Since 2003, more than 3 million hectares, or close to half, of Victoria’s native forests have been burnt by severe summer bushfires causing inestimable environmental damage. This, plus the release of the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission’s Final Report, confirms that unnatural fire regimes pose the gravest threat to the environmental integrity of Australia’s native forests.
This is not news to anyone who has worked or lived in and around Australia’s eucalypt forests, but the wider community has been effectively duped by decades of environmental campaigning into an unwarranted belief that timber harvesting is the great threat.
In reality, just 6 per cent of Australia’s native forests are contained in multiple-use State Forests in which sustainable timber harvesting is permitted - and less than half of this area is actually being used due to further reservations and unsuitable forest types. Accordingly, opposition to the practice is based far more on conservation ideology than on-ground environmental impact.
Nevertheless, the campaign to completely end timber production endures as a potent motivator for Australia’s environmentalists. Indeed, it was central to the formation of their political arm, the Australian Greens, and remains a key plank of their policy platform during the current Federal Election campaign.
Unlike timber production, the damage visited upon soil, water, and wildlife by severe bushfire has never been on the radar of the environment movement. Yet, as occurred on “Black Saturday”, an out-of-control bushfire can, in a single day, decimate an area that would take decades to harvest and regenerate at current logging rates.
Despite their professed concern for the environment, most “green” groups had until “Black Saturday” never acknowledged the need to protect forests from severe fire. What little attention they gave to this issue was to express disquiet about prescribed fuel reduction burning despite it being the only land management tool that can mitigate bushfire damage.
Unlike logging, bushfire presents a difficulty for environmental activists because it cannot be physically opposed by direct on-ground protests or emotional media releases. There is no easy way to oppose the damage that it causes apart from enlisting as fire-fighters; while campaigning for better bushfire outcomes would mean supporting the very government agencies which are hated for managing the timber harvest.
It has been far simpler for environmentalists to just dismiss bushfire as a “natural” phenomenon even though the condition of our forests is far from their natural state. In pre-European times, fires from lightning strikes and Aboriginal burning spread freely across the landscape for months each year. This maintained all but the wettest mountain forests in a perpetual low fuel state and made excessively hot fires very rare. Prescribed burning aims to replicate this.
The misunderstanding of what is “natural” essentially drives the campaigns of environmentalists and the forest policies of the Australian Greens. Their notion of protecting forests is based on a misplaced assumption that excluding human uses and leaving forests to their own devices will allow them to revert to their natural state. However, far from protecting forests, it is clear that this would be a recipe for fuels to keep building to levels that will feed further hugely damaging conflagrations.
Fortunately, the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission has recognised this and recommended a tripling of prescribed fuel reduction burning. This is a welcome objective which would do infinitely more to protect Victoria’s forests. However, its implementation will be problematic given the extent to which economic uses have already been removed from more than half of Victoria’s public forests to create national parks and conservation reserves.
Reserving substantial areas for conservation is a worthy development which need not necessarily impede good fire management. However, past experience from around Australia has shown that it does if it is achieved by excluding economic uses which generate revenue and employ significant numbers of government personnel who are also available to undertake prescribed burning. Timber production is the major forest use which underpins the ability to manage fire. As well as employing both a government and industry workforce with experience and equipment that is essential for fighting bushfires, it also necessitates a well maintained road and track network which underpins the capability to both undertake prescribed burns and suppress summer bushfires.
Once timber production is removed to create new national parks and reserves the workforce declines and operational budgets become smaller and totally reliant on government appropriations. Generally, broader land management activities such as prescribed burning and road and track maintenance take a back seat to a more pressing focus on maintaining tourist infrastructure and managing visitor impacts. This is usually limited to only minor portions of most parks and reserves.
In addition, the wholesale transfer of huge areas of State forest into the national park and reserves system over the past 20-years has resulted in the loss of many of the country’s most experienced forestry practitioners. Their work accorded with a scientific discipline which had developed and refined the practice of prescribed burning since the late 1950s. Consequently, the management of national parks and reserves is typified by a lower level of operational experience and enthusiasm for prescribed burning compared with that which existed in the former State forests where burning was core business.
Although supposed to protect forests, the Australian Greens no-logging policy would actually make forests far more vulnerable to environmental degradation by completely dismantling the forest management system that is best placed to effectively deal with the infinitely greater threat of fire. This would make it difficult to maintain existing levels of prescribed burning, and virtually impossible to do substantially more as the Royal Commission recommended for Victoria.
A “perfect storm” of financial and political circumstances has put the Australian Greens in a position whereby it is expected to hold the balance of power after the upcoming Federal Election. This may give them the power to implement their long-held desire to end timber production in Australian native forests. If so, it would be one of the most disastrous environmental decisions ever made. The great irony is that it would be done in the name of conservation.