Don’t blame the possum! Blame the RFA

Jobs have been lost in the logging industry in Victoria because the RFA has driven over-cutting of native forests.

Possums have had bad press in Victoria lately for competing with loggers for forest. Its not their fault!  Forests are their home and the RFAs meant there isn’t enough left for both the loggers and them. 

On Threatened Species Day we should consider how bad policy and political expediency have brought our wildlife to the edge of extinction.

RFAs are ‘Regional Forest Agreements’.  They were the invention of the Keating Government in the 1990s and used extensively in the Howard era. They were bad then. Now, twenty years on, they are obsolete.  The consensus amongst scientists and pundits is that their only purpose has been political expediency.

Regional Forest Agreements exempt logging of native forests on public land from Federal Environmental laws.  They were supposed to provide “certainty” for the logging industry.

The ‘spin’ around the agreements was that they met the needs of both the industry and the environment.

RFAs were pitched as being good for the industry and rural communities 

 East Gippsland was the first regional forest agreement signed. It was announced with great fanfare by then Prime Minister John Howard and Premier Jeff Kennett on 3 February 1997:

“Today’s agreement is a milestone for Australian forest management.  The RFA will give greater certainty of access to timber resources, providing the basis for investment in the timber industry and the creation of new jobs – providing up to an estimated $140 million boost for the economy.” (Prime Minister of Australia, 3 Feb, 1997)

Marie Tehan, Minister for Conservation, Forests and Lands in the Kennett Coalition Governent, announced that 400 new jobs would be created over the following 5 years (Snowy River Mail, 25 February 1998).

Far from creating a sustainable economic base for East Gippsland, the opposite is true.

Australia’s modern wood products industry is based on plantations, despite the RFA. The native forest-based logging industry in East Gippsland has collapsed.  Twenty years after the RFA it employs far fewer people, mills have closed and the export woodchip industry has collapsed due to plantation competition (The Weekly Times, Feb 19 2016).

The spin was that RFAs would protect species on the brink of extinction, like the Leadbeaters Possum. Did they?

The Leadbeaters Possum is a tiny, pouched, hollow-dwelling marsupial, and Victoria’s faunal emblem.  It prefers mature and old-growth forest that has not been disturbed for at least 80 years.  It is a species which has been on the brink of extinction for many years because it shares its habitat, Victoria’s Ash forests, with the logging industry.  It is blamed for the loss of logging jobs (The Age, May 17 2017).

On 27 March 1998, at the signing of the Central Highlands RFA, then Federal Environment Minister, Senator Robert Hill, declared that:

“The RFA will result in more effective management of endangered species by protecting areas of high quality habitat, … and by setting priorities for specific plans to protect threatened species’ (Australian Government 1998, quoted in Lindenmayer et al 2015).

The current plight of the endangered Leadbeaters possum is well known. The ‘Black Saturday’ fires in 2009 burned much of the forest between Kinglake and Marysville, a large part of its known range. It has survived in a handful of unburnt forest locations. The consequence of protecting the Leadbeaters Possum is that 3,000 ha of ash forest cannot be logged (Legge, 3 April, 2017).

Prof. David Lindenmayer and his team (Lindenmayer et al 2015) discuss how the history of fire in the Central Highlands ash forests was well known prior to the RFA. They say that because of this a more conservative estimate of what was ‘sustainable logging’ should have been adopted in the RFA to anticipate future losses through fire. The RFA locked in a higher volume so for the last 19 years these forests have been over-logged.

Then, on 7 February 2009, Black Saturday happened. The most intense firestorms in the most intense fire weather yet to hit Victoria.  It was estimated that the Black Saturday fires in 2009 consumed 50,000 hectares of forests, or ten years’ worth of timber supply (ABC News, July 19 2010).

Lindenmayer’s team’s work clearly anticipates the recent issue over the prospective closure of the Australian Sustainable Hardwoods Heyfield sawmill. The mill says it was told by the State Government’s logging arm, VicForests, that it would be getting a reduced log supply from the Central Highlands ash forests. There just wasn’t enough timber there anymore to keep a big mill going.

The final word on the Central Highlands RFA comes from another researcher, Dr Chris Taylor. His research (Taylor, McCarthy & Lindenmayer, 2014a) has comprehensively linked logging with increased fire intensity in the forests which burnt in the Black Saturday fires:

“Changes are urgently needed to logging policies in these forests. Any future logging must be negligible in its cumulative impact. Given the large area already logged and the huge impact of Black Saturday, an expanded formal reserve system would serve an important role in protecting remaining unburnt areas of mountain ash forest.” (Taylor, McCarthy & Lindemayer, 2014b)

 

Is the Greater Glider the “canary in the mine” with forest ecosystems collapsing?

The Greater Glider story shows us two things.  Firstly how comprehensively Regional Forest Agreements have failed to protect native wildlife dependent on forests.  Secondly, it shows us how multiple pressures mean our forests are now on the brink.  We have to act now.

Twenty years ago the Greater Glider was a common forest marsupial. It occurred in tall, old-growth eucalypt forests from Queensland to Victoria.   In the last two years it has been listed as threatened with extinction under both Federal (EPBC) and Victorian (Flora and Fauna Guarantee) legislation.  This dramatic decline has happened in forests covered by six RFA agreements – the Central Highlands, East Gippsland, Eden, Southern NSW and Northern NSW RFA’s.

The studies which supported its listing documented Glider populations crashing across three states.  Field ecologist Rena Gaborov relied on these studies for the listing and believes what is happening to the Greater Glider “is a microcosm of all of the things that are happening in the forest as a whole…it’s all …collapsing” (pers. comm. 15 April 2017).  She lists the processes at work as the direct impact of logging, fire, drought and the destruction of the large trees with hollows they need for shelter, and the possible indirect declines from feral predators. She said that Greater Gliders need much more old-growth forest than commonly thought – up to 18 hollows and their home range 2-4 ha.

Rena Gaborov says that the Greater Glider has declined by 55% in East Gippsland since the RFA according to 2015 surveys by DELWP (pers comms 18 August, 2017, from presentation at Greater Glider workshop 26 July).  Surveys prior to the RFA found the Glider to be a common arborial mammal in these forests.

In a move that has echoes of the Central Highlands, the Victorian Government’s logging arm, VicForests, recently signed large log supply contracts for the largest mill in East Gippsland, Auswest.  How could this happen with only months until the RFA expires? It locks in logging of old-growth forest habitat of the Greater Glider. It is understood that contracts promise to supply the mill with an increasing volume of logs from 35,000 m3 for the first year increasing to 50,000 m3 by the sixth year. This is from a region in which VicForests has acknowledged it makes a loss of $5.5M a year to oversee the logging (VicForests 2013).

This new log supply agreement for East Gippsland is unsustainable – environmentally, financially and commercially.  The last areas of valuable unlogged forests in East Gippsland will now be slated for clearfelling thanks to this new contract.  These forests are the stronghold for the Greater Glider and should be gazetted for protection to ensure Australia’s largest gliding possum does not slide into extinction.

Getting out of RFAs

Regional Forest Agreements are  agreements between State and Federal Governments and can be cancelled at the swipe of a pen.

Premier Steve Bracks did this when Labor created the Otways National Park in 2004.  This was only two years after the West RFA had been signed. The community had mounted a vigorous campaign against the RFA, and in the 2002 State Election campaign, Bracks pledged his government would create the National Park. All clearfell logging of native forest on public land in the Otways finally came to an end in 2008 (OREN, 2017).

The Otways haven’t looked back since the decision, and the economy around those forests is booming, conflict-free and sees wildlife protected thanks to eco-tourism.

 Why have another 20 years of a policy that doesn’t work?

The Regional Forest Agreements signed twenty years ago are about to lapse and the Andrews Labor government in Victoria needs to make a decision.

The Turnbull Federal Government has already announced that they plan to simply “roll [them] over” for another 20 years (ABC News, May 27, 2016).   That’s in line with their push to hand all environmental decisions to the states and take the Commonwealth out of the picture.  They have already signed the Tasmanian RFA.

When the East Gippsland RFA was due to expire in early 2017 Premier Daniel Andrews found himself in the middle of the Heyfield dispute.  So what did he do?  He extended the RFA and gave himself 12 months thinking time (ABC News, 3 Februrary 2017). And then he bought the mill, a truly extraordinary decision!

What should he do?  Look at the evidence.

Professor David Lindenmayer and the team at the Fenner School of Environment and Economy at ANU summarized the body of scientific and economic literature on RFAs in 2015 and concluded:

“Without a substantial overhaul of the RFAs, there is a significant risk of undervaluing the full range of native forest values, exacerbating species declines, and permanently damaging forest ecosystems” (Lindenmayer et al 2015).

RFAs don’t work, and are the worst possible mechanism for either saving species or enabling sustainable rural communities.

It is time to say, “No way!  RFA”

 

References

ABC News, July 19 2010, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eA0squdhX_I, accessed 15 August 2017.

ABC News, May 27, 2016, Coalition set to renew 20-year regional forest agreements, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-05-27/coalition-to-renew-contentious-forestry-agreements/7451362, accessed 15 August 2017.

ABC News, 3 Februrary 2017, East Gippsland Regional Forest Agreement given last-minute extension, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-02-03/east-gippsland-regional-forest-agreement-extended/8238092, accessed 16 August 2017.

Legge, Nick 3 April, 2017, Heyfield timber mill: Time to face forest facts, The Weekly Times, http://www.weeklytimesnow.com.au/news/opinion/heyfield-timber-mill-time-to-face-forest-facts/news-story/d13074b3b8e70ea1bc4292b6386dde6b, accessed 16 August, 2017.

Lindenmayer, D.B, Blair, D., McBurney L. & Banks S.C., (2015) The need for a comprehensive reassessment of the Regional Forest Agreements in Australia, Pacific Conservation Biology, 21, 266–270.

Otway Ranges Environment Network (OREN), ‘West RFA Dead’, http://www.oren.org.au/campaign/politics/westrfadead.htm, downloaded Tues 16 August 2017

Prime Minister of Australia, 1997, Hon John Howard MP, Joint Statement with Premier of Victoria, Hon Jeff Kennett, MLA, 3 February 1997, ‘Historic Regional Forest Agreement Signed”.

Snowy River Mail, 25 Feb 1998, “Support for the timber industry sought”.

Taylor, C., McCarthy, M. A. and Lindenmayer, D. B. (2014a), Nonlinear Effects of Stand Age on Fire Severity. Conservation Letters, 7: 355–370.

Taylor, C., McCarthy, M. A. and Lindenmayer, D. B. (2014b) Victoria’s logged landscapes are at increased risk of bushfire, August 25, 2014 6.42am AEST, http://theconversation.com/victorias-logged-landscapes-are-at-increased-risk-of-bushfire-30611, accessed 15 August 2017.

The Age, 17 May 2017, ‘Moves to save Leadbeaters Possum will put timber jobs at risk Victorian Government told’, http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/moves-to-save-leadbeaters-possum-will-put-timber-jobs-at-risk-victorian-government-told-20170517-gw746y.html

The Weekly Times, 19 February 2016 ‘Communities suffer as mills get the chop’, http://www.weeklytimesnow.com.au/country-living/communities-suffer-as-mills-get-the-chop/news-story/a5b6be84002ef12b499feba79b733fe6

VicForests (2013), Corporate and business plans, 2013–2014 to 2015–2016, VicForests, Melbourne (cited in Lindenmayer et al 2015).