Last week, the West Australian government committed to ending native forest logging in the state’s southwest by 2024, and phasing out logging in all native forests by 2033. This unprecedented move has stunned environmental campaigners and foresters alike.
The move is divisive, and emblematic of a much bigger, nationwide struggle between the native logging sector – which maintains that logging can be carried out sustainably – and environmental campaigners and scientists, who want to see all native forest protected, especially after the devastating bushfire season of 2019/20.
what are the new changes to forest management in WA?
On top of the order to stop logging all native forests in the state’s extraordinarily biodiverse southwest region by 2024, the McGowan government also moved to immediately protect all two-tiered karri forests.
Two-tiered karri forests are defined as mixed-age forests made up of both mature and younger stands of karri (Eucalyptus diversicolor). The karri is a towering, long-lived eucalypt with smooth bark that shifts colour with the seasons. It is Western Australia’s tallest tree, and is only outcompeted for the title of tallest flowering plant in the world by Victoria’s soaring mountain ash trees, which have also been extensively logged. The karri occupies one of the 36 global biodiversity hotspots identified by US non-profit Conservation International.
The Noongar peoples of southwest WA lived and thrived in the karri forests for millennia, but since white settlement the karri has been prized for its wood. According to the WA forest alliance (WAFA), around 7,000 hectares (70 square kilometres) of karri and jarrah forests are logged each year.
Read more: Bushfire experts clash over logging impacts
Conservationists have long complained that continued logging threatens the last strongholds of the unique ecosystems of south-western WA’s karri and jarrah forests, which support listed threatened species including the western ringtail possum, the quokka, the woylie, the forest red-tailed black cockatoo and Baudin’s cockatoo.
In a warming and drying world, tall eucalypts that depend on areas of higher rainfall are particularly vulnerable. And research from the Australia Institute in 2016 found that the native logging sector in WA was receiving more in financial support from the government than it generated in profit.
To ease the transition away from native logging, the state government committed $350 million to expand the state’s softwood timber plantations (such as pine), and promised a $50-million ‘Just Transition Plan’ to support workers and communities dependant on forestry.
Conservationists are praising the move, with WAFA calling it “massive, historic and marvellous”. But the logging sector is critical. The Forest Industries Federation of Western Australia (FIFWA) released a statement arguing that they had been “blindsided” by the state government’s announcement, and claiming that no industry consultation had been conducted. Meanwhile, veterans of WA’s logging sector expressed fears that livelihoods would be affected and entire towns would be wiped off the map.
What does the science say about native logging in Western Australia?
As in the rest of Australia, the science on forestry in WA is hotly contested. The debate is particularly fraught because there’s so much at stake on both sides: on the one hand an ancient and unique ecosystem, and on the other a livelihood that has sustained many West Australian families for generations.
According to Grant Wardell-Johnson, a forestry professor and director of the Curtin Institute for Biodiversity and Climate at Curtin University, wet sclerophyll forests (like the karri forests) pack extremely high conservation value into the mere 0.75% of Australia’s landmass they occupy. These forests occupy high rainfall areas across WA, South Australia, Victoria, Tasmania and Queensland, but Wardell-Johnson says that logging is stripping them of their ability to sustain their precarious ecosystems.
“Logging is a major disturbance which removes the structure of the forest, and by removing the structure that also affects the composition and function,” says Wardell-Johnson of the forests of southwest WA. “There’s been broad scale logging for a long time, and the logging has been greater than what the forest can sustain.”
A forest is normally made up primarily of old trees with many mature trees coming through, and Wardell-Johnson explains that there are many follow-on effects when logging changes this structure.
“Then you’re going to fundamentally alter the habitats and the sort of creatures that occur in it, the function that that forest can produce in the way of carbon stores, and its capacity to be a safe haven for biodiversity,” he says.
Beyond logging, Wardell-Johnson points out that there is no legislation to protect these forests from mining – principally of bauxite (a common ore of aluminium) in the jarrah forests.
“Now, logging is obviously a damaging activity if it’s not done sustainably, but of course mining, where you actually remove the substrate of the forest, that’s an even more serious issue.”
Wardell-Johnson says that WA’s southwest forests are unique refugia for creatures that have clung on for millions of years.
“The wettest corner in the far southwest includes incredibly important, higher rainfall-dependent relict plants and animals that have been left over from Gondwanan times … So, ecologically and in terms of biodiversity, the southwest forests are globally significant.”
According to a synthesis of bushfire research to date by the Bushfire Recovery Project, logging can also make native forests more flammable and lead to greater fire severity, posing a threat at a time when temperatures and aridity are increasing.
And the familiar spectre of climate change casts a long shadow on these forests, says Wardell-Johnson.
“Southwestern Australia is one of the few places in Australia where we’ve got very good documentation of drying and warming since at least 1970, and what we’ve found is that climate change doesn’t allow the forest to grow as fast or as big as it used to.”
Can native forestry be sustainable?
But the executive director of Forest Industries Federation WA (FIFWA), Melissa Haslam, says that native forestry is sustainable, and blames political wrangling for the new changes.
“There is robust science underpinning the calculations of what constitutes a sustainable rate of harvest,” Haslam says. “Climate change (with buffers) is factored into these calculations.”
Haslam says that less than 1% of the total forest area is harvested annually on a rotational basis, to “create a mosaic of forest structure and age classes”.
“Harvest planning is taken over 175 years, following a thorough and robust modelling scenario. The State Forest Management Plan (FMP) segments the planning into 10-year spans, with comprehensive guidelines and key performance indicators developed according to ecologically sustainable forest management principles.”
Michelle Freeman, a forestry scientist and vice president of the Institute of Foresters of Australia, says that the industry’s heavy regulations protect the forests from overzealous practices.
“It is informed by detailed planning by skilled and passionate foresters, who understand the science and complexity of forest ecosystems and want to see them managed sustainably, not only for timber, but for all values, including biodiversity, water and carbon,” she says.
And Freeman believes that native forestry can help to mitigate the effects of climate change.
“The IPCC, in their reports on climate change, identified well-managed forestry that produces a sustainable supply of timber as one of the most effective ways we can promote carbon drawdown and work to combat climate change,” Freeman says.
This is true, although IPCC reports do not appear to specifically address native forestry but instead refer more generally to ‘sustainable forest management’.
Freeman adds: “Sustainable timber harvesting that is aimed at meeting local demand not only supports local jobs and economy, but it keeps people on country managing country for all its values, and it upholds what I would suggest is a moral responsibility to meet our own hardwood timber demand, rather than relying on imports.”
Wardell-Johnson, on the other hand, does not agree that native forestry in WA is sustainable.
“You can always say something is sustainable and you can always say science underpins things, but what you’ve actually got to look at is the data,” he says.
“When you do those analyses, you realise that it sounded good but there’s overestimates, there’s optimism in what can be produced from the forest, and there’s a forgetfulness that the environment includes biodiversity, and biodiversity includes structure, function and composition.”
“I don’t think the science is actually contestable,” he says. “There’s a contest and it’s a contest of the advocates.”
But despite welcoming the new move, Wardell-Johnson believes that Western Australia’s forestry governance is leading the nation.
“Despite all I’ve said, Western Australia’s forest management stands up when you compare it with management in forests elsewhere in Australia,” he says. “There’s some bad things that have happened in WA, and I do think it’s high time we moved on from that history, but I have to say that WA has shown some much more clear-sighted approaches than some of the other states.”
To Wardell-Johnson, preserving these forests should be of paramount concern to all Australians.
“If you have a walk in the tingle forest, or the karri forest or a nice patch of jarrah forest, it’s a completely different experience to walking anywhere else in the world.”
Amalyah Hart is a science journalist based in Melbourne.
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