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Logging and bushfires

By Mark Poynter - posted Wednesday, 25 January 2012


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:

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  • "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.

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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.

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About the Author

Mark Poynter is a professional forester with 40 years experience. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Foresters of Australia and his book, Saving Australia's Forests and its Implications, was published in 2007.

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