking trees from slopes steeper than a certain gradient, because it can lead to soil damage which compromises water supplies. There are far better commercial alternatives to this apparent contravention of the rules, which must immediately cease.
Logging on steep slopes matters
Water catchments are areas where the landscape collects water. They are defined by natural features such as mountain ridgelines and valleys. Rain drains into rivers and streams, which supply water to reservoirs.
Forest cover protects the soil in water catchments by preventing erosion and other damage which can pollute water.
Areas that provide water for drinking, agriculture and irrigation are known in Victoria as special water supply catchments. Under the state’s Code of Forest Practice, logging in these catchments is prohibited on slopes steeper than 30 degrees (or 25 degrees in some catchments). VicForests claims it does not log trees on such slopes.
We analysed slopes across multiple special water supply catchments. We first examined the relationships between slope and logging disturbance using data from the Victorian government, Geoscience Australia, and the European Space Agency. To confirm the results, we visited multiple sites in the Upper Goulburn catchment, which supplies water to Eildon Reservoir, to measure the slopes ourselves.
We found logging in many areas steeper than 30 degrees. In larger catchments such as the Upper Goulburn, around 44% of logged areas contained slopes exceeding this gradient. In many instances, logged slopes were far steeper than 30 degrees and some breaches covered many hectares.
In the Thomson, Melbourne’s largest water supply catchment, 35% of logged areas contained slopes steeper than 30 degrees.
We also found areas that should have been formally excluded from logging but where the forest had been cut. Many of these exclusion zones were around steep slopes. In the Upper Goulburn catchment, nearly 80% of logged areas contained exclusion zones that should not have been cut.
Why is this happening?
Last week, VicForests rejected our allegations of slope breaches. VicForests claimed it was complying with a rule under which 10% of an area logged can exceed 30 degrees. This rule applies to general logging areas; our interpretation is this exemption does not apply to the special water supply catchments.
Forest on steep and rugged terrain is economically marginal for wood production because the trees are relatively short and widely spaced. Almost all timber from these areas is pulpwood for making paper.
So why are such areas being logged at the risk of compromising the water catchments that supplies Melbourne and regional Victoria?
We suspect pressure to log steep terrain is tied to the Victorian government’s legal obligation to provide large quantities of pulp logs for making paper until the year 2030 (coincidentally the year the government plans to phase out native forest logging).
This pressure is reflected in recent reductions in log yields. Some commentators have blamed efforts to protect the critically endangered Leadbeater’s possum for this trend. However, only 0.17% of the 1.82 million hectares of forest allocated to VicForests for logging has been taken out of production to protect this species.
In our view, other possibilities for declining yields are past over-cutting and bushfires. VicForests failed to take into account the effects of fire on its estimates of sustained timber yield – despite some of Victoria’s forests being some of the world’s most fire-prone environments.
There are alternatives
Pulp logs sourced from native forests is not a commercial necessity; there are viable alternatives. Victorian hardwood plantations produced 3.9 million cubic metres of pulp logs last year. Most of this was exported.
If just some of these logs were processed in Victoria, it would be enough to replace the pulpwood logged from native forests several times over. Plantation wood is better for making paper than native forest logs, and processing the logs in Victoria would boost regional employment.
Degrading soil and water by logging steep terrain is not worth the short-term, marginal gain of meeting log supply commitments, especially when there are viable alternatives. The Victorian government must halt the widespread breaches of its own rules.
In a statement, VicForests said it “strongly rejects” the allegations raised by the authors.
In addition to the refutations included in this article, the company said:
Any concerns about its practices should be referred to the Office of the Conservation Regulator
VicForests does very little harvesting in catchments, where restrictions are in place
In the Thompson catchment, VicForests only harvests on average 150ha a year out of about 44,000ha in the catchment – which is 0.3%, or around 3 trees in 1000
VicForests only asks contractors to harvest on slopes if it complies with regulation.
David Lindenmayer, Professor, The Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University and Chris Taylor, Research Fellow, Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University