For decades, a lack of economic self-interest enabled environmentalists to claim the high moral ground in conflicts with resource-use industries. Times have changed dramatically with the major Environmental NGOs (ENGOs) now wealthy corporations in their own right, with multi-million dollar operational budgets enabling them to employ well-paid career activists.
Although rarely acknowledged, the major ENGOs are now equally as economically self-interested as resource-use industries, but with jobs reliant on funding generated by sustaining sensational campaigns against these industries to attract donations. In 2009, it was reported that Australia's four largest environmental groups had spent $70 million in the previous financial year, of which 60% (or $42 million) went to lobbying, fundraising, membership drives and other activities not directly linked to on-ground conservation works.
Forests have always been at the fore-front of ENGO fund-raising. Perhaps better than any other facet of environmental conflict they provide wonderful opportunities to capitalise on the stark visual contrast between undisturbed beauty and the savagery of human disturbance. Tricia Caswell, then CEO of the Australian Conservation Foundation, acknowledged this in 1995 when she told the Business Review Weekly that "Forest issues are the best weapon to generate membership and donations, the Green movements' lifeblood"
This has remained the case despite huge changes to native forest management since forest activism first came to prominence. In particular, the area of public forest being used for sustainable wood supply has fallen dramatically over the past 25-years due to a huge expansion of forested national parks and other conservation reserves. In addition, the development and refinement of Codes of Practices has elevated Australian timber production practices to amongst the world's best, while the annual harvested area is substantially lower – in Victoria for example, now only about one-fifth of what it was in 1980.
Despite this, the supposed environmental damage being attributed to native forest timber production by environmental activism has become increasingly outlandish and deceitful. A typical example was contained in a recent Wilderness Society pamphlet seeking financial support for a market-based campaign against Reflex Paper – a product comprised of a mix of plantation, recycled, and native forest fibre obtained as a by-product of sawlog harvesting in Victorian Central Highland's forests:
"Victoria's Mountain Ash forests once covered 170,400 hectares. Shockingly, only 2,000 hectares (1.17%) now remain unlogged and unburnt."
The Wilderness Society, June 2011
To the majority of the community who are relatively uninformed about forestry matters, the clear impression that this statement conveys is that almost all of Victoria's Mountain Ash forests have either disappeared or are highly degraded. This is an outrageous misrepresentation which could well have prompted many people to donate to a campaign purporting to 'save' the supposedly last remaining forests.
The reality is markedly different. According to the 2007 Department of Sustainability & Environment publication, 'Mountain Ash in Victoria's State Forests', by Fagg and Flint, the state has 249,600 hectares of Mountain Ash-dominated forest, with 86% occurring on public land.
Mountain Ash is reliant on periodic severe wildfire to naturally regenerate and, in the prolonged absence of fire, will eventually be replaced by non-eucalypt scrub and tree species. Therefore, as they wouldn't exist without fire, Mountain Ash forests have obviously been burnt at some point in their past. The most recent major fires to have affected Victoria's Mountain Ash forests occurred in 1939, 1983, and 2009.
These burnt areas have regenerated well and are regrowing vigorously as would be expected. As for logging, about one-third of Victoria's Mountain Ash forests are public land forests available and suitable for timber production. Almost all of this is 1939-fire regrowth forest, but where older remnant trees occur within this regrowth, they are protected by management prescriptions for habitat and seed supply purposes.
About 900 hectares of Victorian Mountain Ash forest is being harvested and regenerated each year within this available area, while the other two-thirds of the forest are contained either in public land conservation reserves or are on private land, where most is effectively also reserved. There is clearly no cause for alarm about the future of these forests.
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