Image for An outsider’s look at the contentious practice of clearfell logging ..

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*Pic: Logging Lapoinya ... industrial-scale clearfelling in a much-loved local forest ... and the future veneer trundles off to Ta Ann (over a bridge with a load limit ...)

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Pic: Image from HERE

The following is an outsider’s look at the contentious practice of clearfell logging which is the harvesting model of Forest Tasmania (FT), the state owned forestry company.  Where has it all gone wrong and why is this model so clearly broken?

In January 2016, FT commenced clearfell logging of coup FD053a at Lapoinya near Wynyard.

FT knew it was a small, 53-hectare, unprofitable, but highly-contested coupe,  as the local community had been actively involved for years to protect their vibrant forest from clearfelling,  even offering to purchase this coupe or manage it on a sustainable basis. 

They were prepared to countenance selective logging as a last resort. Their entreaties met with indifference from FT who, whilst sympathetic to their cause, are driven by over-allocated contract commitments to supply peeler logs to Ta Ann.  They were met with derision and hostility from an incompetent minister bereft of forestry knowledge but itching for a fight and petulant power display to test the recently-proclaimed anti-protest laws. 

Within days three FT board members resigned including Chairman Bob Arnells, closely followed by the sudden resignation of minister Harriss - to leave a state government industry mired in controversy, near bankrupt, the forest peace agreement in tatters and a re-ignition of the old divisive forest wars.

As a couple of retirees residing in Hobart, we made the trip to Lapoinya to observe.  Like most days since logging began, we took our turn at symbolic protest.  We entered the restricted area managing to halt loading and harvesting operations for 40 minutes until the police arrived and we were politely asked to leave without a fine, but with a 90 day keep-out-or-arrest warning. 

Why would we bother and what did this achieve?  Talking to the brave and committed Lapoinya community and my personal observations from a life time in science, horticulture and small business has convinced me of the lunacy of the FT modus operandi.  Sometimes an outsider can look dispassionately at problems and perhaps provide some perspective. 

To be fair, much of the history of clearfelling in Tasmania was driven by woodchipping demands foisted on FT by the corrupt company Gunns and a succession of compliant governments, rather than policy decisions by FT

Why has FT retained this discredited model when it clearly defies the logic of economics and ecology 101? 

To answer let’s wind back the clock to pre-1960’s when Tasmania still retained a magnificent working native forest estate which had been logged sustainably and could continue to be in perpetuity, providing many thousands of jobs and supporting local communities. 

Because selective logging with small machinery allows retention of the different aged cohorts of trees for tomorrow’s harvest-able forests, at any one time there would always be a large cohort of mill-able trees across this estate.  Then in the 60’s clearfelling was introduced and ever since FT has been systematically clearfelling vibrant mixed forest and replacing our working forest estate with plantation.

We need to describe the clearfelling process to understand its lunacy.  Every single stem in the forest is harvested using industrial sized machinery and divided into sale-able categories. Sawlogs are the cream, then comes peelers and woodchips both of which are contract-driven and largely unprofitable. 

The remaining understorey and juvenile cohort of eucalypts too small for woodchips is trashed.  After harvest the entire coup which is covered in treetops and trash is torched by fire of such intensity that a living forest would never experience. 

The entire biomass is incinerated including any remaining seed bank.  Remaining nutrient, organic matter and carbon is squandered and the soil is sterilized to an extent that any remnant biodiversity is eliminated. 

The coup is reseeded with single or at most several eucalypt species collected from the coup prior to burning. The resultant replacement forest is of single age, high density and bereft of biodiversity – essentially “a plantation”.  FT does not use this term due to negative connotations associated with seedling-grown plantations, so they prefer the term “regrowth” forest.  One type having straight lines is the only distinguishing feature between them.

Why is this clearfelling practice bankrupting FT? 

Firstly the economic case is illogical.

It takes 80 years plus to grow a decent mill log in Tasmania from seedling age. It takes as little as 40 years on the mainland. Slow growing trees however, produce the best quality and highest priced timber. 

So Tasmania clearly has a comparative economic advantage in producing high quality mill timber compared to elsewhere in Australia. This especially applies today given that good quality hardwood is a scarce and expensive product on the mainland. 

But Tasmania went down the clearfell route driven by woodchip and more recently peeler demand, both low-price commodities.  The peeler contracts to Ta Ann are fixed price and long term which has further entrenched FT into the clearfelling model, because peelers are smaller than mill logs: 700mm max. at the butt.

But, there is a huge opportunity cost involved in clearfelling which is not bought to book. 

Has anyone ever tried to quantify the millions of superfeet of future mill-able timber which has been squandered since clearfelling began because tomorrow’s replacement mill logs were harvested prematurely as wood chips, or worse still, the juvenile cohort of trees trashed and burnt? Through clearfelling we have, in essence, eaten and cannibalized our forest future and are now suffering timber scarcity from 65 years of zero–sum forestry. 

What few mills remain are scratching for sawlog supply and complaining of the poor log quality.

We are running out of new old-growth coups or old working coups from the pre 60’s era (like Lapoinya) to log and there is not one stem of mill log timber ready to harvest from a post 60’s clearfell coup because it takes 80 years to grow them! 

Is it any wonder that FT is an economic basket case and forestry a mendicant industry costing the taxpayer 630 million dollars in subsidies over 11 years’ alone.

From an ecological viewpoint, clearfelling is a disaster. The dirth in biodiversity resulting from scorched-earth burning and single-species plantations has created a multitude of averse knock on effects.One example is leaf-eating insect attack which was never a problem pre-plantations, but now often requires insecticides applied by air …  further endangering biodiversity. 

This together with the use of carcinogenic herbicides like atrazine belies both the perception and reality of our “clean and green” image. Further-more, recent international research has indicated that up to 40% of the functional root system of trees is provided by mycorrhizal - fungi essential for nutrient and water uptake. 

What effect does the clearfelling regime have on these microscopic and seldom studied fungi. Does FT know? Have they ever employed a mycologist?  Many common forest dwelling species including mammals, birds, invertebrates and aquatics are compromised by clearfelling and some iconic Tasmanians like the devil, quoll, giant crayfish and various raptors and owls have become endangered. 

Clearly, the regime is ecologically unsustainable. Forests become weaker after successive harvests.  There is no nutrient input from deep-rooted understorey species or nitrogen fixation from trees such as wattles. 

Plantations consume far more water than healthy mixed forest so landscapes are drying, exacerbating climate change. There is reduced runoff into hydro dams.  There is increased fire risk from more frequent and intense fires. 

No wonder communities surrounded by contentious forest coups like Lapoinya,  Bruny Island and Derby are becoming radicalised to protect their forests from this clearfelling regime.  Yet most communities can accept an industry based on sustainable selective logging.

The recently received auditors’ report into FSC certification ( HERE ), which is so vital to forest players supplied by FT for market acceptance, was scathing of continuing FT clearfelling practises. 

It is clear FSC will never come until we restart the clock on native harvesting and place forestry on a long-term, profitable and ecologically sound path.

PostScript:

NSW Forestry Commission recently undertook selective harvesting in the Belmore State Forest over 902 hectares. There will be 35% overall removal of Basal Area. Nothing

< 20cms with 50 metres retention from wildlife corridors and waterways. It was last harvested some 20 years ago and will be again in another 20 years. This is sustainable forestry which is equally applicable to Tasmanian conditions. So selective logging, despite what FT might assert, can and is being done successfully in Australia.

About the Author: *Nicholas Gilbert, Retired, BSc AG (horticulture) Sydney Uni 1976. Worked in Tree Research at CSIRO. Established and operated successful tree nursery in NSW which is still in operation as the family business.

• Pete Godfrey in Comments: … The image I see is of someone walking down the road throwing all their loose change away, plus any banknote less than $50 because they only want big money. That is my picture of FT.