Politics Opinion

Perrottet Government remains ignorant as NSW forests vanish

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Even with an election looming, Premier Perrottet still remains reluctant to save NSW's forests (Image by Dan Jensen)

Despite grim assessments by environmental scientists, the NSW Government continues to turn its back on the environmental devastation sweeping the state, writes Sue Arnold.

AUSTRALIA IS IN the midst of serious ongoing environmental crises. The continuation of industrial logging of native forests in the four states which have regional forest agreements with the Commonwealth is top of the list.

The cascading impacts of the 2019-2020 bushfires have been firmly tucked into the deepest political closet at both the state and federal levels. Reports indicating the need for urgent action are buried. 

With no indication of any change in forest management by the federal and state governments of NSW, Victoria, Tasmania and Western Australia, combined with censorship by mainstream media on the catastrophic consequences of continuing industrial logging, the situation is increasingly dire.

NSW is facing an election. Premier Dominic Perrottet’s government has pulled out all the stops to ensure that wildlife – particularly the koala – and forests are not mentioned in any election policy platforms.

Yet major protests, sit-ins, tree sits and an extraordinary level of community opposition to logging is happening on the mid, far-north and south coasts forests. The history of protests both at the scientific, community and government level are impossible to ignore.

In May 2020, independent MLC Justin Field revealed that 60% of north coast forests and 85% of south coast forests burned. Yet logging continued at pre-fire levels.

In 2021, The Guardian published a leaked NSW Government document prepared by the Natural Resources Commission which urged halting logging of native forests hit hard by the bushfires. As of February 2023, the report has not been released by the Perrottet Government. Yet it is a critically important report on the massive damage to the forests.

In November 2022, the Natural Resources Commission NSW Forest Monitoring and Improvement Program (FMIP) made clear that

NSW forests whether they be national parks, state forests, Aboriginal land or Crown land are under sustained threats, putting at risk many of the services they provide.

 

Recent NSW and Australian state of the environment reports identify the same repeated issues of species decline, increasing risks and inadequate management responses.

The report noted that FMIP research indicates future climate and disturbance regime scenarios will have adverse impacts on NSW forests, affecting forest carbon, soil organic carbon, soil alkalinity, stream flow quantity, surface water quality and forest productivity.

Many forest-dependent flora and fauna species are predicted to lose significant proportions of their habitat. One FMIP study found the potential occupancy of 70% of assessed fauna species will decline by 2070 under future climate predictions.

The importance of this report cannot be understated. Previous reports by the FMIP have been conservative, but the language of this document focused on highlighting the serious nature of the crises facing native forests in NSW is critically important.

NSW native forest logging is carried out under the provisions of the Coastal Integrated Forestry Approval Operation (CIFOA) which sets out the conditions and protocols designed to protect forest flora and fauna.

No recognition of the catastrophic fires has been made in the CIFOA, nor is climate change adequately recognised or provided for under the conditions and protocols.

Recently, 31 national and international scientists requested Tony Chappel, CEO of the NSW Environment Protection Agency to undertake a comprehensive investigation of the cascading impacts of the 2019-2020 fires on CIFOA forests. Climate change was identified in the scientific submission as the key driver of the fires. Submission concerns are echoed in the FMIP report.

The NRC website focused on the FMIP report states:

‘The most significant driver of observed change in the past decade was the 2019-20 wildfires. Evidence from the program showed sharp declines in indicators... It is time to shift towards co-creating an overarching cross-tenure strategy for NSW forests towards 2050 to systematically address the threats of climate change and other stressors.’

Research excerpts in the scientific submission by 31 experts provide damning evidence of the extent of damage to native forests.

The impacts include:

  • loss of ecological integrity;
  • loss of ecosystem capacity and services;
  • loss of biodiversity;
  • loss of plant species and habitat;
  • loss of invertebrates;
  • loss of vertebrate species and habitat;
  • loss of aquatic biodiversity;
  • loss and degradation of riparian zones; and
  • catastrophic soil loss with erosion impacts.

Evidence gathered by a team of scientists in 2021 demonstrated the collapse of 19 ecosystems. The study examined the recent trajectories of 19 ecosystems from Australia’s coral reefs to terrestrial Antarctica. According to the research, collapsing ecosystems are a dire warning that nations face urgent and enormous challenges in managing the natural capital that is manifest in each ecosystem's biodiversity and that sustains human health and well-being.

The research identified montane and subalpine forests and mountain ash forest ecosystems affected by the fires. Forests that are targeted by the forestry industry.

In the ANU Bushfire Science Report No 1, Professor David Lindenmayer, one of Australia’s leading forest ecologists, indicated that high-severity fires occurring at a frequency greater than the time it takes for the canopy tree species to reproduce could cause the demographic collapse of mountain ash and alpine ash forests

Across 11 Australian bioregions, 17 major native vegetation groups were severely burnt including up to 67-83% of globally significant rainforests, eucalypt forests and woodlands.

And 50% of known populations or ranges of 816 native plant species were burnt including more than 100 species with geographic ranges more than 500 kilometes across.

The scientific submission to the EPA documented CSIRO research which indicates soil is ‘effectively a non-renewable resource’. Soils Science Australia research studies show a teaspoon of soil is estimated to contain several thousand species of micro-organisms and other invertebrates. Soil organisms play very important roles such as breaking down organic matter and providing nutrients to plants.

Professor David Eldridge’s studies on the effects on soil after bushfires point to huge erosion losses. He told the Sydney Morning Herald: “Soils take a long time to recover after fire because the formation rates are extremely slow. A typical rate for NSW is about one centimetre every thousand years.”

A Planning Department report estimated soil loss was predominantly in national parks and state forests, reducing the so-called “ecological carrying capacity” by more than a third in burnt areas.

Suitable habitat for 69% of all plant species was burned.

The scale of the fires and the breadth of vegetation types affected has implications for biodiversity conservation both in Australia and globally.  

Around 830,000 hectares of NSW native forest were impacted by the fires according to the Forestry Corporation.

The FMIP report sums up the future of native forests in NSW:

‘Other drivers such as invasive species, population growth, economic growth and intensification of urban and agricultural land uses will continue to place increasing demands and pressure on NSW forests. Business-as-usual management approaches and reactive policy decision-making will lead to sub-optimal outcomes at best, or ecosystem and industry collapse under worst-case scenarios.’

Yet in spite of this report, the scientific submission by 31 scientific experts, the Perrottet Government remains silent. As does the mainstream media.

Sue Arnold is an IA columnist and freelance investigative journalist. You can follow Sue on Twitter @koalacrisis.

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