Burning questions

Burning questions

30 April 2008

published by www.news.com.au/mercury

THE smoke shrouding muchof southern Tasmania has been a public relations nightmare for the forestryindustry, far worse than the sight of log trucks rumbling down Macquarie St inHobart every day.

The haze has affected tens of thousands of people, stinging eyes, raspingthroats and forcing many indoors, particularly those with respiratory problems.

It has been the talk of Hobart, the Huon Valley and other affected areas,prompting a rash of letters to this newspaper. As one writer said: “Nowit’s getting personal.”

The timber industry has been blamed almost entirely, although some of thesmoke has come from other sources, such a council fuel-reduction fire atKnocklofty Reserve and burn-offs on private land.

All attempts by Forestry Tasmania to explain or modify its autumn program ofregeneration burns, its daily alerts of where fires are being started and itsefforts to minimise problems, have been met with hostility by those sick of thehaze and those opposed to the industry in its present form. The issue has becomeanother front in the never-ending war of words over forestry methods in Tasmania.

Menzies Institute researcher Fay Johnston is investigating the effect ofsmoke from fires and says the early evidence suggests it could be worse forpeople’s health than vehicle exhaust fumes.

Dr Johnston says more stringent rules may be needed to control the healtheffects of burn-offs but notably she is not calling for an end to all controlledforestry fires.

The reality of eucalypt forests is that they are designed to burn. They arehighly flammable and fire helps them thrive and regenerate. Without controlledburns, Tasmanians run the risk of far bigger, more ferocious bushfires thatthreaten lives and property.

No one on the East Coast is complaining about the fuel-reduction burns there,after bushfires swept through the area with terrifying speed 16 months ago,destroying houses right down to the coast in places such as Scamander and FourMile Creek.

Much of the East Coast was long overdue for controlled burns and the lessonwas learned. Most residents realised the folly of not managing bush aroundpopulation areas.

Promoting regrowth with fires is also an essential element of the waycommercial eucalypt forests are managed. Forestry Tasmania’s methods arecontroversial to say the least and debate rages on almost every aspect of them,from the size and intensity of burn-offs to the carbon emissions they release.

Sensibly, Premier Paul Lennon has asked economist Ross Garnaut, the manpreparing a report for the Federal Government on Australia’s climate changechallenges, to do a detailed study of the forestry industry here and include hisfindings in the final report, due later this year.

It should get to the heart of how best to manage this sensitive business.Before calling for the complete abandonment of present commercial forestrymethods, which sustain a major industry, it would be wise to wait for theexpert’s report . . . and for the smoke to clear.

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