'A disaster': Forest deals reignite tension between loggers and conservationists
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'A disaster': Forest deals reignite tension between loggers and conservationists

Dejan Stojanovic was aghast. The biologist had pulled to the side of a remote dirt road in southern Tasmania, expecting to find the stately blue gum forest he’d frequented for years. He had come in search of the rare swift parrot, known to nest in the nooks of old local trees. But the bulldozers had got there first. Only disfigured brown earth remained.

“I was enraged,” Stojanovic says, recalling the day in November last year.

“This giant patch was taken out of the landscape. It was flattened. There were just stacks of logs and mounds of woody residue with heavy machinery parked in the middle of it. It was pretty shocking.”

A person walks through tall trees in the Corunna State Forest.

A person walks through tall trees in the Corunna State Forest.Credit:Elizabeth Walton

Scientists had been monitoring the site for a decade, gathering valuable data on the critically endangered swift parrot. Just 2000 remain in the wild. The showy, energetic green birds - which  Stojanovic describes as being on a permanent “sugar high” thanks to their nectar-filled diet - descend on Tasmania in summer to breed, nesting in hollows and drinking from blue gum flowers.

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But on the day Stojanovic arrived, only a few swift parrots remained. They flitted about the edge of the razed bush, he says, “probably wondering what the hell happened”.

The critically endangered swift parrot feeds on flowering eucalyptus trees.

The critically endangered swift parrot feeds on flowering eucalyptus trees.Credit:Mick Connolly

That very same question is plaguing the minds of scientists, conservationists and concerned citizens across the nation. Australia has one of the world’s worst extinction rates. So why are we chopping down bush vital to the survival of animals that are about to disappear forever? Isn’t someone supposed to police these things? Indeed, what has happened?

The concerns have never been as pertinent, as the federal government and the states prepare to renew a suite of so-called regional forest agreements – 20-year plans to manage and conserve Australia’s native forests.

The 10 agreements span about 21 million hectares of Australia’s public forests in four states. Controversially, they make logging operations exempt from federal environment protection laws. The Tasmanian agreement has already been extended until 2037, and the remainder are set to expire over the next three years.

The arrangements, the first of which began in the late 1990s, were to end decades of conflict between environmentalists and the timber industry by enabling conservation, recreation and logging to coexist. However critics say the system blatantly favours timber harvesting over protection of the environment, and is badly failing the most vulnerable species.

In Tasmania, for example, swift parrot numbers are in calamitous decline in areas covered by the regional forest agreement, despite the conservation of biodiversity being a key aim.

Predatory sugar gliders, an introduced marsupial, eat the eggs and chicks of the parrots and can be blamed for some of the loss. But experts from the Australian National University say logging has also cleared thousands of hectares of critical breeding and feeding sites. In the southern forests, where Stojanovic found the flattened patch of earth, an estimated 25 per cent of parrot nesting habitat was destroyed over the 20 years of the last forest agreement.

ANU’s David Lindenmayer, one of Australia’s most respected ecologists, is among those calling for the federal government to intervene in a situation he says has reached “crisis point”.

The concerns have been echoed by prominent environment groups including the Wilderness Society and the Australian Conservation Foundation.

Lindenmayer says the government should remove exemptions for state logging operations and ensure Commonwealth environment laws are applied. In some cases, he says native forest logging must cease altogether.

“The outcomes for threatened species are a disaster, and the swift parrot is a classic example,” he says.  “The species is basically on its last legs ... but we can carve up its forests and kill off thousands and thousands of potential nesting sites and it doesn’t matter [to governments].”

A clear-felled forest in Victoria's central highlands.

A clear-felled forest in Victoria's central highlands.Credit:Friends of the Earth

Australia has the world’s worst record of mammal extinction – about one in 10 have disappeared since European settlement. Almost 500 animals and 1300 plants are deemed at risk of annihilation. The problem is only worsening as threats such as climate change, feral animals and land clearing, including timber harvesting, push threatened species to the brink.

In a submission to a Senate inquiry into the animal extinction crisis, a team of ANU experts led by Lindenmayer said regional forest agreements had “potentially locked in the extinction” of some species.

The regional forest agreements were based on outdated data and not reviewed in a timely fashion, the group said. It meant critical information such as the discovery of new populations of threatened species, or substantial declines in numbers, did not lead to changes in logging practices.

In response to the destruction of swift parrot habitat in Tasmania, the state-owned Sustainable Timber Tasmania said “considerable effort was undertaken” to identify and exclude the bird’s habitat from the harvest area, including all identified nest trees. Critics say traipsing through dense forest to record which trees carry nests is difficult, and little effort is made.

ANU ecologist David Lindenmayer says regional forest agreements have been a "disaster" for threatened species.

ANU ecologist David Lindenmayer says regional forest agreements have been a "disaster" for threatened species.Credit:Michael Clayton Jones

In Victoria, Lindenmayer’s team says there is “stark and unequivocal evidence of a highly significant decline” in marsupials in the areas covered by regional forest agreements, including the critically endangered Leadbeater’s possum and the threatened greater glider, as well as huge population losses in scores of bird species.

After leaving their summer breeding sites in Tasmania, swift parrots go north for the winter. Barely bigger than a budgerigar, they fly thousands of kilometres in search of flowering patches of eucalypts in Victoria and NSW.

The birds are exhausted and hungry by the time they reach feeding sites such as the Corunna State Forest on the NSW South Coast. There, the parrots feast on the flowers of big old trees and fatten up for the return journey to Tasmania in spring.

The Forestry Corporation of NSW also likes the Corunna forest’s big old trees. As the company’s production and sales manager Lee Blessington told the local paper Narooma News last month, “the products we are looking for in this forest are predominantly high-quality saw logs, and we’ll keep our eye out for telegraph poles as well”.

Some trees will also be turned into woodchips. But Forestry Corporation says it produced “high-quality timber” and its method of “single-tree selection” means there were plenty of trees remaining at Corunna when they wrapped up logging on Tuesday this week.

In a statement, the state-owned company said Corunna State Forest has been harvested every decade since the 1960s, “each time being regenerated to a healthy forest to supply timber again in the future”. The logs produced were “essential for purposes such as flooring, decking, telegraph poles, wharves, bridges and high-value retail timbers”.

The company said the harvesting is conducted under strict regulations and exclusion zones protect threatened species of flora and fauna.

Children protesting at logging in the Corunna State Forsts in NSW.

Children protesting at logging in the Corunna State Forsts in NSW.Credit:Sean Burke

Veteran environmental campaigner Margaret Blakers says while Corunna may not be completely destroyed, any logging would upset the delicate balance of the forest which was home to several threatened species, including the masked owl. That the harvesting was allowed in known threatened species habitat was “outrageous”, she says.

“Essentially the Commonwealth has accredited the NSW government to destroy essential habitat ... it has washed its hands of the whole thing,” she says.

“What’s driving the whole system is the requirements of the logging industry.”

Environmentalists say native forest logging also threatens koalas, which are already vulnerable due to land clearing for urban development and are at risk of extinction in NSW, Victoria and Queensland.

The NSW Department of Primary Industries said the renewed regional forest agreements in the south and north-east of the state would “pave the way for ... continued sustainable management”. It said NSW’s forest industries were worth $2.4 billion.

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In Victoria, the Labor government has been under pressure to both protect forestry jobs and preserve threatened species habitat. Three of Victoria’s agreements - east Gippsland, the central highlands and the north-east – were in March given a short extension to early 2020, when all five of the state’s agreements will be up for renewal together.

The state government announced new limits on the trees that can be logged and gave protection to about 2500 hectares of high environmental-value forest.

The Victorian Association of Forest Industries is pushing for new 20-year deals to give certainty to the industry and project regional jobs.

Chief executive Tim Johnston said in March the agreements “must include guaranteed volume and quality of timber supply to allow for further long-term investment in value-adding technology”.

Lindenmayer says state-owned native forest logging operations were “by and large uneconomic” and maintained relatively few jobs.

Numerous reports have found native timber operations struggle to make a profit. Leaked official documents in 2015 showed logging in East Gippsland by state-owned VicForests generated losses of up to $5.5 million a year. At the time the company blamed significant reductions in available timber. VicForests did not provide comment for this story.

Independent analysis has also found Forestry Corporation of NSW ran at a loss in recent years. However the company told Fairfax Media its hardwood division - primarily native forests - has been profitable over the last four years, posting before-tax earnings between $1 million and $5 million.

Federal Labor says it supports rigorous scientific assessments of regional forest agreements, but has not provided details on how it would amend the deals if it won office.

In a statement, the federal Assistant Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, Richard Colbeck, said the government “categorically rejects the assertion that [regional forest agreements] have failed the environment”.

Federal Assistant Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources Richard Colbeck rejected suggestions that forest agreements failed the environment.

Federal Assistant Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources Richard Colbeck rejected suggestions that forest agreements failed the environment.Credit:Leanne Pickett

He said the agreements were consistent with national environment laws and “successive independent reviews have found that the RFAs are meeting their objectives”.

“The government is moving to complete RFA renewal processes as soon as possible as the best mechanism to manage our working forests,” Colbeck said.

However Fairfax Media spoke to an official source close to federal forestry policy who expressed deep concerns about the feeble environmental protections afforded by the agreements. “The states don’t uphold basic environmental protections and the federal government allows that,” the source says.

Native forest logging also appears to struggle for public acceptance. A report commissioned by a timber industry group, leaked to Fairfax Media this week, found the practice “is equated by many Australians with depletion or ‘mining’ of resources” and support for the industry was on par with coal-seam gas and open-cut mining.

Elizabeth Walton, a resident involved in roadside protests against the Corunna State Forest logging, says the industry “makes no sense to anyone”.

“We had educated, employed people taking time off work, to go and stand on the highway - lawyers, teachers, bus drivers, retirees, children, mums who are breastfeeding their babies on the side of the road. They are saying ‘enough is enough’,” Walton says.

Populations of the Leadbeater's possum have declined sharply under regional forest agreements, experts say.

Populations of the Leadbeater's possum have declined sharply under regional forest agreements, experts say.Credit:Justin McManus

Ecologist Stojanovic, an ANU postdoctoral fellow, will keep monitoring swift parrot sites in Tasmania. He enjoys watching the birds, which he describes as “super-busy, very social and always chasing each other around, chattering and fighting with each other”.

But he fears that unless there is a profound shift in native forest management, “we are basically writing swift parrots off to extinction”.

“We can’t use ignorance as an excuse any more. We’ve been monitoring [the birds] for a decade. We know what they need, and how to manage it better,” he says.

“But in the case of regional forest agreements we are actively choosing to ignore science and proceed as business as usual.”

Nicole Hasham is environment and energy correspondent for The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, Brisbane Times and WAtoday.

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