28 December, 2006

LETTER: Guess who saved our forests?

Peter Sheehan, Camberwell
The Age, December 28, 2006

My forester daughter was fortunate to spend Christmas Day with us after two weeks in the mountains near Matlock fighting the bushfires. With others, she was planning and setting out control lines that were then constructed by a team of bulldozer operators. Their collective skills in dangerous bush operations held those fires until the rain came. They stopped the Mount Terrible fire from burning through Melbourne's catchments.

Guess where these saviours of the forests came from? Not from the Wilderness Society, but primarily from the timber industry. They mainly used access constructed for previous logging. So Melbourne's catchments are saved for another blow-up day when, after another lightning strike, they will need saving again.

Unfortunately, most foresters in Victoria are public servants and so constrained from responding to the mangled forest science that passes for "the forestry debate". They deserve better thanks for this most recent effort than pre-emptive and opportunist distortions.

Gavan McFadzean of the Wilderness Society sure knows how to defend a weak position ("Trees don't start fires", Opinion, 27/12) — imagine and exaggerate any potential opposing argument and then mount a scattergun attack on things never claimed! We do agree on one thing, though, within the stream of inaccuracies: the logging and regeneration of forests probably has little net influence on the frequency of bushfires.

What McFadzean conveniently omits to mention, though, is that the timber industry undoubtedly does make a huge contribution to controlling the inevitable and potentially more frequent bushfires.

27 December, 2006

ARTICLE: Trees don't start fires

Gavan McFadzean, Victorian campaigns manager for The Wilderness Society
The Age, December 27, 2006

More management of forests does not necessarily make them less fireprone.

Don't be taken in when the anti-national parks lobby feigns concern about bushfire risk. Their latest contributions to the debate have been unscientific, insensitive and opportunistic.

Insensitive and opportunistic because while exhausted fire crews fight blazes across three states and people's lives and property are at serious risk, the logging industry launches another round in its attack against national parks to get greater access to forests for logging.

Unscientific because the more "managed" a forest is for logging, roading and four-wheel-drive access, the more fireprone it becomes.

The anti-national park lobby argues for greater access to our forests — not for logging, of course, but to prevent bushfires. Unmanaged forests, they say, are a firebomb waiting to explode; they need to be logged and burnt regularly to make them less fireprone. But letting loggers into our old-growth and native forests is like giving Dracula a key to the blood bank.

More management of forests does not necessarily make them less fireprone, and national parks less fireprone than areas managed for logging.

Parks are not "locked up" — they are managed as part of fire protection plans. Management burns are routinely made in most parks, and firebreaks are found in most of them or along their boundaries.

Contrary to popular opinion, most fires start outside parks and burn in. Of the most recent blazes this summer, 70 per cent started in state forests. This is consistent with the average, where about 70 per cent of fires start in state forests and burn into national parks.

The fires of Black Friday, 1939, burnt 10 times the area of the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires, yet there were few national parks back then. We can, and should, take sensible measures to reduce the risk and severity of bushfires, but it's a case of horses for courses. Controlled burning can reduce fire hazard around towns and urban centres, but may also create a fire timebomb in the bush.

Forests are ecosystems; they respond to whatever you do to them. Their response to regular hazard-reduction burns is for fire-tolerant plants to take over from fire-resistant plants, because they thrive in a regular fire environment. As a result, so-called hazard-reduction burns may, in fact, create a more fireprone landscape.

Advocates of more fuel-reduction burning talk as if it is risk-free. Remember Wilsons Promontory last year, where a fuel-reduction burn got out of control, burnt vast areas of the park and threatened campers? Controlled burning has many risks.

In the past few years, numerous controlled burns have escaped in Victoria, NSW and Tasmania. Premier Steve Bracks is right to say drought conditions can make controlled burns in the lead-up to summer too dangerous, and impossible to control. This is not to say we should never have hazard-reduction burns, but you have to pick the right environment and day.

The 2003 bushfire inquiry noted that the "prescribed-burning debate has been at times ill-informed and peppered with gross exaggerations and the view by some that one size fits all". The inquiry noted that there are only about 10 days a year when conditions are right for prescribed burning.

The oversimplification of this issue by some sectors of the public is dangerous. Bushfires are a complex phenomenon, and no single land-management practice will reduce the extent and frequency of large, intense fires across the entire landscape.

The argument that we should engage in widespread and regular burning of the forest because that's what Aboriginal people did for years is, as the 2003 bushfire inquiry put it, "a highly attractive philosophy".

But the inquiry rightly concluded that unfortunately "we do not know enough about traditional burning in southern Australia to be able to re-create an Aboriginal burning regime".

Since European settlement, the landscape has changed dramatically. Trying to replicate Aboriginal fire practices in southern Australia would unfortunately now be a risky experiment. Instead, the goal must be to produce a fuel-reduction management plan that protects biodiversity and reduces the effects of wildfire for protection of people and assets.

As for the pro-logging interests, their hypocrisy is breathtaking. They say a logging industry is essential to help fight the fires, yet this is the same industry that has contributed to making the forests of south-eastern Australia so fireprone in the first place.

Logging destroys old-growth forests and rainforests, which are less fireprone, and replaces them with young, dense, fireprone regrowth over vast areas.

The Ash Wednesday and Black Friday fires were mostly in managed regrowth forests recovering from logging. The royal commission on the 1939 Black Friday fires concluded that logging had increased the severity and the extent of the fire.

The Canberra suburbs of Duffy and Curtin, which were razed in 2003, were surrounded by pine plantations and grasslands. Pine plantations are managed forests with plenty of roads and easy access, yet these forests created a firestorm.

Logging and regeneration burns create big gaps in the forest, which in turn create a drier, more fireprone environment. Huge amounts of debris are left on the forest floor after logging, adding to the fire hazard.

About 75 per cent of fires are started by humans, and logging roads provide greater public access to the forest.

If the logging industry really cared about reducing the bushfire hazard, it would be calling for an end to the logging of native forests.

In big bushfire seasons, national parks are demonised. We need to remember that these areas are huge carbon sinks that buffer us from the impacts of dangerous climate change. Our parks take the equivalent emissions of 250 million cars for a year out of the atmosphere.

Prime Minister John Howard's comments that the recent bushfires are unrelated to climate change are alarming. CSIRO has predicted global warming may double the very high and extreme fire danger days. South-eastern Australia is already one of the three most fireprone areas in the world.

Fire is a natural and vital part of Australian landscape; it has been a key process in shaping Australia's unique biodiversity.

With the onset of dangerous climate change, fire frequency and intensity is likely to increase unless we take a different approach to forest management.

Original article

26 December, 2006

LETTER: The cattlemen versus fire furphy

Adam Pepper, Ringwood East
Letter, The Age, 26/12/06

People such as Suryan Chandrasegaran (Letters, 23/12) who argue that grazing cattle through alpine areas reduces the severity of fires should produce the scientific research that supports their claim. I can't see cattle eating the dried bark or leaves off trees affected by one of the hottest and driest years on record.

We have not seen smoke like this before because we have not seen weather like this before. From what the maps have shown, the fires have swept through former cattle grazing areas, logging areas, wilderness areas and state parks with equal severity.

The reality with changes brought by climate change is that we are going to need new approaches to managing our environment. Management should be based on scientific evidence, not the interests of lobby groups whether they be cattlemen, environmentalists or the logging industry.

21 December, 2006

ARTICLE: Warning on forestry

Phillippa Duncan
The Mercury, 21/12/2006

Premier Paul Lennon has warned a Federal Court decision to protect two rare birds and a beetle could destroy Tasmania's forestry and agricultural industries.

Mr Lennon said Greens senator Bob Brown's legal win stopping logging in the Wielangta State Forest could also have "serious ramifications for the Tasmanian economy".

Forestry Tasmania would be unable to continue to offer long-term wood supply, threatening sawmills and the proposed pulp mill.

Mr Lennon has asked Prime Minister John Howard to urgently change the law to protect the milling industries, 10,000 forestry jobs and farmers' livelihoods.

He said the decision could extend to all activities in Tasmania's environment and had introduced a "whole new set of requirements".

The court had ruled people whose activity impacted on the eagle or its habitat had to protect and enhance the species' population.

Mr Lennon said legal advice indicated the ramifications of Justice Shane Marshall's decision "go way beyond" Wielangta and forestry.

"The wedge-tailed eagle does not confine itself to a particular forest," he said.

"Activity outside a state forest could well find itself in the same position as activity inside the forest.

"The situation is very serious."

The court ruled that logging would have a "significant impact" on the endangered Tasmanian wedge-tailed eagle, swift parrot and broad-toothed stag beetle.

It also ruled that Forestry Tasmania had not adequately protected the three species and had breached the Regional Forest Agreement in the forest near Orford.

In the biggest blow, Justice Marshall removed Forestry Tasmania's exemption from the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

Mr Lennon said Tasmania had locked up 40 per cent of its landmass in reserves and parks for the exemption, which Mr Howard should restore.

Mr Lennon has indicated the State Government will not appeal the decision because it would only extend the action and not end the uncertainty.

He is "optimistic" Mr Howard will amend the law and possibly the RFA to protect forestry and farming jobs.

"We can't have a situation in Tasmania where 10,000 families and their livelihoods are put at risk," he said.

The Forest Industries Association of Tasmania predicted the decision could even impact on tourism which depends on the state's natural wilderness.

FIAT chief executive Terry Edwards said the state and federal governments had to act urgently to restore wood-supply certainty.

He said the decision had undermined the intent of the RFA and jeopardised $1 billion of industry investment and 10,000 jobs.

"We call on both governments to reinstate the original intent of the RFA and to take whatever actions are necessary to ensure the principles agreed upon by them in negotiating that agreement are honoured," he said.

Senator Brown predicted any legislative change would "enhance and accelerate the extinction of species".

"If they do this in an election year, they do this at their own peril," he said.

Forestry Tasmania and the state and federal governments have until February 9 to appeal the decision.

Original article

19 December, 2006

ARTICLE: Rudd shuts out green groups on Tasmanian forest plans

Andrew Darby, St Helens, Tasmania
The Age, December 19, 2006

KEVIN Rudd has infuriated green groups by shutting them out of a key national environment debate, the formation of Labor's Tasmanian forest policy, and pledging strong support for the island state's forest industry.

In one of his biggest policy moves since assuming the Labor leadership, Mr Rudd has rejected the party's previous position on Tasmanian forests and backed existing deals between the Howard Government and the pro-logging Lennon Government.

Stopping in Tasmania on his national "listening" tour, Mr Rudd declared that former Labor leader Mark Latham had got it wrong with his pledge on forestry conservation before the 2004 election — which was blamed for Labor losing two seats.

In rejecting the Latham policy, Mr Rudd confirmed that there was no place for the conservation movement in shaping Labor's new policy on Tasmania's forests.

Green groups reacted angrily, with the Wilderness Society saying Mr Rudd had paved the way for a sell-out on forests.

Mr Rudd also came under fire from Australian Greens Leader Bob Brown and conservationists for not taking new Labor environment spokesman Peter Garrett with him on his trip to Tasmania.

But the local forest industry warmly welcomed Mr Rudd's pledge to support the existing Regional Forests Agreement and Community Forests Agreement, negotiated between the state and the Howard Government.

Mr Rudd's statement on forests came days after he pledged to push for relaxation of Labor's restrictive policy on uranium mining — a move that has put him at odds with Mr Garrett.

On Tasmanian forests, Mr Rudd said Labor's guiding principle was that it wanted to see a long-term sustainable industry, based on three pillars:

  • Close consultation with the State Government, unions and forest industries.
  • No overall loss of jobs.
  • Consultation with the State Government over conservation and protection of old growth forest areas.

Mr Rudd said he was in Tasmania to listen carefully to local communities, but confirmed that he had spoken to no-one in the forest industry on his visit. He said he would talk to the conservation movement from time to time. "But when it comes to the architecture of our forests policy here in Tasmania, it is as I've described before, based on those three principles and two sets of agreements which we support."

Labor's loss of two seats in Tasmania at the last election, Bass and Braddon, was attributed to Mr Latham's $800 million package that would have secured nearly all remaining contested old growth areas.

Industry and unions instead backed the more modest Howard conservation package in what was widely portrayed as a poll-eve political coup by the Prime Minister.

Mr Rudd followed his predecessor, Kim Beazley, in distancing himself from the Latham policy. "Labor got it wrong. Part of the reason it got it wrong was that it didn't listen to the local community," he said.

His statement yesterday was welcomed by the Forest Industries Association of Tasmania. "We support and endorse the approach that Kevin Rudd has outlined," said executive director Terry Edwards.

The conservation movement, which has fought for more than 20 years for the protection of the state's old growth forests, came out swinging.

"The policy Kevin Rudd is set to adopt is the one endorsed by the Lennon Labor Government which is destroying our forests," said the Wilderness Society's campaigns manager, Geoff Law.

"It is desperately ironic that it comes almost 20 years to the day after Peter Garrett came to the Lemonthyme forest in Tasmania, and stood beside Bob Brown and said these forests must be saved."

The Australian Conservation Foundation said it was surprised that Mr Rudd was closing doors during a "listening" tour.

"I think he should be certainly talking to the wide range of environmental stakeholders to get a full picture of issues as complex as these," said Matt Ruchel, Manager of Land and Water for the ACF.

Mr Rudd deflected questions about Mr Garrett, the former rock star and ACF head who now holds the Climate Change and Environment portfolio on Labor's front bench.

In 2004, Mr Garrett described the Tasmanian timber industry as logging gone mad and carnage in the forests.

Mr Rudd said that he was now leader of the party, and Mr Garrett had a job to do on climate change.

Mr Rudd was speaking on a visit to bushfire-ravaged areas of Tasmania's east coast, where he said he had seen no indication of any gaps in the federal response to the fires. The main east coast fire has burned more than 20 homes and 25,000 hectares of land.

With AAP

Original article

14 December, 2006

ARTICLE: Crunch time today for Thomson Dam

Daniella Miletic and Ben Doherty
The Age, December 14, 2006

As bushfires continue to push towards the Thomson Dam in the state's east, firefighters fear today's return of high winds and hot temperatures may threaten efforts to protect Melbourne's water supply from contamination.

Fire authorities believe forecast 36-degree temperatures and north-westerly winds could push the Mount Terrible fire into the catchment. "(Today is) the big day … It could burn the catchment," the Country Fire Authority's state duty officer, Gary Weir, warned.

Using more than 60 bulldozers, including five from the army, firefighters were racing against the clock last night to build containment lines. But they said backburning would not be finished by today.

If the threat does not eventuate, the week ahead is expected to bring cooler conditions. Fire authorities hope to use the reprieve to finish backburning.

Small business owners and farmers burnt out by the blazes, meanwhile, could be eligible for grants up to $10,000 for clean-up and restoration of their livelihoods. Prime Minister John Howard announced the cash lifelines yesterday, stressing that they would come on top of the existing federal commitment for much of the personal hardship payments, loans and infrastructure rebuilding.

Non-profit groups affected by the disaster would also be eligible for small grants, and financial counselling will be offered.

Authorities were able to get a good idea of how far the bushfires have spread when clouds and smoke lifted yesterday.

The fires have consumed an area roughly equivalent to a 35-kilometre radius around Melbourne — spanning as far as Frankston to Belgrave to Whittlesea and Sunbury.

Fires have blackened more than 409,000 hectares.

The Mount Terrible fire, threatening the Thomson Dam reservoir, has burnt through 36,000 hectares.

Department of Sustainability and Environment spokesman Duncan Pendrigh said fire reaching the Thomson catchment would be a worst-case scenario. "The fire didn't do that last Sunday when it was much hotter and winds were stronger, so we are hoping it won't happen (today)," he said.

Melbourne Water spokesman Ben Pratt said if fire hit the water catchment, the supply could be stopped for up to three months to allow ash to settle.

In the north-east yesterday, CFA crews took advantage of favourable conditions to conduct backburning and containment work. The largest fire — an amalgamation of fires in the alpine region — has now burnt through more than 370,000 hectares.

Communities to the south and east of the big bushfires will come under the greatest threat tomorrow. A statewide total fire ban has been declared for 24 hours from midnight tonight.

Yesterday the Jamieson area remained under ember attack. Glencairn residents were put on high alert as the Mount Terrible bushfire closed in, and winds are keeping towns such as Heyfield and Briagolong and Valencia Creek at high risk."

Original article

12 December, 2006

ARTICLE: Reports of a dying catchment 'greatly exaggerated

Glen Kile
Executive director of the Forest and Wood Products Research & Development Corporation
The Age, December 12, 2006

THE impact of logging in Melbourne's water catchments is topical, given the drought, but has been greatly exaggerated.

While it is true logging results in fast-growing regrowth that uses more water than mature forests, the fact that less than 0.2 per cent is harvested annually means the effect is small.

Overall, timber production for saw logs is only permitted within a 13 per cent portion of the total catchment area and this is planned for logging on an 80-year cycle.

The claim that stopping logging will save water is largely theoretical given it relies on the unlikely long-term absence of severe fire that has traditionally determined the extent to which regrowth reduces stream flows.

If dense forest regeneration is a concern, it can be thinned. This is the most efficient, cost-effective means of increasing run-off and is being practised in at least one Perth water catchment in response to reduced rainfall and low storage levels. A potentially warming and drying climate may make it an imperative here in the future.

Catchment thinning could substantially improve run-off into Melbourne's storages, and the capability to do it in the future relies on the continuation of a sustainable timber industry.

There are also claims that Victorian native-forest logging emits 10 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year that contributes to global warming. However, as timber harvesting is sustainable and mostly occurs in regrowth stands, carbon uptake across the whole forest exceeds the carbon removed in harvesting.

Furthermore, much of the harvested carbon has a long storage in wood products both in-service and subsequently in landfills. The situation in Victoria is consistent with the conclusions of the National Greenhouse Gas Inventory that Australia's managed forests are a net carbon sink.

The harvesting of "old-growth" forest has long been used as an emotional hook for enlisting community support to shut down timber industries.

While old-growth forests are important repositories of biodiversity, they are nearing the end of their life and their management, either in parks and reserves or wood-production forests, raises important questions about forest renewal.

Ecologically sustainable forest management at the broad landscape level ideally requires a mixture of age classes to maximise biodiversity and ensure continuity.

Contrary to popular perception, "old-growth" forest is not endangered. About 94 per cent — or more than 4 million hectares — of Australia's old-growth forests are reserved. In East Gippsland, the current focus of the debate, there are 224,000 ha of old-growth forest, of which 191,000 ha (or 85 per cent) is in reserves. The balance is an important source of timber scheduled for harvesting over the next 30 years.

A further 124,000 ha of reserved East Gippsland forest will become old growth over the next 50 years. From this it is evident that the "old growth" debate is essentially about ideology rather than environmental outcomes.

Environmental activists in their single-minded pursuit of a "no-logging" agenda have ignored or downplayed the implications of closing the local hardwood-timber industry. One critical impact is in developing countries, as higher Australian demand for hardwood imports contributes to production of tropical-rainforest timbers, some illegally logged.

A report to the Australian Government by Poyry Consulting recently noted that Australia imports about $5 billion of forest and wooden furniture products a year, and that while we could be self-sufficient, our hardwood timber industry now has neither the resource access nor the processing capacity to meet this goal.

Since 2001, imports of tropical sawn hardwood have risen by more than half (our suppliers are mainly Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea) as end-product prices for Australian native-hardwood products such as Brush Box flooring have more than doubled over the same period.

Across all product types, the equivalent round-log volume of tropical imports from suspect origins now equals the combined Tasmanian and Victorian harvest of native-forest sawlogs. The upward trend of tropical-timber imports will no doubt continue if the area of Australian native forest available for harvesting is further eroded.

Australia's native-forest timber industry has suffered for years from dishonest and deceptive anti-logging campaigns attributing it with supposed impacts way out of proportion to its actual nature.

The philosophical and policy arrogance of a small minority seeking to dictate to the rest of the community the conditions of access to their forests is somewhat breathtaking — combined with an insatiable demand for taxpayer funds to shut a sustainable industry.

Perhaps environmental groups should quantify the economic, social and environmental benefits of their policies so there could be a more informed discussion.

Original article