As bushfires continue to ravage southern Australia there are claims that the 2006-07 fire season may well be our worst. While prolonged drought has been the primary influence on the severity and controllability of these fires, the political obsession with creating national parks and other reserves is an important factor that should not be ignored.
Particularly since 2001, forest policy in mainland states has been largely shaped by pre-election commitments in response to environmental activism. In New South Wales, Western Australia and Victoria this has led to a substantial re-badgeing of publicly-owned state forests as national parks and conservation reserves to appease political forces representing a city-based demographic with limited knowledge of what it is campaigning for and little exposure to its ramifications.
While this has occurred primarily to curtail timber production, the implications for wider forest management have generally been ignored or dismissed. This was illustrated during the 2006 Victorian election campaign when the government announced that the contentious Goolengook forest in East Gippsland would become a national park, and foreshadowed the closure of the red gum timber industry to create further national parks along the Murray River.
That these commitments were announced with much fanfare despite on-going, partially completed investigations into these issues by the government’s own environmental assessment body, VEAC, confirms the dangerous disregard for scientific expertise that now typifies politically-expedient interference in bushland management.
Although all native forests are important for biodiversity conservation, the environmental movement has afforded national parks a special status akin to static museum exhibits that can be “locked up” and left. Unfortunately, this ignores the reality that forests are dynamic entities constantly changing in response to age as well as factors such as feral animals, weeds, and fire.
Most forest scientists acknowledge that inappropriate fire regimes transcend all other threats to represent the greatest danger to the environmental integrity of Australian forests and acknowledge the need for human intervention through controlled burning to manage fire frequency and minimise the threat of intense summer wildfires.
By being so fixated on logging, the environmental movement has traditionally ignored the infinitely greater threat of fire.
This was highlighted when lobby group, the Victorian National Parks Association, failed to consider fire as a significant management issue in their 2002 proposal to create an expanded Australian Alps National Park. Similarly, the Wilderness Society has traditionally ignored fire except in designated Wilderness Areas where it sees no place for managed cool burning and supports letting natural summer fires burn.
Now, after recent landscape-scale events, environmental activists are expressing strong opposition to the controlled use of fire in autumn and spring which they irrationally view as damaging to the environment despite the far greater potential for uncontrolled summer wildfires to severely damage forest ecology as well as impact on human life and property.
While public land managers continue to view fire protection as a critical management function, the conversion of state forest into parks and reserves has substantially reduced government revenue (from timber sales) with a concurrent loss of considerable forest and fire expertise from government agencies.
Most significantly, it has diverted management emphasis and limited funds away from the broad-acre considerations of state forests to a far narrower focus on localised recreational, tourism, and conservation issues in the substantial proportion of public forests now designated as parks and reserves.
While more sparing use of fuel reduction burning and access track closures in these areas reflects this changed priority, it arguably also reflects a lower enthusiasm for the broad-scale use of controlled fire that appears to be inherent to park management largely rooted in the ideals of urban-based environmentalism.
This contrasts sharply with the strong culture of active management and heightened summer readiness that was traditionally associated with state forests. This was typified by relatively high levels of fuel reduction burning, maintained road and track access, larger and more experienced government workforces located closer to forests, an economic imperative to protect timber resources, and far greater availability of skilled timber industry men and machines for fire-fighting.
While there is no direct link between timber production and fire per se, it is widely acknowledged that as the industry has declined this culture has been substantially weakened.
This should be a grave concern in view of recent comments by international fire expert, Dr Stephen Pyne, who implored Australia to retain its culture of controlled burning or risk the ecological damage that has befallen other developed countries such as the USA, where governments largely abandoned controlled fire in response to environmental activism.
Unfortunately, the forest policies of the past decade or more have already put us part way down this path and with factors such as heightened bureaucratic risk aversion requirements, more people living at bush interfaces, and expectations of a hotter climate making controlled fuel reduction burning more difficult and expensive, it’s use may further decline.
Countering this requires State governments to treat forests as more than just repositories of “green” votes by permanently committing substantially more to active, all-year-round bushland management. However, instead of permanently increased expenditure on the extra personnel required to deliver this, forest fire management is currently typified by a short term, reactive focus on summer fire suppression.
This involves hiring casual fire-fighters, extra water-bombing aircraft, and importing deployments of interstate and overseas fire-fighters. In addition, there is an increased reliance on the good-will of unpaid volunteer fire-fighters working far from the homes and communities they enlisted to protect.
This “as-needs” seasonal focus has potential for substantial savings during benign summers. However, the preference of state governments for such an approach over the ostensibly greater, year-round expenditure on fire prevention and protection is proving to be false economy - both financially and ecologically.
Mark Poynter is a professional forester with 30 years experience. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Foresters of Australia and acts for it in a voluntary capcity as a media spokesperson. His book Saving Australia's Forests and its Implications was published in 2007.