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Sheeple




08 August 2014

By Matthew Lincoln

Managing our forests for their true value

Unsustainable logging practices are destroying Victoria's native forests. They are being mismanaged because the importance of the natural environment is drastically undervalued. We need to re-establish the way we manage our native forests to account for the important ecosystem services they provide.

When natural assets, including forests, wetlands and grasslands, are assessed for their value, too often the direct values from goods such as timber products and grazing resources are the only benefits considered, as they can be easily measured and marketed. However natural assets offer a range of significant direct and indirect values that are often disregarded by government and industry.

Natural forests provide us with a variety of functions that benefit us all, such as the protection of water catchments, the conservation of biodiversity, carbon sequestration and the protection of cultural sites, to name a few. Natural forests are recognised as the most biodiversity-rich habitats on earth, containing approximately two-thirds of known land based species. They differ from that of plantation forests, (which are often single species forests planted for timber production) not only due to their higher rates of biodiversity, but also their ability to demonstrate ecosystem resilience from external impacts.

In recent years, with increased greenhouse gas emissions and the unique ability for forests to sequester carbon dioxide, there has been a push globally to use forests as sinks to mitigate climate change. The United Nations has established programs such as Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+), which aims to protect and enhance carbon stocks of natural forests within developing countries. However, prominent ecologists such as Professor Brendan Mackey have stated that developed nations such as Australia must play a part in a global comprehensive approach, by managing our natural forests to help mitigate climate change.

Australia's forests have undergone considerable change since European settlement, with a significant decline of around 40 % of forest area. Today, we are left with a highly fragmented landscape, with limited areas of natural forests. Despite many changes in forest regulations and land use in more recent years, we are still seeing major modifications of the landscape through human induced processes such as logging, which is negatively impacting on many of the important forest values and functions.

These negative impacts can be seen in Victoria, where current forestry practices include highly concerning processes such as clear-fell logging, which involves the removal of 15 - 40 hectares of forests in one operation. Long term research from the likes of Professor David Lindenmayer and Dr. Chris Taylor have demonstrated that clear-fell logging results in the regeneration of single aged stands of trees, the loss of mature hollow bearing trees and also makes forests more susceptible to fire events, which are all detrimental to the ecosystem. Not only have ecologists demonstrated that current practices are ecologically unsustainable, but a report from the Auditor General in 2013 found that the Department of Environment and Primary Industries (DEPI) was not effectively protecting native forest values. This stems from the problem that there are no effective measures in place to monitor threatened species, and also because DEPI has not adequately managed and implemented the Sustainability Forest Charter, which is a plan that aims for sustainable forest management in Victoria.

Unsustainable logging practices not only create negative ecological consequences, but they produce little economic benefit to native forests primary stakeholder, the Victorian public. Annual reports from the state run business Vicforests have shown they have only returned a dividend to the public on three of the nine years. This has been attributed to the competition from domestic plantations and also an increase in competition from international markets with the rise of the Australian dollar. This has lead to many economic, political and environmental commentators to call for the drastic change in management of natural forests and either shift towards plantation forestry or full ecological sustainable management of the forests, with reduced yield of 70 - 90 percent of current logging rates.

The management of natural forests in Victoria is both ecologically unsustainable and also detrimental to the economy. The important question remains: how can we better manage these natural assets?

The answer lies in ensuring that all direct and indirect forest values are acknowledged and accounted for into the future. This can be achieved through a range of management approaches that both protect natural forests and benefit the community, with some options including the increasing of protected areas, use of alternative forest sources and improving their carbon sequestration potential.

Firstly, the increase in protected areas is a simple but politically tough measure that acknowledges ecosystem values, by removing processes such as logging, and ensuring the protection of biodiversity. This would safeguard the survival of threatened species, and also stop the degradation of vegetation communities. Increasing protection to all water catchments is essential to ensure both the quality and quantity of water is maintained into the future, where water will become a more limited resource, with increased populations and a changing climate.

The South-eastern forests of Australia, in particular the Mountain Ash Forests, have been identified by Dr. Heather Keith as some of the most carbon dense forests of the world. Research has also shown that if managed correctly, previously logged areas have the potential to attain similar carbon sequestration rates as a natural unlogged forest over time. This offers a major chance for Australia to be a global leader in using natural forest systems, to help mitigate climate change and potentially gain credits for both Federal and State Governments in future international and national carbon trading agreements.

Secondly, the need to look at alternatives for forest products is essential for ecological reasons and also for the timber industry. Analysis from The Australia Institute think tank, looking at the possible transition of native timber harvesting to plantation timber, has shown that the majority of products currently produced in natural forests would be able to be produced by plantations into the future. Further research and development of plantations to ensure they can produce a wider range of timber products would be essential to ensure an alternative to the protection of natural forest values.

The evidence has shown that we are not currently valuing and acknowledging how important forest ecosystems are to the community. At a Federal level, there must be an acknowledgement to not only assist developing nations with the protection of forests but too also develop domestic programs which could potentially improve forest management. At a State level, there needs to be a focus on extending and improving protected areas, whilst gradually shifting to plantation based forestry operations in the long term. We need to better understand our natural assets true values and begin to manage them in a way that can conserve natural forests into future.