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Lessons from the Murray-Darling disaster run deeper than water

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The Murray-Darling basin is one of Australia's most vital geographical regions, yet is slowly being killed by "progress" (Screenshot via YouTube)

Environmental mismanagement runs deeper than the ecological tragedy gripping the Murray-Darling Basin. Recent policy decisions around native forest logging in NSW follow the same pattern of ignoring science and favouring extractive industry over the public interest, writes Dr Oisín Sweeney.

THE ROLLING ecological catastrophe in the Murray-Darling basin has put political mismanagement of our natural resources in the harshest possible spotlight. Images of rotting Murray cod and despairing farmers that have seen out many previous droughts are tragic. Yet environmental mismanagement runs deeper than the Murray-Darling (pun intended) and recent decisions in public native forest policy offer a striking example. 

For several years, the National Parks Association of NSW – and other community groups – have worked to provide alternative forest policy options to State and Commonwealth Governments, so that the end of long-term logging deals between the governments (called Regional Forest Agreements, RFAs) could herald a new start for forests and wildlife. These efforts have been summarily ignored. New 20-year RFAs were signed in November 2018, despite the substantial evidence that they are a failed model for forest management. Why?

Power shifts

The balance of power in the public service is the first clue. Environment departments at State and Commonwealth levels were subordinate to primary industries – and their National Party Ministers – in the RFA extension process and the development of new logging laws in NSW (called Integrated Forestry Operations Approvals).

Like with water, this signals an industrial view of native forests and is a departure from the original RFA process where environment departments were deeply embedded. A briefing requested by NSW environment groups highlighted just how passive the Commonwealth environment department has been — they have simply accepted NSW's assertions that new logging laws won't impact nationally threatened species. No data has been analysed, and no one appears to have questioned why, if everything's hunky dory out there, populations of iconic species like koalas are falling fast.

It’s scandalous that there has been near-total silence from Environment Ministers on the Murray-Darling crisis despite the obvious environmental damage. The same deafening silence facilitates our forests going the same way as our rivers.

A national approach is undermined

As with water policy, NSW's actions indicate that it has unilaterally decided to move away from a long-term national approach to forests. The vision and goals of the National Forest Policy Statement, made in 1992 to guide a national approach to forests, talks about sustainable use of forests and community participation in decision making.

NSW is now just paying lip service to this vision. It says it supports the principle of Ecologically Sustainable Forest Management but has extended hugely intensive logging to prime koala habitat on the north coast – leading former Labor NSW Environment Minister Bob Debus to publicly condemn industry conduct – developed plans to “remap and rezone” protected areas of old-growth forest to access timber and ignored the vast majority of public submissions that overwhelmingly opposed logging during the so-called “consultation” on forest matters. 

Extractive industries favoured over public interest

A striking similarity between water and forests is the elevation of the interests of large corporations above those of the wider public. Across coastal NSW, Boral Timber now controls almost 55% of high-quality sawlogs — a figure that will likely rise should the Blue Ridge sawmill in Eden close as anticipated. Allied Natural Wood Exports, the owner of the Eden chipmill, processes all of the trees cut for chipping between Nowra and the Victorian border — a staggering 75 per cent of all trees logged and all from public forests. NSW Forestry Corporation was actively canvassing for new wood supply agreements while the public consultation on logging laws was still underway. The outcome of the “consultations” – tipping the scales further towards industry extraction – was clearly preordained.

Just like rivers in the Murray-Darling, forests provide a range of services to people beyond raw materials. No price is put on the value of forests for recreation or human wellbeing — though we know it's important. But we can make a stab at their value for nature-based tourism: this industry is worth just shy of $20 billion per year to NSW and it relies entirely on the wildlife and ecosystems of which we are supposed to be custodians.

In both water and forest policy areas, these enormous co-benefits are completely ignored in favour of short-term plundering. In the case of logging, this occurs despite the industry now employing very few people and being deeply unpopular.

Ideology trumps science

Most disturbing is the willful disregard of science. Compromises between environmental needs and irrigation, combined with intense drought driven by global heating, have led to the current water disaster. We know logging is driving wildlife declines and destroying forests – in extreme cases driving ecosystem collapse – yet logging in NSW is to intensify, not be phased out.

Freedom of information documents show that the NSW Government ignored warnings from its own environment agency that its new logging laws would impact threatened species. The Government documentation discussing the impact of logging on carbon stocks and flows in forests is a shocking example of cherry-picking: industry research is used to support a preselected outcome; independent science is dismissed. This at a time when the impacts of climate disruption in Australia are becoming frighteningly apparent.

If anything positive is to come out of the Murray-Darling disaster, surely it must be public and political realisation that living ecosystems aren’t magic puddings that can keep producing more and more without a price to pay — if we keep ignoring the survival needs of our wildlife and ecosystems, the Murray cod will be joined by other Australian icons.

Oisín Sweeney is the Senior Ecologist with the National Parks Association of NSW, an environmental NGO dedicated to protecting nature and building the protected area network. You can follow Oisín on Twitter @sweeney_astray.

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