VicForests response to claims made in recent weeks including an article published in The Conversation.
VicForests works in very small areas of native forests
VicForests operates within designated areas of state forest managed by the Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action (DEECA). The areas in which VicForests plans its harvesting operations are allocated by a government Allocation Order, which designates where timber harvesting can occur.
These areas have been previously harvested or are bushfire regrowth forests. In a normal year VicForests would harvest about 0.04% of the forests, or 4 trees in every 10,000. All harvested areas are re-grown by law with our compliance audited on a regular basis.
4 year regrowth – Photo taken from Sylvia Creek Road, Toolangi, looking into a previously harvested coupe
8 year regrowth – Photo taken from Sylvia Creek Road, Toolangi, looking into a previously harvested coupe
18 year regrowth – Photo taken from Sylvia Creek Road, Toolangi, looking into a previously harvested coupe
28 year regrowth – Photo taken from Sylvia Creek Road, Toolangi, looking into a previously harvested into coupe
44 year regrowth – Photo taken from Hardys Creek Road, Toolangi, looking into a previously harvested coupe
The vast majority of Victoria’s native forests, more than 94%, are reserved or unsuitable for harvesting.
The areas of highest biodiversity and high-quality habitat are reserved through the Comprehensive, Adequate and Representative (CAR) reserve system and are not available for timber harvesting.
The CAR reserve system protects biodiversity and includes a substantial proportion of public land made up of dedicated reserves and informal reserves.
The areas in which harvesting can occur within production forests are generally lower in biodiversity, or the values are already well protected in the CAR reserve system and through other regulatory processes. In addition to the CAR reserve protections, we undertake comprehensive planning to ensure all operations meet the harvesting and biodiversity requirements under Victoria’s strict environmental regulatory system.
Our planning focuses on retention of habitat and protecting threatened species. We assess all coupes for the presence of threatened species and habitat values. This includes prioritising the retention of hollow-bearing trees as well as recruiting future hollow-bearing trees.
Through this process, special protections are applied for the management of threatened species and their habitat. Such protection measures comply with, and often exceed, regulatory prescriptions. The Office of the Conservation Regulator also conducts pre-harvest surveys in coupes it assesses as the highest priority through its Forest Protection Survey Program (FPSP).
Leadbeater’s possum detections
Between 2014 and 2021, VicForests established about1000 exclusion zones around sightings of Leadbeater’s possums in state forests. This has resulted in an additional 5,500 hectares of ash species forest being reserved and protected from harvesting activities. In fact, with new modern thermal cameras, we are finding more Leadbeater’s possums than ever before including in 10-year-old bushfire regrowth and timber harvesting regrowth as young as 5 years old.
“This change should result in improved protection for threatened species and have less impact on apiculture, and therefore should result in more resilient forest ecosystems within state forests following the planned cessation of native forest timber harvesting in 2030.”[i]
Furthermore, VicForests’ adoption of adaptive, variable retention practices was commended for going above and beyond the current requirements of the Code of Practice for Timber Production (the Code) by the Parliamentary Committee inquiry into ecosystem decline.[ii]
The greatest threat to Australia’s biodiversity is the impact of invasive species, climate change and land clearing.[v]
Since August 2018, the FPSP has recorded 2931 Southern Greater Gliders in pre-harvest coupe surveys.[iii]Following harvesting, our post-harvest monitoring program is finding this species is continuing to persist within and around our completed harvest areas. This demonstrates that our variable retention harvesting system, where we preserve suitable habitat trees and future habitat trees, enables the persistence of species such as the Southern Greater Glider.
The continued persistence of Southern Greater Gliders following harvesting is also demonstrated though work by the Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research (ARI). ARI estimated a population of about 24,500 Southern Greater Gliders in the Strathbogie Ranges. This is a forest area where native timber harvesting, largely selective harvesting, occurred for over 100 years.[iv]
The history of native timber harvesting in Victoria
Victoria’s native forests have been used to supply wood for about 180 years.
The current rate of timber harvesting in Victoria’s public native forests is the lowest since the mid-1930s.
Major reform of Victoria’s forest sector first commenced in 1986, when the then government released Victoria’s first Timber Industry Strategy (TIS). The TIS provided a new framework for a timber industry that balances the environmental, social and commercial values of the production forest.
This was further strengthened with the release of the 2009 Victoria’s Timber Industry Strategy. It contained the policy directions for Victoria’s forest industries in the wake of major bushfires in 2003, 2007 and 2009. It included the vision of a productive, competitive and sustainable timber industry, based on secure and sustainable native and plantation forests, that fosters strong Victorian communities. The strategy sought to help the timber industry improve its commercial and environmental sustainability through the implementation of priority areas of focus and action areas.
The mountain ash forests of the Central Highlands
Mountain ash forests of the Central Highlands were utilised for timber in the late 1800s and early 1900s and then severely burnt in the 1939 Black Friday bushfires.
The structure and age of the Central Highlands forests were in part shaped by the 1926 and the 1939 bushfires where about 75–80% of the region’s forests were burnt. This created the advanced regrowth cohort which still dominates the Central Highlands ash forests today.[vi] These fires resulted in great expanses of fire killed mountain ash, of which 3.3 million cubic metres was salvaged by the 1950s.
About 70-75% of the Central Highlands mountain ash forests are now excluded from harvesting due to water and biodiversity considerations, as well as reservations for Leadbeater’s Possum.
Change in forest use from the 1970s
730% increase in forested national parks and other formal conservation reserves (from 7% in 1972[vii] to 51% in 2018[viii])
78% reduction in the designated net area of productive native forest available and suitable for sustainable timber production (from 2.03 million hectares in 1986[ix]to 0.45 million hectares in 2018[x])
88% reduction in the annually harvested area of native forest (from 25,000 hectares in 1979[xi] to 2,941 hectares in 2019[xii])
Timber harvesting and bushfires
Large and devastating fires have impacted Victoria’s native forests for much of the state’s known history. However, the growing scientific consensus is that the risk of more frequent and higher severity fires will continue to increase because of climate change. [xiii]
Recent peer reviewed papers have found there is no evidence harvesting increases the risk of bushfires. For example, studies have found the extent and severity of the 2019–2020 bushfires were a result of years of below average rainfall, extreme fire weather and topography. They also found proposals that ceasing timber harvesting will reduce future fire risk are unfounded, and this policy option may have impacts on the capacity to prepare for, and respond to, future bushfires.[xiv]
The Panel for the Major Event Review of the 2019–20 bushfires also looked into claims of increased risk of bushfire in harvested forests. They considered that, ‘at the landscape level, neither the nature of the tenure nor the previous timber harvesting history had any significant effect on the severity of the bushfires within these forest ecosystems.’
In Victoria, the most significant impact to forest cover, and change to forest age and structure is in fact bushfire. [xv] In Mountain Ash or Alpine Ash forests the impact of bushfires in quick succession can lead to the conversion to a ‘scrub’ cover without active intervention by forest managers.[xvi]
Bushfires affect a far greater area of natural forest than timber harvesting.
VicForests maximises the economic value of all harvested products
Not all parts of a tree are the same. There are many different qualities of timber that can come from an individual tree once harvested, including high quality sawlog, structural grade sawlog and pulplog.
In the 2020/21 financial year 376,433 m3 of sawlog and 505,257 m3 of pulplog was sold into the market for a variety of different products, including:
high quality timber, which is used to produce furniture, flooring, staircases and speciality products such as musical instruments
structural grade timber, which is used for house, window and door structures, fencing, pallets and horticultural stakes
residue (pulpwood) timber, which is used to produce packaging, paper, firewood and bedding for animal husbandry.
Pulpwood is the residue of our harvesting program. It is the top part of a tree, or whole trees that are not suitable to be sawn. The use of pulpwood in critical products like paper and toilet paper means that the whole tree is used economically. It would be a poor environmental outcome if non-sawlog parts of harvested trees were left in the forest to dry out and become heavy fuel.
Suggesting trees are cut for pulp not timber, is like suggesting wheat is cut for straw not grain.
Forest carbon benefits
The International Panel on Climate Change has identified that, in the long term, sustainable forest management aimed at maintaining or increasing forest carbon stocks, while producing an annual sustained yield of timber, fibre or energy from the forest, will generate a sustained carbon mitigation benefit.[xvii]
In Australia this is demonstrated by the latest National Inventory Report which shows the Land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF) sector is a net sink for greenhouse gas emissions. The LULUCF is a net sink of 13.7% of Australia’s net inventory emissions in 2020–21. Within the LULUCF, native forest harvesting is in the sub-category ‘forest remaining forest and harvested wood products’ which continues to contribute to the net sink.[xviii]
The Australian Government’s 2018 State of the Forest report states over the period 2001-16, production native forests added 93 Mt C to the carbon forest accounts.[xix]
In fact, regenerating and growing forests have the highest rate of carbon sequestration. In mature and older forests this rate decreases as growth slows, and trees begin to decay and die.[xx]
The process of harvesting and regenerating forests for wood products helps store more carbon than a carbon sequestration model that involves no forest harvesting at all.
For example, in Victoria, Victorian ash forests conserve an additional 300 tonnes of carbon per hectare when sustainably harvested. This is because wood products retain carbon and harvested forests are regrown.[xxi]
Forests are regenerated following harvesting
Over the last decade VicForests has consistently demonstrated that we are meeting our obligations and required standards for successful regeneration.[xxii]
This is because we plan for regeneration from the start and actively manage it until we meet the standard of the Code.
Following harvesting we regenerate each site with the full suite of eucalypt species that were present prior to harvesting. We specifically regenerate to recreate a natural forest of multiple species that supports a range of biodiversity outcomes.
After the sites are sown, we conduct regeneration surveys to ensure the forests are regrowing. From time-to-time small areas do not regenerate at a first attempt, however we are not released from our responsibilities until all sites meet the regeneration requirements of the Code.
[iv] Cripps, JK, Nelson, JL, Scroggie, MP, Durkin, LK, Ramsey, DSL & Lumsden, LF (2021) 'Double-observer distance sampling improves the accuracy of density estimates for a threatened arboreal mammal',Wildlife Research, vol.48, pp. 756-768, https://doi.org/10.1071/WR19136
[v]Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (2021), ‘Australia State of the Environment 2021’, https://soe.dcceew.gov.au/
[vi]Land Conservation Council of Victoria 1991, Melbourne Area – District 2 Review, Government of Victoria
[vii] This figure is derived by assuming the current day total public forest area of 6.538 million hectares and then determining the proportion of this occupied by the reserved areas in State Forests and in National Parks specified in the Australian Year Book 1973
[viii] Australian Government, Department of Agriculture/ABARES 2013, Australia’s State of the Forests Report 2018. Criterion 1, Table 1.7, p. 55.
[ix]Government of Victoria 1986, Victoria’s Timber Industry Strategy 1986 stated that 31% of Victoria’s public native forest was available and suitable for long term timber supply under a renewable cycle of harvest and regrowth.
[x] Government of Victoria 2018, Victoria’s State of the Forests Report
[xi] Government of Victoria 1979, Forests Commission Victoria 1979 Annual Report
[xii] Government of Victoria 2021, VicForests Annual Harvesting and Regeneration Report 2018-19
[xiii]D.M.J.S. Bowman, G.J Williamson, R.K. Gibson, R.K. et al. (2021), ‘The severity and extent of the Australia 2019–20 Eucalyptus forest fires are not the legacy of forest management’, Nature Ecology & Evolution, Vol. 5, pp 1003–1010, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-021-01464-6
R. J. Keenan, P. Kanowski, P. J. Baker, C. Brack, T. Bartlett & K. Tolhurst (2021), ‘No evidence that timber harvesting increased the scale or severity of the 2019/20 bushfires in south-eastern Australia’, Australian Forestry, Vol. 84:3, 133-138, https://doi.org/10.1080/00049158.2021.1953741
D.M.J.S. Bowman, G.J. Williamson, R.K. Gibson, R.K. et al (2022), ‘Reply to: Logging elevated the probability of high-severity fire in the 2019–20 Australian forest fires’, Nature Ecology & Evolution, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-022-01716-z
[xv] Fairman, TA, Nitschke, CR, & Bennett, LT, 2015, ‘Too much, too soon? A review of the effects of increasing wildfire frequency on tree mortality and regeneration in temperate eucalypt forests’, International Journal of Wildland Fire, http://dx.doi.org/10.1071/WF15010
[xvi]Bassett, OD, Prior, LD, Slijkerman, CM, Jamieson, D, Bowman, DMJS, 2015, ‘Aerial sowing stopped the loss of alpine ash (Eucalyptus delegatensis) forests burnt by three short-interval fires in the Alpine National Park,
Victoria, Australia’, Forests Ecology and Management, 342, pp 39-48.
[xvii] IPCC, 2019, “Climate Change and Land: an IPCC special report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems”. [P.R. Shukla, J. Skea, E. Calvo Buendia, V. Masson-Delmotte, H.-O. Pörtner, D. C. Roberts, P. Zhai, R. Slade, S. Connors, R. van Diemen, M. Ferrat, E. Haughey, S. Luz, S. Neogi, M. Pathak, J. Petzold, J. Portugal Pereira, P. Vyas, E. Huntley, K. Kissick, M. Belkacemi, J. Malley, (eds.)], https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/sites/4/2022/11/SRCCL_Full_Report.pdf
Nabuurs, G.J., O. Masera, K. Andrasko, P. Benitez-Ponce, R. Boer, M. Dutschke, E. Elsiddig, J. Ford-Robertson, P. Frumhoff, T. Karjalainen, O. Krankina, W.A. Kurz, M. Matsumoto, W. Oyhantcabal, N.H. Ravindranath, M.J. Sanz Sanchez, X. Zhang, 2007: Forestry. In Climate Change 2007: Mitigation. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [B. Metz, O.R. Davidson, P.R. Bosch, R. Dave, L.A. Meyer (eds)], Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA., https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/ar4-wg3-chapter9-1.pdf