Earlier this month, Australia’s outgoing Threatened Species Commissioner Gregory Andrews told ABC radio that land clearing is not the biggest threat to Australia’s wildlife. His claim caused a stir among Australia’s biodiversity scientists and conservation professionals, who have plenty of evidence to the contrary.
The ecologist Jared Diamond has described an “evil quartet” of threatening processes that drive species to extinction: habitat destruction; overhunting (or overexploitation); the presence of introduced species; and chains of linked ecological changes, including co-extinctions.
So the evil quartet has now become an evil sextet. It sounds ugly because it is. But does habitat loss through land clearing still top the list? The answer, in short, is yes.
Land clearing threat
According to an analysis of data from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), habitat loss is the number-one threat to biodiversity worldwide. Many more species are affected by processes such as logging and land clearing for agriculture and housing than by invasive species, disease or other threats.
But despite this, habitat loss and land clearing pose an even bigger threat to animals and plants alike. It is the single biggest factor adding to Australia’s list of threatened species list, especially given the recent return to record-breaking land clearing rates.
Of course, the evil sextet do not operate independently; they gang up, often with devastating results. The joint impact of two threats is often larger than the sum of its parts. Habitat destruction is the gang leader that joins forces with other threats to accelerate the slide to extinction.
When habitats are intact, large and in good condition, the species that depend on them are much better equipped to withstand other threats such as bushfires or invasive species. But as habitat is destroyed and chopped into smaller fragments, species’ populations become smaller, more isolated, and more vulnerable to predation or competition.
Larger populations of animals and plants also generally have larger gene pools, making them more able to adapt to new threats before it’s too late. Small populations, on the other hand, are sitting ducks.
You can see where this is heading. It’s all about habitat loss, because habitat loss makes all other threats more acute.
The political landscape
Habitat loss is a polarising political issue, which makes it hard to legislate against. Most habitat is lost through land clearing for agriculture and urban development.
The quality and effectiveness of land clearing policy and legislation in Australia has risen and fallen like the tide over the past four decades. After being the world’s largest land clearing jurisdiction behind Brazil in the post-war era, the Beattie government in Queensland introduced hugely improved land-clearing laws in the mid-1990s.
But under the Newman government, Queensland resumed its world leadership in habitat destruction. While Queensland may be the most extreme example, every Australian state and territory has witnessed similar policy uncertainty over the decades. Meanwhile, no federal environment minister has made significant inroads into the problem since the establishment of the 1999 Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.
Of course, the outgoing Threatened Species Commissioner is right to acknowledge the impact that feral cats and foxes. But I hope that whoever next takes on the role will be prepared to deliver an unambiguous message about the biggest threat to our plants and animals, and to outline a strong vision for how we can address it.
If more sightings of an endangered species are recorded, does that mean its numbers are increasing? Australia’s native forest logging industry is arguing yes.
On the basis of an increase in sightings of Leadbeater’s possums, advocates for Victorian native forest logging industry has proposed to downgrade the possum’s conservation status from critically endangered (thus facilitating ongoing logging in and around potential habitat in Victoria’s Central Highlands).
But while this sounds reasonable, increased sightings aren’t always a reliable measure of endangered species’ viability. Often, an increase in sightings can be attributed to two things: either more people are trying to spot the animal in question; or new work that has used different parameters to previous studies.
One of the ultimate achievements in successful conservation is to downlist a threatened species – for example from critically endangered to endangered, or from endangered to vulnerable. But this requires high-quality, long-term survey data that shows substantial recovery, as well as proof that the key threats to a species’ persistence have been truly mitigated.
An example of a failure to do due diligence was the woylie in Western Australia, (also known as the brush-tailed bettong). It was downlisted in 1996 but then within 3 years suffered an enormous and still not well understood population crash (from which it has still not recovered). Its conservation status was uplisted in 2008.
There have been more records of Leadbeater’s possum in the last few years, but this growth is most likely a function of a large increase in the amount of effort invested in trying to find them.
In areas zoned for timber harvesting, locations with a confirmed Leadbeater’s possum sighting are excluded from logging. This has motivated large numbers of people who are concerned about the plight of the possum to devote many hours to finding animals.
The detection of more animals with greater searching is a well-known phenomenon in ecology and other disciplines. Last year, for example, sightings of wild tiger populations rose by 22% – but further investigation found that the increase was most likely caused by changes in methodology and greater effort in surveying.
In fisheries this relationship is termed catch per unit effort. For example, even with rapidly declining numbers in a fishery, the number of fish caught can stay the same or even go up when more efficient and targeted techniques are adopted. Sadly, this intensified effort can often cause fish stocks to collapse.
The real evidence on Leadbeater’s possum
As stated earlier, the first critical piece of evidence required to justify downlisting is robust evidence of long-term improvement in population size. So what does the evidence tell us about Leadbeater’s possum?
For more than 34 years, the Australian National University has monitored Leadbeater’s possum including at more than 160 permanent sites since 1997. This large-scale, long-term data set shows that the possum is in significant decline. Over the past 19 years, the number of survey sites where the possum was detected has dropped by almost two-thirds.
The second critical requirement for delisting is evidence that the key processes threatening the species have been mitigated.
One of the principal threats facing Leadbeater’s possum is the rapid ongoing decline in large old trees which are the sole form of natural nesting sites for the species.
As part of ecological surveys in the wet forests of Victoria, which have been running since 1983, the Australian National University has been collecting information on hollow-bearing trees. The most recent analysis of this large and long-term data set suggests that if current declines continue, by 2040, populations of large old trees may be less than 10% of what they were in 1997.
Efforts to downlist Leadbeater’s possum are misguided at best. The greater number of records in recent years is most likely a reflection of greater survey effort. In contrast, robust long-term monitoring data clearly shows a significant decline in population.
Most importantly, the key processes causing the decline of Leadbeater’s possum (and other threatened species in the same area, like the greater glider) have not been mitigated; indeed they are intensifying (such as the increasing fire burden with increasing area of logged forest).
There is little room to gamble with these species. Leadbeater’s possum and the greater glider currently do not breed in captivity, so expensive fallback options like captive breeding and reintroduction are not viable possibilities if wild populations crash.
The loss of these animals from ill-informed downlisting would add to Australia’s already appalling record on species loss. Approximately 10% of our mammal fauna has gone extinct – the worst rate in the world, and 30 times worse than places of equivalent size, such as the United States.
The Great Barrier Reef is one of the world’s finest natural wonders. It’s also extraordinarily cheap to visit – perhaps too cheap.
While a visit to the reef can be part of an expensive holiday, the daily fee to enter the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park itself is a measly A$6.50. In contrast, earlier this year I was lucky enough to visit Rwanda’s mountain gorillas and paid a US$750 fee, and the charge has since been doubled to US$1,500.
To me, seeing the reef was better than visiting the gorillas. Personally, I would be happy to pay more to visit the Great Barrier Reef. Does this mean we’re undervaluing our most important natural wonder? And if we do ask visitors to pay a higher price, would it actually help the reef or simply harm tourism numbers?
The A$56 billion estimate was based on surveys that measured “consumer surplus and non-use benefits”. This common research technique involves asking people what they would be willing to pay to get a particular benefit. For example, the entrance fee for the reef is A$6.50 but if I am willing to pay A$50 (say), that equates to a consumer surplus of A$43.50. In other words, I am receiving A$43.50 worth of value that I did not have to pay for.
I understand that some people instinctively object to the idea of trying to put monetary values on things like the Great Barrier Reef. But I think valuation helps, on balance, because it offers a way to assimilate environmental information into the economic processes through which most decisions are made. Money makes the world go around, after all.
However this should be done on the proviso that the valuation is systematic and based on sound environmental and economic data.
Accounting for the Great Barrier Reef
The process by which these values are calculated is called “environmental accounting”, and estimates have to meet international standards known as the System of Environmental-Economic Accounting or SEEA in order to be valid. This builds on the System of National Accounts (which among many other things gives us the GDP indicator). In this accounting, as in business accounting, the values recorded are exchange values – that is, what someone paid (or was likely to pay) for a good, service or asset. For assets that aren’t regularly traded, this figure can be based on either previous sales or expected future income.
It does not use willingness-to-pay measures. The Deloitte report also estimated exchange values in line with accounting values, with the Great Barrier Reef contributing A$6.4 billion to the economy through tourism, fishing, recreation, and research and scientific management.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics has a huge amount of data on the Great Barrier Reef, covering the physical state of the reef and its surroundings, the economic activity occurring in the region, and more besides.
Unsurprisingly, tourism is the region’s most valuable industry, contributing A$3.8 billion in gross value added in 2015-16 (see Table 1 here). That year the Marine Park had 2.3 million visitors, who together paid just under A$9 million in park entry charges (see Table 4 here).
Ecosystem services are the contributions of the natural world to benefits enjoyed by people. For example, farmers grow crops that are pollinated by insects and use nutrients found in the soil. These things are not explicitly paid for, but by examining economic transactions we can estimate their value.
Surprisingly, the value of ecosystem services used by tourism was A$600 million – just half the value of the ecosystem services used by the agriculture industry.
The result is partly explained by the way things are valued. Agricultural products are bought and sold in markets, whereas the Great Barrier Reef is a public asset and the fee for visiting it is set by governments, not by a market.
On these numbers, paying A$6.50 to visit one of the great treasures of the world is a bargain indeed. But what does it mean for the reef itself?
Reef under threat
The reef is under pressure from many factors, including climate change, nutrient runoff, tourism impacts, and fishing. Managing the pressure requires resources, and it makes sense to ask those who use it to pay for it.
Increased funding to help manage these pressures would therefore be good. What’s more, governments could conceivably also use natural resources to generate money to fund other public goods and services, such as roads, education, health, defence, and so on.
Before you protest at this idea, ask yourself: why should the Great Barrier Reef not be used to generate revenue for government? Other natural resources are used this way. The federal and Queensland governments are pursuing economic benefits from the coal in the nearby Galilee Basin. If government revenue from the Great Barrier Reef were increased, it might reduce the need for revenue from elsewhere.
So what next?
Environmental accounting offers a clear way to assess such trade-offs, and will hopefully lead to better decisions. To achieve this we will need:
Regular environmental-economic accounts from trusted institutions like the ABS
Governments and business to incorporate this new accounting into their strategic planning and management (including, in the case of the Great Barrier Reef, assessing the likely revenue from increased marine park fees)
The public to use the accounts to hold our government and business leaders to
The last will no doubt make some uncomfortable, while the second will take some time. The first is already a reality. I hope others take the time to understand and analyse the accounts already available, and that we get as much debate about managing the environment as we do about managing the economy.
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott this week drew renewed attention to himself with a speech to the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a London-based climate sceptic group, in which he voiced a range of doubts about climate science and policy, and claimed that climate change is “probably doing good”.
The comments might come as no surprise to those familiar with his views. But what’s arguably more surprising is the prevalence of similar opinions among some Australian business leaders.
It reveals that Abbott’s doubts about the veracity of climate science and its forecast impacts, and his scathing dismissal of those concerned about climate change, have a long history of support among the Hunter Valley’s business leaders.
Carried out in the lead-up to the implementation of the Gillard Labor government’s price on carbon in 2011, my research sought to understand business leaders’ attitudes to government policies and to climate change more broadly.
I approached 50 chief executives of organisations operating in the Hunter Region, of whom 31 agreed to participate (or had a senior staff member take up the opportunity).
They were asked questions about their views on climate change, how and whether their organisation was responding to the issue, and what they thought about the various political parties’ policies in response to it.
Perhaps not surprisingly, participants’ overwhelming concern was that the economy might decline as a result of climate policies such as pricing carbon.
While some were concerned about climate change, there was almost unanimous opposition to carbon pricing. Given the politics of the time, this too is unremarkable, particularly in light of the success Abbott enjoyed at the 2013 election after pledging to scrap the policy.
What was surprising, however, was the pervasive scepticism among participants about the science of climate change. This is especially the case given that many people now view the debate over whether climate change is happening – and whether it is caused by human activity – as being over.
Moreover, many participants believed that climate scientists were motivated by financial rewards in arguing that climate change is a serious concern.
These beliefs were voiced not only by those in industries like coal, aluminium, and shipping – but echoed by participants from other industries, revealing a deep scepticism of both the discipline and the science of climate change itself.
It is noteworthy that the research was focused on the Hunter Valley and Newcastle, home to the world’s biggest coal port.
Participants also held intensely antagonistic views in relation to the environment movement and the Australian Greens, believing their views were quasi-religious and that they too were self-interested and unrealistic in wanting to tackle climate change.
A small minority of participants did support some type of mechanism to limit greenhouse emissions, and were concerned about the environment.
But more broadly, my research showed that the Hunter Region’s business leaders – whether or not they were directly involved in coal – had taken on board many of the arguments promulgated by the industry in its ultimately successful campaign against carbon pricing in Australia.
These dynamics may have changed a little in recent times, with companies such as AGL and BHP shifting away from coal.
The overall dynamics of the climate politics, however – as revealed in the current stalemate over responding to the Finkel Review – remains out of step with what the climate science is telling us. As, of course, do Abbott’s comments.
Abbott’s London speech was interpreted as incendiary, and earned him a sharp rebuke from government colleagues. But when we look at the places where his message might be received more favourably, it becomes apparent there are still pockets of the country where he might expect to find a plentiful and powerful audience.
I am walking quietly through the forest. As I reach the edge of the trees there is a snort and a staccato of hoofbeats, and four horses materialise only metres in front of me: a foal, two mares and a dark stallion. The stallion, ears pricked, tosses his head and prances forward. As I crouch to pick up a branch, the stallion wheels and gallops off with the group. They hurdle an old stock fence, and almost as soon as their hoofs touch down, another big grey stallion comes towards them over the hill.
The next minutes are completely mesmerising. The two stallions fight, 50 metres from me. Dust hangs in the air around them, their screams echo off the hills, the impact of their hoof strikes reverberates in my belly. They rear, scream; snake heads out to bite, whirl and kick. Eventually, bleeding and bruised, the dark stallion breaks and runs. The grey makes a show of chasing, then canters back to the mares, arching his neck, prancing with lifted tail.
This is one of many times I have seen horses, called brumbies in Australia, in the mountains. While cross-country skiing in the south I have watched them in the snow – ragged manes flying, galloping through a mist of ice crystals – and many times while driving and bushwalking in both the north and south of Kosciuszko National Park. I have also watched them cantering in clouds of dust in central Australia, and grazing in the swamps of Kakadu. Each of these wild horse encounters has been deeply visceral and emotional, elemental expressions of life in dramatic and beautiful landscapes.
Horses are large, powerful and charismatic animals, and humans have ancient connections to them. Wild horses are dominant among the 13 species painted on the caves of Chauvet in France 30,000 years ago, and while there continues to be debate, archaeologists suggest evidence for horse domestication is at least 5,500 years old. And like the oldest human-animal relationship outside hunting – with dogs – the horse relationship is unique because we now mostly do not eat this animal.
Like dogs, horses now occur on every continent except Antarctica, and humans have been the primary agent for their dispersal. In North America, where the first true horses evolved and then died out, they were reintroduced by Columbus in 1493. Horses are the most recent of the main species humans domesticated, and the least different (with cats) from their wild counterparts.
Australia has the largest wild horse herd in the world, maybe 400,000 or more horses, spread across nearly every bioregion from the tropical north to the arid centre to the alpine areas. That sounds like a dramatically large number, but Australia also has around one million domestic horses, about 100 million cattle and sheep, maybe 20 million feral pigs and 25 million kangaroos. But the presence of wild horses here is deeply controversial.
Six thousand of these horses are in Kosciuszko National Park. Ongoing controversy around these wild horses encompasses debate about their impact and their cultural meaning. There is very little systematic research and a large amount of emotive and anecdotal argument, from both sides. There is circularity and self-referencing in government wild horse management plans, very little reference to studies from Australia and almost no peer-reviewed research on horse impacts in the Snowy Mountains, despite decades of argument that they cause environmental degradation.
And Kosciuszko is right next to Canberra and the Australian Capital Territory, which has the highest per capita horse-ownership of anywhere in Australia. Several enterprises run horse-trekking trips into the Snowy Mountains, often interacting with brumbies. The Dalgety and Corryong annual shows on the boundaries of the park highlight horse skills, including catching and gentling brumbies. In many places mountain cattle properties are increasingly using horses instead of motorbikes to handle stock.
The Kosciuszko wild horses are also tangled within the embedded idiosyncrasies and contradictions of the largest national park in New South Wales. Here there are protected populations of two species of invasive fish (brown and rainbow trout) that are demonstrably responsible for local extinctions of native fish and frog species; a gigantic hydro-electric scheme with dominant infrastructure across large areas of the park; and expanding ski resorts where it is possible to buy lodges. Much of the landscape that is now part of the park has a long history of summer grazing by sheep and cattle, with stockworkers’ huts scattered across the high country. This “wilderness” has been home to Aboriginal people for millennia, as well as well-known grazing grounds for more than a century.
These complexities and contradictions reflect our often unconscious modern propensity for hubris: we insist we are in charge of what happens on the planet, including in its “wild” places and “wild” species. Terms like “land management”, “natural resource management”, and “conservation management”, all reflect this assumption of superiority and control.
The United States has similar controversies over the management of mustangs across large areas of the west. New Zealand has the Kaimanawa horses, a special and isolated herd on army land. In both of those countries, as in Australia, there is a unique history of horse interactions with Indigenous communities. The great Native American horse cultures are well known and extraordinary, as Indians had no introduction to equestrian skills from the Spanish invaders, they learnt extremely quickly from scratch.
The first horses in New Zealand were a gift to Maori communities from missionary Samuel Marsden in 1814, and a Waitangi Tribunal Claim has been brought to protect the Kaimanawa horses as Maori taonga (treasures). Aboriginal stockmen and stockwomen were the mainstay of the pastoral industry all over Australia until the equal wage ruling of 1968 resulted in the wholesale expulsion of Aboriginal stockworkers in north and central Australia.
Peter Mitchell’s recent book Horse Nations uses that term to describe the people-animal relationship in certain Indigenous communities. Both Native American and Aboriginal cosmologies often place animals including horses, as their own “nations”, with whom they have a responsibility to respectfully interact.
The wild horses of the Australian Alps are arguably the strongest cultural icons. The enduring legacy of The Man from Snowy River, both the iconic Banjo Paterson poem and the 1980s film, but also the Silver Brumby series of novels by Elyne Mitchell, still in print after nearly 70 years, idealise the strength, beauty and spirit of wild mountain horses. At least one source suggests that “the man” from Paterson’s poem was in fact a young Aboriginal rider.
This is not at all implausible – there is much documentation, as well as strong oral histories, of Aboriginal men and women working stock on horseback across the Snowy Mountains. The Aboriginal mountain missions at Brungle and Delegate both have many stories of earlier generations working as stock riders and also mustering wild mountain horses. David Dixon, Ngarigo elder, says
Our old people were animal lovers. They would have had great respect for these powerful horse spirits. Our people have always been accepting of visitors to our lands and quite capable of adapting to change so that our visitors can also belong, and have their place.
While the iconic figure of the cowboy and stockman is masculine, amongst Aboriginal stockworkers women and girls were likely as common as men and boys. In contemporary times, women far outnumber men in equestrian participation, and brumby defenders are equally represented by men and women. Four Australian horsewomen generously shared their knowledge and skills in the research that backgrounds this essay.
In the mid 1970s, I worked as a ranger in Kosciuszko National Park. In those days rangering was a seat-of-the-pants enterprise: we used to buy at least part of our uniforms out of our own money because the issued items were so inadequate, we taught ourselves to cross-country ski, we drank socially with the brumby-runners and other people from the surrounding rural communities.
In many places rangers were and are intimately part of the community, not seen as “public servants”. There is a complex and interesting relationship between university-educated national parks staff and local rural workers with deeply embodied knowledge and skills, with rangers acknowledging that they need the skills of these locals to carry out much animal-related work in the parks, including trapping and mustering wild horses. Recent proposals to helicopter shoot large numbers of wild horses in Kosciuszko would potentially sever this link. Helicopter shooting requires specific marksmanship skills not common in rural communities.
While we debate how to reduce our wild horse numbers, other countries are working to re-establish wild horse herds in Europe and Asia. It is often argued that domestication saved horses (and many other species) from extinction, aiding their establishment all over the planet while their wild ancestors diminished or disappeared. Creating populations of newly wild species is termed both “rewilding’ and ”de-domestication“, and there are numerous and increasing examples around the world. Some of these proposals include the reestablishment of species long extinct, or their ecological equivalents.
In the period increasingly accepted as the Anthropocene, species are both declining and flourishing. Domesticated species have been moved all over the world; other introduced species flourish in new landscapes, and many of these are escaped or released domesticates. In the oceans, as large predators have declined all the cephalopods (octopus, squid and cuttlefish) are increasing. Highly specialised species that evolved on isolated islands have declined precipitously, while generalist species are flourishing.
Global conservation management attempts to work against both of these trends: we attempt to suppress populations of flourishing species, while supporting or increasing populations of declining ones, including through translocations and captive breeding programs. These activities call into question the nature of nature in the 21st century: what is the “wild” in all this management and manipulation?
In these questions, the lives and cosmologies of Indigenous peoples, and the lives of other species, offer us serious teachings. The agency and intelligence of animals, the increasing discoveries of distinct cultures amongst animal populations, the agency of planetary systems in continually reorganising around changing inputs, all stand against the modern human insistence on control, stability and stasis.
While hiking mountain grasslands looking for wild horse bands, I have several times come across horse skeletons whitening in the sunlight, their energy and power transmuted back into the source from which new lives will spring. In a world where human societies are increasingly narcissistic, where our dominant concern is ourselves, recognising the agency and intelligence of other species can be deeply humbling.
Perhaps our task is to harmonise ourselves with these old and new environments, not continually attempt to “manage” them into some other state that we in our hubris think is more desirable, whether ecologically, economically or culturally.
Thanks to Adrienne Corradini, Jen Owens, Blaire Carlon and Tonia Gray for improving my understanding of horse and brumby issues.
Furore erupted last week among many Australians who care for our native species.
First we heard that land clearing in Queensland soared to a staggering 400,000 or so hectares in 2015-16, a near 30% increase from the previous year. Second, the federal government’s outgoing Threatened Species Commissioner, Gregory Andrews, implied on national radio that land clearing was not a pressing issue for Australia’s threatened species.
This is a troubling public message, particularly as the government’s own State of the Environment Report 2016 lists “clearing, fragmentation and declining quality of habitat” as a primary driver of biodiversity decline across the continent.
These comments highlight key issues with the Threatened Species Commissioner’s current remit, made more pressing due to timing: the federal government will soon appoint a new commissioner, a “TSC 2.0”, if you will.
Threatened Species Commissioner 1.0
The commissioner’s role was established in 2014 to address the dire state of threatened species; a key initiative of the then environment minister, Greg Hunt. The remit was sixfold, including bringing a new national focus to conservation efforts; raising awareness and support for threatened species in the community; and taking an evidence-based approach to ensure conservation efforts are better targeted and co-ordinated and more effective.
Also laudable was the 2015 Threatened Species Summit, attended by some 250 delegates from a diverse set of stakeholders, which garnered significant media coverage.
But elsewhere progress has been mixed. The development of the Threatened Species Strategy is welcome, but the plan does not go nearly far enough. Key targets by 2020 are improvements in the population trajectories of 20 mammals, 20 birds and 30 plants. But this represents a mere 4% of Australia’s threatened species, excluding all threatened reptiles, amphibians, fishes and invertebrates, and most of our threatened flora.
Yet the Threatened Species Strategy mentions land clearing zero times and habitat loss just twice. Feral cats, on the other hand, are mentioned 78 times, with the plan overwhelmingly focused on culling this one invasive species. Other major introduced pests – foxes, rabbits, feral pigs and goats – are mentioned 10 times between them.
An on-ground focus and mobilising of financial and logistical resources to support threatened species recovery was a welcome development during Andrews’s tenure. His second progress report cites AU$131 million in funding for projects in support of threatened species since 2014.
Likewise, funding for threatened species must be better targeted. Of the 499 projects cited in the TSC second progress report, 361 were those of the Green Army and 20 Million Trees programs (costing AU$78 million, 60% of total funding). Neither program is specifically devoted to threatened species, and their benefit in this regard is doubtful.
The next commissioner’s checklist
Australians and democratic societies should have access to reliable, independent and objective information about the current state of our natural heritage, and how government decisions influence its trajectory. That’s a critical role that TSC 2.0 should play.
Expertise will be crucial for the new appointee. Given the complex science of species conservation, a background in environmental science is a clear requirement, just as a background in economics would be expected for the chair of the Productivity Commission, or a grounding in law for a human rights commissioner.
For a commissioner to work effectively, they must also be willing to comment on politically sensitive issues and put themselves at odds with the government when necessary. Commissioners typically work as the head of an independent statutory body, such as the Productivity Commission, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, and the Australian Electoral Commission.
But if the TSC 2.0 is to be a truly informed and independent voice for Australia’s threatened species, the role must sit within a statutory authority, at arm’s length from government. This is the case in New Zealand, where an independent environment commission has operated since 1986. It’s time for Australia to follow suit.
This contrast points to fundamentally different notions of value. Environmental accounting is a way of recognising and comparing multiple sources of value, in order to better weigh competing priorities in resource management.
Using environmental accounting we’ve investigated the tall, wet forests of Victoria’s Central Highlands to weigh the competing economic cases for continuing native timber harvesting and creating a Great Forest National Park. But first we’ll explain a little more about environmental accounting, and how we put a price on trees.
What we count
Essentially, environmental accounting involves identifying the contributions of the environment to the economy, summarised as gross domestic product (GDP). In Australia, the Australian Bureau of Statistics standardises the data and reporting of these contributions in the System of National Accounts. The Bureau also produces environmental accounts that extend the range of information presented – e.g. water and energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.
But there are other things of value, like positive environmental and social outcomes, worth incorporating into calculations. Ecosystem accounting gives researchers a framework for doing this, extending the accounting to look at the value of different “ecosystem services” – the contributions of ecosystems to our wellbeing – and not just goods and services captured in our national accounts or environmental accounts.
For example, businesses and homes pay a price for water delivery, but the supplier doesn’t pay for the water that entered the dam. That water is an ecosystem service created by forests and the atmosphere. By assessing costs in the water supply industry, we can estimate the value of the ecosystem service of water provisioning.
The value of Victoria’s Central Highlands
Victoria’s Central Highlands are contested ground. Claims and counter-claims abound between the proponents of native timber production and those who are concerned about the impacts of logging on water supply, climate abatement and threatened species.
Our research has, for the first time, directly compared the economic and environmental values of this ecosystem. It shows that creating a Great Forest National Park is clearly better value.
With any change in land management, there will be gains and losses for different people and groups. Assessing these trade-offs is complex, made even more so by patchy and inconsistent data.
Through careful accounting, we synthesised the available data and calculated the annual contributions of industries to GDP. In 2013-14, the latest year for which all financial data were available, these came to A$310 million for water supply, A$312 million for agriculture, A$260 million for tourism and potentially A$49 million for carbon storage. (There is no current market for carbon stored in native forests in Australia – more on that in a minute.)
All of this far exceeds the A$12 million from native timber production. Although timber production is a traditional industry, its contribution to the regional economy is now comparatively small.
The industries that use ecosystem services are classified as primary production – agriculture, forestry and water supply. This classification is comprehensive (it covers all economic activities) and mutually exclusive (there is no overlap of categories). Downstream uses of the products from agriculture, forestry and water supply are an important consideration for the industries as a whole, but are included in manufacturing industries and not in ecosystem accounts.
This means these young forests contribute less to biodiversity, carbon storage, water supply and recreation. Therefore harvesting native timber requires a trade-off between these conflicting activities.
But more than 60% of the native timber harvested in the Central Highlands is used for pulp. This can be substituted by production from plantations that are more efficient and increased use of recycled paper. Both softwood and hardwood plantations can provide substitute sawlogs.
If we phased out native forest harvesting, increases in the value of water supply and carbon storage would offset the loss of A$12 million per year contributed by the industry. (It would also most likely increase profits for the tourism and plantation timber sectors.)
Older trees use less water than young regrowth, and allowing native forests to age would increase the supply of water to Melbourne’s main reservoirs by an estimated 10.5 gigalitres per year. That’s worth A$8 million per year. Security of water supply for the increasing population of Melbourne is an ever-present concern, particularly with projected decreases in rainfall and streamflow.
Older forests also store more carbon than younger regrowth forests. The federal government’s Emission Reduction Fund does not recognise native forest management as an eligible activity for carbon trading, but if this changed the forest could earn carbon credits worth A$13 million per year. This would provide an ongoing and low-cost source of carbon abatement, which could be used to meet Australia’s emissions reduction targets, while the Victorian government could use the money gained to support an industry transition.
Of course, economic benefit is only one way of looking at land. We know that the Central Highlands is home to unique flora and fauna that cannot be replaced (much of which is increasingly under threat). But careful environmental accounting can help explicitly define the various trade-offs of different activities.
It’s particularly important when legacy industries – like native timber harvesting – are no longer environmentally or economically viable. The accounting reveals the current mix of benefits and costs, allowing management of this area to be reconsidered.