How forest logging is destroying Australia's environmental future

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Logging in the Central Highlands of Victoria (image by Chris Taylor via Twitter).

The devastation of forests has wide-reaching implications, from species extinction to climate heating, writes Ann Jelinek.

While the current environmental catastrophes of drought, floods and fires are focused on the Murray Darling Basin, the Great Barrier Reef, rainforests and climate change, a similar but more subtle, yet equally significant, case of ecosystem collapse and biodiversity loss are occurring in intensively clear-felled logged native forests.

This is especially felt in the highly restricted Mountain and Alpine Ash forests of the Central Highlands in Victoria. Clearly, with the recent release of yet another devastating Timber Release Plan, politicians and their policies are ignoring well-publicised scientific and economic advice.

Consistent with the current Australia’s State of the Forests report, it has been reported that less than half of the respondents to a national survey agreed that Australia’s native forests are managed sustainably. A recently leaked Forest Wood and Products Australia commissioned by the University of Canberra Regional Wellbeing Survey similarly indicates little support for native forest logging. 

These results apply particularly to the mixed Eucalypt forests and majestic tall Mountain and Alpine ash forests of the Central Highlands, old growth and tall wet forests of East Gippsland, the dry mixed species forests in Western and Central Victoria including the Strathbogie Ranges as well as the unique native forests of NSW, Tasmania and Western Australia.

Without a social licence and despite long-term scientific research evidence, how can state and federal governments allow such large scale logging of our biodiversity-rich native forests to continue unabated?

How do the current native forest clear-fell logging activities comply with any element of Victoria’s recently released “Biodiversity 2037” plan and native vegetation retention requirements, let alone reflect community expectations for responsible environmental stewardship?

Even more people would be alarmed if they knew the long-lasting environmental impacts occurring as a result of clear-fell logging and its associated infrastructure, like the extensive road networks and log landings. These activities destroy and fragment critical habitats for many plants and animals. For example, Citizen Scientists recently recorded explosives being used to detonate boulders 70m from Barred Galaxias fish habitat to open up access to a new logging coupe.

As Sir David Attenborough stated in a recent interview on ABC’s Radio National referring to lyrebirds imitating the sound of chainsaws being used to fell trees in their forest habitat: “What it implies is they are losing their habitat so in a tragic and paradoxical way, the lyrebird is singing about its own doom.”

The common message from politicians is that the trees are regrown, so what’s the problem? 

However, the resulting “tree plantations”, typically compete with dense wattle and blackberry regrowth and may struggle to grow successfully due to the accelerating impacts of climate change. They no longer comprise the natural vegetation composition, structure, diversity or age ranges, especially trees in different stages of developing hollows so essential for many arboreal animals. 

The planted or seeded trees also no longer replicate the natural beauty and biodiversity of these complex native forests with their ancient tree ferns; symphony of bird calls; lyrebirds dancing on mounds; a variety of insects seeking pollen; colorful fungi slowly decaying mossy logs; possums, bats and owls appearing from tree hollows at dusk.

Hot regeneration burns also occur following logging to produce a seedbed for ash trees, often destroying the few retained habitat and seed trees within logging coupes. These hot burns frequently escape into adjoining, narrow, remnant forest corridors that are meant to serve as wildlife refuges.

Biodiversity impacts are clearly evident. There are increasing numbers of forest-dependent species being assessed as threatened and other species that are currently in rapid decline. Of particular concern is commentary that because additional sightings of a threatened species have been recorded, then their numbers must be increasing. 

Most significantly, the absence of comprehensive flora and fauna pre-logging surveys means we don’t even know what biodiversity we are losing. 

Instead, to determine if logging proceeds in a particular area, Vic Forests continues to focus on brief, basic surveys for only a select few already threatened species on a coupe by coupe basis or simply by observing habitat suitability. 

As a result, the biodiversity and critical ecosystem functions of these complex forest environments are totally disregarded.

During 2018, VicForests commenced a logging experiment in East Gippsland to determine whether or not greater gliders could survive. This was despite scientific advice about the already threatened greater glider’s susceptibility to habitat disturbance.  

Meanwhile, the Gunditjmara people together with Greening Australia are aerial seeding Budj Bim National Park in remote south-west Victoria with Manna Gums in an effort to restore habitat and encourage the spot-tailed quoll to return to the area.

The timber industry hypocrisy doesn't only relate to biodiversity. It also concerns other vital forest values including climate change, carbon sequestration, water quality and flow regimes and protecting the integrity of Indigenous and historic cultural heritage. All of these are complementary and contribute to positive economic, social and environmental gains, including jobs now and into the future. 

Compare these missed opportunities for a sustainable, biodiversity-rich future to a contract driven native forest logging industry that is rapidly running out of native timber. This situation necessitates logging activities moving into even more highly sensitive, once inaccessible ecological communities. 

Regrettably, the native forest timber industry is exempt from Commonwealth environmental laws.

With the Victorian Government’s modernisation of the Regional Forest Agreement process currently in progress, an urgent yet vital opportunity exists to completely reassess the long-term environmental sustainability of native forest logging. 

Carefully planned plantation timber industries, together with a revitalised farm forestry program and removal of current restrictions on carbon farming initiatives need to be urgently implemented.

Ecotourism strategies incorporating job opportunities associated with native forests linked with conservation areas also need to be developed in consultation with local communities and businesses to avoid the imminent ecological collapse of our precious native forest ecosystems.

Ann Jelinek is a freelance writer, ecologist and photographer. 

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How forest logging is destroying Australia's environmental future

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