Renewable forestry vital to defend against bushfires
As we observe the first anniversary if the horrific firestorms that ravaged whole communities on Black Saturday, a typically scorching summer has again gripped much of Australia, providing a stark reminder that such dangers are a constant threat for those living in a sunburnt country.
Yet despite an ongoing Royal Commission, a flurry of catastrophic warnings and a flood of big-ticket resources which go right up to a water-bombing jumbo jet, little attention has thus far been given to the vital role that sustainable forestry traditionally played in essential aspects of fire management.
In recent decades, as politicians clamoured to placate the noisy environmental movement, they blissfully ignored the long-standing efforts of a sustainable forestry industry in managing forests, reducing fuel loads, building and maintaining access routes and fighting fires.
And while this failure may have cemented the votes of the latte-set, it resulted in the decay of the forest products industry, neglect of infrastructure and the loss of countless workers equipped with unmatchable knowledge of local topography, vegetation and access routes.
Changed land use decisions and policies transferred huge areas of forests into parks at the expense of multiple use managed forest systems, which incorporate limited timber harvesting and active fire mitigation activity. The unintended consequences of this have contributed to bushfires burning out of control with catastrophic social, economic and environmental results.
Across Australia, 11 million hectares of public land previously available for timber harvesting was locked away, creating huge areas where an ever-increasing amount of unmanaged bushfire fuel has accumulated.
In fact, there is now strong scientific evidence that suggests that bushfires occurring at unnatural frequencies are the greatest threat to Australia’s native forests, not sustainable timber harvesting. These more frequent and intense fires have the potential to alter forest ecological structure, promote weed invasions, eliminate endangered native species, effect water quality in catchment areas and release large amounts of carbon emissions.
As we look at all possible avenues to prevent a repeat of the Victorian fires of nearly one year ago, there is no question that forestry and sustainable timber harvesting should play a vital role. In our submission to the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, the union made clear our belief that this bushfire disaster was exacerbated by the failure of current land management policy to adequately mitigate fire risk, with that mismanagement heightening the probability and intensity of bushfires in some cases.
In the last 25 years alone, a range of State and Federal Government policies have seen the areas available for sustainable timber harvesting in Victoria reduced by more than 30 percent. The result has been that in less than two decades the number of people employed in timber harvesting dropped by nearly a third. With those jobs has gone an irreplaceable pool of on-the-ground expertise and institutional knowledge about the environment in which they work from a group who have long been quietly at the forefront of fire prevention and firefighting activities.
As the Victorian fires demonstrated, it is unreasonable to expect firefighters in an emergency situation to immediately grasp the intricacies of local topography, vegetation and access routes in the same way as forestry workers, who have accumulated this knowledge over a lifetime.
In 2008, before the tragic events of Black Saturday, the Victorian Government’s own Environment and Natural Resource Committee concluded that: “the decline in local knowledge, skill, resources and infrastructure associated with the restriction of traditional land uses has had a negative impact on the ability of relevant agencies to manage fire on public land.”
Reduced timber harvesting has also led to the deterioration of vehicle access tracks, which in the past have proved to be a reliable and highly valuable means of accessing remote forested areas when conducting fuel reduction burning and in responding to bushfire emergencies.
Along with the dilapidation of this critical road infrastructure network is the loss of specialist machinery and equipment available for firefighting emergency situations, such as bulldozers, graders and tankers utilised in timber harvesting and haulage operations.
Biomass, which in the wrong circumstances becomes bushfire fuel, has been allowed to accumulate at a greater rate than if a sustainable harvesting regime was in place. Indeed, renewable forestry has been completely neglected as a responsible and desirable means of reducing potential fuel loads, a technique that can have ecological benefits by creating a mosaic of diversity in age and density of timber stands.
With summer again gripping our wide brown land, and the Royal Commission still up to six months away from delivering its final recommendations, there are immediate steps that can and should be taken to address these issues.
Government support must be forthcoming to the industry to ensure it can viably continue to maintain vehicle access tracks and provide assistance with both manpower and machinery.
The skills and knowledge of forestry workers should be given recognition within public policy as being vital in forest and fire management, and their unique, detailed knowledge of forested areas better utilised in the prevention and fighting of fires.
Fuel reduction should also be increased, with sustainable forestry and increased levels of fuel reduction burning used as tools, as well as the investigation of techniques for mechanical management of biomass.
To further undermine the role of sustainable forestry in regional Australia would represent a dangerous step towards further amplifying the fire risk already posed by Australia’s often savage climate.
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