Funny business over forests

Tasmania stands to benefit from preserving its carbon-rich old forests, but Forestry Tasmania doesn’t seem to want to know. [26 January 2010 | Peter Boyer]

Mature forest in Tasmania’s Weld Valley. Photo Rob Blakers

Mature forest in Tasmania’s Weld Valley. Photo Rob Blakers

In July last year I heard about a Wilderness Society project to assess the amount of carbon held in native forest areas scheduled to be logged. Thinking I might write about this, I contacted Forestry Tasmania to get its reaction, and therein lies a tale.

At first I thought this would be a story about facts and science. Forests capture and store prodigious amounts of carbon, and scientists have been vigorously trying to quantify carbon stocks and flows to establish how we should manage these resources under a new international climate regime.

Everyone accepts that this is a good thing. But my attempts to make sense of the science have highlighted something else entirely: how science can be rendered ineffective and almost irrelevant by entrenched cultural mindsets and the animosities that can arise when they’re questioned.

The Wilderness Society project seeks to measure how much carbon is being stored in forest coupes scheduled for logging in different parts of the state. A low-cost project using volunteers, the methodology was developed and the project is being broadly overseen by plant scientists from the Australian National University, where data from the project is being deposited.

This project was always going to be used politically in the forest debate, with one side playing up its credentials and the other its flaws. My main interest was in how good carbon accounting might help Tasmanian forestry benefit from carbon management as well as wood production, especially in the crucial near-term when global emissions must begin to fall sharply.

My meeting with Dr Hans Drielsma, Forestry Tasmania’s Executive General Manager, and Ken Jeffreys, General Manager Corporate Relations, didn’t get off to a good start. I got a heated 15-minute lecture on why I should stop questioning official information about Tasmanian forestry management, before we finally got to the issue of assessing forest carbon.

Dr Drielsma told me that in contrast to the Wilderness Society’s “amateurish” project involving a handful of sites, “we have been doing this work for years, and we have a mountain of data from over 3000 sites”. He commended Australian government statistics and a 2007 consultant’s report as the best sources for information on carbon emissions from forestry.

I have seen government forestry emissions figures and have read and re-read the 2007 MBAC Consulting report. Such official sources assert the carbon-friendliness of Australian forestry in replacing harvested trees with new ones. Contrast that with those unfriendly tropical practices where forests simply disappear.

Forestry Tasmania rightly draws attention to the environmental cost of wood alternatives such as steel, aluminium or cement. There’s no disputing the value of wood and our continuing need for it. The question isn’t whether we should go on harvesting, but whether we should continue clearfelling in the large carbon reservoir that is our natural forests, or modify that regime to lessen the impact on significant carbon-rich stands, or focus entirely on plantation timber.

There are two kinds of forest science: that which serves the industry in getting the most out of our wood resource, and that which looks at how natural ecosystems work. They are both valuable, except when they are at loggerheads. As Winston Churchill observed, the first casualty of war is truth.

Take, for instance, the conclusion by an ANU-based team headed by Prof Brendan Mackey that Australia’s oldest tall eucalypt forests are the most carbon-dense in the world, containing several times the official carbon estimate.

A CSIRO forest industry scientist told me of “problems” with Mackey’s research, but I could not get him to identify what they were. I was similarly left up in the air by an exchange of emails with Forestry Tasmania’s Ken Jeffreys and Dr Martin Moroni, its new forest carbon scientist.

Among other things I wanted to know why the Mackey team’s findings, and the resulting proposition that in the present high-risk global emission scenario we should not be logging mature natural forest, should be discounted. All I got were general referrals to the same official reports (which don’t address the Mackey findings) and questions about my own sources.

The other main object of my questions was to find out more about those 3000 sites and years of professional carbon assessment which Dr Drielsma had contrasted with the Wilderness Society’s effort. To compare the two projects I needed to know how and where Forestry Tasmania had undertaken this work and what data had emerged from it.

There, too, I drew a blank. Dr Moroni told me that “an enormous amount of resources have been used to develop the permanent and temporary sample plots and to take measurements and re-measurements, so the full dataset is unlikely to be released without good need and an agreement being in place”. In other words, details about this work are commercial-in-confidence.

So this publicly-owned agency, wearing its “business enterprise” hat, is refusing to release its mountain of data on the carbon content of Tasmanian forests. What does David Bartlett, whose government is responsible for the charter of Forestry Tasmania, have to say about this?

Meanwhile, the world forestry debate is shifting. An agreement which would have covered natural forest logging everywhere, including Tasmania, was concluded and would have come into effect had Copenhagen produced an over-arching protocol. With the agreement remaining on the table, Tasmanian forest authorities need to prepare for externally-imposed controls.

The forest war in Tasmania is stifling essential action to understand, preserve and benefit from our forests’ carbon-carrying capacity. Forestry Tasmania management sees me as an agent of the forest preservation movement (definitely not true); it also finds me annoying (probably true), a sentiment made clear both in meetings and in correspondence, which they have now terminated.

I regret this, because I’d like to think that addressing the climate challenge can bring people together. But I find myself increasingly drawn toward the Irish cynicism of Claud Cockburn’s advice about government and bureaucracy: “Never believe anything until it is officially denied”.

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