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

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