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.
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