Call to end logging of ‘protective’ native forests in wake of bushfire crisis

Graham Readfearn
Call to end logging of ‘protective’ native forests in wake of bushfire crisis. A group of experts has called for the ban in response to ‘climate, fire and drought’ but others say it is a ‘simplistic solution to a complex problem’

A group of forestry and climate scientists are calling for an immediate and permanent end to the logging of all native forests across Australia as part of a response to climate change and the country’s bushfire crisis.

In an open letter, the group said forestry workers involved in logging in native forests should be redeployed to support the management of national parks.

A briefing document to back the letter, coordinated by The Australia Institute thinktank, argues logging in wet eucalypt forests promotes more flammable regrowth.

Dr Jennifer Sanger, a forest ecologist who is in Canberra today to deliver the letter told Guardian Australia: “As we face this climate crisis, we see our forests are worth far more standing.

Related: Court orders logging to stop in parts of Victoria's central highlands after fires

“We have to start taking this climate emergency more seriously and protective native forests is a simple step we could take and in my mind, a logical call.”

Some experts told Guardian Australia they disagreed, saying it could effectively rule out one potential response to managing forests in the face of climate change.

Among the signatories to the letter are University of Tasmania’s distinguished conservation ecologist Prof Jamie Kirkpatrick, James Cook University ecologist Prof Bill Laurance, and Prof Tim Flannery, of the University of Melbourne.

The letter says: “We write to ask you to respond to the climate, fire, drought and biodiversity loss crises with an immediate nationwide cessation of all native forest logging.”

Large old-growth trees are important for capturing and storing carbon, the letter said, adding that native forest logging “is heavily subsidised by our taxes, which can be better spent on fire mitigation”.

Government data shows that 5m hectares of native forests are open to logging and that annually, 73,000 hectares are harvested.

According to the briefing document, 12% of logs harvested in Australia come from native forests, and an end to native forest logging would directly impact 3,250 workers.

“The best economic use for native forests would be to leave the forests intact and push for inclusion in a carbon trading scheme,” the document said.

When wet eucalypt forests are cleared the regrowth and understorey is drier and more flammable, according to the document. Species that live in forests make up 80% of all Australia’s threatened species.

Sanger added: “Native forest logging just isn’t beneficial. It is not profitable, and there are not a lot of jobs that rely on it.

“Ecologically [forests] are under a lot of stress from other impacts, including climate change and habitat destruction, and it does not make sense to be logging these forests.”

The call to ban native forest logging comes after the government announced a Royal Commission into the bushfire crisis that focuses on adapting to climate change, with measures including the use of hazard reduction to be investigated.

Prof Rod Keenan, the University of Melbourne’s chair of forest and ecosystem science, told Guardian Australia he did not agree that all native forest logging should cease.

“The letter proposes a simplistic solution to a complex problem. Current timber harvesting is not the problem,” he said.

Native forest logging had declined over the last 20 years and was heavily regulated to protect habitats, he said, “so the environmental benefits of such a ban are unclear”.

He argued a ban would have “significant social and economic impacts for local communities” that had already been hit hard by fires.

He said: “The suggestion we can supply all our wood requirements from plantations is also incorrect. We have a large trade deficit in wood products, there is no immediate replacement for native timbers to industry and the plantation estate has taken a significant hit from recent fires.

Related: Bushfire royal commission to look at mitigation but not climate change

“The industry will need to adjust to recent fire impacts and adapt to a changing climate. New types of silviculture, including timber harvesting, can be part of the solution in reducing the impacts of future fires.

“Rather than knee-jerk decisions, we need to keep all options on the table as we work through the best responses to these catastrophic fires.”

Prof Peter Kanowski, an international forest governance expert at the Australian National University’s Fenner School of Environment and Society, said he also could not support a ban on native forest logging.

“We need to protect populations of plants and animals post-fire, and we need to organise any timber harvesting cognisant of that,” he said. “But beyond that, we have to think differently about a much more adaptive and integrated approach to how we manage forested landscapes in the future under climate change.”

He said that banning native forest logging would “be precluding options that we should not be precluding”.

The Australian Forest Products Association declined to comment on the open letter.