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Old-forest loss catastrophic: study

New research shows Australia has lost 99per cent of its old-growth mountain ash forests, with ''catastrophic implications'' for bushfire control, water harvesting and wildlife conservation, a leading scientist says.

Australian National University ecologist Professor David Lindenmayer has called for an urgent review of all federal and state regional forestry agreements, blasting the joint agreements as an outdated and ''lazy system, designed to gag forestry debate with red tape''.

The Australian Forest Products Association and Australian Greens have backed his call for a review, but Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke has defended the 20-year agreements, which set sustainable logging limits for native forests in NSW, Victoria, Tasmania and Western Australia.

Mr Burke said an assessment last year by the former Bureau of Resources Sciences found that 73per cent of all old-growth forests in areas covered by the agreements were in protected areas.

A spokeswoman for the Federal Forestry Minister Joe Ludwig said the agreements ''were already regularly reviewed.''

Professor Lindenmayer said Australia's national forest management policy was ''a colossal mess and an international embarrassment''.

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He said that during a recent research forests survey in Victoria's central highlands, a visiting scientist - University of Washington ecologist Professor Jerry Franklin - was ''rendered speechless by the scale of devastation''.

Professor Franklin, who has advised the White House on forest management, compared the condition of Victoria's mountain ash forests to over-logged areas of south-east Asia and South America.

''He was quite angry, and asked why science had failed these forests,'' Professor Lindenmayer said.

In a paper published in the United States this week, Professor Lindenmayer argues Australia's old-growth mountain ash forests are disappearing, and are being replaced by ''young fire-prone forests'' that increase bushfire risk. Co-authors of the paper include one of America's most distinguished ecologists, acid rain pioneer Professor Gene Likens, who was awarded a US National Medal of Science for science leadership.

Professor Lindenmayer said the joint effects of logging and bushfires had created ''a landscape fire-trap'' in mountain ash forests. He said analysis after the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires showed ''young forest burns at higher severity than mature forest''. Densely spaced regrowth saplings meant tree crowns were closer together, allowing rapid spread of crown fire. Lightning strike ignition was also more likely in logged forests because of the presence of ''logging slash'' such as stems and branches on the forest floor.

Australian Forest Products Association policy manger Mick Stephens has supported the call for a review of regional forest agreements.

''We have been advocating a review for some time, including comprehensive re-assessment of wood supplies ... We also want to see monitoring and performance of all forest land tenures to ensure environmental and biodiversity management objectives are being met,'' he said.

Australian Greens forests spokeswoman Lee Rhiannon said Professor Lindenmayer's research painted ''a devastating picture of a landscape'' irreversibly changing and becoming more fire prone.

This change was ''detrimental to water conservation and biodiversity and dangerous for local communities that live under the shadow of increased fire risk,'' she said.