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Forests under fire: Australia’s imperiled south west

Logging operation in Southwestern Australia. Image courtesy of Photos for the Forest by Wendy Slee

In the far southwestern corner of Western Australia, beyond the famed wineries in the shadow of the Margaret River, lies an ecosystem like no other, the South West ecoregion. This part of Australia has been identified as one of 34 global biodiversity hotspots, home to rare endemic flora and fauna like the Carnaby’s black cockatoo, numbat (banded anteaters), woylie (brush-tailed bettong), mainland quokka and over 1500 plant species, most found nowhere else. Unfortunately, this unique habitat is being increasingly fragmented and its inhabitants threatened by a number of forces, including climate change, dieback, fires and logging. And, on the eve of the Western Australia’s state elections, the future of the South West hangs in the balance.

With just days to go until the election, local environmental groups are trying to rally their community together around a common cause: the rejection of the proposed Forest Management Plan (FMP) for 2014-2023. A management plan for Australia’s forests is developed every ten years, covering everything from logging quotas to endangered species protection. When the draft FMP for the next period was released last summer for public review and comment, the tight-knit environmental and science community was shocked by the proposal and launched an impassioned campaign to educate residents. The new plan not only proposed an increase in native forest logging, but it also failed to address the numerous issues and oversights in the current plan that have exacerbated an already fragile and destabilized system in the throes of climate change-induced turmoil.

Image courtesy of Photos for the Forest by Wendy Slee

The remaining native forests in the South West are under serious threat from a number of forces, including climate change, Phytophthora dieback, decreased rainfall, logging, invasive species and poorly managed fire regimes. All major Western Australia forest tree species (jarrah, karri, marri, tuart and wandoo) are in decline because of these cumulative and interacting effects. Australia, as an already predominantly arid continent, has deeply felt the effects of climate change, and nowhere more so than in the South West. Since the 1970s, the region has experienced much hotter and drier conditions year after year, marking a pronounced long-term shift from the norm. 2010 was the driest and second hottest year on record, and the impacts of this trend have been manifold. Increased salinity and dried out soil reserves from an ever-dropping water table level (up to an 11-meter fall in groundwater in forested areas), decreased rates of growth of native trees, more dangerous and destructive wildfires and the sudden and violent collapse of whole forests signals an ecosystem on the brink.

In addition to climate change, some unwelcome guests in the form of invasive species have wreaked havoc on the forests and their inhabitants. The most infamous and insidious of these species is Phytophthora dieback—a vicious form of root rot caused by a soil-borne water mold that invades plants’ roots in search of nutrients, killing plant cells and reducing the plants’ ability to transport both water and nutrients. Phytophthora is spread by the direct relocation of infested soil, water or root to root contact and this spread has been greatly aided by logging activities. Unfortunately, over 40% of Western Australia’s native plant species are susceptible to the dieback, including the jarrah, the country’s most valued wood product source.

The decreased rainfall in the South West has had a significant impact on the jarrah as well as other native species. With a 20% decline in the region over the past 30 years, forests are seeing dramatically different rates of growth and continuous logging has only exacerbated their diminished state. The current FMP is based on old rainfall data, not taking into account this reduced annual rainfall and subsequent reduced rate of forest growth and regrowth. Similar to unsustainably managed fisheries, it is growing harder to find mature trees with traditionally full-size timber yields.

Courtesy of Google Earth

One of the most obvious and persistent threats to the South West forests is logging. Western Australia has had the most extensive clearing of native vegetation on the continent, with only 1% of the state still forested, and only 15% of that being old growth forest. Over the last few years, the logging industry in Western Australia has seen trying times and troubling trends. The troubles are twofold: there is a macro trend of timber decline, both in size and quality—three Western Australia Gunns Ltd. jarrah sawmills have recently closed due to the poor quality of saw logs—and the logging industry has been financially unviable for years. These two troubles are inextricably linked.

The introduction of 30-ton logging machines in the mid-1990s dramatically increased the efficiency and impact of logging activity. Combined with the effects of fungal pathogens, fires and climatic activity, the South West’s forests have been in a sorry state for years. As such, maintaining the allowable cuts outlined under the current FMP has resulted in the extraction of fundamentally unsustainable amounts of logs and the extreme misuse of forest wood. According to the Forest Products Commission’s (FPC) own annual reports, around 80% of harvested wood ends up as low value products like railway sleepers, charcoal, wood chips and garden mulch year over year. In 2010-2011, only 15% of all jarrah logs and 12% of karri logs became sawn timber. Out of the 302,041 tons of logged jarrah, 59% of logs became industrial firewood and charcoal, 26% ended up as sawmill residue, waste and sawdust. Of the jarrah saw logs, only a fraction became structural timber. The rest became railway ties. For such a highly valued building product, it may shock some to learn that 160,000 tons of jarrah go to Simcoa each year as charcoal for the production of silicon.

Because the native forests are being logged for extremely low-value products and can no longer support a high-value logging industry, the FPC and many local logging company branches are in dire financial straits. The prices charged by the government for native forest logs do not even cover the cost of producing them.
The Commission is required to make a profit, but saw a $13M loss in 2010-2011. In addition to keeping the FPC afloat, the state has witnessed some questionable payouts to local logging companies through similarly questionable legislation. Under the state government’s Timber Industry Structural Adjustment Package in 2004, Palcon Group Ltd received $252,000 in taxpayer handouts and Plantation Logging Company received $807,000. Both companies are still heavily involved in logging in this region. To many locals, this is seen as a significant waste of taxpayer’s money.

Based on these threats, it is no surprise that locals are sensitive to new legislation allowing the continued logging of the South West. But beyond the state of the forest, there is an even greater threat: the one faced by forest inhabitants. The region possesses a particular set of characteristics that make locals especially impassioned about its protection. The South West is home to an incredible range of flora and fauna species. This range is so unique and prolific that Conservation International identified this ecoregion as one of only 34 global biodiversity hotspots, one of only five Mediterranean-type ecosystems to be listed as globally significant and the only hotspot in Australia. Only 2.5% of the earth’s surface is home to more than half the planet’s living species, taking the form of tiny and unique habitats. A habitat must meet to two criteria to qualify as a global biodiversity hotspot: it must have at least 1500 species of vascular plants and greater than 0.5% of the world’s total as endemic species, and it must have lost at least 70% of its original habitat

Forest Red Tail Cockatoos. Photo courtesy of Photos for the Forest by Wendy Slee

With over 1500 flora species of plants, seven species of mammals, 13 birds, 24 reptiles and 28 frogs, the South West boasts an abundance of life. And, there may be undiscovered species still hidden in the forests; new amphibian species have been identified as recently as 1994, with the discovery of the sunset frog (Spicospina flammocaerulea) near Walpole. Unfortunately, the increasingly fragile and diminished habitat has had catastrophic effects on these species. As of March 2006, 351 species and subspecies of plants were listed as threatened within the ecoregion. The woylie (Bettongia penicillata), white-bellied frog (Geocrinia alba), and orange-bellied frog (Geocrinia vitellina) are the most endangered fauna species in the South West. The numbat (Myrmecobius fasciatus) and mainland quokka (Setonix brachyurus) are not far behind. The numbat is the state mammal emblem of Western Australia. Despite being a charismatic and locally treasured species, less than 1,000 remain in the wild according to the Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) due to habitat destruction and subsequent loss of food sources and increased predation from introduced species like foxes and feral cats. In the past five years, this fragile population has declined by 20%, and yet the advisor to the Minister of the Environment, Bill Marmion, has stated publicly that logging has no impact on this population. The quokka is another endemic species that is struggling for survival. Quokka used to be widespread over the majority of Australia, but over time, the species has been reduced to a few isolated populations in Western Australia. A small colony of mainland quokka lived in the Arcadia State Forest, but after heavy logging and clear-felling, local environmentalists are doubtful about the chances of this colony. The quokka need undisturbed habitat to survive—the forest offers protection from their greatest threats—the introduced predators of foxes and feral cats.

Beyond mammals, birds face tough odds with continued logging and habitat destruction in the South West. Western Australia has three species of endangered black cockatoos: forest red-tailed, Carnaby’s and Baudin’s black cockatoo. The Carnaby’s black cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus latirostris) experienced a 34% decline in population between 2010 and 2011. This can be linked directly to the elimination of primary food sources and breeding hollows from logging and DEC-prescribed fires. Cockatoos are not the only species feeling the effects of habitat destruction. There are 26 species of native fauna in the South West that need hollows in standing trees to nest and breed. Hollows take hundreds of years to form and mature trees that develop these hollows are being removed by ongoing clearing, logging, mining and burning.

Baudin’s Cockatoo. Photo courtesy of Photos for the Forest by Wendy Slee

DEC-Prescribed Burns

South West region conservationists say populations of highly endangered possum, black cockatoo and other native species may now be locally extinct in the Margaret River, Nannup and Augusta regions. This is a direct result of at least two bush fires originating from a series of DEC-prescribed burns that flared out of control in November 2011, consuming more than 70,000 hectares of critical endemic habitat. The combined Nannup-Augusta fire was the largest on record in the South West, burning up 50,000 hectares. According to local scientists, the DEC’s decision to burns in the spring is extremely ill-advised on account of the fact that this is prime nesting and breeding season for many native animals. For two months prior to the planned burns, locals pleaded with the DEC not to conduct the burns during the breeding season, but the fires were set as planned and then burned out of control. The fires devastated some of the healthiest populations of endangered ringtail possums around the Margaret River. Additionally, for the black cockatoos, any chicks that were in nest hollows during the fires would have perished. The elimination of their primary food source combined with loss of young is a heavy blow; this critically endangered species cannot sustain these types of losses.

Fires are an undeniable characteristic of Australia’s largely arid climate, but burns prescribed by the DEC have had mixed results in sustainably managing the forests and mitigating wildfire risk, with some disastrous outcomes. The Department strives to meet a 200,000 hectare prescribed burn target each year, one local environmentalists believe to be not only arbitrary and without any ecological basis, but also dangerous and costly. The DEC is increasingly being called into question for their actions in regard to fire regimes like the experimental fire at the Benger Nature Reserve (lit during a total fire ban in April 2011), which burned out of control, killing hundreds of native animals including some on the DEC’s own threatened species list. According to Marmion, suppression of the fire and reconstruction costs totaled more than $200,000.

There are multiple examples of purposely-set fires gone wrong, with grave repercussions. An escaped DEC burnoff near Nannup in August 2012 severely burned much of the forest around a rehabilitation center for critically endangered black cockatoos. The surrounding forest used to serve as the release area and habitat for rehabilitated birds, but now they have nowhere to go. Similar out-of-control fires in November 2011 devastated threatened possum and cockatoo populations in the Margaret River, Nannup and Augusta regions, burning more than 70,000 hectares of vital habitat. A DEC spokeswoman said prescribed burns were usually conducted in spring and fall when weather is mild and fires easier to manage: “In southern parts of WA, spring burning is undertaken when fuels are still reasonably moist from winter rains.” The department fails to take into account that the region has seen decreased rainfall over the last 30 years.

Organizations like Western Australia Forest Alliance (WAFA) are calling for a complete moratorium on the logging, clearfelling and burning of the remaining native forests in the South West. There are a number of compelling reasons beyond the simple threat to the forests and its inhabitants. One, the Australian National University confirms Western Australia currently has enough plantation timber to meet industry needs. Two, from a policy perspective, there have been major failures in and breaches of the current FMP and the agencies tasked with implementing and enforcing it. Many of the areas that were supposed to be made into conservation reserves under the current FMP have not had their status changed and subsequently are not being protected. Three, the actions prescribed in the current FMP to protect threatened flora and fauna have not been complied with. The Conservation Commission’s end of term audit found that not all of the actions to protect flora has been fully implemented. The FPC has identified multiple examples where logging has breached its own guidelines for protecting threatened fauna, including machinery incursions into fauna habitat zones. The Commission has recorded 200 breaches by its contractors. The FMP is intended to ensure sustainable logging practices, but continues to allow practices like clearfelling, ringbarking, poisoning, (marri trees are most frequently poisoned to discourage competition for jarrahs) and simply cutting down trees and leaving them to rot and burn. None of these are included in the allowable cut.

On March 9, many will be watching to learn the fate of the proposed FMP for 2014-2023. Local environmental organizations are hopeful that Western Australian residents, particular those in the South West, will recognize the value of their remaining forests and support a new vision for how to manage and sustain this unique environment with their votes. There are alternatives beyond the traditional logging industry that create the same level of opportunity and employment, but with significantly better long term environmental and economic viability. Timber needs can be met without logging native forest. Western Australia is virtually self-sufficient in timber through farm forestry and existing plantations. There are increasingly viable alternative wood sources and alternative employment opportunities for logging industry employees—replanting and rehabilitating native bush, introduced pest control and developing a true market for ecosystem services, namely carbon sequestration and the development, management and trade of carbon credits. Researchers estimate the financial potential of carbon credits for Western Australia’s remaining to be $600M-$1.5B for the next FMP period (2014-2023), a vastly more profitable venture than the last decade of traditional logging industry. Ultimately, the South West’s native forests are far more valuable than the wood that can be obtained from them.

Sampling of flora from Australia’s South West


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