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Opinion: Mark Poynter on why flawed scientists are creating havoc in forestry

Last week, a disparate group of 19 scientists presented an ‘open letter’ to the Parliament of Australia calling for an immediate nationwide cessation of all native forest timber production as a response “to the climate, fire, drought and biodiversity loss crises” sparked by this summer’s extensive bushfires. Source: Mark Poynter

Amongst the 19 scientists were seven from overseas universities or institutions in Singapore, Hong Kong, Canada, the United States, and New Zealand; while four of the 19 were marine scientists who would not be expected to have expertise in Australian forests. Those remaining signatories with potential relevance to the issue were mostly Tasmanian-based geographers and an ecologist.

The ‘letter’ itself was just a 10-line statement released to the media under the banner of the green-left think tank, The Australia Institute. The Institute has a long history of anti-forestry activism, exemplified in the ‘letter’ by three rhetorical statements about:

1) logging supposedly increasing the fire hazard;

2) plantations being able to supply all our hardwood needs; and

3) that timber production is ‘heavily subsidised by our taxes’.

The first of these claims is highly dubious simply because the proportional scale of logging in our forests is so small; the second statement is simply wrong; and the third statement is both wrong and inappropriate given that none of the letter’s signatories is an economist with insight into the financial operations of the timber industry.

Overall, the ‘letter’ reads as a response to the recent bushfires from a cohort of scientists with no practical expertise in this area, but who are using the fires as an opportunity to push another agenda (ie. ending native forest logging) of which they also lack operational knowledge and practical experience. That they have put their name to such a document arguably constitutes an abuse of academic credibility.

Unfortunately, such academic over-reach – that is, vocal scientists publicly claiming a specialist expertise about forestry and fire despite having no qualifications or practical experience in these fields – has become a feature of the recent bushfires and their aftermath. This is despite such behaviour contravening professional academic standards set-down by most universities.

The best example of this phenomenon is ANU ecologist, Professor David Lindenmayer, who, courtesy of the ABC, has become a public ‘authority’ about matters as far removed from his scientific expertise as the economics of eco-tourism, transitioning the timber industry to eucalypt plantations, the state of Melbourne’s water supply, the volume of remaining wood resource, and the socio-economic value of the timber industry.

Last November, following the Victorian Government’s decision to close the state’s native forest timber industry, he added fire management to that list when on ABC Radio he claimed that concerns about the loss of industry workers and equipment on the capability to control wildfires were “Rubbish”.

A more specific example relating to the recent bushfires was a mid-January article on the ABC News website, in which Professor James Watson, an ecologist at the University of Queensland (who was formerly a ‘senior campaigner’ for The Wilderness Society), asserted that: “The science is pretty clear.

Many of these fires got out of control in logged areas and logging is the very reason why many species are already endangered”. As Professor Watson has not fought the fires one wonders where he gets such insights, and his claimed impact of logging is spurious given just how little of SE Australia’s native forests are being used for timber supply.

Professor Watson has so far declined to respond to four requests by a senior Victorian forester asking him to point out the science which justifies his strong assertion.

Another example was a mid-January article (which appeared in several news publications) written by Distinguished Professor Byron Lamont and Dr Tianhua He of WA’s Curtin University, which dismissed the value of fuel reduction burning as a fire management tool. While both scientists are plant ecologists, they betrayed their complete lack of knowledge and practical experience of fire management when they asserted that: “Controlled fires are only meant to stop the odd cigarette thrown out of a car window from starting a fire, or lightning strikes igniting the ground flora”.

Such academic over-reach by unqualified scientists effectively expressing a personal opinion, is a serious issue because it can shape community sentiment in ways that are out-of-step with the real expertise.

Seemingly credible gross exaggerations of the environmental impacts of forestry operations have had a profound effect on political decision-making and, consequently, on the capability to manage forest fire. Indeed, it is reasonable to conclude that the political influence of campaigning activists and academics with little operational knowledge and no practical experience of forest fire management lies at the heart of this summer’s fire blackened landscapes.

Central to this has been the progressive overturning of the former State forest multiple-use management approach to appease ‘green’ sensibilities that have often been supported by academic over-reach.

In its place, most SE Australian forests are now under a passive conservation management regime based on minimising disturbance to a supposedly fragile landscape – even though Australian forests are far from fragile and are mostly reliant on periodic disturbance.

This misplaced presumption of environmental fragility has been central to public policy about whether we should produce any wood from our native forests, and the extent (if any) to which we should use cool fire to reduce fuels to help protect us from hot summer wildfires. These policies have demonstrably weakened forest fire management capability through:

1) the progressive loss of the most experienced and capable forest fire-fighters who formerly worked in the timber industry or for government agencies that managed commercial forestry. For example, Victoria has lost over 100 logging contractors and several hundred very experienced earth-moving operators since the mid-1980s as the state’s timber industry has been progressively closed by the state government. These contractors formerly worked throughout the bush each summer and their presence, together with the roads and tracks that they used, enabled quicker ground-based containment of forest fires by machinery operators with the skill and experience to deal with the topographical risks;

2) a consequential increase in national parks and other conservation reserves which typically employ fewer management resources and are often governed according to a disturbance-averse management philosophy which lacks perspective and can weaken the response to wildfires. During the huge 2003 fires in SE Australia, this philosophy was exemplified by the infamous line – “I’d rather see the bush burnt than buggered” – uttered by a senior park manager opposing plans to contain the fire by constructing a dozed firebreak in the Alpine National Park. By not employing this tactic, significantly greater areas of the park were ultimately burnt. There are allegations that a similarly gross loss of perspective by park managers was responsible for allowing at least one of the recent Victorian fires to burn a far greater area than if more aggressive fire-fighting tactics had been employed;

3) reduced state and local government support for fuel reduction burning based on a failure to recognise that the ecological impact of cool season hazard reduction burning, even if based on imperfect knowledge, is infinitely less damaging compared to that incurred when heavy fuel loads in long unburnt forests are burnt by hot summer wildfires.

At the heart of the consequently weakened fire management capability, is a lack of practical experience of fire amongst the most vocal and influential conservation academics and eco-activists who have the ear of state governments. Accordingly, far from ‘protecting’ the environment, their influence in shaping policies to unnecessarily close timber industries to create national parks has done little more that create an illusion of conservation that the majority of voters, residing in the cities, cannot see through.

Those with practical knowledge and experience of managing forests have recognised for generations that the central plank in conserving their unique biodiversity is the capability to effectively deal with the fire threat. It is to be hoped that last summer’s huge fires will enable our conservation scientists to learn this simple lesson, but the recent examples cited above don’t provide much optimism.

The simple reality is that bushfire outcomes will not improve until state governments take far less notice of strong opinions on forest management emanating from vocal conservation scientists (and eco-activists) who lack practical fire management knowledge and expertise.

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.