Let Australian Foresters Manage our Forests!

12th March 2020

When I studied Forestry at the Australian National University it was a four year undergraduate degree, the same time it took to study Law or Engineering.

Australia’s forests are complex and understanding their differences takes a lifetime. After nearly 40 years working in Australia’s forests, I continue to learn new things but one thing I am certain about, there is no “one size fits all” management regime.

Mother nature and our forests have sent us a very big message over the last 8 months.

Change our management systems or expect more of these mega fires and all the distress they cause!

Forest fire management is not a job for amateurs, said Dr Kevin Tolhurst a forester and Hon Associate Professor of fire ecology and management at the University of Melbourne in an opinion piece recently.

Indigenous Australians developed a range of techniques based around cool fires that kept them and our abundant wildlife safe and thriving for around 60,000 years before Europeans arrived.  Fire was a friend to Indigenous Australians while European settlers were scared of it, and did not know how to use it strategically in our landscape.  But over time farmers and people in rural areas slowly learnt that some form of periodic burning was essential to keep their farms and livestock safe.

However, this periodic burning has been challenged and even prevented by activists from a range of sources including Universities and the urban areas of Sydney and Melbourne.

Foresters have several tools that work to limit the impacts of fires. This includes prescribed burning, thinning and mulching of debris to develop both mosaics of varying fuel loads and clearing strategic breaks in vegetation.

Red Sunday – 5 January, 1:30 pm NSW South Coast

Prescribed burning is a fantastic tool when it is done well. A cool and slow burn removes enough vegetation to reduce the fire danger, while stimulating the forest and protecting the crowns of the trees. A prescribed burn may not stop a fire, but it will lower the intensity of the fire, so it is easier to control. If prescribed burning is undertaken by inexperienced managers they often burn too hot and scorch the tree crowns and unnecessarily burn swamps and other wetlands. This is basically a contained bushfire which is ineffective as it creates more flammable fuels in the forest and germinates more fire weeds.

The following photo taken by well-known and highly respected East Gippsland forester Garry Squires says it all.  The fire to the right of the photo has basically cremated the forest and everything in but it stopped spreading within metres of burning into an area of forest that was prescribed burned 9 months earlier.  No helicopters, 737’s or flashing lights needed just fuel management. The forest to the left of the photo has healthy unburnt crowns which means the burn was undertaken professional and there is evidence of course woody debris on the ground which suggests a healthy forest.  The impact of this fire on the prescribed burn forest is limited to the immediate edge beside the road but it is a powerful example of the benefits of prescribed burning.  It is how foresters prevented major fires in the 1980’s.

Figure 1 – The benefits of prescribed burning – East Gippsland Victoria

Many of our forests are in urgent need of thinning. It is easy to see they are under stress, which makes the forest drier as each tree battles for moisture to survive. This is cruel to watch. When trees are under stress they are more prone to insect attack (and hence the bell miner affect) and their biodiversity values fall away. Most importantly, the forest is more vulnerable to fire.

Professor Bill Gammage in his landmark book, The Biggest Estate on Earth – how aborigines made Australia, quotes early settlers who found Australia to be more like an English gentlemen’s park with large trees in open spaces. Often there were only 8 to 10 trees per acre, which is only 20 to 25 trees per hectare. I estimate the stocking of forests on the far south coast of New South Wales to be around 300 trees per hectare. This is not including the shrub layers of ti-tree, wattle and pittosporum, which provides the perfect ladder to create a crown fire and the fire storms we have so vividly witnessed over the last 8 months.

Irrespective of the stocking numbers it is clear to me as a forester that our forests are under severe stress. We need to change management regimes to improve forest health and biodiversity.

The past 30 years of passive and/or hands-off management of much of our forest estate has failed miserably.

It is time to let the foresters manage our forests. In turn they should be consulting and learning from Indigenous burning experts to utilise many of the systems they used to keep our landscape safe and healthy for 60,000 years before European settlers arrived.

To use a medical analogy, foresters are the GP’s of forest health. We know lots of things about forests and how they work but not necessarily every detail about every species in the forest.

There are plenty of ecologists and conservation biologists who specialise in a handful of species or a small section of forest, but most do not understand how the whole forest works.

Anyone would be rightly concerned if a heart specialist turned up to comment on a knee re-construction or a first aider was challenging your family doctor on the best treatment for your children.

For a range of complicated reasons, we have allowed all voices on forest management to have equal weight. Sadly, the biggest losers have been our forests and many of the species that rely on them and now the communities that surround them.

The Black Summer of 2019-20 must make us re-think how we manage our landscape and Professor Bill Gammage summed it up in a quote from the back cover of his book  – “If we are to survive, let alone feel at home, we must begin to understand our country. If we succeed, one day we might become Australian”.

For further insights on forest management, listen to Rob de Fégely on ABC Radio National News Breakfast: https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/breakfast/gladys-berejiklian-warned-against-allowing-salvage-logging/11926842