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The politics of bushfires

By Mark Poynter - posted Wednesday, 18 March 2009


Last month, a Melbourne suburban newspaper carried a large advertisement placed by the Victorian Greens (endorsed by Greens MLC, Greg Barber) attributing recent problems with Melbourne’s public transport system to timber harvesting in native forests! ("Who would have thought logging old growth forests would buckle train tracks?" The Melbourne Times, February 18, 2009.)

In attempting to portray Australian native timber production as a serious contributor to climate change, the advertisement ignored the fact that harvested forests are regenerated and that wood products play an important role in carbon storage. At the same time it created a grossly exaggerated impression of the extent of timber harvesting.

As a long-time critic of native forest timber production, it is inconceivable that the Victorian Greens and their constituency of environmental activist groups (the “green” lobby), is ignorant of these matters. Accordingly, its ongoing advocacy of such a warped argument betrays a disproportionate obsession with this singular issue and confirms that it has long since abandoned any pretence to intellectual integrity as a means to an end.

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The real tragedy is that such an approach based knowingly on subtle deceit, has been so successful for so long in shaping the mindset of the community and its politicians. Ultimately, it has resulted in government policies that have reduced the capability to manage forest fire.

Since the Black Saturday fires began much has been written about the role of the “green” lobby in fire management. This has mostly drawn attention to their influence at state and local government levels on the management of public forests and the control of native vegetation on private land. Arguably though, the accusations made against the “greens” thus far have been overly simplistic given the range of views about fire within their ranks; the inherent complexity of forest management that has led to consequences that they have not necessarily intended; and the extreme nature of the fires in this instance.

In their own defence, some within the “green” lobby have excused themselves from any responsibility by blaming the fires exclusively on climate change. They have also stridently denied that they are opposed to fuel reduction burning (while at the same time claiming it to be largely ineffective); and they have consistently attacked the credentials and motives of those who would question them, or who advocate a more proactive approach to forest fire management.

The latter theme was powerfully advanced by academic and political commentator, Clive Hamilton, who claimed that criticism of the influence of the “greens” in the aftermath of the fires was simply part of a continuing “culture war” between those wedded to “old attitudes” to nature, and environmentalists who supposedly possess more modern, progressive, and enlightened views ("Fires spark a new front in the culture wars", Crikey, February 16, 2009).

Hamilton may well be correct in noting that there are differing views of nature, but he fails to appreciate that the “old attitudes” which he decries, are largely based on real knowledge and actual experience of the bush. Conversely, his so-called “new understanding of the Australian landscape” has - particularly with regard to southern Australia’s forests - been shaped largely by environmental activism, including deliberate misrepresentations and frivolous claims of the type described earlier.

Far from being a “culture war”, a more accurate description of the current debate over Australian forest fire policies is that, with few exceptions, it is a contest between those who are likely to be directly affected by fire and understand its consequences (i.e. foresters, farmers, and rural communities); and those with little or no direct experience who are most-often geographically insulated from its impacts (i.e. urban-based environmentalists).

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There is also a parallel, less public, debate between scientists and academics concerned about the impact of periodic mild fire on biodiversity, and others who have experienced or seen the massive environmental impacts of intense summer conflagrations and appreciate that they can be mitigated by effective prescribed burning.

While it would seem obvious that the views of those with experience and knowledge should hold sway, the Victorian government’s politically expedient treatment of forests over the past decade - even in the face of the huge environmental impacts from the 2003 and 2006 bushfires - reflects a far greater reliance on ill-informed conventional wisdom. Sadly, it may only be the huge loss of life and property on this occasion that convinces the Victorian government to overturn its cynical pre-election commitment to national park expansion that has so successfully courted “green” voters.

This has created a popular illusion that forests have been “saved”, but has mostly done little to improve conservation outcomes. While it has invariably been initiated in response to concerted anti-logging campaigns, its flow-on implications have profoundly, but often indirectly, affected forest fire management.

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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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