- David Lindenmayer
Victoria’s forests are beset by problems – and time is running out to provide solutions.
Mention forest issues in Australia and almost everyone thinks of seemingly endless battles in Tasmania. Yet few people realise that large parts of the Victorian forest estate are in far worse shape than Tasmania’s.
This is because of the tiny fraction of remaining old growth, the rapid rate of overcutting of dwindling sawlog resources and the widespread use of antiquated and highly damaging clearfelling methods.
Furthermore, the endangered Leadbeater’s possum – one of Victoria’s faunal emblems and the only mammal species confined to the state – is at serious risk of imminent extinction.
Victoria’s forests are in a parlous state, in part because of poor decisions by successive governments to over-commit resources, particularly since the advent of widespread clearfelling in the 1970s.
In recognition of the situation, on May 16 the agency responsible for overseeing logging in Victoria – VicForests – announced changes. Starting in 2017, it will cut 500 hectares less of forest and reduce sawlog yield by 85,000 cubic metres a year. This is minor tinkering at best when the Victorian forest industry needs major reform to solve many deep-seated problems. These changes must include:
¦ Significantly and immediately reducing the rate of logging by up to 75 per cent.
¦ Immediately replacing clearfelling with more environmentally sensitive retention harvesting methods – as used in Tasmania and worldwide.
¦ Providing exit packages for those transitioning out of a downsized forest industry.
¦ Implementing new approaches to conserve the Leadbeater’s possum based on 30 years of science and not watered-down government greenwash.
The reality is that major reductions in rates of logging in Victorian forests are decades overdue.
When I was a Victorian government employee in the early 1990s, it was widely recognised by field operations staff even back then that ash forests were being heavily overcut. The widespread axiom was “we are hitting the forest too hard”.
The problem of past overcutting has been deeply exacerbated by the loss of 72,000 hectares of ash forest in the Central Highlands region following the 2009 Black Saturday wildfires, putting even more pressure on an already overcommitted resource. Yet it will be 2017 – eight years after the 2009 fires – before a relatively trivial reduction in timber yield will begin to be implemented.
VicForests claims the need to “balance the social, economic and environmental benefits” of native forests. Yet it is hard to substantiate that any such balance is being achieved. There is now less than 1.15 per cent of ash forest that is old growth.
The Leadbeater’s possum is on an extinction trajectory as a consequence of more than 100 years of overcutting, repeated fires that have destroyed 42 per cent of its suitable habitat and heavy post-fire (salvage) logging – especially after the 1939 fires.
These threats to the survival of the possum are being compounded by recent government changes to survey methods and reservation strategies that will result in the habitat of the species being logged and set back the development of much-needed new habitat by at least 120 years.
In fact, these new changes are so retrograde that last week we reported in the international journal Science that the Leadbeater’s possum will be one of the world’s first deliberate, government-sanctioned extinctions of an endangered species. Many other species have gone extinct worldwide because there was a lack of knowledge about what needed to be done. Not so for the Leadbeater’s possum – it is one of the best studied endangered animals on earth and we know precisely what needs to be done to conserve it.
Even VicForests’ arguments about supposedly balancing the economic and social benefits of logging do not stand up under scrutiny. The ash sawlog supply may well be exhausted within the next dozen years (leading to the “extinction” of the sawlog industry).
Victorian taxpayers lose money when the forest is logged. That is, Victorians are paying to have their forests cut down by a rapidly shrinking number of forest workers. Problems with losses from taxpayer-subsidised logging are not resolved by logging more forest. Rather, this not only increases economic losses but has other costs. For example, logging significantly reduces water yields – including in the heavily logged Thomson catchment, which supports the largest dam in Melbourne’s water supply system. The economic effects of reduced water yields will now be keenly felt because there is a clear price signal on water courtesy of the construction of the desal plant.
Minor tinkering by VicForests is not the solution to the deep-seated environmental, economic and other problems in the state’s forests. The time for major changes is long overdue.
Professor David Lindenmayer is an Aus-tralian Research Coun-cil laureate fellow at the Australian National University. He has worked in the wet forests of Victoria for more than 30 years.