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Calls to open national parks to logging post bushfires are wrong

forest trees aerial
Tumbarumba, photo: Nick/Adobe Stock

OXYGEN FILES: Opening our national parks to logging, in the wake of the damage done to the timber industry by this season’s bushfires, doesn’t offer anyone a long-term solution.

When the giant fire in the Snowy Mountains was at its peak during this bushfire season National Party Leader Michael McCormack was sounding alarm bells for the softwood timber industry around the small town of Tumbarumba. Trees were lost and jobs were gone, he said.

Well, this week Hyne Timber, which owns and operates a softwood mill at Tumbarumba that employs over 200 workers, was inviting every media outlet to come and see business carrying on as usual.

Hyne spokeswoman Katie Fowden told The Fifth Estate the factory is processing burned logs, and that when the burned outer bark is removed, the quality of the timber is still sound.

There is sufficient feedstock in hand for the next 12 months of production, she says. This means downstream customers, such as engineered timber manufacturers, XLAM, at Albury-Wodonga, can keep filling orders.

The company doesn’t know how much feedstock it will have beyond the next 12 months, because many hectares of plantations have been seriously damaged.

But Fowden says the trees are resilient, so it may not be as dire as initially thought.

The company is among those now working with all levels of government to ensure the right supports are in place for the industry, for example, possibly offering freight subsidies if logs need to come from further afield.

What Hyne at Tumbarumba will not be doing, however, is seeking access to national parks or native forest areas. The multi-million-dollar plant is only equipped for processing plantation pine and it would require a significant investment to retool for native timbers, one the company has no plans to make.

This is in contrast to those calling for the right to access reserve areas to either harvest damaged timber for use by industry or to meet logging quotas.

Some are also arguing that logging national parks and other protected areas is the best way to reduce bushfire risk in future.

Meanwhile, ecologists are concerned any timber recovery from national parks or other protected areas may kill more native wildlife and potentially affect water catchment quality through erosion.

David Lindenmayer, professor at the Fenner School of Environment and Society, ANU College of Science, told ABC it could also increase fire risks.

Logging halted in Victoria

In Victoria, this week, citizen science group Wildlife of the Central Highlands (WOTCH), represented by lawyers from Environmental Justice Australia, launched a Supreme Court case against the state’s production forest managers, VicForests.

It also successfully obtained an interim injunction to halt logging in unburnt threatened species habitat until biodiversity assessments have been carried out.

A halt to logging in 10 coupes was initially proposed. At the hearing, this was narrowed down to three coupes where logging is currently underway. WOTCH’s application for an interlocutory injunction has been listed for hearing on 18 February.

The initial judgement documents state the court accepts there is prima facie evidence that serious and irreversible harm to threatened species will occur if logging is allowed in the three coupes where it is already underway.

“The recent bushfires have caused extensive environmental damage, the severity of which is only beginning to be understood,” the court said.

The case argues that continued logging is unlawful where the threatened Greater Glider, Sooty Owl, Powerful Owl and Smoky Mouse have been sighted or where their habitat exists until the survey has been completed.

“As climate change increases the frequency and severity of bushfires, we need to make sure that the laws designed to protect our threatened species hold up,” said Danya Jacobs, Senior Lawyer for Environmental Justice Australia. 

“These laws require that logging agency, VicForests, must avoid serious damage to threatened species and carefully manage our unique wildlife in light of expert research and current monitoring.”

The Victorian government has already initially assessed these key species as having lost more than 40 per cent of their modelled habitat distribution due to bushfires.

It’s a story being seen around the country. In New South Wales, the Stand Up for Nature Alliance, comprising 13 NGOs, is calling for an immediate moratorium on native forest logging.

In a letter to Premier Gladys Berejiklian sent at the start of the bushfire emergency, the Alliance said that “the effects of the catastrophic fires have been so far-reaching that allowing further loss of habitat and impact on native species would be unconscionable.

“There needs to be a full assessment of the impact of the fires on the entire forest network, on threatened species and ecological communities, and reappraisal of existing wood supply commitments.

“Without this information, the sustainability of harvesting operations cannot be guaranteed.”

According to Friends of the Earth spokesman and volunteer firefighter, Cam Walker, we shouldn’t let industry rush into National Parks and other areas for salvage logging.

It would just compound the damage the fires have caused to our biodiversity.

“We need to do a full ecological assessment first,” Walker says.

Another good reason to hold back is water.

Walker notes that many of the forest areas are on steep slopes with deep soil. Sending In machinery is likely to cause massive erosion at a time when rivers and streams are already stressed by drought, and ash and debris from bushfires.

Logging also results in lower yields of water into catchments, and regrowth consumes more water than mature forest. This is one of the reasons Victoria banned logging in Melbourne’s water catchment back in the 1950s. However, Walker notes the level of protection has slowly been chipped away.

The “cookie cutter” style of logging practised in Victoria also means soil is exposed to sunlight and dries out, which, combined with the flammable nature of regrowth and the increased wind ingress, sets the area up for another big burn in future.

Biodiversity protection creates jobs, too

Walker says a “vast amount of jobs” can be created for people in regional areas undertaking biodiversity survey work. As citizen science initiatives such as the Australian Museum’s FrogID project have shown, technology can help equip non-experts to contribute to research.

Currently, citizen science is already “filling the gap” for many environmental research tasks, as state authorities are not adequately resourced, Walker says.

Perhaps some of the federal money pledged towards biodiversity recovery from the fires could be usefully deployed to create opportunities for this kind of job creation for Indigenous and regional communities.

“There needs to be more investment in ground-truthing.”

Walker says there are also opportunities for those with experience in operating heavy equipment, in areas such as improving firefighting resources, carbon management and forest management.

National Park timber can’t be certified sustainable

Timber industry specialist and principal of Stephen Mitchell Associates, Stephen Mitchell, co-authored the Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) for Australian timber products. These EPDs comply with the requirements of Green Star and the Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia’s sustainability rating schemes.

He tells The Fifth Estate that timber harvested from National Park areas is highly unlikely to meet the requirements of forest certification schemes such as the Responsible Wood Standard [PEFC] or the Forestry Stewardship Council’s [FSC] Standard.

He says he would be “dead against” the timber industry accessing National Parks to secure timber supply to make up for production forests that have been burnt, as the Victorian Branch of the National Party and some timber industry members have been advocating.

While it is not mandatory for Green Star rated projects or ISCA-rated projects to seek points under the certified timber credit, the “controlled wood” option would also not be achievable using timber from conservation zones, unless there is a government-level change of policy to legalise such logging and the areas were not high conservation value – both highly unlikely.

There could be some middle ground, however. Where trees along roadways or adjacent to residential areas need to be removed to improve fire safety and create asset protection zones, he says it would be best if that timber could be productively utilised.

Stop wasting wood

Mitchell points out that at one stage, NSW Roads and Maritime Services was the state’s largest land clearer as many roads were being built through areas such as the North Coast with high quality logs. The felled trees were made available to the timber industry rather than being chipped onsite.

Likewise, in many managed productive forests, such as state forests, current practices leave a considerable amount of wood lying on the forest floor after saw and pulp logs have been removed. The general practice is to burn these windrows.

However, with safe periods for burning off shrinking due to climate change, it may be better to look for productive uses such as supply for bioenergy or greater use in engineered wood products.

Studies in California found that using logging residue could reduce the cost of widespread hazard reduction operations by about 30 per cent through timber sales.

There is also “definitely more scope” for re-use and recycling of timber already present in the built environment. This sector has been slow to evolve, but there is a growing demand.

Mitchell points to Borg Manufacturing in Oberon west of Sydney, which has recently started utilising waste wood to produce very low emitting formaldehydeE0 and E1  particleboard products.

Big projects are also driving more uptake of certified sustainable wood products, he says. The North West Rail Link in Sydney, for example, recently achieved the highest ever ISCA rating and was the first project to achieve FSC and PEFC project certification by using only FSC and PEFC-certified timber.

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