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'Saving' Australia’s forests for carbon - valid science or 'green' activism?

By Mark Poynter - posted Thursday, 16 July 2009

A recent Australian Government study of 115 key industries found that only the forestry sector was net carbon-positive. Yet, a major Wilderness Society campaign is advocating the closure of Australian timber industries to help mitigate climate change.

Their campaign revolves around research by scientists from the Australian National University Fenner School of Environment and Society who have found that large amounts of carbon reside in some Australian “old growth” forests. Environmental activists have shoe-horned this finding into their over-arching 40-year campaign to completely evict timber production from all Australian forests. Their rationale is that a total absence of timber harvesting will allow all forests to become “old growth” which will store maximum amounts of carbon.

This raises several important issues. First, closing a carbon-positive industry that is based on a renewable resource is hardly likely to reduce carbon emissions. Second, the capability of most forests to attain “old growth” is reliant on fire, irrespective of timber harvesting. And third, there is concern about the integrity of the Wilderness Society’s campaign and the key participatory role of several ANU scientists.


It is hardly a surprise that large trees store more carbon than small trees. Yet this is essentially the finding of the ANU research which the Wilderness Society has loudly trumpeted as an exciting new development since it was released via two academic papers published during the past 10 months.

The first paper entitled Green Carbon - the Role of Native Forests in Carbon Storage - Part 1, by ANU scientists Professor Brendan Mackey, Dr Heather Keith, Sandra Berry, and Professor David Lindenmayer, was published in August 2008. This is now supported by a follow-up paper published just days ago (in late June 2009) - entitled Re-evaluation of forest biomass carbon stocks and lessons from the world’s most carbon dense forests, by Keith, Mackey, and Lindenmayer.

Much of the research underpinning these papers has focused on mountain ash (Eucalyptus regnans) forests in Victoria’s Central Highlands. Prior to February 2009, the majority of these ash forests were classed as advanced regrowth derived from the 1939 and 1926 bushfires. Only about 1.5 per cent of their area was classed as “old growth”.

February’s “Black Saturday” fires changed this quite significantly by killing a large area of ash regrowth and most of the “old growth” ash. Ash forests depend on fire for renewal and these burnt areas will regenerate as new young stands. The period between stand replacement fires is variable, but may be sufficiently infrequent to allow some forests to grow for hundreds of years to attain “old growth” status. However, as we have seen over the past century, more frequent fires can kill huge areas before they grow old and thereby maintain much of the forest in a regrowth state.

Anti-logging activism is typically silent on matters of scale and proportion as it is far easier to foster community outrage by implying that all forests are threatened. However, this is far from the reality. In Victoria, less than 10 per cent of public forests are available and suitable for timber production: the national figure is 6 per cent. Within these available forests, harvesting and regeneration occurs on a sustainable cycle that aims to supply timber and fibre in perpetuity.

Despite being Victoria’s most productive forest type, about two-thirds of the state’s mountain ash forests are in parks and reserves where timber production is excluded. Where permitted, timber production is restricted to regrowth ash forest mostly emanating from the 1939 bushfires. While, the ANU research and associated environmental campaign have built a perception that central Victoria’s “old growth” ash forests are threatened by logging, all were protected in parks and reserves, or by management prescription.


The exclusion of timber production from the vast majority of Australia’s forests means that most already have the potential to grow their carbon stocks towards their maximum carrying capacity. However, it is drawing an extremely long bow to expect all Australian forests to attain “old growth” given the prevalence of fire in the landscape; and an even greater leap of faith to expect that closing down a timber industry which operates in only a minor part of the forest, to be a catalyst for maximising forest carbon storage.

On the contrary, it is highly likely that closing Australia’s hardwood timber industry would exacerbate climate change. This is because it would encourage greater importation of hardwoods from developing countries whose forests are not sustainably managed; and increase the substitution of renewable wood products with non-renewable alternatives, such as steel and aluminium, which embody massive carbon emissions in their manufacture.

Furthermore, the forced removal of economic activity from Australia’s forests in response to political activism is already acknowledged as a significant factor in declining capability to manage forest fire. Total removal of industry and associated government workforces would only exacerbate this problem and thereby further reduce the chances of forests growing old before they are burnt.

The ANU research has ignored all these factors. In particular, its failure to consider the role of fire as the ultimate determinant of forest carbon storage is a stunning omission from scientists of such high standing. The magnitude of this flaw was emphasised when the February bushfires killed most “old growth” ash forest in the O’Shannessy catchment (north of Melbourne) which had been the study area for the most recent ANU research.

Forest carbon storage is clearly a complex matter. It cannot be simply assumed - as the Wilderness Society does - that “saving” forests from timber production is a climate change fix. Their campaign is also deceitful because it lumps Australia’s sustainable forestry (in which trees are harvested and regenerated), with deforestation in developing countries (where trees are permanently removed for another land use). It is the latter activity which is mostly responsible for a reported 18 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions.

Australian environmentalists view themselves as an ally of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). However, with regards to forests, they are out of step given that in 2007, the IPCC stated that:

In the long term, a sustainable forest management strategy aimed at maintaining or increasing forest carbon stocks, while producing an annual sustained yield of timber, fibre or energy from the forest, will generate the largest sustained mitigation benefit.

Deceptively avoiding inconvenient truths is almost expected of activists fixated on an ideological outcome. However, similar behaviour should be intolerable among scientists working for respected academic institutions carrying credibility for being apolitical and scientifically objective.

Unfortunately, there is a growing suspicion that the ANU scientists researching forest carbon have been less than objective since their Fenner School partnered the Wilderness Society to establish the ANU Wild Country Research and Policy Hub. The lead scientist working on forest carbon - Professor Brendan Mackey - is the Hub’s Director of Research and is responsible for its management.

The progress of the ANU’s forest carbon research thus far points to a disturbing slackening of academic process to assist the Wilderness Society’s political activism. As pointed out in an earlier article in On Line Opinion ("Blurring the lines between science and political activism", October 30, 2008), the Green Carbon paper by Mackey et al was part-funded by the Wilderness Society. However, more significantly, the paper failed to conform to accepted academic standards when:

  • it was published without any technical data to support its findings;
  • its key findings were publicly launched by its lead author (Professor Mackey) some nine months before it was published. This was at a Wilderness Society function held at the UN Climate Conference in Bali in November 2007;
  • the pre-publication launch occurred before the academic peer review process had been completed;
  • it was able to satisfy peer review standards without any supporting technical data. thereby raising concerns about the veracity of the peer review process;
  • one of the peer reviewers was Emeritus Professor Henry Nix, Chairman of the Wild Country Hub’s Advisory Board and co-Chair of the Wilderness Society’s Wild Country Science Council of which the paper’s lead author, Professor Mackey, is also a member; and
  • also prior to publication, the paper’s findings were made available to Wilderness Society members to assist them in making submissions to the Garnaut Climate Change Review.

The key finding of the Green Carbon paper that halting native forest timber production will give superior carbon accounting outcomes fits neatly with the Wilderness Society’s position articulated in its Forests and Woodlands Policy:

The Wilderness Society “does not support the use of native forests to supply woodchips for pulp, wood for power generation, charcoal production, commercial firewood, or timber commodities”.

The recent release of a follow-up paper by three of the same ANU scientists has raised further concerns. While this new paper is more measured and does not directly advocate closing timber industries, the timing of its publication and the activities of the authors have again been integral to the current round of carbon-based political activism.

The most recent phase of the environmental movement’s carbon campaign appears to have been specifically designed to coincide with Federal parliamentary debate about a proposed carbon pollution reduction scheme. As can be seen below, the recently released ANU research is integral to this:

  • June 5: Australian Greens media release - Greens in vigorous pursuit of forests solution in climate change - announces that Senator Bob Brown has “… explained to the PM, in detail, the latest research from the ANU showing that carbon emissions from logging native forests in NSW, Victoria, and Tasmania could be more than ten times above government estimates”.
  • June 16: Senator Brown signifies his intention to move that the Senate:
    (a) notes the findings of Professor Brendan Mackey, Professor David Lindenmayer and Dr Heather Keith of the Australian National University that Victoria’s Eucalyptus regnans (mountain ash) forests are the most carbon dense on Earth; and
    (b) calls on the Government to inform the Senate by 24 June 2009:
    •  whether the report has validity,
    •  what government measures are being taken or considered to protect Eucalyptus regnans forests in Australia that are currently targeted for logging,
    •  what area and volume of such forests are available for logging under current planning regimes, and
    •  whether ending native forest and woodland removal in Australia would reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions by 10 to 20 per cent.
  • June 16: ANU Media Release - Australia home to forest carbon winner - announces that Victoria’s Central Highlands are the most carbon-dense forests in the world according to a paper by Dr Keith, Professor Mackey and Professor Lindenmayer published in the US-based Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
  • June 16: an article appears in Melbourne’s The Age newspaper - “Mountain ash the best for carbon” - referring to the Keith et al paper;
  • June 16: Professor Mackey is interviewed on ABC radio’s AM program. The program includes a supporting interview with Dr James Watson, University of Queensland. Dr Watson was formerly a key figure in the Wilderness Society and is thought to have played a role in obtaining funding for the forest carbon research.
  • June 16: an article in the Brisbane Times extensively quotes Wilderness Society campaigner, Virginia Young, who believes that the latest ANU research outlines “a huge opportunity for the government to help solve the climate problem through protecting and restoring native forests”.
  • June 22: The Wilderness Society’s Gavan McFadzean has an 800-word opinion piece published in Melbourne’s The Age newspaper - “Preserving old growth forests is vital to saving the planet” - which draws extensively on the ANU research.
  • June 24: Professor Mackey, Dr Keith, and Professor Lindenmayer conduct a public lecture at ANU to explain their latest research.
  • June 24: the ANU paper so extensively promoted in the media since June 16 is finally published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
  • June 25: the Senate defers a vote on the introduction of an emissions trading scheme until August.
  • July 1: an article written jointly by Wilderness Society campaigner, Amelia Young, and the Australian Youth Climate Coalition’s, Lucy Manne, appears in On Line Opinion - “Forests - the essential climate fix”.

It is a concern that the ANU’s latest forest carbon research paper was for most of the time unpublished while its findings were being promoted as published fact in the media. This raises the question of whether this is a deliberate ploy to stifle debate by denying critics (and journalists) the opportunity to examine the veracity of the science.

It is also curious that the paper was published only during June 2009, despite being received by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences almost a year earlier. In light of earlier events, this raises suspicions about whether publication was delayed at the behest of the authors to fit the Wilderness Society’s campaign requirements.

Superficially, it may seem reasonable to cease timber production by placing all forests in national parks so they can grow old and store maximum levels of carbon. However, when considered in context with the natural prevalence of bushfire and the carbon-value of wood products, it would be counter-productive to the effort to mitigate climate change.

It had been hoped that the 2009 “Black Saturday” bushfires would finally show environmental activists that fire - not timber harvesting and regeneration - is the ultimate arbiter of Australia's forests. Sadly, their forest carbon campaign shows they have learnt nothing.

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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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