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The recent announcement by the NSW opposition leader of a plan for a Great Koala Park to reserve large areas of state forest for the survival of koalas is a much needed initiative, but the crisis in our native forests goes much deeper.
Koalas are an important threatened species, as an iconic ambassador for hundreds of other forest dependent species that also face an uncertain future. The recent announcement by the North East Forest Alliance (NEFA) of its revised policy on native forest logging is an indication that all is not well in NSW forests and that which ever party wins government at the coming state election will face some tough decisions.
NEFA has a strong record as a well-researched and politically effective group. In past decades NEFA fought long and hard for the preservation of old growth and high conservation value forests throughout the region in a campaign that involved at least eight successful court challenges, numerous blockades and a political meltdown that toppled the liberal Premier Nick Greiner.
Being a regionally based group, NEFA has always taken a moderate and accommodating stance on native forest logging particularly in regrowth forests, and for the past decade or more has monitored the trajectory of the industrial logging sector on our public lands. NEFA has now announced that our forests are in crisis, the industry is continuing to cut at an unsustainable rate, and that the native hardwood sector has become an ongoing financial drain on taxpayers and has been more than out-competed by plantation sources in most sectors.
Climate change is also a big game changer when it comes to the economic and ecological equation of forest policy. Our forests are now far more economically valuable for the carbon they can store than for the fairly small industrial logging sector that they are being subsidised to maintain. Further, forests help maintain water flows for streams and underground water, and if the battles over gasfields have taught us anything it is the social and economic importance of our water resources, particularly to agriculture. Industrial logging of native forest on public lands is a small employer accounting for no more than 1600 direct jobs throughout NSW. Despite all of this the public subsidy to the industrial native forest logging sector is around $15m per year.
That’s just the economics, ecologically our forests are in crisis. In the far north of the state logging associated forest die-back is setting off a death spiral in over-logged state forests that currently threatens more than 2 million ha of forest.
The problems stem from the Regional Forest Agreements (RFAs) that were signed off in the 1990’s. At the time NEFA argued that the volumes promised to industry were unsustainable and they have been proven right with the passage of time, with the government having poured over $12m into buying out allocations.
Most alarming however has been the widespread regulatory and management failure of the government, Forestry Corporation and the industry. Repeated systemic breaches of logging prescriptions have gone un-investigated and where proven, virtually unpunished. Worse still we have seen the government openly court desperate measures such as logging in National Parks, watering down the regulatory framework and more recently the proposed introduction of radical new cable logging technology to extract the last remaining large trees from extremely steep slopes.The soil erosion and stream pollution that cable logging would cause is devastating.
Rather than backing off from logging intensity in a time of crisis the government has consistently hatched plans to step up the pace. It looks like we are heading for forest wars three. First we saw the fight for the rainforests, then the last of the old growth and now it is the balance of the public’s native forests that are up for grabs.
The Regional Forest Agreement expires in 2018 and NEFA is giving government, industry and investors fair warning that 2018 is the end game for industrial logging of native forests on public lands. In a nutshell, forests have far greater economic value in the ground than being hauled up an extreme slope on a cable then rattling down the Pacific Highway on the back of a rusty old jinker.
This article was originally published in the Northern Rivers Echo, 12 February, 2015.