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The politics of bushfires

By Mark Poynter - posted Wednesday, 18 March 2009


Last month, a Melbourne suburban newspaper carried a large advertisement placed by the Victorian Greens (endorsed by Greens MLC, Greg Barber) attributing recent problems with Melbourne’s public transport system to timber harvesting in native forests! ("Who would have thought logging old growth forests would buckle train tracks?" The Melbourne Times, February 18, 2009.)

In attempting to portray Australian native timber production as a serious contributor to climate change, the advertisement ignored the fact that harvested forests are regenerated and that wood products play an important role in carbon storage. At the same time it created a grossly exaggerated impression of the extent of timber harvesting.

As a long-time critic of native forest timber production, it is inconceivable that the Victorian Greens and their constituency of environmental activist groups (the “green” lobby), is ignorant of these matters. Accordingly, its ongoing advocacy of such a warped argument betrays a disproportionate obsession with this singular issue and confirms that it has long since abandoned any pretence to intellectual integrity as a means to an end.

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The real tragedy is that such an approach based knowingly on subtle deceit, has been so successful for so long in shaping the mindset of the community and its politicians. Ultimately, it has resulted in government policies that have reduced the capability to manage forest fire.

Since the Black Saturday fires began much has been written about the role of the “green” lobby in fire management. This has mostly drawn attention to their influence at state and local government levels on the management of public forests and the control of native vegetation on private land. Arguably though, the accusations made against the “greens” thus far have been overly simplistic given the range of views about fire within their ranks; the inherent complexity of forest management that has led to consequences that they have not necessarily intended; and the extreme nature of the fires in this instance.

In their own defence, some within the “green” lobby have excused themselves from any responsibility by blaming the fires exclusively on climate change. They have also stridently denied that they are opposed to fuel reduction burning (while at the same time claiming it to be largely ineffective); and they have consistently attacked the credentials and motives of those who would question them, or who advocate a more proactive approach to forest fire management.

The latter theme was powerfully advanced by academic and political commentator, Clive Hamilton, who claimed that criticism of the influence of the “greens” in the aftermath of the fires was simply part of a continuing “culture war” between those wedded to “old attitudes” to nature, and environmentalists who supposedly possess more modern, progressive, and enlightened views ("Fires spark a new front in the culture wars", Crikey, February 16, 2009).

Hamilton may well be correct in noting that there are differing views of nature, but he fails to appreciate that the “old attitudes” which he decries, are largely based on real knowledge and actual experience of the bush. Conversely, his so-called “new understanding of the Australian landscape” has - particularly with regard to southern Australia’s forests - been shaped largely by environmental activism, including deliberate misrepresentations and frivolous claims of the type described earlier.

Far from being a “culture war”, a more accurate description of the current debate over Australian forest fire policies is that, with few exceptions, it is a contest between those who are likely to be directly affected by fire and understand its consequences (i.e. foresters, farmers, and rural communities); and those with little or no direct experience who are most-often geographically insulated from its impacts (i.e. urban-based environmentalists).

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There is also a parallel, less public, debate between scientists and academics concerned about the impact of periodic mild fire on biodiversity, and others who have experienced or seen the massive environmental impacts of intense summer conflagrations and appreciate that they can be mitigated by effective prescribed burning.

While it would seem obvious that the views of those with experience and knowledge should hold sway, the Victorian government’s politically expedient treatment of forests over the past decade - even in the face of the huge environmental impacts from the 2003 and 2006 bushfires - reflects a far greater reliance on ill-informed conventional wisdom. Sadly, it may only be the huge loss of life and property on this occasion that convinces the Victorian government to overturn its cynical pre-election commitment to national park expansion that has so successfully courted “green” voters.

This has created a popular illusion that forests have been “saved”, but has mostly done little to improve conservation outcomes. While it has invariably been initiated in response to concerted anti-logging campaigns, its flow-on implications have profoundly, but often indirectly, affected forest fire management.

Whether or not you agree with harvesting timber from a proportion of our native forests, it is indisputable that it generates revenue and provides an economic imperative to maintain roads, tracks and bridges throughout the forest, and to protect the future timber resource. It also entails the presence of experienced industry personnel and their equipment scattered through the forest and able to be quickly drawn upon when needed. In particular, it engages government personnel in a self-funding activity and so provides more resources for land management activities, including fuel reduction burning.

Since 2001, these benefits have been either lost or considerably diluted as the Victorian government has unnecessarily removed small-scale timber production from the state forests of the Otways, Portland, central Victoria, the Murray valley, and significant parts of East Gippsland. This has been facilitated by re-badging substantial areas of state forest as national parks and conservation reserves which have now grown to occupy about 55 per cent of Victoria’s public lands.

Managing forests primarily for conservation is a worthy aim that was already being met in the vast majority of state forests. Unfortunately, re-badging state forests as parks and reserves has typically been accompanied by a significantly changed land management culture. Whereas state forests are managed according to a multiple-use doctrine with a landscape-scale focus, the management of national parks and reserves largely conforms to a narrower focus on tourism, visitor infrastructure, and people control that is generally restricted to only minor portions of the landscape.

Experienced foresters were integral to the former land management culture in which fire was for generations regarded as the core business. They have now to a large extent been superseded by park managers comparatively lacking in landscape-scale vision and with a demonstrably more idealistic and cautious approach to land management. This is exemplified by a lower enthusiasm for the use of fire as a broad-scale management tool.

Arguably, this changed culture is evident in the refusal of Parks Victoria to regenerate an estimated 10,000 hectares of alpine ash (E.delegatensis) forest which was killed in Victorian national parks and conservation reserves during the 2003 and 2006-07 bushfires. For various reasons these areas were incapable of naturally regenerating and so have been left to regenerate to scrub according to a philosophical “nature-looks after-itself” ideal. In contrast to this, similarly affected areas on adjacent state forests were re-sown by the Department of Sustainability & Environment using seed collected from nearby unburnt stands. Rather than regenerating as scrub, these areas will regrow into biodiversity-rich tall forests - surely a far superior conservation outcome.

With so much Victorian public land now contained in tenures which generate little or no revenue, land management is now more reliant on government budget appropriations which must compete for priority against far more pressing social needs such as health, education, and justice. While money is always found to deal with the immediacy of summer fire emergencies, critical off-season preventative and damage mitigation activities such as strategic fuel reduction burning and the maintenance of access, are under-resourced. This is particularly so given that changing rural demographics and the emerging NIMBY phenomena have made it far more difficult and costly to implement fire management plans than in the past.

While the “green” lobby’s role in forcing the expansion of national parks has been integral to declining levels of active land management, it must be acknowledged that mainstream activist groups have not directly campaigned against the practice of fuel reduction burning in the manner with which they oppose logging.

Nevertheless, it is disingenuous for them to claim that no “green” group has ever opposed fuel reduction burning. Generally, their attitudes to the practice are quite variable but fall well short of an endorsement. While some forest activists acknowledge its ecological value, most dismiss its worth as a tool for helping to manage the summer fire threat - “there is no evidence that just burning larger areas of forest will help protect forests or human assets” (Jill Redwood, Environment East Gippsland). Statements such as this fly in the face of decades of research and the personal experience of practically every Australian forest fire-fighter.

The major “green” groups are more circumspect, but at best display only conditional support for the practice. This view was articulated by Tasmanian forests activist, Vica Bayley, who asserted that “all conservationists are not opposed to all deliberate burning and indeed the Wilderness Society supports ecologically-based prescription burning”. However he considered this to be “a very different concept to landscape-scale fuel reduction burns … with no consideration of ecological principles and biodiversity values”.

From this it seems that most environmental activists fail to appreciate that broadscale prescribed burning is strategically planned for use in conditions designed to ensure that fuels are reduced (preferably in a mosaic pattern) rather than obliterated from every hectare. Although there is clearly an important place for their preferred very small, meticulously planned "ecological burns", they will not reduce fuels over broad areas to anywhere near the extent needed to significantly lessen the intensity and damage of large summer conflagrations.

The “green” lobby has strongly asserted that fuel reduction burning is of little value in preventing human life and property loss under exceptionally extreme conditions such as those on Black Saturday ("Fuel reduction burns made no difference on Black Saturday", by Simon Birrell, Crikey, March 10, 2009). They have missed the point that the presence of lower fuel loads is a huge advantage in assisting to quickly control the 99 per cent of fires which occur under far less extreme conditions, and which may otherwise remain going for long enough to develop into uncontrollable firestorms when conditions deteriorate.

Part of the problem surrounding attitudes to fuel reduction burning is that despite a large body of existing research, there will always be more to learn about the potential long term impacts to biodiversity stemming from frequent cool fire - there is also much to learn about the ecological impact of the long-term exclusion of fire and about Black Saturday-type holocausts. The community must decide whether it is better to risk the potential for subtle, but often reversible changes, by expanding fuel reduction burning while we continue to learn; or to limit its use and so accept more frequent episodes of massive damage to biodiversity, soil and water values (as well as life and property) such as we have just witnessed. That, essentially, is the burning question.

While the “green” lobby has undoubtedly had a negative influence on forest management, they are not alone in being responsible for Black Saturday (as some have claimed). However, as self-proclaimed environmental saviours, they have certainly been derelict in virtually ignoring the massive environmental impact of recent Australian bushfires - preferring instead to continue their ideologically-based forests campaign against an activity which has almost negligible environmental impact.

Unfortunately, while “locking-on” to logging equipment fits the current culture of “green” activism, lobbying state governments to allocate more resources to prescribed burning does not - despite the reality that it would have infinitely more environmental benefit.

The “green” lobby is also largely responsible for creating warped community attitudes to Australian forests based around an emotional and romantic view of the fragility of nature which is at odds with the evolutionary reliance of our forests on regular disturbance shaped by thousands of years of Aboriginal burning.

The resultant “green” culture which dictates that forests must be handled with kid-gloves is largely responsible for those state and local government policies that are impeding sensible fire management. In addition, the engendered misconception of forests as welcoming and benign has undoubtedly attracted many to a pleasant life among the trees without sufficient awareness of the inevitable brutality of fire.

Australia’s “green” lobby deserves little credibility in relation to forests, yet many of our politicians have knowingly spent the past decade deferring to them to gain political kudos. Indeed, the ink is still drying on the Victorian government’s latest decision to overturn generations of effective forest management - this time among the Murray valley red gums - largely to appease “green” political allies.

The Black Saturday Royal Commission must take the opportunity to go further than other recent bushfire inquiries by examining the close linkages that exist between the major “green” groups, our politicians, and their advisors. Victorians may then understand why public land management standards have declined against the express wishes of rural communities, and in contravention of the advice of many of those who know the most about forests and fire.

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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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