Ursula and the forest – a tale of endangered species and woodchips

Jacquelene

Up to 60 per cent of the biomass from logging is burnt back into the atmosphere, or left behind to become a fire hazard

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Read Time:25 Minute, 20 Second

Special report…A NSW Legislative Council inquiry into the forestry industry has recommended the state government expands plantations. Meanwhile activists, young, old and from across NSW, provide compelling evidence about why the government elected next March must stop harvesting native forests.

By Ursula Da Silva and Jacquelene Pearson

This article is an environmental justice analysis of the NSW Legislative Council “Inquiry into the long-term sustainability and future of the timber and forest products industry and the role of the Forestry Corporation and other government agencies in supporting the industry”.

“My name is Ursula Da Silva, I am the spokesperson for Camp Ourimbah which, for over a year, has been protecting koala habitat in the Ourimbah State Forest from being turned into low-quality salvage wood.

“If Forestry Corporation NSW (FCNSW) was truly taking into account the sustainability of their industry then they must answer to their contribution to a global climate crisis and a biodiversity collapse.

“Professor Lindemayer often cites the impact of logging on increasing fires and droughts in his research. Native forest logging also ‘contributes significantly to our greenhouse emissions, releasing as much as one quarter of Australia’s transport emissions’ as many of its products have a short life span such as paper pulp, wood chips or palettes.

“Up to 60 per cent of the biomass from logging is burnt back into the atmosphere, or left behind to become a fire hazard …

“There is nothing sustainable about this practice, in an economic or environmental sense. The demand for softwood is growing, which is a plantation-based wood. In fact, 87 per cent of the nation’s log production comes from plantations alone. The building industry does not require native forests for its continuation.

“It does not take great economic foresight to see that plantation-based timber, not native forest logging, is the way of the future. According to the AWE ‘Plantations and farm forestry provide the greatest opportunity for growth of the wood and paper industry’. 

“Switching off the mindset of using native forests as timber resources in a time of mass extinction is critical. If instead we were open to practices such as carbon trading schemes, we could generate approximately $60 million from the Eden and Southern RFA areas alone in the period of 2022-2041. Contrast this to the $20 million of taxpayer money lost last year to fund this obsolete and harmful practice. 

“NSW would be wise to catch up with the growing trend of phasing out native forest logging, as seen in Victoria and WA, and facilitate an inevitable and sustainable evolution of the industry using transitional packages as demonstrated by these states. It would benefit us in job security and provision.

“Such transition is key to helping the survival of our species and millions of others on a planet we must stop taking for granted.

“I need you to stop logging Ourimbah’s forests today.”

That was Ursula Da Silva’s evidence to the NSW Legislative Council Inquiry into the long-term sustainability and future of the timber and forest products industry and the role of the Forestry Corporation and other government agencies in supporting the industry.

The brief

The committee was chaired by Mark Banasiak of the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party. Three Liberal-National MLCs sat on the committee along with two Labor MLCs and one independent.

The inquiry’s terms of reference included examining the environmental impact and sustainability of native forest logging including following the 2019/20 bushfire season, and it is this part of the inquiry examined in this article.

It was also given scope to investigate: the value chain between the timber and forest products industry, logistics companies, manufacturers, retailers, exporters; their relationship with timber supply and environmental management, and opportunities to enhance supply chains; the impact of external influences on the timber and forest products industry, including drought, water, fire, regulatory structures, habitat protection; policies regarding climate change and plantation establishment.

It was to determine whether additional protections, legislation or regulation might be “required in NSW to better support the forestry products industry and timber-dependent communities, including opportunities for value adding”.

The terms of reference also set out that the inquiry would look at the role of the government in addressing key economic, environmental, and social challenges to the industry, including funding and support to encourage improvements in forestry practices, training, innovation and automation, workplace health and safety, industry and employee support, land use management and forestry projects.

Best practices in other Australian and international jurisdictions in relation to the sustainability of the timber and forest products industry were to be examined, including social sustainability, community and Indigenous engagement and multiple uses of the forest estate; and any other related matters.

The evidence

Over 200 submissions were considered by the inquiry, including Ursula Da Silva’s from Camp Ourimbah. Many submissions provided damning evidence of the forestry industry’s environmental impacts.

The Environmental Defenders Office (EDO), for instance, told the inquiry: “Forestry operations have detrimental impacts on native forests, including impacts on threatened plants and animals, water and soil quality, and carbon emissions. These impacts, when compounded with other pressures such as climate change and declining biodiversity, and the devastation caused by the 2019-20 bushfire season, put the health and sustainability of forests and the important ecosystems services that they provide at risk.”

The Nature Conservation Council of NSW (NCC) argued that forests provide a crucial carbon sink. Harvesting forests releases carbon that has been stored over the lifetime of the tree, contributing to climate change. Native forests support landscape resilience to climate extremes, as natural forests are more resilient to climate change and disturbances than plantations because of their genetic, taxonomic and functional biodiversity.

Professor Brendan Mackey, Director, Griffith Climate Action Beacon, Griffith University, spoke about how harvesting young native forests reduces carbon stock and a forest’s ability to mitigate the effects of climate change.

“Logging generates CO2 emissions and it reduces the accumulated stock of carbon in a forest ecosystem. Most of the carbon in a forest ecosystem that is in the living biomass is in the woody stems, branches and roots of big, old trees. … You are reducing by 30 per cent to 50 per cent the standing stock of carbon because you are keeping—as we have heard, structurally you are keeping the forest in a young regrowth phase.

“Most of the living biomass carbon is stored in big, old trees, and you are not allowing them to grow. The mitigation value of the native forest is reduced by 30 per cent to 50 per cent from logging,” Professor Mackey said.

Dr Timothy Cadman of Bellingen wrote to the committee as a community member and as a research fellow with expertise in forest management and governance. According to Dr Cadman: “Plantation management is entirely exempt from community consultation provisions, and anything FCNSW does is voluntary. This gives it carte blanche to engage, not engage, enter individuals’ properties at will, choose to do or not to do consultation, give concessions to the community, or withhold concessions.

“In Tarkeeth State Forest for example, fire trails and public access have been closed or controlled, native forest remnants on roadside reserves have been cleared, koala habitat has been removed, First Nations’ cultural heritage impacted, and entire ecosystems classified as ‘forest residues’ and burnt for ‘green energy’. At no stage has the community given any consent to this. DPI states explicitly that the community has no formal role in consultation.”

His submission continued: “The most FCNSW ever does is ‘inform’ the public of its intent to commence extractive forest management. It must release plans, but these are often only made public a matter of hours before extractive forest management starts. This is not consultation. The community’s options for improving plans, or opposing plans, do not exist…the community has been opposing extractive forest management for the Kalang River headwater forests and environs for several years.

“The region provides water to the towns of Nambucca, Bellingen, and Urunga, contains a significant amount of threatened subtropical rainforest, old growth forest, many endangered species, and quite possibly the largest remaining population of wild koalas on the east coast. Clearly, the area is worth more for non-extractive forest management (water and other ecosystem services).

“FCNSW refuses to recognise non-extractive forest management, and only promotes the area’s values for either telegraph poles (2019) or ‘high quality sawlogs’ (2020/21). FCNSW could actually earn more money if the area was set aside for non-extractive values and would do a lot less damage to a critical set of forest ecosystems.”

The Great Southern Forest Steering Group submitted what it called a “template that could be applied to any native forest area, though particularly to the Southeast of NSW which has been under industrial extraction practices for at least four decades”. Their proposal outlined a range of ecologically sustainable recommendations for the management of diverse native forests and their adjacent communities.

“The key to the proposal is a fundamental change in the management of our public native forests from timber extraction to management for ecological integrity of the continent, climate stability carbon sequestration and water security. We are not asking for further National Parks but a re-orientation in how our public forests are managed. To achieve this, the Regional Forest Agreements need to be terminated and wood-chipping ceased.”

The Point would love to quote from more of the submissions and evidence presented to the inquiry.

The “competing view” from the forestry industry and its representatives was also given a good airing. It was, after all, an inquiry into the sustainability and future of the timber industry. You can find all submissions and documents related to the inquiry here.

But even forestry industry advocates admitted there was too little emphasis on “what was left behind”. James Felton-Taylor, Director, Australian Sustainable Timbers, for instance, reflected on the gravity of decisions that have an impact for decades into the future:

“Forestry can be done well; however, we need to both focus on what is left behind rather than what is extracted. As foresters, I think we often get a bit carried away with talking about what is coming out rather than what is staying behind. You have got to remember that when we manage the decisions we make in the forest, they are with us for 80 to 100 years plus.”

The findings

The committee released its report in September and the government must respond by December (only three months out from the next state election). The forward from the Chair, Mark Banasiak MLC (Shooters and Fishers), said “there was a consensus that the demand for timber and forest products is growing and cannot be met with existing supply. It became clear to the committee that we are heading towards a timber supply crisis in NSW, particularly with regard to softwood plantation timber,” he said.

Banasiak said the committee recommended “the NSW Government to immediately act on expanding both hardwood and softwood timber plantations across the state (see Plantation no brainer, below)”.

Some recommendations sounded promising from an environmental justice viewpoint: a recommendation to work more closely with Indigenous communities on the benefits of cultural burning, the need to properly resource the EPA to make sure it can manage its forestry compliance load, and an evaluation of weed management, would all have positive environmental justice outcomes if acted upon by the Perrottet Government.

The committee’s report did acknowledge “the breadth of evidence from many inquiry participants detailing the impact of forestry operations, particularly within native forests, on the environment”.

“The committee notes the views held by these stakeholders that native forest harvesting aggravates the effects of climate change, contributes to biodiversity decline, and has an adverse impact on the survival of various wildlife, like the koala, swift parrot and other hollow-dependent species.”

Map from Inquiry shows major native hardwood forests are along the coast

However, the report goes on to state that the committee acknowledged “the views challenging the severity of environmental impact caused by forestry practices and operations. We note the perspectives of those within the industry who insist that native forest harvesting, when undertaken sustainably, can coexist with native wildlife and their habitats, and in fact forms part of the climate change solution. We are mindful of the competing science presented to the committee in this regard.”

In relation to ending native forest harvesting, the report stated, “Intrinsically linked to all these discussions regarding the impact of timber harvesting and forestry operations are the stakeholder calls to end native forest harvesting. Whilst the committee acknowledges the perspectives of those who believe ending native forest harvesting will address the various concerns held about forestry practices and operations, the committee remains unconvinced that ceasing these harvesting operations will be beneficial to all forest users.  All things considered the committee believes that a balance can be struck – that sustainable forestry harvesting operations can coexist with environmental values.”

Most recommendations overwhelmingly hinted at timber industry expansion and more “use” of public native forests, not less.

Recommendation Five in the report indicated that the committee, along with the NSW Government, is a long way away from valuing public forests as anything other than timber for harvest: “That the NSW Government consider the impact of a transition away from public native forestry on communities where native forest logging currently occurs and provide investment and incentives to encourage new economic opportunities in publicly owned forests.”

No support for Koala Park

Recommendation 18 of the report said: “That the NSW Government does not consider the establishment of the Great Koala National Park until an independent, comprehensive study is conducted to assesses the full impact of the proposal, including its environmental, economic and social impacts across all affected industries.”

This is in response to the National Parks Association’s proposal for a Great Koala National Park to protect colonies not destroyed in the 2019-20 bushfires.

Corporation (and regulator) behaving badly?

The NSW Government contributes approximately $18 million per year in Community Service Obligation funding to FCNSW as a fee for service for land management activities, including fire management on non-productive land, management of pests and weeds, tourism and noncommercial public roads across the estate. Many submissions contended that FCNSW loses money and is cross-subsidized by the good citizens of NSW but this contention was not fully accepted by the committee.

The committee did acknowledge evidence that the resumption of logging after the 2019-20 bushfires may not have been environmentally sound.

Multiple environmental groups testified that FCNSW resumed harvesting too quickly after the 2019-20 bushfires and that the EPA was complicit in enabling this.

For instance, the Northeast Forest Alliance Inc contended that the deliberations between the EPA and FCNSW on the new Coastal Integrated Forestry Operations Approval (IFOA) emphasised removing or minimising environmental protections to ensure no reduction in timber yields.

Other inquiry participants gave evidence that ‘FCNSW attempted to resume harvesting against the advice of the EPA’ or that ‘FCNSW walked away from negotiations’.

A key concern from many stakeholders during the inquiry were the breaches by FCNSW found by the EPA and non-compliance under IFOAs.

“The committee received evidence from numerous inquiry participants detailing these breaches, including specific operations in site areas and how these breaches went against Ecologically Sustainable Forestry Management (ESFM) principles. Some of the reported breaches include harvesting protected trees, damaging hollow-bearing trees, allowing debris to accumulate more than 1m high thereby damaging protected trees, and damaging retained trees during the harvesting of nearby trees.

“The Friends of the Forest (Mogo) raised concerns that despite these breaches being reported to the EPA, no further action has been taken against FCNSW and non-compliance harvesting continues. They attributed this to wording of the IFOA ‘in such a way that there is usually enough wriggle room for the FCNSW and its contractors to avoid consequences of any transgressions we have detected’.

“When asked about the EPA’s action against FCNSW for these reported breaches, the EPA informed the committee that there are currently 15 investigations into FCNSW applying to 12 different state forests and Western Land Leases for allegations ranging from soil erosion and/or water pollution to damage to habitat of threatened species and/or ecological communities or to an environmentally significant area. Of these 15, nine are current investigations, three have had investigations completed and three have had prosecutions commence. In a further update, at the time of writing, one of these investigations resulted in a penalty notice issued to FCNSW while two others resulted in convictions of FCNSW, with FCNSW ordered to pay fines and EPA costs.”

As the Friends of the Forest (Mogo) described: “We started to monitor compliance of logging operations, a massive undertaking considering the complexities of the then IFOA and the large and distant areas involved. We quickly realised that FCNSW couldn’t be relied upon to manage their contractors to operate within the IFOA. We began reporting breaches by the contractors to the EPA who would eventually go and investigate for themselves.”

The Clarence Environment Centre reported that their independent surveys and reporting of widespread non-compliance with the IFOAs ‘have resulted in numerous official warnings and penalty infringement notices from the EPA, but little else, and the breaches continue unabated’.

Some inquiry participants raised concerns about how environmental values were being managed in private native forests (PNFs) and called to strengthen codes to ensure they are considered as part of PNF operations. For instance, the North Coast Environment Council claimed the private industry had long resisted calls for biodiversity checks and record keeping.

“Private land logging has always operated on the principle of it’s better not to know, and the industry has actively and successfully resisted calls for biodiversity surveys to be undertaken prior to logging. So, most PNF [plans] have no threatened species records and thus require none of the species-specific prescriptions in the PNF Code to be applied,” they stated.

The Forest Ecology Alliance Inc. raised concerns that PNF standards are outdated, lacking current information on critically endangered species, and that PNF site inspections are only conducted by the EPA once a complaint has been lodge. They claimed that often inspections are conducted ‘too late’ and there is a reliance on self-regulation by landholders and contractors.

Dual consent

Landholders with Private Native Forest (PNF) land currently need consent from Local Land Services (LLS) to undertake logging on their land and they need to lodge a Development Application with their local council. The Environmental Defenders Office argued that this dual consent should remain in place and that its removal would lead to more habitat destruction and prevent local communities from having a say about land use in their local government areas.

Local councils also raised concerns about how, with no prior notice through an approval process, damage can be caused to local road networks by new plantation operators if there is no opportunity for forward planning.

However, the committee has recommended the ending of dual consents so, if adopted by the NSW Government, PNF logging would no longer require a DA – this would be a major setback from an environmental justice point of view.

Waste products

The use of “waste products” from logging for biofuels was also examined.

Some stakeholders questioned the benefits of the use of timber and forest products for bioenergy. The NCC declared that ‘bioenergy is the worst of both worlds’ asserting that the burning of timber for energy is more-carbon intensive them burning coal.

Professor Brendan Mackey, from the Griffith Climate Action Beacon opposed the view that burning forest biomass for energy is ‘carbon neutral’ or ‘climate friendly’. His submission explained the effect of using biomass as biofuel: “Emissions from burning biomass are instantaneous, but their removals from atmosphere are not. Rather, there is a significant time lag with the critical factor being the ‘cumulative net emissions’, ie, the additional CO2 emitted and accumulated in the atmosphere by burning biomass over time compared to its alternative fate of being left to remain incorporated into the forest ecosystem, including the component which is incorporated into the soil carbon pool.”

What road map?

The NSW Government, six years ago, committed to a Road Map for the forestry industry, which the committee found, it has not travelled.

“The committee cannot overlook the fact that six years later, overwhelming evidence to this inquiry suggests that the NSW Government has failed to deliver on its priorities as articulated in the industry Roadmap.

“We have seen a consistent theme emerge – one of inaction and lack of investment in the industry – which we believe has ultimately resulted in the timber crisis we see today, characterised by a significant timber supply and demand imbalance.

“The NSW Government has failed to substantially deliver on the four priority pillars outlined in its NSW Forestry Industry Roadmap:  Regulatory modernisation and environmental sustainability; Balancing supply and demand; Community understanding and confidence; and Industry innovation and new markets.”

Too hard basket

Following the 2019-20 bushfires, the Natural Resources Commission (NRC) was commissioned to provide the relevant ministers with independent, evidence-based advice on where, when and how it would be practicable to commence forestry operations under relevant laws and regulations.

The final report ‘Coastal IFOA operations post 2019-20 wildfires’ was handed to the NSW Government in June 2021. The NSW Government has not responded to the report or made it public. The report was leaked to the Guardian on the 25 November 2021. The executive summary of the report was tabled at the inquiry hearing on 5 April 2022.

This committee, in its report, has recommended that the NSW government release all findings.

Plantation no brainer

We learn from the report that FCNSW has been underperforming in its principal function of establishing and maintaining plantations. It could acquire cleared land, use that land for plantation timber, thus achieving one of its other principal functions, “to acquire, hold, sell or otherwise deal with or trade in carbon sequestration rights (including for the benefit of other persons)”.

Stakeholders supported the investment and expansion of the state’s plantation estate due to its positive environmental impact while meeting supply needs.

“The committee heard that plantations are seen as an alternative solution to harvesting native forests as its benefits include better use of cleared land, protects natural wildlife, allows for carbon sequestration and if well managed, can be less vulnerable to fire than native forests.

“The NCC argued that demand for sustainable materials, including engineered plantation-based timber products that are cheaper and easier to use, has grown.

“Professor David Lindenmayer, Professor of Ecology, Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University, argued: ‘The advantage of plantations is that you can get a crop much more quickly from a plantation. The first thinning is at about 14 or 15 years; the second one, about 20; the final clear-fell about 24 to 25. You can get three crops in that time of different outcomes. Whereas in a native forest, if you are going to grow sawlogs, basically your forest needs to be about 80 years plus to produce a sawlog.

“The other advantage of plantations is that plantations, if well-managed, are more defendable in terms of high-severity fire, relative to native forests. Another benefit of expanding the plantation estate asserted by inquiry participants centres on the transition opportunities for those in regional forestry areas directly impacted by the loss or lack of jobs in the sector, including local contractors and forestry management.”

According to the NCC, plantations would offer various employment opportunities.

“A plantation-based industry in NSW with more processing capacity for hardwoods would increase regional forestry jobs … Expanded plantations onto already cleared land across the state is a huge opportunity to see a growth of jobs in every part of the timber industry – from the initial planting stages, to harvesting operations, management, haulage and processing.”

However, the CEO of Timber NSW argued: “You cannot just say we will just switch to plantations. It will take 25 years for softwood and 35 to 40 years for hardwood.”

And it appears that the current NSW Government is too short-sighted to give it a try: “With regard to investing in plantations, the committee was advised that the immediate focus of FCNSW is to re-establish the land that they already manage rather than invest more in plantations.”

Dean Anderson, Regional Manager, Snowy Region, Softwood Plantations Division, FCNSW, “explained that the purchase of large parts of land is ‘most probably off the cards’ given the cost of land prices and long wait times on returns. He acknowledged the competition for land, primarily from farmers, and suggested encouraging such landowners to consider growing trees as part of their ‘whole farm mix’.”

The committee concluded: “We note in particular there has been a lack of investment in additional hardwood and softwood plantations by the NSW Government in the past decade. Given the nature and lifespan of the resource at stake, the committee finds it discouraging that better long-term planning and investment strategies had not been undertaken and considers this to be among the key contributing factors to the current timber crisis. 

“Looking to how we can avert crisis, it is evident to the committee that in the very first instance, there needs to be more trees in the ground. Indeed, among the calls for action to secure timber supply, one of the strongest was for the expansion of the state’s plantation estate. While we acknowledge current barriers, including cost and time on return, we believe that now is the time for action.

“Consistently across the range of stakeholders, support was expressed for more plantations to secure the supply of timber. The committee is convinced by this consensus and thus calls on the NSW Government to prioritise the expansion of softwood and hardwood plantation estate.

“Acknowledging past failures in forward planning, the committee recommends that this expansion be captured in a long-term funded strategy to be identified and implemented by the NSW Government as a priority.

Hence, Recommendation 1 in the report is “That the NSW Government identify and implement as a priority a long term funded strategy for the expansion of both softwood and hardwood timber plantations in New South Wales.”

And that is great news from an environmental justice point of view.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

  1. It is probably best to start with Recommendation 1. Ask your NSW State MP whether they’ve read the report and what their position is on the recommendation to expand plantation timber. Then vote accordingly in the March 2023 NSW state election.
  2. Make sure you know all the facts when discussing these issues with others in your community or your local parliamentarians. Here are some key facts you might like to drop into your correspondence and conversations: Approximately 22 million hectares of NSW forestry estate is native forest, which accounts for 15 per cent of forests in Australia. Of this area, approximately 6 million hectares are set aside in formal reserves under the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1975. These nature conservation areas are not available for timber harvesting. Two million hectares of native forests are managed by FCNSW. These forests are also ‘multiple use public forests’ which allow for harvesting operations as well as tourism and recreation, conservation and agricultural uses. Fifty per cent of forests managed by FCNSW are not available for harvesting due to various restrictions. This leaves a total of 1 million hectares for harvesting, of which approximately 30,000 hectares are harvested annually. Private Native Forests (PNF) are native forests on private land that are used for the production of timber and managed by the landowner. Areas of environmental significance and heritage value are excluded from harvesting, such as mapped old growth forest, rainforest, riparian buffers, and Aboriginal heritage objects and places. Private native forests constitute 8.85 million hectares, or 40 per cent of NSW total native forest estate. As at September 2021, approximate 580,000 hectares of private land was covered by approved PNF plans. PNF plans are heavily concentrated on the NSW North Coast. In May 2022, the NSW Government remade the Private Native Forestry Codes with an explicit purpose to simplify regulation of PNF and support increased PNF activity.
  3. This is not only a state government issue so involve your federal MP in the discussion to. For instance NSW is a signatory to the National Forest Policy Statement which commits to the sustainable management of all Australian forests. Then NSW has a Regional Forest Agreement with the Commonwealth Government, given statutory effect under the Regional Forest Agreements Act 2002. The RFAs provide a streamlined approach to satisfying Commonwealth legislative requirements for environmental planning and assessment, and are supposed to meet Ecologically Sustainable Forestry Management objectives and provide for the protection of the state’s forest biodiversity. The RFAs for the Eden, North East and Southern were to expire over the coming years, however, they have now been revised and extended until 2039.
  4. Most of us have local habitat, including state forests, that we want to protect. If that habitat is in the hands of the state, such as a state forest, and it if has high conservation values, then its intrinsic value is more important than its commercial value. This is particularly the case as we hurtle towards high levels of species extinction and the full impacts of the climate crisis. These issues are huge but they will not go away unless communities come together and demand to be heard. Consider starting a community campaign like this reserve proposal from the Friends of Kalang Headwaters: http://friendsofkalangheadwaters.com.au/index.php/headwaters-conservation-proposal/ FoKH is an affiliation of environmental and business organisations, and has joined with concerned members of the local community to form a coordinated effort to protect, promote and preserve the natural and cultural values of the forests in this reserve proposal, and to seek their immediate, permanent protection.
  5. Oppose the abolition of dual consent requirements. Involve your local council, and state MP in arguing that dual consent requirements must stay in place for Private Native Forestry activities.
  6. Tell us your story. If you’re part of a group that has been trying to protect native habitat, write to The Point and share your story.
  7. Encourage young activists like Ursula and get involved yourself.
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