Victorian Government grapples with forestry dilemma

The simple fact that the native forest industry is fundamentally unsustainable has confronted governments around the nation. Victoria is faced with, on the one hand, the possible extinction of its faunal emblem Leadbeater’s Possum, and on the other, closing down the native forest industry with potential job losses.

The issue came to a head early this year when Australian Sustainable Hardwoods threatened to close its mill at Heyfield in Gippsland, Australia’s largest hardwood mill, if it did not get 130,000 cubic metres of logs annually for 20 years. Such an allocation was, unsurprisingly, impossible. The government is still trying to find a solution.

The lack of resource has been blamed on buffer zones that were set up to try to save Leadbeater’s possum. Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce, proposed opening up protection zones for logging and said he would ask Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg to review the status of the possum which is listed as critically endangered. Mr Joyce said “While I understand the conservation of the Leadbeater’s possum is important, forestry is not a principle threat to the population.” The Australian National University’s Professor David Lindenmayer criticised Mr Joyce’s call, saying there were fewer Leadbeater’s possums left than giant pandas, and downgrading the classification of the species would be “absolute insanity”.

While this issue continues to be debated, a proposal for a Great Forest National Park in the Central Highlands north-east of Melbourne is gaining momentum.

Great Forest National Park
The proposal for a Great Forest National Park involves transferring 353,213 ha of State Forest to national park which combined with existing parks would produce a total reserve area of 536,755 ha. The proposal has attracted support from internationally acclaimed environmentalists, David Attenborough and Jane Goodall.

The proposed reserve would, of course, mean a reduction in timber production. Proponents of the reserve argue that it would produce a major boost for regional economies.

Professor David Lindenmayer, Fenner School of Environment and Society at ANU, is a leading proponent of the Great Forest National Park and has articulated the case for the reserve. An abbreviated extract is provide below.

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The Central Highlands of Victoria are home to the world’s tallest flowering plants, the Mountain Ash, and one of Australia’s most endangered mammals, the Leadbeater’s Possum. Both are threatened by ongoing clearfell logging and bushfires.

To ensure their survival, I would argue we need to create a new national park, not only to protect possums and forests, but carbon stocks, water supplies, and lower the risk of bushfires. Here’s the evidence.

Extinction and collapse
The Central Highlands region of Victoria is located around towns such as Healesville, Kinglake, Toolangi, Warburton, Marysville and Woods Point. The region includes the vast majority of remaining (and declining) Leadbeater’s Possums, Mountain Ash, the most carbon dense forests in the world; and supplies most of the drinking water for the city of Melbourne.

But the Mountain Ash forests are threatened by recurrent and widespread industrial clearfell logging and major bushfires (including the Black Saturday fires of 2009).

The result is that we now have 1,886 hectares of old growth forest, spread across 147 different patches. This is estimated to be 1.5-3%of the historical area of old growth forest.

The population of large old hollow-bearing trees has collapsed. These are a critical habitat for the animals that use them, including Leadbeater’s Possum. There is a high risk that the possums will become exinct in the next 20-40 years.

And as forests regrow from logging, they are at increased risk of re-burning at high severity.

Leadbeater’s Possum and Mountain Ash forests have persisted for tens of millions of years, surviving major wildfire events. But in just the last few decades the possum is at risk of extinction, and the forests are at risk of ecological collapse.

The threat of clear felling
The one factor that has demonstrably changed this ecosystem in the past century and created these risks has been intensive and widespread industrial clear felling. Clear felling has a number of significant detrimental effects in Mountain Ash forests.

Clear felling kills animals outright. Logged areas are unsuitable for animals that depend on hollow-bearing trees for over 150 years.

A bigger reserve
To preserve Leadbeater’s Possum, and in fact the entire Mountain Ash forest ecosystem, we need a bigger national park in the Central Highlands. There are already reserves and national parks in the area, but these need to be expanded and connected to deal with the threats facing Leadbeater’s Possum and Mountain Ash forests.

The new national park is important as it removes the key process – industrial clear felling – that is threatening both the Leadbeater’s Possum and the Mountain Ash forest

Why do we need to expand our reserves in the area?

First, the current reserve system is too small to support a viable population of Leadbeater’s Possums, particularly if there are more fires in the next 50-100 years.

Second, a large ecological reserve provides a greater chance for natural fire regimes and growth of large old trees to be restored.

Third, as Mountain Ash forests store vast amounts of carbon, a new national park will be critical to maintaining carbon stocks. The park would therefore be critical to any policy to reduce carbon emissions. Our studies clearly indicate that clear felling significantly depletes carbon storage in Mountain Ash forests whereas allowing stands to grow through to mature or old growth significantly increases carbon storage (even in the event of a major wildfire).

Fourth, water yields from Mountain Ash catchments are maximised when forests are dominated by old growth stands.

Location, location
The new park needs to connect key areas of habitat for Leadbeater’s Possum, and also connect existing reserves. Connectivity like this promotes the dispersal of the possums through the forests, including those recovering after wildfire.

The national park must encompass areas of existing old growth forest and also areas where environmental modelling indicates old growth will develop in the future.

The park must also be big enough to be larger than major disturbance events such as wildfires. This will ensure there is sufficient habitat to support viable populations of Leadbeater’s Possums.

At the same time as creating the park, pulp and timber yield from the Mountain Ash forests must be reduced. Mountain Ash forests have already been over-cut, and to maintain a sustained yield from the forests at the same time as setting aside the Great Forest National Park will even further increase over-cutting. This is because it will concentrate industrial clearfelling on a reduced area of available forest.

Economic benefits
A new Great Forest National Park would be a major economic boost for Victoria. It would be particularly helpful for regional economies like those around Marysville still rebuilding after the 2009 wildfires.

Victorian governments have never seriously advertised the fact that, within 1.5 hours from the MCG, you can find the world’s tallest flowering plants and some of the most stunningly beautiful environments on the Australian continent.

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Keith Scott

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Filed under Biodiversity, Forests

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