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Native forestry closures betray a nation that is losing its way

By Mark Poynter - posted Thursday, 21 December 2023

In a few weeks, the curtain will be drawn on generations of domestic hardwood timber production from the public native forests of both Victoria and WA after their respective state Labor governments announced it would end at the close of 2023.

A perpetual cycle of timber harvesting and regrowth limited to within a designated small portion of a hugely greater forested area, should be a relatively innocuous land use. Using Victoria as the example, all current and future timber production was limited to within just a 6% portion of the state's 6.7 million hectares of public native forests, within which around 3,000 hectares was being annually harvested and regenerated. This annually harvested area represented just a tiny 0.00045 fraction of the total 6.7 million hectares of forest.

It is ludicrous to suggest that such a proportionally tiny rate of renewable forest use could pose an existential threat to any species of flora or fauna. Indeed, it has been acknowledged in the past that forestry in Australia has never been responsible for any species' extinction. Nevertheless, despite this reality, the political decision to end timber production in Victoria's native forests was effectively predicated on an irrational belief that it posed a substantial threat of species extinctions.


That this represents a staggering lack of logic is exemplified by a recent article in the Saturday Paper by Bob Brown, in which he described sending the PM, Anthony Albanese, a 1.3 second audio recording of an endangered swift parrot call while a chainsaw roars in the background. Recorded at a protest-ridden logging coupe in southern Tasmania, Brown describes it as "one of the most poignant recordings in Australia's natural history" which illustrates to Albanese the choice he needs to make between "the rescue of the honey-eating swift parrots from extinction or the ongoing needless destruction of their forest habitat".

The obvious flaw with this 'choice' is that harvesting and regenerating small patches of forest cannot be held solely responsible for the decline of a bird species that migrates each year to mainland Australia (with all the pressures that it faces there) and is subject to savage predation by introduced sugar gliders while breeding in Tasmania. Nevertheless, Tasmanian forestry authorities have already substantially modified timber production plans and practices to minimise impacts to the swift parrot, including ending timber harvesting altogether on Bruny Island which is recognised as a key breeding ground.

It follows that enacting Brown's call for an end to Tasmanian native forest timber production would devastate a significant industry for little benefit to the swift parrot; but his stunt is nevertheless instructive in exemplifying the growing propensity for activists to illogically misrepresent a threat to an individual animal or bird as a virtual extinction event.

Traditionally, the impact of timber production on wildlife conservation has been managed at a landscape-scale, whereby any impacts incurred on harvesting sites were overwhelmingly diluted by the reality that most forests where wildlife occurs are reserved and/or not subject to logging. This far greater area of unused forests forms the bastion of biodiversity conservation. Accordingly, it has been appropriate for forestry practices to minimise adverse wildlife impacts during timber harvesting, rather than to try to totally avoid them which would, in any case, be incompatible with the felling of trees and production of logs for the timber industry.

However, in recent years in Victoria, an eco-activists' demand that every individual rare, threatened, or endangered animal or plant be effectively guaranteed protection on timber harvesting sites has increasingly infiltrated the environmental bureaucracy, ultimately finding its way into government policy. This trend was accelerated by a series of legal challenges by activists against the government's forestry agency, VicForests, which was effectively encouraged by the Victorian Environment Minister's (deliberate?) inaction in relation to technical legal loopholes that were being exploited by activist litigants.

Some unexpected and perplexing judgements arising from several of these legal cases demanded that VicForests metaphorically find out the names and addresses of all individual endangered animals living within any proposed harvesting coupe before operations could proceed. The intensity of costly wildlife surveying that was demanded effectively transformed VicForests into a wildlife conservation agency, significantly constraining its capability to cost-effectively fulfill its primary function of timber harvesting.


Where these pre-harvest surveys detected the presence of an individual of an endangered species, mandated exclusion zones were applied around each detection site, and in many cases these reserves left so few trees still available for harvest as to render coupes unviable before their harvesting even started.

The substantial size of these exclusion zones had been pre-determined and agreed to on the basis of the expected rarity of endangered species, but the surveys actually found them to be relatively common thereby creating the perversely ironic situation whereby timber harvesting was being effectively shut-out of the designated production forests because supposedly endangered species were not rare at all. As the Victorian Environment Minister rejected calls to revise the need for and/or size of these exclusion zones, the native timber industry was being starved of logs and was effectively dying, even before the government finally announced its closure.

The politically-forced Victorian forestry debacle exemplifies a danger for other Australian resource use industries that, if they are also forced to accept this new standard of over-the-top wildlife protection, it will ultimately also constrain their primary function and destroy them. This is undoubtedly the intention of the likes of Bob Brown and his activist cohorts, while there is also concern that Federal Environment Minister, Tanya Plibersek, may buy into this approach given her unwavering determination to prevent species extinctions under her watch.

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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 Going Green: Forests, fire, and a flawed conservation culture, was published by Connor Court in July 2018.

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