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Letter to the editor – Mark Poynter on The Forest Wars

The Forest Wars (author David Lindenmayer) purports to portray the ‘ugly truth’ about what happens in wood production forests – specifically Victoria’s tall wet forests where the author has concentrated much of his research. Given that wood production in Victoria has now ceased – albeit that the author can’t quite believe it – the book is now a somewhat academic exercise.

Presumably, its purpose is to maintain outrage that can aid campaigns that are now focused on ending timber production in NSW and Tasmanian native forests. Perhaps this is why the book appears to have been put together with some urgency. Nevertheless, it is easily readable in a short, sharp, but often simplistic myth-busting style. Unfortunately, it lacks an index which would make it easier to find particular areas of interest.

The writing exudes a strident, ‘I’m-the-expert’ tone. While this may be appropriate to areas of the book that address the author’s primary fields of expertise, it can fall flat when the book strays onto topics of which the author has an obviously limited practical understanding. Such topics include fire management, forest carbon, timber harvesting, resource economics, plantations, timber imports, and eco-tourism.

In places, the writing is loose with put-downs. The worst is the book’s blatant misrepresentation of Forestry Australia (formerly the Institute of Foresters) as a timber industry body and ‘cheer squad’ when it is in fact a professional association for the nation’s forest scientists, who are collectively the foremost experts on practical forest management.

Irrespective of such misconceptions, any book authored by a prominent scientist will – deservedly or not – be automatically anointed with a high level of credibility and trust. However, in this case, any readers expecting a scholarly, balanced and objectively considered analysis are likely to be somewhat disappointed. Instead, the book primarily reads as an exercise in finding arguments to justify the author’s long-standing belief that native forest wood production is exceedingly damaging, unviable, unnecessary, and must end.

The book is comprised of 12 chapters, of which eight are specifically devoted to “busting the myths peddled by industry”. Within these eight chapters, a total of 37 “myths” have been nominated, briefly described, and summarily debunked, leading to a short “reality” statement. The problem with this myth-busting approach is that it often ignores important context and dumbs-down the subject matter leading to simple, absolutist ‘realities’ that take no account of the complexities and nuances inherent to native forest management.

Unfortunately, many of the book’s so-called “industry myths” are cleverly-worded inventions perhaps designed to divert attention away from important areas of discussion.

Others amongst these “industry myths” are bizarre. Indeed, from the perspective of my 45-year career in forest science and field forestry, I can only accept that a couple of the 37 so-called “myths” actually fit that label and find that the book’s supposedly myth-busting statements of “reality” are more often the real myths.

Some notable examples of the book’s wrong or spurious ‘realities’ are:

  • Logging increases the risk of high severity fire;
  • Thinning has no effect or may even make fires worse;
  • Only 4% of the biomass in a logged native forest ends up as sawn timber;
  • Native forest logging is value subtracting;
  • Logging is a loss maker;
  • Numbers of jobs in native forest logging are small; and
  • Breaches of Australian logging laws can be widespread.

All of these can be shown to be largely false or highly contestable. Largely they have a basis in flawed research featuring the omission of important context, a reliance on wrong or misplaced assumptions, selective use of evidence, or misinterpretation of source references.

For example, on the topic of sawn timber percentage, initial errors from early papers have cascaded to deliver a figure that is wrong by at least a magnitude of four. Indeed, some flawed foundation papers have been a subject of formal complaint to the author’s home institution, the ANU Fenner School, as far back as 2015.

Unfortunately, countering the book’s glaring deficiencies in these areas is beyond a brief book review. Suffice to say that there are rational explanations, including peer reviewed science, that can counter or cast doubt on virtually all of the book’s many allegations This includes recollections from intimately involved foresters that are at odds with some of the author’s personal anecdotes that demonise timber production, including in relation to the multiple, concurrent activist-led court cases that have crippled the Victorian native forestry sector in recent years.

To cite just one example, the book’s frequent allegation that “native forest logging” is financially unviable is based only on the accounts of the government agency that sells logs and the numbers of forestry contractors working to harvest and haul those logs. It inexplicably ignores that this in-forest activity leads to at least 10 times as many jobs.

Outside the forest in log processing and wood products manufacture, and the substantial revenue that this generates.

In 2015, when Victoria’s Central Highlands native timber industry was operating with far less interference from eco-activist legal challenges, Deloitte Access Economics valued the whole industry at $0.57 billion per annum. Hardly a “loss making” activity.

In keeping with most vilification of ‘native forest logging’, the book credits it with dire environmental consequences that are way out-of-step with the small proportion of public forest that is actually used for timber production. Allegations, such as extinction threats or water yield reduction, must by their nature, be strongly correlated with the extent to which forests and their values are directly exposed to logging. Yet, the book provides no specific details of proportional forest use, even though such information is easily obtainable.

As if keenly aware of the potential for this major omission to be levelled against it, the book dances around it by suggesting that logging’s impacts are “about more than simply the proportion of the total forest estate that is logged… It matters what is being logged… places targeted for logging are often the most productive parts of the landscape”.

While there is certainly some truth in that, the book’s reluctance to disclose exactly how much forest is designated for wood production smacks of a fear that it would expose the level of gross exaggeration that has long been rife amongst critics of timber production.

For the record, In Victoria prior to the 2019 government announcement of a phased industry closure, the net area of public forest designated for a perpetual long-term cycle of timber harvest and regeneration comprised just 6% of the state’s total area of public forests and woodlands. As a proportion of only the potentially harvestable forest types, the designated wood production zones still only comprised around 12% widely dispersed across eastern Victoria.

In the most productive parts of the landscape, such as the state’s Mountain ash forests, only about 15% have been designated for timber production since the Otway’s industry closure 20-years ago, including about 25% of those in the Central Highlands at the time its industry was closed.

Clearly the vast majority of Victoria’s forests, including its highest value landscapes, have been undisturbed biodiversity preserves for decades. In view of this reality, the many comments in the book which imply otherwise, such as “I am confident our native forests will also recover if we stop logging them…” can only be regarded as disingenuous.

Amongst the book’s acknowledgements, the author thanks his “many opponents in debates over the years”, citing a list of politicians, journalists and government administrators to whom “I have listened to, and thought deeply about, their opinions”. That no scientists are listed amongst his ‘opponents in debates’ is interesting given the concerns regularly raised by forest scientists in relation to research by him and his ANU associates. Arguably, the book’s doubling-down on some obvious misconceptions and errors reflects a tendency to ignore or dismiss valid (and more advanced) forest science research, knowledge and advice, especially in relation to assumptions and concepts.

Books like this largely “preach to the converted” and so, despite its many shortcomings, it will likely please the majority of its readership who already support the anti-forestry agenda and are seeking brief, ostensibly accurate scientific facts to confirm, reinforce or enhance their pre-conceived beliefs. Generally, these true believers aren’t much interested in the alternative arguments or rational explanations that would challenge their self-righteous certainty.

Forestry is not and has never been perfect. Like any natural resource use that has evolved over a lengthy period – around 130 years in Australia – it has been shaped by both practical knowledge and pragmatic societal demands while enduring its share of mistakes, trials and tribulations which have provided the lessons for its progress into a sophisticated scientific discipline. It will be tragic if the true history of Australian native forestry is obscured in the public record by the polemic accounts of arms-length critics.

Mark Poynter is a retired forester after a 45-year career. He is a fellow of the Institute of Foresters of Australia (now Forestry Australia) and has written two books on the community and political conflict over native forest management.