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Unnecessarily alarmist headlines about forestry poorly reflect the science

By Mark Poynter - posted Tuesday, 18 May 2010


In early March 2010, the Australian National University’s website featured a large advert-style banner emblazoned across its home page which screamed “Forest logging creates fire traps: academic”.

This was linked to a media release promoting an Australasian Science article by ANU Professor David Lindenmayer articulating the broad findings of a paper he and three other scientists had written and published in October 2009 in Conservation Letters, an online journal of the Society for Conservation Biology.

Their paper, entitled “Effects of logging on fire regimes in moist forests”, was a brief four-and-a-half page literature review citing around 50 references to past research from the wet temperate forests of North America and Australia, and the tropical rainforests of the Asia-Pacific and South America.

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Despite its brevity and rather benign title, the paper nevertheless provided a platform for leveraging the powerful message that “Decades of industrial logging in Australia’s wet forests have made them more fire prone, raising urgent fire management issues …” This message was subsequently promoted through a series of media reports:

  • December 8, 2009: ABC News report “Scientist links forest logging to bushfires”;
  • February 11, 2010: ABC Science report “Logging makes forests more flammable: study”;
  • March 1, 2010: ANU Media release and article in Australasian Science;
  • March 2, 2010: report in Tasmania’s The Mercury daily newspaper: “Logging legacy labelled greater fire risk”; and
  • March 5, 2010: five-minute interview of Professor Lindenmayer: “Industrial logging linked to frequency and severity of fire”.

The reach of this message is evident from a recent Google search which showed that references to logging increasing the threat of fire are now contained on websites around the world. In many cases, these websites refer to the original Conservation Letters paper as “an international study” thereby affording it far greater significance than is arguably warranted for a very brief literature review which contained no new information.

In the Australian context, the media promotion of the paper’s findings has had an alarmist edge that is both surprising and unwarranted given that only four of the paper’s more than 50 cited references relate specifically to Australian forests and fire management.

The paper certainly makes some points that are relevant to Australia. However, there is little evidence from the references that it cites, or from other Australian experience, to warrant the media headlines that have been generated with regards to our wet forests, notwithstanding that its claims may be true in some other countries and circumstances. Despite this, the “logging creates fire traps” message is now well on the way to becoming the conventional wisdom and is being eagerly adopted as an argument by those campaigning against Australian forestry.

While the paper reports primarily on the overseas situation, its introduction alludes to its preparation as being driven by a determination to respond to criticisms of Australia’s conservation ideology made in the wake of the 2009 Victorian “Black Saturday” bushfires. The paper claims that this has included “calls for forests to be logged to prevent major wildfires (which) have been made by senior public officials … and a key lobby group (National Association of Forest Industries, 2009 a, b, c).”

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This somewhat misrepresents the three cited National Association of Forest Industries references. They are media releases issued both before and after the “Black Saturday” fires. They certainly laud the fire protection benefit of actively managing forests by maintaining the road network and conducting fuel reduction burning, and argue that the risk of catastrophic bushfire had increased as the expansion of national parks and other conservation reserves had altered the forest management paradigm. However, they have not claimed that logging can prevent bushfires.

A determination to counter what have been viewed as unseemly attacks against conservation ideology has been a consistent theme among those lacking enthusiasm for active forest management, and particularly fuel reduction burning, since the “Black Saturday” fires. Many are fearful of prescribed cool burning returning back to the higher levels of the past as government agencies respond to the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission.

However, the use of such a powerful assertion as “logging creates fire traps” carries with it a responsibility to provide hard evidence of its veracity. As the following general observations show, neither the original Conservation Letters paper nor the subsequent media pronouncements attributed to its lead author provides this evidence with respect to Australia’s wet forests:

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About the Author

Mark Poynter is a professional forester with 40 years experience. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Foresters of Australia and his book, Saving Australia's Forests and its Implications, was published in 2007.

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