Saving forests to save ourselves

Multiple forces in play are all pointing to a radically different future for Tasmanian forestry.

It has been said many times that before spending a penny of public money on super-expensive technical solutions to get carbon out of the air and into the ground, we should just plant trees.

A major study published in October by Nature enlarges on that idea. It advocates “re-wilding” landscapes with local native species and protecting all natural forests. The Brazil-led study, also including scientists from Australia and Europe, found that nature-based measures were far cheaper and more effective ways to reduce atmospheric carbon than high-tech “solutions”.

“We find that restoring 15 per cent of converted lands in priority areas could avoid 60 per cent of expected extinctions while sequestering 299 gigatonnes of CO2 – 30 per cent of the total CO2 increase in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution,” the paper said.

Re-wilding would have less impact in Tasmania than elsewhere because of our high proportion of forested land. But we have a global responsibility to do everything we can to keep what natural tree cover we have, if only to hold the line against rampant deforestation elsewhere, especially in the tropical rainforests of Brazil and southeast Asia.

Sadly, that sort of high-minded, global citizen approach gets little traction in government. Shifting paradigms and sustaining action programs into the indefinite future, beyond electoral cycles, is really hard work. It takes far-sighted leaders and collaborative parliaments to achieve that, and we all know they are rare indeed.

Tasmania’s extensive area of native forest cover, most of it locked up in protected wilderness, is the dominant reason that successive state governments have been able to claim credit for a low-carbon economy. They would never admit it, but any substantial increase in non-plantation logging would send those low-carbon claims flying out the window.

The situation now is that Peter Gutwein’s government, with the broad support of Labor, wants a bigger forest harvesting industry. That was high on the agenda of resources minister Guy Barnett when he led a delegation to China just before the pandemic, in December 2019.

To change the old Tasmanian paradigm that our natural forests exist to be logged would seem to take more courage than either of the two major parties can muster. But other factors are now coming into play.

In 2019 the Tasmanian industry’s bid for prized Forest Stewardship Council certification was rejected because it did not adequately protect the tree habitats of threatened species including the grey goshawk, the wedge-tailed eagle and the swift parrot. Even so, China has continued to buy Tasmanian wood – until now.

Soon after China suspended imports of logs from Victoria and Queensland, early last month it did the same to shipments from South Australia and Tasmania, on grounds that the shipments were infested with “forest pests”. More likely is that this is part of China’s strategy to squeeze Australia’s export trade.

This is a big blow to Tasmania’s struggling wood export industry – but there’s more. A legal issue that has been simmering for a long time could conceivably end all native forest harvesting in Tasmania and throughout Australia.

Three years ago a small community group in Victoria called Friends of the Leadbeater’s Possum claimed that regional forest agreements (RFAs) were unable to protect biodiversity and other environmental values, and backed that up with a Federal Court challenge.

In May this year the court rocked the industry by ruling that a Victorian government timber company had breached environmental laws by allowing the removal of trees used by the critically-endangered Leadbeater’s possum, which happens to be Victoria’s faunal emblem.

Now the Bob Brown Foundation is arguing that by allowing the habitat of another critically endangered species, the swift parrot, to be destroyed, the state’s RFA is breaching the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

The government can be expected to defend vigorously what it says is a “world-class” RFA and forest practices system. But its persistent refusal to acknowledge a rapidly, radically changing world has left this island’s native forest logging industry in a precarious position.

Tasmanian wood production can still have a future, but it will be centred on plantations. The old clear-felling, firing and reseeding regimes have no place in a future native forest workplace, focused on fire management and other roles to protect the health of the forests we have.

It is futile for government to resist the disruption the industry is now going through. It is well past time our state prepared for a future in which the wood we can extract from our native forests is secondary to those forests’ intrinsic worth as a key defence against ecological and climatic disaster.

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