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Photo by Rob Blakers, http://www.robblakers.com/

According to the Mercury’s coverage of the sterilisation burns in southern Tasmania in the last few days “pictures of smoke from a Forestry Tasmania burn-off in the Derwent Valley that spread to Margate and Snug on Wednesday have been released by environmental groups.  The Last Stand, Markets for Change, Huon.org and Still Wild Still Threatened said the images of the Plenty Valley fire supported their case for a moratorium on logging activity” (Mercury here).

It doesn’t even cross the minds of those at the Mercury, it seems, that taking pictures of what Forestry Tasmania is doing should be a function performed by them, the media.  They don’t consider, for one moment, that they have any role – as a “free press”, to do it themselves. 

The Mercury then goes on to say that “Forestry Tasmania postponed its burns in southern Tasmania yesterday and last night said none would be held today, tomorrow or Easter Sunday, with only an “outside chance” of fires on Monday”.

One is therefore left to conclude that Forestry Tasmania has decided to postpone its burns over the Easter weekend.  It would have been useful for us all if the Mercury had asked Forestry Tasmania if they would continue their burns when Easter was over and done with, people had gone back to work and kids had gone back to school – at least in the south of Tasmania!  But is appears that they didn’t want to ask such a basic question as that.

“The burns occurred after health groups aired concerns about the risk to asthmatics and winegrowers’ fears about smoke taint to their grapes”, the Mercury went on to say.  Well done.  At last a hint that Forestry Tasmania doesn’t give a hoot about the health issues associated with their sterilisation burns.  Congratulations to the Mercury.

Just a minor suggestion as to how the Mercury could have strengthened that point.  “Forestry Tasmania ignored completely the warnings expressed by health professionals about the risks to Tasmanians, including asthmatics in particular.  They also ignored the risks to the wine industry, which have verifiable scientific evidence about smoke taint damage to grapes.”  The Mercury could have easily sought out independent scientific verification of the winegrowers’ fears, which have been made available to Forestry Tasmania.

“The Last Stand said the fire was in the 572,000ha under consideration for protection.” Excellent.  But how about this?  “The Mercury has been able to verify that the fire was in the 572,000 ha under consideration for protection, and asked Forestry Tasmania to explain why they were conducting burns in that area…”? 

Why doesn’t the Mercury do the job itself?

The Mercury then went on to quote Paul O’Halloran: “Everyone suffers when clouds of acrid smoke swathe the island. It’s wrong that everyone be exposed to the equivalent of trillions of cigarettes just because Forestry Tasmania is free to use our atmosphere as a smoke dump.”  Quite right. Getting better all the time.  Isn’t it about time that the Mercury told Forestry Tasmania that it also believed that Forestry Tasmania used the atmosphere “as a smoke dump”?  Come on, take a deep breath, and take a position.  The Mercury could even have a look at what is printed in the unpaid citizens’ media, on Tasmanian Times.

“Forestry Tasmania gives details of burns carried out each day, but other private landholders including private forestry companies do not.” Now we’re getting somewhere.  Next question for the Merc to ask is about as obvious as it gets. Why don’t private landowners gives details of burns carried out?  What proportion of the smoke comes from private companies and landowners compared with Forestry Tasmania? 

And for goodness sake don’t just print what Forestry Tasmania tells you about that.  Act like a free press and do some work.

But really and truly, the poll question is the icing on the cake.  “Is it fair enough for burn off images to be used in the forestry battle?”  (Mercury here) Dear oh dear.  That really does evade the key responsibilities of a free press in one fell swoop, doesn’t it?  Should we actually have a look at all the issues about forestry sterilisation burns?  You know, things like water catchments, as in “destruction of”?  Soil erosion?  Clearfelling? Spraying in catchment?  Oh, clean air and clean water, don’t forget!  Or should we just accept that indoors at Easter is part of our life, that blankets of smoke in autumn are part of the natural yearly cycle, like the seasons, like temperature changes from day to day, like warnings about icy roads during winter?  Should we just accept that warnings about autumn smoke are to be regarded in the same way as warnings about UV intensity in the weather forecasts?

For a bit there I thought the Mercury could be getting somewhere. 

Silly me. — Peter Henning

• Dr Frank Nicklason:

Dear Editor,

Dr Peter Volker’s travelogue reporting a lack of media interest in recent fuel reduction burns in Victoria confuses the discussions we are having here in Tasmania. (Mercury letters, 6/4)

There is an important distinction to be made between the accepted need to reduce forest fuel loads, in order to decrease wild fire risk, and regeneration burns on clearfell sites.

Regeneration burns are part of the current harvesting regime, in our publicly owned forests, employed by Forestry Tasmania (FT). This regime involves broadacre clearfelling and burning of native forests in order to foster the rapid growth of new trees. Mixed wet native forests are converted to eucalyptus regrowth. Special species trees are not part of this plan.

I was recently told by a FT staff member, at a public meeting, that between 4,500 and 5,500 hectares of (FT) clearfells will be incinerated this burning season.

The scientific justification being used for this practice is based on the work of Gilbert published in the late 1950s. In the 1950s the commercial imperative was to efficiently regenerate eucalyptus trees to meet the timber requirements of a growing Tasmanian population.

The challenges of the 21st century are deeper and broader than those of 50 years ago. We have climate change and peak oil to deal with. We need to secure water and food supplies for ourselves and for our descendants, store carbon in forests, in soil, and in solid wood products. Of course we need to minimise the risk of a catastrophic wildfire. We must find and use alternatives to fossil fuels and the fertilisers derived from them. Clearfelling and burning thousands of hectares of native forests each does not fit with these needs, it poses risks to human health, it is very bad for a variety of important Tasmanian industries, and for the Tasmanian brand.

70%, or thereabouts, of Tasmanian people oppose clearfelling of native forests.  There is no social license for clearfelling and regeneration burning.

(Dr) Frank Nicklason
North Hobart