Chief executive officer, National Association of Forest Industries
The Age, 1/2/2007
The past months have been a catastrophe for the Victorian environment. Almost 900,000 hectares, particularly in national parks, have been devastated by bushfires, with hundreds of thousands of birds and animals killed or injured amid enormous losses of vegetation.
At a time when the issue of climate change has never been more important, these fires have released millions of tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere. Given the environmental catastrophe, it is incongruous that we have heard little from the environmental movement. Australian conservationists are the first to applaud the locking up of more forests into reserves, but refuse to acknowledge the often negative environmental consequences.
Tasmania's Wielangta Forest is an example. It was the focus of a court case by Greens leader Bob Brown against sustainable forestry operations. He wanted to see the area placed into a reserve, ending forest management practices that have been occurring over decades.
While the forest's future was pursued through the courts, a moratorium on harvesting was in place, which effectively locked up the forest and resulted in reduced access and increased fire risk during the current fire season. Large areas of the Wielangta Forest were destroyed in recent fires.
Environmentalists continue to decry the need for active park management through controlled burning, yet are silent on the massive loss of biodiversity resulting from fires. Once productive forests are locked up, the passive management approach adopted by national parks bodies becomes the norm.
One of the major contributors to the destruction of forest areas by fire is the loss of access for fire crews. Previously developed roads in commercial forests are not maintained, with the result that they become overgrown and impassable. Some park managers have placed padlocked gates across roads.
Passive management of national parks is a recipe for environmental disaster. The destruction caused by the 2003 bushfires in NSW, Victoria and the ACT is still evident. More than 3 million hectares of forest were destroyed and the damage to biodiversity was enormous.
It is estimated that 130 million tonnes of carbon was emitted into the atmosphere in the few weeks that those fires blazed, equal to one-quarter of Australia's annual greenhouse emissions.
The Kosciuszko, Alpine and Namadgi national parks were devastated in the 2003 fires. Thousands of hectares of alpine ash forests were reduced to blackened remnants. There has been almost no regeneration in much of the area.
Unlike commercial forestry operations, which must regenerate all species harvested, there has been no active program by national parks bodies to reseed the forests, and no management or environmental requirements for them to do so.
As we witness one of the worst periods of drought on record, of equal concern is the effect that the 2003 fires and the latest fires will have on water supply. As forests regenerate, their need for water is enormous. CSIRO studies have shown that the Melbourne water catchment has only recently recovered from the effect of bushfires in 1939. The effect of the 2003 fires is likely to be of the same order, with studies predicting a reduction of up to a fifth in water flowing into the Murray-Darling Basin because of regeneration. It has been estimated that the regrowth will absorb 430 billion litres of water a year for the next 50 years. This will have a significant impact on the availability of water for communities, irrigators and environmental flows.
State governments and environmentalists applaud themselves in continuing to convert sustainable and productive forests into national parks. But limited resources are made available to ensure proper forest management, with the result that there are worse environmental outcomes.
We have many wonderful national parks of which we can be justifiably proud, but proper forest management practices are essential. The damage caused by catastrophic wildfires permanently changes landscapes, creating bare and blackened scenes, and open once well-managed forests to scrubby undergrowth. Noxious weeds and pests are able to flourish and the original environmental values that national parks are designed to keep for future generations are lost. Feral animals, weeds and pests are also unwanted problems for neighbours of national parks such as farms and townships.
We need to question the locking up of well-managed forests into poorly managed national reserves, including national parks. Otherwise the environment and Australian communities neighbouring these areas will continue to be the major losers.
Catherine Murphy is chief executive officer of the National Association of Forest Industries.