More than half NSW forests lost since 1750 and logging ‘locking in’ species extinction, study finds
More than half of the forests and woodland in New South Wales that existed before European invasion are now gone and more than a third of what’s left is degraded, according to new research.
Despite the loss of 29m hectares of forest since 1750 – an area larger than New Zealand – continued logging since 2000 had likely affected about 244 threatened species.
Many species that depended on forests were now being sucked into “an extinction vortex” because of logging, one of the study’s authors, the University of Queensland’s Prof James Watson, said.
During the current state election campaign, neither of the two major parties has released plans to address rates of land clearing. Unlike in Western Australia and Victoria, there are no plans to end native forest logging in the state.
The NSW Greens made ending native forest logging a key election issue and included it on a list of points it would pursue if it held the balance of power.
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Authors of the research, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, said the state was “locking in extinction through legislative inadequacies” because regional forestry agreements were allowing critical habitat to be logged while being exempt from the main federal environmental protection law.
Related: NSW forests face uncertain future as ‘desperation’ builds over major parties’ inaction over logging
A group of 14 scientists from six Australian universities and two conservation groups examined multiple state and federal data sets on the condition of vegetation, together with maps of the known locations of threatened species.
About 29m hectares of pre-1750 forest and woodland had been cleared and of the remaining 25m hectares, 9m was degraded.
Since 2000, 435,000 hectares had been degraded through logging operations, the study said, affecting 244 threatened species – 104 of which are federally listed as endangered or critically endangered.
Long-footed potoroos (endangered), long-nosed potoroos (vulnerable) and southern brown bandicoots (endangered) had the highest proportion of the areas where they live affected by logging.
Koalas (endangered), south-eastern glossy black-cockatoo (vulnerable) and the Australian painted snipe (endangered) had the greatest overall area where they live affected by logging.
Threatened species were having to cope with the effects of logging on top of threats from land clearing, invasive species, disease, climate change, altered water flows and pollution.
The study, which is currently being peer reviewed for a leading conservation journal, said while small impacts each year might seem insignificant “the combined deforestation and degradation of habitat over 250 years can lead to extinction via many small modifications of habitat”.
Dr Michelle Ward, a conservation scientist at WWF-Australia who led the study, said: “When you look at these cumulative impacts on threatened species it’s clear to see why Australia has one of the highest extinction rates in the world.”
She said it was often claimed that logging had minimal impact, but this didn’t account for the habitat already destroyed.
NSW needed to stop logging native forests and move to sourcing wood from plantations, she said.
Watson said species that depended on forests had “suffered terribly” from land clearing and fires.
“They now remain in small parts of their natural range and for this habitat to be opened up to logging is forcing many of them into an extinction vortex. This study points to a disaster.”
He said regional forest agreements – meant to strike a balance between conservation and extraction – had failed to put the effects of logging in the context of all the threats, both current and historical, faced by threatened species.
In a statement, the NSW state government’s Forestry Corporation said regional forest agreements were agreed between state and federal governments.
Most native forests were permanently protected, the statement said, “and timber harvesting operations take place in only around one per cent of state forests each year, which is around 0.1% of forested land in NSW.”
The research had ignored multiple peer-reviewed papers over the past 20 years from government scientists examining threatened species, the statement claimed.
Timber was only harvested from regrowth forests, with operations managed “in line with strict conditions developed with the input of expert scientific panels to protect and maintain wildlife habitat, forest flora, water quality and biodiversity across the landscape.”
The statement said: “Every operation is carefully planned and ensures large areas are set aside for wildlife habitat, along riparian corridors, to protect environmental features, to maintain seed resources for regeneration and to maintain biodiversity, and all harvested areas are regrown.”
The statement added research showed that “best-practice measures in place during timber harvesting are effective in protecting wildlife and habitat,” adding that expert panels at the state’s Natural Resources Commission had said regulated timber harvesting was low-risk.
This story was updated on 24 March 2023 to replace the main image, which previously depicted a different animal that was not a long-nosed potoroo.