The insanity of native forest logging

It may or may not be true, as suggested in some news reports, that before his jail sentence on a forest protest charge last week Ali Alishah set out to be a martyr by instructing his lawyer not to argue against his being locked up. 

Regardless, he should not be in jail. The law is only as good as the people who make it, and the harshness of Tasmania’s anti-protest laws serves only those wanting freedom to do what they like to the natural environment.

When magistrate Jackie Hartnett said that she had to send Alishah to jail because he had shown no contrition for trespassing in state forest, she surely knew that he could never be contrite for what he saw as protecting the Styx Valley’s trees and wildlife.

He’s been there before. Now aged 40, he was in his 20s when he was jailed for protesting building of a Tamar Valley pulp mill, in breach of a bail condition arising from an earlier protest action at the same site. The venture was proposed by timber company Gunns, then within months of complete financial collapse. 

Jen Sanger seeks to avoid the risk of going to jail, but in her own effort to defend Tasmania’s native forests she is Alishah’s equal. Where Alishah is a political adviser Sanger is a scientist, having won her PhD under the celebrated University of Tasmania ecologist Jamie Kirkpatrick.

As Alishah has repeatedly attracted the ire and derision of the political and corporate defenders of native forest logging, so has Sanger faced attempts by politicians and others to humiliate her for doing her job as a scientist: constantly checking data and openly declaring errors when they’re found.

We all make mistakes, but mostly they’re remedied and forgotten. Sanger had to endure public calumny when a scientific paper on forestry and fire, authored by herself, Kirkpatrick and one of their students, was withdrawn from publication in a US fire science journal in May 2020. 

This was done at the authors’ request after geographical data supplied by the Tasmanian government, differentiating plantations from other forests, was found to have been wrongly categorised, an error which appeared to weaken the paper’s hypothesis that logging raised the risk of dangerous fires.

It’s almost unnecessary to describe what happened next. Politicians and industry leaders, incensed at the paper’s conclusion that native forest logging made the bush more flammable, issued derisive public statements and demands for apologies. The Australian Forest Products Association called the research “fake”, and the national Institute of Foresters demanded an apology from the University of Tasmania. 

Liberal senator Jonathon Duniam said the paper was “error-ridden”. His Senate colleague Eric Abetz falsely claimed it got funding from the Bob Brown Foundation, accused Sanger of having been employed by the foundation when the paper was written and described her as a fake expert. When Sanger responded that their study was unfunded and the authors did not consult with any environment group before the paper had been accepted for publication, no-one was listening.

The questions about logging, wildfire and forest health remained. Now a book by David Lindenmayer, a senior ANU forest scientist who began his professional life with VicForests, has laid to rest any residual notion that logging is in any sense a process of forest renewal. 

In Forest Wars, subtitled “The ugly truth about what’s happening in our tall forests”, Lindenmayer lays out for a lay reader the long-term impact of logging these ancient eucalypt stands – the ecosystems destroyed and the carbon losses incurred – and why continuing to do this is plainly insane.

After Victoria’s devastating 2009 Black Saturday fires, a team of forest scientists led by Lindenmayer exhaustively investigated the industry’s contention that logged forests were less fire-prone. The study found that this applied only in the first seven years after logging, after which the fire risk rose sharply in the growing forest, and for decades remained well above average old-growth fire risk.

That finding was dramatically underscored by the 2019-20 Black Summer fires. Right across that huge fire range, fire damage in previously logged forests was much more severe than damage in unlogged ones.

I personally have experienced flack from professional forestry circles for reporting evidence that actual carbon emissions from high-intensity “regeneration” burns after logging were off the charts. When I asked for the “real” emissions figure I got no response. Until I do I’ll let the dense black clouds above these regular burns do the talking.

Burning forest and self-interest, political and financial, have this in common: they both blur the vision. Without clear air we will never get resolution. Our native forests will remain under the hammer and people like Ali Alishah will continue to go to jail.

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