Two centuries ago in Australia we had sustainable land management, world class fire management practices and abundant biodiversity.
What happened? Very quickly Aboriginal land management skills and knowledge disappeared; our control over fire was lost and we introduced plants and animals that became widespread pests. As our population grew much of our native vegetation was cleared for the production of food and fibre and most of what remained was left unmanaged.
The combined effect of these things had a major impact on our biodiversity – the greatest being west of the Dividing Range with the extinction of the majority of our small ground dwelling mammals including the iconic bilby, numbat and brush-tailed bettong.
To stem the decline in biodiversity we introduced a complex web of tenure based legislation. Tenure is a legal concept rather than a best-practice management method. It means that public native forests have been classified as National Parks, State Forests or Crown Land.
As NSW is the most heavily regulated forest environment it provides an insight into the problem. For example, its native forests are governed by around 50 acts of parliament, five state ministerial portfolios and 12 government agencies. Early on this system seemed to work, supporting improved knowledge and development of specialised forest management skills. However the tenure system offers no broad landscape management or accountability.
Tenures have always been ripe for political opportunism. Over a 10 year period in NSW a previous Premier claimed to save the forests by relabelling 350 parcels of State Forests and Crown Land as National Parks and directing the majority of all public land management spending into their promotion and management. City dwellers were convinced that the forests were saved and that a world class conservation reserve system had been created and he received some glittering international awards.
Back in the bush little changed, apart from less timber harvesting. Pests and weeds continued to run rampant. The government regulators of pests and weeds remained focused on agriculture and the public forest agencies were left to manage their own estates.
Altered fire regimes are a major threat to biodiversity. Government spending on forest fire management is at an all-time low, while the cost of fire emergency management has reached record highs. Wildfires are now seen as the norm despite being mostly caused by humans.
When the latest mega-fire threatens life and property we take comfort in the words of our decorated fire commissioners with sirens, flashing lights and footage of water bombers in the background and the ever present politician looking gravely at the aftermath. There is little consideration of the impacts on our wildlife nor do we question whether the catastrophe could have been avoided through well planned hazard reduction on the forest floor.
National Parks alone won’t prevent the decline in biodiversity. In NSW there are 7.3 million hectares of National Park & Reserves which equates to 9.2 percent of the state. These areas cost $415M or $55 per hectare on average to manage each year. In the last thirty years, billions of dollars have been used to expand them mainly on the coast.
A single governance model would provide improved accountability supported by a landscape scale monitoring and reporting system. This cannot be achieved without making changes to a state’s existing tenure system – and that is usually politically unpalatable.
Native forests are dynamic – evolving with fire, drought and floods. They are not static museums that can be locked up forever. Using preventative measures like ecological thinning and fire mitigation, the timber industry can play an important role in active, adaptive management to tackle common threats across all tenure types.
So are we really serious about biodiversity and does the public really understand? Where is the David Attenborough of forestry who can communicate difficult concepts publicly with ease? In the absence of evidence-based communication, the void is filled by noisy detractors via the myriad of communication channels who continue to argue the industry does not have a social licence.
On the economic side of the ledger, as the population grows, the challenge ahead is the forest industry working with the construction industry as an efficient supply chain to provide local timber to meet the growing demand for affordable housing. The prediction is over 660,000 new homes in NSW alone by 2031. A reinvigorated, innovative hardwood and softwood timber industry will also be well placed to play a leading role in the cellulose economy, with new products such as CLT (cross-laminated timber) just the start of exciting innovation in the sector.