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Save the forests: Support evidence-based environmentalism

By Jennifer Marohasy - posted Monday, 6 June 2005

Yesterday was World Environment Day, a time to perhaps reflect on what the environmental movement has achieved and where it is heading. It has been my contention for some years that modern environmentalism has lost its way; that if we really care about the environment we would take a more evidence-based, as opposed to faith-based, approach to environmental protection. The recent decision by the New South Wales’ Government to ban logging in the Pilliga-Goonoo forests in north-west NSW is a case in point.

Writing about environmentalism from an anthropologist’s perspective, Tanya Luhrmann remarks:

The religious power of the natural world is in the range of the experience it can symbolize and has always symbolized. We ascribe emotions to the natural world as readily as we use nature to describe our own. … The turn of the seasons - a world in which vegetation sprouts, blooms, seeds and dies, the tension of the hunter and the hunted - provides the materials for a dense narrative web. So too does the Bible, but few liberal intellectuals read the text these days. The natural world is immediately accessible. Its narratization proceeds on a foundation that all people know.


Luhrmann is writing about the worship of nature, not the study of nature. Environmental protection requires not only that we care deeply about something, but that we know how to care for it. It requires that we have some understanding of component parts, how they function and what they need.

Many environmental groups claim to be science-driven, but they generally subscribe to a romantic notion of nature - it is almost nature worship. They advocate a “hands off” approach and within this paradigm man is often considered to be “sinning” whenever he attempts to modify or control the landscape, this includes the felling of trees. Activists campaign to remove timber workers, bee keepers and horse-riders from forests, as though this will result in the protection of these forests: that in this way they can revert to their natural, pristine, idyllic state.

But there was no original pristine state. The work of Charles Darwin has shown that competition, adaptation and natural selection, sometimes against a backdrop of catastrophic climate change, have driven the evolution of life on earth.

We live in a secular society and value evidence. Yet it is the naive and romantic concept of nature that very often underpins public policy decision making on environmental issues in Australia. For example, when the NSW government announced a ban on logging in the Pilliga-Goonoo forests it described the decision as achieving “permanent conservation” of these iconic forests. In reality without active management there can be no conservation of these forests. The forests are less than 150-years-old and have grown-up with a timber industry that has tended the cypress and Eucalyptus creating tall trees and also habitat for iconic species such as koalas and barking owls.

When European explorers first saw the country in the 1820s it was grassland and open woodlands. Pastoral leases followed and by the early 1870s it was estimated that 25,000 sheep and 30,000 cattle were grazing where today there is forest. Then severe drought resulted in stock deaths and the abandonment of the leases before flooding rains in the early 1880s triggered a massive germination of cypress and Eucalyptus. Timber communities established and the timber workers thinned the cypress. So instead of dense acacia, thick, tall trees grew. They also managed fuel loads within the forest, lest the forest and its wildlife be destroyed by wild fires.

The timber communities began losing access to their forests in 1967 when 80,239 hectares of State Forest became the new Pilliga Nature Reserve. In 1986, under a new management regime, the annual rate of cypress pine sawlog production was reduced to 53,000 cubic metres (the annual forest growth rate is estimated to be 70,000 cubic metres). In 1999 there was a push to convert more state forest to national park. A decision was due in 2002 but it was only last month that the timber industry, until recently generating $38.4 million and employing 420 people, was told that it finally had to go.


Rather than working from a basis of evidence, and recognising the value of forestry practices, including in reducing the potential for destructive wild fires, the NSW government gave in to naïve campaigning. Campaigning that ignored the history of the forests.

In 1860, when the Pilliga was open grazing land, Thomas Huxley wrote, “A religious idea can not be subject to scientific proof … science and her methods are independent of authority and tradition”. The late 1800s was a period when there was much public debate about the role of science versus church: knowledge versus faith. One hundred and forty-five years later, I sense that there needs to be another reckoning.

I don’t doubt that many environment groups have achieved a lot for the environment. They have instilled a deep awareness within western culture of the beauty of the natural world. They have fought hard and often successfully against uncontrolled development and for controls on pollution. But it is now time to reassess the situation. While these groups know how to have land locked up in national parks and conservation reserves, they don’t know how to manage areas once they are locked up.

There is a need for a new approach to environmentalism. It is time we stopped making decisions on an outdated, romantic notion of how ecosystems operate. If we really care about the environment it is time that we, as a nation, started gathering basic information on the condition of our national parks, conservation reserves and state forests. It is also time we started asking some of the hard questions. Such an approach, amongst other things would including testing my hypothesis that there are more iconic species such as koalas and barking owls in state forests that are logged, than in national parks where environmental disturbance is theoretically minimised and ask the question - what are we actually saving and what should we really be saving.

If we really care about biological diversity and putting in place management regimes that work, we will not be frightened of the answers.

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About the Author

Jennifer Marohasy is a senior fellow with the Institute for Public Affairs.

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