Logging to save the planet

Logging to save the planet

27 October 2006

published by http://www.onlineopinion.com.au

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.

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.

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.

The Forest and Wood Products Research & Development Council recently estimated that 1 billion tonnes of carbon is stored in Australian native forests designated for wood production. Presuming sustainable timber harvesting within these forests on an average 100-year rotation, new growth stimulated by logging annually sequesters 10 million tonnes of atmospheric carbon to replace carbon transferred into storage in wood products, stored in-situ in harvesting residue, or lost as waste in timber processing and regeneration burning.

The carbon sequestered by this new growth is equivalent to negating 37 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions – or about 7 per cent of Australia’s net annual greenhouse gas emissions. This is over and above the on-going growth of forests in conservation reserves which is also sequestering carbon at variable, but generally lower rates.

In addition to this, the supply of solid timber products reduces demand for problematic non-wood substitutes such as steel, aluminium and concrete. The manufacture of these substitutes involves the use of finite resources and substantially greater greenhouse gas emissions than required in producing the same unit of wood. For example, steel manufacture uses 350 times more energy than timber processing and aluminium manufacture about 1,400 times more.

Although it is difficult to estimate the extent to which timber products lower greenhouse gas emissions by reducing demand for non-wood substitutes, it is reasonable to presume that this, plus enhanced carbon sequestration within wood production zones, negates about 10 per cent of Australia’s annual net greenhouse gas emissions.

This is very significant given that it is roughly equivalent to the 2010 targets nominated from the $1 billion emissions abatement and renewable energy programs announced by the government in its 2004 Securing Australia’s Energy Future policy. Clearly, the cessation of wood production in Australian native forests, as is being sought by environmental NGOs, would largely counteract these government initiatives designed to help Australians embrace cleaner, “green” energy sources.

Similar to global warming, the complete cessation of native forest timber production would be counterproductive to efforts to address long term water shortages. Environmental NGOs have long portrayed logging as having a negative effect on water supplies by creating vigorous regrowth that uses substantially more water compared to unlogged mature forest.

Their assertion is supported by long term findings from catchment research conducted throughout Australia which shows, depending on forest type, that vigorously growing regrowth reduces run-off by as much as 50 per cent by age 30, but then slowly releases more run-off as it ages until by around 150 to 200 years there is a return to a pre-logging, mature forest water use regime.

To support their argument, anti-logging activists like to portray the natural state of Australian forests as being “old growth” as this maximises the gap between potential water run-off and the lesser run-off occurring in regrowth-dominated wood production zones. However, it is debatable whether Australia’s forests were ever predominantly “old growth”, and this is less likely now in view of the changed fire regimes that have accompanied European settlement. More frequent severe fires may well have irrevocably altered Australian native forests to a younger average age that allows less run-off compared to older forests that existed prior to European settlement.

Certainly, in Australia’s southern states there have been massive regrowth events sparked by post-settlement fires in 1851, 1898, 1926, 1939, 1944, 1952, 1983, and 2003.

Whether such severe fires were as frequent prior to white settlement is considered unlikely because forest fuel build-up was limited by the Aborigines’ fondness for the “fire-stick” and because the many fires annually ignited by lightning were able to burn unhindered for weeks across broad swathes of country.

This contrasts sharply with the modern era where efforts are made to extinguish wildfires as soon as they are detected.

Although the aim of environmental NGOs to “lock up” forests and allow them to grow old under a passive management regime of minimal human disturbance could theoretically optimise water run-off, it is almost certainly unachievable due to the natural prevalence of wildfires which appears to be increasing in frequency and severity.

As life and property concerns now dictate the need to actively extinguish summer wildfires, the scientifically acknowledged requirement to regularly burn the landscape to mimic natural processes must be undertaken by land management agencies during cooler months. Recent experience suggests that government agencies charged with this responsibility increasingly lack the necessary resources, expertise, confidence, and at times, the will, to keep pace with the amount of burning annually required to meet ecological and fire protection objectives.

The link between the ability to adequately manage fire and the active management of forests for multiple uses, including timber, was acknowledged in several government enquiries conducted after the massive “Alpine fires” in southeast Australia in 2003.

They noted that the progressive withdrawal of hardwood timber industries has had a deleterious impact on the level of active management being conducted in public forests. Reasons for this include the loss of government revenue traditionally generated from timber sales, a decline in the number of professional foresters who were experienced and confident in fuel reduction burning, and altered management objectives associated with the transfer of State Forests to the National Park estate.

In particular, the loss of skilled fire practitioners has been keenly felt due to the increased degree of difficulty in conducting burns as more and more people choose to live in close proximity to public bushland.

In addition, the increased willingness of the media to criticise every slight mistake is further sapping the confidence to burn. Fuel reduction programs once attacked with enthusiasm are now reportedly approached with trepidation due to the fear of an escape with its consequent potential to damage life, property, and the careers of bureaucrats and field officers. Yet the reality is that unless occasional escaped burns are accepted as an inherent risk, very little burning is done and this is progressively increasing the risk of unnaturally severe summer wildfires.

The 2003 fires also demonstrated the massive potential for unnaturally severe wildfires to damage stream flows and water supplies. Over a two-month period, 1.3 million hectares of alpine and mountain forest in NSW and Victoria were burnt. On the Victorian side of the border, this included about 550,000ha of forest classified as either killed or very severely burnt.

The CRC for Catchment Hydrology has predicted that the regrowth stimulated in these areas will absorb 430 billion litres of water a year for the next 50 years – water that would otherwise have flowed into headwater tributaries of the Murray River. In addition to this, there was an estimated eight-fold increase in sediment loads entering streams in the year following the fires: this had a severe impact on water quality.

Despite this, the massive impacts of wildfire are being largely forgotten as environmental NGOs focus on the effects of logging which are by comparison almost benign. For example, Victoria’s sustainable hardwood timber industry is being regulated to harvest and regenerate about 650,000ha over a 100-year period in accordance with environmental care prescriptions such as streamside reserves and habitat trees. Being staggered over such a long period, this has far less impact compared to severe wildfires that can kill or severely damage everything in their path across massive areas in just a few days.

The unwillingness of environmental NGOs to accept the far greater environmental damage wrought by fire, suggests their opposition to catchment logging has far less to do with saving water than achieving an ideological “no native timber industry” agenda. After all, every forest is part of a catchment regardless of whether it is used for domestic water supply.

If they were sincere about addressing future water shortages, environmental NGOs would end campaigns to stop logging and instead embrace its potential to be a crucial tool in active management strategies that could substantially improve stream flows in catchments dominated by fire regrowth.

For example, about 40 per cent of Melbourne’s catchments is comprised of 67-year-old regrowth from the 1939 bushfires. Research in the early 1980s showed that actively thinning this for sawlogs and pulpwood could increase run-off by as much as 2.5 million litres per thinned hectare per annum – enough water for 23 people for a year at a per capita consumption of 300 litres per day.

This increased run-off was persisting when the trial was re-measured 10 years later, and it has since been postulated that a staggered program of progressive thinning could substantially mitigate the reduced stream flows typically associated with regrowth.

Western Australia has been quick to take advantage of thinning as a water management tool. In 2005, a 12-year thinning program in the Wungong Dam catchment was initiated and is expected to deliver 1 billion litres of additional run-off a year for every 1,000 hectares thinned. As this regrowth is mostly too small to be commercially utilised it is being poisoned via herbicide stem injection despite the efforts of “green” objectors who were reportedly silenced only by Perth’s critical lack of water. Objections to logging as a sensible means to thin older regrowth in the future may not to be so easily dismissed.

The debate about logging in catchments should not be about whether or not it is permitted, but how and where it could be used as a self-fnuding water management tool that also produces valuable wood products. Until environmental NGOs demonstrate maturity by accepting that logging even a minor portion of our forests provides substantial benefits in addressing global warming and long term water shortages, their ideological “save-the-forest” dogma will threaten to counteract government and community initiatives that are endeavouring to address these problems.

By Mark Poynter


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