Logging and bushfires

Logging and bushfires

25 January 2012

published by www.onlineopinion.com.au

Australia — Allegations of scientists ignoring expected standards of objectivity to push personal agendas have featured prominently in the climate change debate. While the truth is hard to fathom for such a complex and nebulous issue, this isn’t necessarily the case with other more tangible environmental issues.

Forestry issues are an example where biased or agenda-driven ‘research’ can be more easily exposed given that Australia’s forests are easily accessible and have been widely studied, managed, and observed for at least a century.

Over the past two-years, some scientists have used the media to demonise Victorian native forest logging for allegedly exacerbating devastating bushfires such as those of ‘Black Saturday’ in 2009 which burnt 450,000 hectares of forest and killed 173 people. This campaign continued with the recent publication of several articles:

  • “Just 1% of Central Highlands old growth survives” by Adam Morton,The Age and Sydney Morning Herald (12/9/11)
  • “Old-forest loss catastrophic: study” by Rosslyn Beeby, Canberra Times (13/9/11)
  • “Like a voice in the wilderness” by Rosslyn Beeby, Canberra Times (17/9/11)

The third article called for an urgent review of Australia’s forest policy and included a highly questionable claim from prominent Australian National University (ANU) ecologist, Professor David Lindenmayer that “we have an atrocious forest management policy and as a result of that we will see extinctions within 20 to 30 years”.

All three articles emanated from an ANU media release from September 12th entitled, “Forest logging increases the risk of mega fires” This promoted a recent scientific paper by Professor Lindenmayer and three co-authors which had just been published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS).

According to the media release, this new paper – entitled “Newly discovered landscape traps produce regime shifts in wet forests” – was based on an analysis of Victoria’s Central Highlands’ mountain ash (Eucalyptus regnans) forests following the 2009 ‘Black Saturday’ bushfires, plus decades of ecological data (although none was provided). It went on to explain that Professor Lindenmayer and his research team had ‘found that in the past century, large areas of mountain ash forests have been subject to timber and pulpwood harvesting’ and that this has ‘created an area dominated by young fire-prone trees (which) increases the risk of mega fires’.

It further quoted Professor Lindenmayer’s view that ‘what we are now realising is the combination of wildfire and logging is creating a previously unrecognised landscape trap in which the behaviour of ash forest landscapes is markedly different from that which would have occurred before European settlement’.

These assertions raised eyebrows amongst the dozens of Australian scientists specialising in bushfire research because any link between logging and fire is unproven in the Australian context. Despite this, a recent Google search of the term ‘forest logging increases risk of mega fires’ revealed that the media blitz surrounding issue has put this unproven hypothesis well on the path to becoming the conventional wisdom, particularly amongst forest activists campaigning to close Australia’s native hardwood industry.

Aside from the research paper itself, the timing of the associated publicity is particularly interesting. Given that the ANU’s media release was issued on the same day that both The Age and Sydney Morning Herald published their major article on this topic, it is apparent that this supporting publicity had been pre-arranged. It also seems more than coincidental that it appeared just a day before the Wilderness Society’s scheduled nationwide boycott of Officeworks stores as part of an ongoing campaign to end logging in Victoria’s Central Highlands’ mountain ash forests.

Given the existence of a formal research partnership between the Wilderness Society and the ANU Fenner School, where Professor Lindenmayer is employed, it is feasible that this pre-arranged media coverage was co-ordinated to serve the needs of an anti-logging campaign. If so, this would represent a serious overstepping of the line that has traditionally separated academia from activism.

Perhaps such speculation could be dismissed as a mere ‘conspiracy theory’ were it not for an almost identical episode two-years earlier when another Lindenmayer et al research paper also strongly asserted that there was a link between logging and fire in Australian native forests.

That paper – entitled “Effects of logging on fire regimes in moist forests” – was published in the online journal, Conservation Letters, in October 2009. It was a brief literature review withan overwhelming focus on research from the wet temperate forests of North America and tropical rainforests of the Asia-Pacific and South America. Only one reference cited an Australian study. Yet, despite its lack of local context, the paper raised highly questionable concerns about so-called ‘industrial logging’ and its influence on Victorian forest fire regimes.

Normally, ecologists are careful not to draw strong conclusions for the Australian context from overseas research findings based on very different ecosystems subject to different cultural and management influences. But in this case, any deference to caution disappeared when the paper became a platform for leveraging the powerful message that “Decades of industrial logging in Australia’s wet forests have made them more fire prone, raising urgent fire management issues …”

Again, this message was promoted through a series of rather sensational media reports and an ANU media release as follows:

  • December 8, 2009: ABC News report “Scientist links forest logging to bushfires”;
  • February 11, 2010: ABC Science report “Logging makes forests more flammable: study”;
  • March 1, 2010: ANU media release “Forest logging creates fire traps: academic”, plus an article in Australasian Science;
  • March 2, 2010: Report in Tasmania’s The Mercury daily newspaper: “Logging legacy labelled greater fire risk”; and
  • March 5, 2010: ABC Radio interview of Professor Lindenmayer: “Industrial logging linked to frequency and severity of fire”.

Again, the timing of this publicity sequence was quite revealing. In particular, the delaying of the promotional ANU media release until March 2010 – some four months after the paper had been published – conveniently coincided with media reportage of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission’s examination of the effect of land management policies and practices on bushfire risk.

There is no dispute that huge areas of younger regrowth have been created at the expense of older mountain ash forest in Victoria’s Central Highlands over the past 85 years. But the determination of ANU scientists to link this to logging raises questions about wider motives and scientific objectivity.

The most recent Lindenmayer et al (2011) paper ignores long-standing knowledge of these forests in asserting that “…. logging has converted 90% of formerly old forest to young regenerating stands”. This is just wrong as it is overwhelmingly wildfire which has created the preponderance of regrowth that currently dominates the Central Highlands’ mountain ash forests.

In both 1926 and 1939, extensive bushfires burned across the region. In combination, they killed some 85% of the region’s mountain ash, thereby converting huge areas of old forest to regrowth. Later, the 1983 ‘Ash Wednesday’ bushfires killed an additional 14,000 hectares of mountain ash and converted it to regrowth.

Today’s logging is concentrated in these regrowth forests with all remnant old forests reserved. The comparative impacts of bushfire and logging on creating regrowth was exemplified by the 2009 ‘Black Saturday’ bushfires which, in just a few days, killed (and naturally regenerated) approximately 33,000 hectares of Central Highlands’ mountain ash forest. This is an area equivalent to 50 to 60-years of logging at the current rate.

Most Victorian forests are simply not available for logging.In the Central Highlands, sustainable timber harvesting is limited to within only about a third of the region’s mountain ash forest. This portion is overwhelmingly comprised of 1939-origin regrowth forest. Any larger pre-1900-origin trees found amongst the regrowth are excluded from harvesting.

It almost beggars belief that ANU scientists could be unaware of the broad extent of logged and unlogged forest and the respective impacts of bushfire and logging in the Central Highlands, given their extensive research into Leadbeater’s Possum over several decades. This has at times involved working with Victoria’s forest management agencies to develop and refine management strategies and prescriptions to minimise environmental impacts during timber harvesting.

Given this level of knowledge and expertise, it is alarming that several other assertions contained in the recent Lindenmayer et al (2011) paper are so at odds with the reality.

This includes the errant claim that since the 2009 bushfires “…. uncommon areas of unlogged forest are increasingly sought after for timber and pulpwood harvesting”. In fact, timber harvesting is limited to wood production zones that were designated in the Central Highlands Regional Forest Agreement 15 years ago. Nothing has been changed to allow logging to expand beyond these zones into other forests that may have survived the recent fires.

The paper also asserts that “…. cutting burnt forest (ie. salvage logging) has major negative environmental impacts and long term effects on forest recovery and biodiversity”. This wrongly implies that salvage logging is a widespread activity and ignores both its limited extent and the stronger operational prescriptions that are applied to it to minimise its environmental impact – prescriptions which take account of advice from ANU scientists.

In reality, salvage logging is limited only to fire-killed forests within the designated wood production zones. Its extent is further constrained by limited contractor capacity and the relatively short time-frame before killed standing timber starts to degrade. Less than 1% of the forests burnt by the 2009 ‘Black Saturday’ bushfires were salvage logged, and similarly low proportions of forests burnt in the huge 2003 and 2006-07 Victorian fires were salvage logged. At a landscape scale the impact of salvage logging is minimal.

Lindenmayer et al (2011) also claims that extensive logging and wildfire have placed the Central Highlands forests into the grip of the ‘previously unrecognised’ phenomena – the ‘landscape trap’. This has allegedly forced mountain ash forests to be permanently suspended in a regrowth state thereby disadvantaging life-forms reliant on later stages of vegetation development that are no longer attainable.

However, the concept of ‘landscape traps’ is not new at all. It is well known that ash-type eucalypt forests, if burnt twice in succession less than 15-20 years apart, will generally have insufficient seed to self-regenerate and will revert to another vegetation type in the absence of human intervention.

What is less appreciated is that Victorian foresters have for decades been intervening to avert ‘landscape traps’ by artificially regenerating fire-damaged ash-type forests. This started with replanting the Black Spur, north of Healesville after the 1939 bushfires; and continued on a larger scale in the 1970s and 1980s on the Toorongo Plateau. It has continued on numerous State Forest sites following the 2006-07 and 2009 bushfires. This has been ignored by this ‘new research’ and its accompanying media coverage.

Combating widely promoted misconceptions that are ostensibly derived from ‘peer-reviewed’ research, presents considerable difficulties. There are arguably two options: 1) Get a countering letter or research article published in the same scientific journal; or 2) Get some media coverage for already existing alternate scientific views.

In the wake of the most recent Lindenmayer et al (2011) paper, a letter co-written by the former Head of Forestry at the University of Melbourne, Professor Ian Ferguson, and the former Head of the CSIRO Bushfire Research Unit, Phil Cheney, was submitted for publication to the same journal. However, it was rejected without explanation thereby raising further questions about the potential manipulation of science to maintain an academic agenda. Their letter has since been published in the latest edition of Australian Forestry where it will unfortunately go largely unnoticed.

On the second option, hard experience shows that forestry issues are largely only newsworthy to media outlets which tend to report them primarily from a sensational green-left perspective. They typically display little interest in publishing alternate views that could be seen to undermine their editorial stance on issues such as logging.

Interestingly, in aCanberra Times article on September 17th, Professor Lindenmayer, who has been so central to this episode, noted that “There is general disrespect for science these days among politicians. The Government will pick up the phone to talk to lobbyists before they will if ever – talk to a scientist”.

This arguably reveals the justification for publishing fairly inconsequential papers in online journals specifically to create a platform for sensational media coverage. The media’s need for dramatic headlines and short, simplistic messages often sees it ignore inconvenient details and complexities. Whether by design or not, this can create and spread unwarranted fears and misconceptions amongst the wider community

This, plus the media’s thrall of supposedly unimpeachable academic credibility can allow loosely-formed hypotheses to morph unchallenged into established fact by ignoring alternate scientific views which may be far better informed.

Unfortunately, the propensity for scientists to use the media is blurring the clear demarcation that once existed between scientific objectivity and activism. This has undermined academic credibility to a degree that now makes it difficult to discern differences between environmental scientists and lobbyists. Given this, politicians can hardly be blamed for any perception that they disrespect science.

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