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Opinion: Alex Van Der Meer Simo and Bill Paul – VicForests more than chainsaws

Plenty has been written on the Victorian Government’s decision to bring forward the cessation of native forest harvesting to the end of 2023. Looking at the wounds that some of those words have caused on our colleagues, we would like to clarify several issues that we think are a misinformed understanding of the details associated with forest practices in Victoria. We hope this will contribute to a more nuanced conversation about forest management in this State.

Firstly, it should be noted that Victoria has a world class reserve system for our forests. This is thanks, in part, to the development and implementation of the Regional Forest Agreements, between the Commonwealth and State governments. In that context, comprehensive assessments were undertaken of forest values and the most important areas were set aside in permanent parks and reserves as well as Special Protection Areas.

Despite this, an argument has been put forward  that “vast” areas Victoria’s native forests have been logged over the past several decades. The term “vast” is an ambiguous one that some objective figures can assist in clarifying. Victoria’s public land covers 8.05 million hectares with more than half dedicated as conservation areas in the form of National Parks and other conservation reserves. Approximately 3.2 million hectares is State Forest that is managed for multiple uses in accordance with Victoria’s Forest Management Plans and associated Forest Management Zoning Scheme. Under relevant state legislation, substantial areas of these multiple-use public forests are reserved or excluded from wood production.

While 1.8 million hectares is made available by the Government for harvesting under the Allocation Order to VicForests, only 155,000  hectares is modelled as operable, i.e., productive for commercial harvesting. In other words, just 2% of the total area of natural forest in Victoria is available and suitable for possible harvest; the vast majority are forests where timber harvesting was not going to take place. Each year VicForests harvests an average of around 3,000 hectares of native forest, representing just 0.04% of the total forest area.

Another argument that has been put forward is that there is more than enough plantation timber to fill the wood products gap when native hardwood timber ceases to be available. There are no doubts that plantations contribute and will play an increasing role in meeting growing industrial demand for forest products. However, the plantation estate is unfortunately in decline.

Whilst the total softwood plantation has been relatively stable, declining by only 7 300 hectares (0.7%), the total hardwood plantation area in Australia has decreased by 204,900 hectares (22%) between 2014-15 and 2019-20. The main reasons for this are low commerciality plantations not being replanted after harvest and some lease agreements with landholders not being renewed.

Further, the softwood plantation estate is almost completely reliant on (international) institutional investors that may decide to supply outside the Australian market. Developing policies that are effective in expanding plantations has proven to be difficult, and there will be a lengthy period until a hardwood plantation estate can supply demand. So, in the long term, extracting the wood we need from a combination of plantations, agricultural trees, and native forests appears to be a better strategy to secure wood sovereignty than strategies that rely on just one of those sources.

There is a claim that logging areas of Victoria’s native forests over the past several decades has pushed many once-common animals, such as the greater gliders and Leadbeater’s possum, to become endangered. The work of prominent academics in ecology and conservation biology and their contributions to the understanding of forest ecosystems and their management has been impressive. However, like any scientist, their work is not without caveats and limitations. In the case of Leadbeater’s possum, for example, the population numbers seem fortunately to be higher than we were earlier told.

This is perhaps because techniques available for finding these animals were largely limited to watching small hollows in trees and hoping for a sighting as they emerged.  With new modern thermal cameras, VicForests has been finding more Leadbeaters Possums than ever before, including in 10-year-old bushfire regrowth forests and timber harvesting regrowth forests as young as 5 years old.

Unfortunately, no one has yet conducted a systematic population analysis for this species, but data is available to researchers who want to investigate their conservation status across forest tenures to support their persistence while maintaining a sustainable timber industry. In the meantime, it is worth noting that Nitschke et al. (2020) found that:
·       While timber harvesting poses a local-scale threat, at a larger scale – across hundreds of thousands of hectares – bushfire poses the greatest threat to the species’ habitat.
·       Less than half of the area within current parks, reserves, and timber harvest exclusion zones provided stable long-term habitat for Leadbeater’s possum over the next century.

In the case of Southern Greater Gliders, work led by the Arthur Rylah Institute (2021) estimated that there were 24,575 greater gliders across the Strathbogie Ranges. This is a forest area where timber harvesting, largely selective harvesting, occurred for over 100 years. The population density from this study was within the range of density values reported from other regions studied in Victoria.

In that context, a more nuanced assessment is to acknowledge that the biodiversity outcomes of completely stopping harvesting are not clear. For some species, some types of logging are an issue. For a larger number of species, pervasive threats such as mismanaged fire and feral animals, remain a threat, regardless of forest tenure.

On a matter related to the effects of fire, there are  arguments that logging makes forests more flammable. However, Keenan et al. (2021) found that logging had negligible or no impact on fire severity compared to the overwhelming effect of weather and local geography.

Keenan et al. (2021) also referred to data from the Australian Bureau of Agricultural Resource Economics and Sciences to note that “the volume of timber removals in south-eastern Australian native forests has declined by 50% in the last 20 years, while the average annual area burnt has more than doubled (MPIG and NFISC 2018)”.

Many voices continue to reduce native forest harvesting to the production of “low-value products such as woodchips and paper pulp.” It appears that some do not know that there are many different qualities of timber that can come from an individual tree.

Pulpwood is the residue of the sawlog harvesting program and is typically from the top part of the tree harvested for sawlog production, i.e., the part that contains many branches. Further, VicForests was set up by the Victorian Government as a commercial entity; it makes no logical sense why VicForests would sell all its timber for pulpwood when it makes five times more revenue from an equivalent quantity of high value sawlog.

In the 2020/21 financial year, VicForests sold 376,433 m3 of sawlog and 505,257 m3 of pulp-log. On a related matter, a research project by the University of Melbourne in 2019 found that, if substitution effects are considered, an ecological thinning strategy that prioritises harvesting for pulp and bioenergy is by far the best scenario in terms of carbon due to the significant offset benefits of pulp.

Ecological thinnings, can also lead to larger, healthier trees, able to better survive droughts and bushfires and develop into habitat trees. This is, forestry can store carbon, protect habitat trees while they grow and provide economic returns if we get it right.

It is often lamented that a major portion of Victoria’s mountain ash forests are either severely disturbed by wildfire and logging. It should be noted that most of these forests were utilised for timber in the late 1800s and early 1900s and then severely burnt, in particular, in the 1939 Black Friday bushfires that burnt an area in Victoria larger than the more recent 2019/20 bushfires.

It is doubtful that the Mountain Ash forests of today, in the Central Highlands, are as severely disturbed as they were 80 years ago. The fact that many wish to incorporate these forests into a new national park is testament to their resilience. The greatest threat to the ash forests is extensive bushfire occurring in quick succession before trees can grow to an age where they can set viable seed. This can lead to the conversion to a ‘scrub’ rather than forest cover (Bassett et al 2015). Active forest management by skilled foresters may provide a more effective strategy to protect these forests than preserving them.

Some of papers mischaracterising forest management in Victoria have drawn on significant amounts of data that VicForests uploads on the Victorian Biodiversity Atlas. This data is now also with researchers of the University of Melbourne who have been asked to help us better understand population densities of threatened fauna across different forest land tenures and harvest histories.

These are examples that rather than just managing the harvest, sale, and regrowing of timber on behalf of the Victorian Government, these foresters embrace the complex challenge to manage for both production and conservation. As Dr Tyron Venn, recently observed, this is something that can provide greater long-term benefits for biodiversity conservation, climate risk mitigation, and sovereign wood supply that reduce our international footprint.

Moving forward, it might be worth resuscitating an agency that cures the thousand cuts that have killed the forests. This should be an agency that manages for the multiple use of forests, with perhaps wood produced as a by-product of an integrated and climate-smart approach. Such an agency could also facilitate collaboration between companies and farmers to contribute achieving Australian tree plantation development goals.

These, together with ending land clearing for agriculture, mining, and urban development, and restoring trees in rural landscapes in collaboration with farmers, communities, and traditional owners, are the battles that we all should fight against our biggest enemy climate change. We hereby invite others to apply their passion, intellectual gifts, endowments, and trained skills to foster dialogue and pathways to solve this complex issue.

Alex Van Der Meer Simo is Research And Development Manager VicForests and Bill Paul is Director of Forest Management VicForests.