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Logging to save the planet

By Mark Poynter - posted Friday, 27 October 2006


With much of the country suffering for the past decade under the effects of a prolonged drought, there is a growing community acceptance that global warming has arrived.

The consequent concern about a permanently hotter and drier future has elevated the issues of climate change and water to prominence within Australia’s environmental NGOs. This is not before time after decades in which they have unnecessarily focused on forests - a preoccupation that many have linked to its value as a potent fund generator. Environmental NGOs now canvas for donations via grim images of waterless dams and dusty paddocks alongside their traditional pictures of clearfelled logging coupes.

Despite a slight shift in emphasis, opposition to the concept of producing wood from native forests remains very high on the agenda of mainstream environmental NGOs. Their on-going determination to end native forest logging can be easily confirmed by viewing online the formal policies of groups such as The Wilderness Society and the Australian Conservation Foundation. This is despite decades of conflict during which timber industry access to public forests has been substantially reduced while conservation reserves have dramatically expanded.

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For example, in Victoria, the proportion of public native forest now accessible to the timber industry is about 10 per cent, whereas 20 years ago it was 31 per cent. During this same period, the area contained in Victorian National Parks has increased by over 300 per cent.

Although stimulated by “green” anti-logging activism, much of the resultant timber industry rationalisation occurred during the Regional Forest Agreement (RFA) process of the late 1990s in response to legitimate scientific concerns about the extent to which the full variety of forest ecosystems were being adequately conserved.

It is also important to note that, as was always intended, the gradual maturing of Australia's softwood plantation resource since the mid-1990s has taken pressure off native forest timber resources making it easier for governments to justify increased reservation.

Although the RFAs were meant to secure a long term future for hardwood timber industries, a dramatic and unwarranted industry downsizing has occurred since their completion in around 2000. This has mostly resulted from environmental NGOs pressuring mainland state Labor governments into using forestry issues as a political football to gain or maintain electoral support with little regard for associated socio-economic or environmental implications.

The Otway Ranges in Victoria, the Brigalow South - Nandewar region of New South Wales, the southwest of Western Australia, and the southeast Queensland forests are examples of where, since 2001, regional hardwood timber industries have been either fully or partially sacrificed to garner electoral support from inner urban “green” voters.

That this has been largely unwarranted is illustrated by what occurred in the Otway Ranges in late 2002 where the government announced the phased closure of the local timber industry as a pre-election promise just prior to polling day. Although anti-logging campaigns had convinced many Victorians that the Otways faced a dire threat, timber production was already restricted to within just a 22 per cent portion of its forests. Previous government planning had since the early 1990s, already excluded logging from all “old growth” and high conservation sites and encapsulated them within 78 per cent of the forest comprised of parks and reserves, and unsuitable or inaccessible areas.

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Environmental NGOs have traditionally portrayed the cessation of native forest logging as the saviour of our indigenous flora and fauna despite the fact it alone does nothing to address wildfire, feral animals and weeds that are massively greater threats to Australian biodiversity. However, the 2006 Victorian election campaign has seen them take a different tack - stopping logging is now being primarily portrayed as a way to address global warming and save precious water, although again, the evidence suggests the opposite is true.

With respect to global warming, it is widely appreciated that growing forests sequester atmospheric carbon which effectively counteracts greenhouse gas emissions. However, rates of carbon sequestration diminish as forest growth slows with age. Undisturbed forests store carbon but sequester little new carbon once they reach maturity and become “old growth”.

Conversely, sustainable harvesting in wood production forests maintains a continuous cycle of vigorous growth which actively sequesters carbon at high rates while transferring carbon storage from trees into various wood-based products. Losses of carbon occur along the way - most notably through greenhouse gas emissions from mechanised timber harvesting, log cartage, primary processing, and from burning to promote forest regeneration. However, these losses are relatively small compared to the gain from enhanced carbon sequestration and storage by logging regrowth.

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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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