Mountain ashed - Griffith Review
Essay

Mountain ashed

Environmental crime in the forest

I’M STANDING IN the shifting forest in the muted light of dusk. Above me, a tall tree with a vast tapering trunk stretches its antlered branches into the sky. Mountain ash, Eucalyptus regnans: the tallest flowering plant in the world. Fern fronds wave in the wind and bushes hunch in the understorey. I hear rustlings in the leaf litter. The monotonous rhythmic piping of an eastern yellow robin. The distant cackle of a kookaburra: the last bird to call before night. In the gloom I wait, listening to the breath of the forest, the hum of mosquitoes. It’s peaceful in this small patch of old-growth forest: a rich world of trees and creatures, interactions and interdependencies that combine to create a functioning ecosystem. Soon the cloak of night will fall and, if I’m lucky, an animal may emerge from a hollow high up in my tree.

I am here with a group of volunteers led by researchers from the Australian National University under the guidance of my partner, ecologist Professor David Lindenmayer, who’s been studying this forest since 1983. David and I met twenty-eight years ago over a Leadbeater’s possum at Sir Colin MacKenzie Sanctuary near the township of Healesville, where I was working as a veterinarian. As I stepped into the sanctuary vet hospital that morning, a dark-haired man with kind brown eyes smiled up at me. Not long after that, we began a relationship, and since then our lives have been enmeshed in the politics of native-forest logging, which are as complex and layered as the forest itself.

It’s been a long and convoluted journey. Years of field research in Victoria’s Central Highlands by David and his team clearly demonstrate the decline of the forest ecosystem and many species that live there, including the critically endangered Leadbeater’s possum, the state’s faunal emblem. There is overwhelming scientific and economic evidence that native-forest logging needs to stop here, including significant declines of mammal and bird species, a lack of sawlog resource, dwindling jobs, increased taxpayer subsidisation and failed forest regeneration. But despite this, and the appeals of tens of thousands of citizens for a Great Forest National Park, the political world remains deaf.

This is a crime story. It has victims and perpetrators, hidden deals and dirty deeds. Laws are broken about what should and shouldn’t be logged. Taxpayers’ money is squandered. There’s no happy ending and no punishment. If government inaction continues, the future forest will look very different. A collapsed ecosystem. Acacias instead of large trees. A massively diminished water supply for Melbourne. Increased atmospheric carbon in a much hotter, bushfire-prone world.

I watch the last grey light retreat from the day and wonder what it will take to trigger a transition away from logging here. The extinction of Leadbeater’s possum? The death of the local sawmilling industry? Or the adoption of a new way of thinking, like the Rights of Nature movement, which focuses on legal protection for the natural world with flow-on benefits for humanity? There are recent precedents for this. New Zealand granted personhood to the Te Urewera forest in 2014, and the Whanganui River in 2017, meaning each can ‘act as a person in a court of law’. In Victoria, the Yarra River Protection (Wilip-gin Birrarung murron) Act 2017 affirms the eponymous river’s ‘intrinsic and human values, and recognises the river and lands as a living and integrated system’. And in early 2019, Toledo voters approved a ballot asking whether Lake Erie should be given ‘rights normally associated with a person’. Recognition like this might make a difference. But for decades, scientists have been talking about nature’s inherent right to exist and no one has taken notice.

Tonight, though, I am enjoying the trees. It’s important to be positive. Despite constant setbacks, David remains optimistic and determined to create change, and I want to support him. He foresees a future Great Forest National Park – a restoration park in which the whole ecosystem is allowed to regenerate and recover. In this forest, there would be enhanced tourism opportunities and many more jobs than in the current native forest industry. The forest would regain its natural structure, providing habitat for wildlife, clean water for the growing city of Melbourne and long-term carbon storage in the form of old trees.

In this small area of old growth, we ten volunteers are strategically positioned at the buttressed base of each potential nest tree. This particular patch is typical of the remaining old-growth forest in the region: only one hectare in size, just a tiny area of a threatened ecosystem. David’s research indicates that large-diameter old trees are essential for the survival of more than forty species of wildlife, from parrots to possums. Apart from providing food, these trees contain hollows that are important nesting sites. Without them, there’s nowhere to hide, shelter or breed.

David has published 745 peer-reviewed scientific papers and forty-five books encompassing many studies of this forest, from the habitat requirements of the arboreal marsupials to the effects of logging and forest age on bushfire risk. And the message is clear. In the past thirty-five years, an over-commitment to logging has had a major negative impact. I know this because I’ve read David’s scientific papers, and we’ve discussed the findings of his work on our evening walks. I’ve listened to radio interviews where he’s tried to communicate his research to a world that seems primarily interested in making fast money from a vastly under-priced resource to perpetuate a dying industry. And that’s the ultimate irony: taxpayers are funding this. It’s called the Hood Robin effect – the government robbing the poor (the taxpayer) to support rich big businesses, such as Nippon Paper and Australian Sustainable Hardwoods. Perhaps future generations of Australians will look back and ask how we could have trashed our public forests in this way.

In the encroaching dusk I wait quietly. It’s hard on the neck, gazing up at a tree, but if I glance away I might miss an animal emerging from its hollow. Our aim tonight is to survey this site for possums and gliders. If I’m vigilant, I might hear the gurgling call of a yellow-bellied glider and see it launch into blue air, volplaning to another tree via the extensions of skin connecting its elbows to its knees. I might see a greater glider. Or even a Leadbeater’s possum – that tiny miracle of fur once thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered in the 1960s.

But I might not see anything at all. The forest is quieter these days and patches of old growth are less than 1.2 per cent of the 171,000 hectares of the entire Central Highlands. Imagine this regional forest as the Melbourne Cricket Ground. One hundred and fifty years ago, the amount of old growth would have covered up to two-thirds of its entire playing surface. Now all that’s left could be held by the size of the cricket pitch – and that’s divided into hundreds of small fragments.

Still hopeful, I crane up at the tree’s silhouette, etched against the night sky. Minutes pass and the light fades.

 

LEADBEATER’S POSSUM IS small and grey with a heart-shaped face, rounded ears, shiny black eyes, a tiny pink nose and a stripe down its back like a strip of sap on a gum tree. At 120 grams, it can fit in the palm of your hand. Not that you would want it to sit there for long: it has sharp incisors and is unafraid to use them. The species lives in matriarchal colonies – the natural world has its feminists too. And these possums are feisty. If you mimic their hissing alarm call, they will leap from trees and mob you, digging in claws and biting with their diprotodont teeth. Once, a possum launched onto David’s head, took a bite then jumped off again. You have to respect a handful of fur that’s willing to attack a ninety-kilogram possum-catcher.

For food, Leadbeater’s possum prefers insects and the saps and gums of acacia trees, particularly silver wattle. But they nest in the hollows of large, old, dead mountain ash, whose rotting mudguts provide heat and insulation to keep them warm in the middle of winter. This need for old trees is one of the reasons Leadbeater’s possum is now in so much trouble. It takes 170–190 years for mountain ash to develop hollows suitable for animals, and the types of trees Leadbeater’s possum prefers are even older: between 190 and 400 years. Damage to existing old trees by recent major wildfires, along with long-term ongoing logging, means there are few old trees left. No new hollow-bearing trees growing through. Nowhere for the possums to nest. The chance of seeing Leadbeater’s possum tonight is slim; there are only 2,500 left in the wild.

Why care about a tiny nocturnal possum that most Australians will never see? Does it matter if it slips to extinction? It would simply be added to the list of thirty-four other mammals that have gone extinct in Australia. Much of our society only values things that have an economic price tag. But the Rights of Nature movement insists on the right of all creatures to exist. It insists that forests and possums don’t need a monetary value to earn this. These aren’t things that resonate with parliamentarians and conventional business interests.

If you want to ascribe some kind of ‘value’, Leadbeater’s possum is an indicator for the entire regional mountain ash system. Its decline over the past thirty years has foreshadowed other declines in this space. Species that were common twenty years ago are now in serious trouble. Greater glider populations have crashed by two-thirds since 1997. Yellow-bellied gliders are struggling too. Fifty per cent of forest birds have declined. The entire ecosystem is under threat because of a potent and unique combination of climate change, recent devastating wildfires and continued clear-felling.

Like all good crime stories, there are many layers to this saga, and abundant cumulative wrongs. Native-forest logging is the main cause of the ecosystem’s decline. In the Central Highlands, about 2,000 hectares of forest are logged each year. This doesn’t sound like much, but it occurs on the back of a long logging history. Half of the available ash forest has been clear-felled in the past fifty years, and there were 150 years of intensive repeated logging before that. So it’s not really a surprise that this has had impacts. What is surprising is the wide range of victims. There are obvious losers: Leadbeater’s possum, other arboreal marsupials that use mountain ash trees, and the forest. But there are other victims, too: the taxpayers of Victoria, regional towns, tourism, jobs, asthma sufferers, fire victims, the citizens of Melbourne – even the sawlog industry itself.

Over the decades, I’ve watched David propose practical strategies – based on his research findings – to transition the regional timber industry towards sustainability and international certification. But opportunities were ignored and foregone, and now it’s a classic example of an over-committed resource – a common theme in forestry worldwide. The industry relies on a natural system that is susceptible to over-exploitation in the name of jobs and politics. It’s meant to be renewable – trees grow, and they should keep growing. But the industry never leaves enough time for younger trees to grow through. It’s a tale of increasing mechanisation and greed. More efficient logging machines cut down more trees, which means more resource is devoured – a path that leads directly to ecosystem collapse.

And so I wait, with aching neck and straining eyes, as the sky darkens and tiny pinprick stars begin to dust the heavens.

 

THE FAST-GROWING, HIGHLY productive eucalypt forests of the Central Highlands constitute almost the entire distribution of Leadbeater’s possum. These forests are close to Melbourne, and tall, straight trees grow here, making them extremely attractive and convenient for clear-felling.

Loggers have been cutting trees in these forests since the late 1800s. For many years, logs were hauled by oxen or horses along timber tramways, the remnants of which can still be found around Powelltown and Noojee. Then small steam trains were used. It was multi-man labour. In the 1920s, at the peak of the sawlog industry, there were more than 240 mills in the region. Now there are six. This decrease stems back to 1936, when the government signed a wood pulp agreement with Australian Paper (now owned by Nippon Paper). Before this, the focus was on sawn timber. But after 1936, paper pulp was added to the equation, and now 87 per cent of all timber removed from native forests across all of Victoria goes to pulp. If ten tall, straight trees are cut down, only one ends up as sawn timber; the rest are chipped for paper. This has left a severe shortage of logs for sawmilling.

The rate at which timber is harvested is much faster now due to mechanisation. On-the-ground workers have been superseded by modern falling and skidding machines – a safer approach, but one that employs very few people. And the machines are voracious: what two people used to cut in one day, a machine fells in a matter of minutes. In terms of public investment, tens of thousands of kilometres of logging roads have been constructed and maintained by the Victorian Government in recent decades, making access for contractors easy and cheap. The government pays for regeneration burns and reseeding too: this is a subsidised industry.

When an area in the Central Highlands is logged, 40 per cent of the biomass is taken out of the forest, with only 11 per cent of this going to sawmills; 29 per cent goes to pulp mills. The rest of the biomass is left onsite – the tree crowns, lateral branches and bark – returning important nutrients to the soil to help forests regrow. At the mills, additional waste means that a mere 4 per cent of the original forest biomass ends up as timber product.

Mountain ash is too soft for decking timber or roof trusses, so it has two main uses. Half of that 4 per cent is used to make high-grade furniture; the rest becomes low-grade pallets. These pallets are landfill within three months – a shockingly short-term use of a resource that takes many decades to grow. Yet this tiny amount of sawn timber is held up as the key reason for continuing to log native forests: broad-scale clear-felling is justified in terms of sustaining the sawlog industry, even while most of the usable biomass is turned into pulp.

What happens to the wildlife when a forest is logged? The simple fact is that the animals die. There’s nowhere to go. When their trees are felled, they go down too.

As night encroaches, the silhouette of my old tree becomes sharper against the indigo sky. To the timber industry, it would be worthless or over-mature – its rotten core means it’s no good for sawlog or paper. But for wildlife, trees like this are essential and priceless, especially in an over-cut forest where nest trees are few. While the timber industry insists the system is renewable because the trees grow back, a hundred young trees do not compensate for the loss of one large old tree. Not in terms of nest sites. Not in terms of seed production. And not in terms of water run-off.

It takes hundreds of years for the forest to grow and develop the complexity animals need. A forest must have diversity to be liveable, and old trees aren’t the only important element. Understorey trees and shrubs provide food and nests for marsupials, insects, reptiles and birds. Tree ferns are a place for essential epiphytes – other ferns, mosses and lichens – to grow. Rotting logs and leaf-litter recycle nutrients and provide a nursery for tree ferns. Without these elements, a forest is not a forest. It’s just a bunch of trees.

The three-hectare patch we’re surveying tonight has all the structure and complexity needed for wildlife. Tall trees and small trees. The living and the dead. Layers of understorey. Tree ferns, rotting logs. It should be a hotspot for animals, but the small amount of old growth left in the forest is scattered and disconnected. The possums and gliders are just hanging on.

Fifteen metres up the silver-trunked dead tree I’m standing under, I see a crack carved by tiny teeth, creating an entry point just large enough for a small possum to slip into. This could be home to a colony of Leadbeater’s possums: in the murky light, I strain to see the outline of little curved ears. A rustle in the canopy to my right announces a mountain brush-tail possum emerging from someone else’s tree. Like its relatives – the brush-tails that live in Australia’s suburbia – mountain brush-tails are common. At least somebody lives here.

So, why are so few old trees left? Why aren’t more trees growing through? Why aren’t there enough sawlogs for the sawmills? The answer lies in the logging rotation time set by the government – the interval between cutting and recutting the same part of the forest. In the Central Highlands, this was set at eighty years when the Timber Industry Strategy was developed by the Victorian Government in 1986. It was a joke even then – the industry had been cutting 1939 regrowth since the 1970s: trees that were barely forty years old. If the optimum age for sawlogs is 120 years, the industry was already focused primarily on pulp. Today, the 1939 trees are just nearing eighty – still too young to provide hollows for animals, and still too young to produce a reasonable return of sawlogs. To get the timber they need, the industry is now logging in places local communities don’t want them to go, close to viewpoints and towns. They’re cutting lower quality wood on steep slopes where it’s more expensive to extract. Low productivity means less sawlog – it’s almost all going to pulp – which means contractors have to cut even more trees to satisfy the sawlog quota. Some areas are being logged illegally because the industry is desperate for resource. Decisions could have been made fifteen or twenty years ago to reduce quotas and rates of logging: now the chronic over-commitment of the resource is intersecting with natural disturbances like wildfire.

And that creates a different kind of problem.

 

FIRE IS PART of the long-term cycle of the mountain ash ecosystem, and it’s needed every now and then to germinate seed. In these forests, fire comes from two main sources: lightning strike and government-controlled regeneration burns of logged sites. These ‘regen’ burns release tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere, with flow-on issues for asthma suffers in Melbourne. Sometimes burns leap out of control, causing bushfires. In an undisturbed forest, the natural fire frequency is between 300–500 years.

This brings us to a major oversight in government forest policy: in 1997, when the Regional Forest Agreement was signed by Jeff Kennett, the government failed to consider the possibility of losing its timber to fire. It’s a bit like driving a truck without insurance, thinking you won’t ever have an accident. Either the government thought there would never be fires again or they failed to take fire into account. Both scenarios imply significant myopia.

Then, in 2009, the Black Saturday fires raged through Victoria, destroying lives, homes, the pretty little town of Marysville – and damaging 40 per cent of the forest, including areas in the water catchments. Before the fires, the Bracks Labor government had reviewed forestry around Victoria and realised the forests were overcommitted. They slashed sustained yield everywhere except the Central Highlands, because the Central Highlands was the only area where the timber industry was considered vaguely profitable. In the emotional aftermath of the 2009 fires, when the commitment of timber from this region ought to have been dramatically cut, the Brumby Labor government and then the Baillieu Coalition government insisted on ‘business as usual’ even though 40 per cent of the forest had been burned. You don’t have to be an actuary to see this as a mathematical problem – if not a crime. The decision increased pressure on the remaining unburnt forest and sealed the combined fates of the forests, the timber industry and Leadbeater’s possum itself.

Here’s the next kicker. Fire frequency has increased dramatically since logging began, and recent research by scientists from the University of Melbourne, the University of Wollongong and the Australian National University has shown that fires in logged regrowth forests burn at a much higher severity than in old growth. Given that more than 98 per cent of the forest in the Central Highlands is regrowth thanks to extensive logging overlaid with fires, this is a problem, and one with major implications for the extent and severity of future bushfires. Unless significant areas are allowed to grow and age into older forest, the chances of recurrent wildfire are high, putting local towns and human lives at great risk.

On 7 February 2009, the forest exploded with fire. My tree and this patch of old-growth forest escaped it, but what about next time? And what would the public say if they understood the correlation between logging and more fires like Black Saturday? It’s hard to make sense of government policy that props up an ailing industry, locking in younger aged regrowth trees that are more fire-prone.

The Central Highlands is considered the hub of native-timber harvesting in Victoria, yet it’s valued at only $12 million per year. The plantation sector in the same region – managed primarily for sawn timber – is worth more than $30 million per year. The reality is that the native-timber industry is largely uneconomic. VicForests, the main government body responsible for managing these forests, rarely reports much of a profit because management costs far outweigh the returns generated by selling the end product. To keep the industry afloat, royalty payments are scaled to ensure profitability for contractors: the further truck drivers cart logs, the less royalty they pay. This means royalties don’t even come close to covering the costs of building roads and regenerating the forest. In this way, the system is subsidised by taxpayers to sustain dwindling levels of employment. The latest numbers across the entire state for direct employment in the cutting and primary processing of timber show 12,400 jobs in the plantation industry, with just over 1,600 in native forests.

Several interventions have been attempted to save Leadbeater’s possum, without success. For instance, the government has tried to engineer a solution for the lack of nesting sites by manually cutting holes in trees. The other government department involved in managing the forests – the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning – paid VicForests millions of dollars to cut these holes, which VicForests claimed as profit – a cynical way of manufacturing income. The holes were cut into 1939 regrowth trees, which are only eighty years old, and it’s unknown whether Leadbeater’s possum will use them in the medium to long term. This gap in the evidence is crucial. Leadbeater’s possum generally nests in trees older than 190 years. The diameter and thermal properties of these trees are quite different, so it’s unlikely the possum will use the man-made holes for long periods.

Other interventions have also failed to save Leadbeater’s possum. Captive breeding and reintroduction don’t work because the species no longer breeds in captivity. Nest boxes have been trialled, but in David’s ten-year study of ninety-six nest boxes placed in areas where Leadbeater’s was known to occur, there were only two cases where colonies used them, and then only intermittently. Nest boxes are expensive, and they rot and fall apart after five years. Translocating animals to other suitable places in the landscape has failed too. Clearly, preserving forest would be the simplest and most effective solution of all.

The larger economic question is whether taxpayer money should be propping up an industry with less than a decade of sawlogs remaining. Or could the government do better in terms of retraining and re-employing people in other jobs for the longer term? In 2017, the Victorian government purchased a half share in the Heyfield mill from the Hermal Group, at close to half a million dollars for each job. The Hermal Group is now building a plantation-based mill in Tasmania because they know there’s no future in native-timber logging in Victoria. The Andrews government must know this too, but that didn’t stop them from squandering millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money on buying the mill.

 

SO WHERE DOES this leave the mountain ash forests? And where does it leave Leadbeater’s possum? Recently, there have been renewed calls for access to log Melbourne’s water catchments – a request that’s raised every time the industry wants more resource. But economic analysis shows that the water from the catchments is worth $310 million annually to the Victorian economy, more than twenty-five times the value of cutting down the forest ($12 million). Even one-off logging would be disastrous in terms of water production for Melbourne, especially with water yields already significantly compromised by the 2009 bushfires.

The relationship between forest growth and water production has been well known since the 1960s. After logging or fires, run-off temporarily increases because dead trees are no longer transpiring, or ‘breathing’. As new trees germinate and begin to grow, water yield decreases and water use peaks until the trees exceed one hundred years. Maximum water production occurs when the forest is old growth. Despite this, successive Victorian governments have made a hash of managing water catchments by allowing logging within some of them. The Thomson Dam stores almost 60 per cent of Melbourne’s water, but logging in the upper Thomson Catchment has drastically reduced stream flows and water yields. The catchments in the Central Highlands have already been extensively damaged by wildfire, and allowing logging would further reduce water yields, with serious implications for Melbourne. The city now has a desalination plant – a far more expensive source of water.

There’s another reason it makes economic sense to move away from native-forest logging in the Central Highlands. Tourism in the region already employs more than 3,700 people and is worth $260 million per annum to the Victorian economy. It’s also an industry that remains largely undeveloped. But it exists, even in this scarred and damaged landscape, because Melbourne residents and visitors from elsewhere in Australia and overseas want to see the tallest flowering plants in the world. Imagine how many more people would come if the forests were allowed to recover, and they could experience extraordinary intact landscapes, now so rare in other parts of the world.

For years now, entrepreneurs have been waiting for the Victorian Government to declare a Great Forest National Park so they can invest in tourism infrastructure. Imagine a skywalk platform bringing tourists into the forest canopy. Ziplines through the forest for adventurers. Mountain-biking trails. Walking tracks with options from day walks to multi-day hikes like the Three Capes Walk in Tasmania and the Milford Track in New Zealand. Imagine luxury accommodation and organised tours for the high-end market. Overnight tours from Melbourne, encompassing wine tasting in the Yarra Valley and a visit to the Healesville Sanctuary on the way to the forests. The possibilities are limitless. These forests are only an hour and a half from Melbourne.

But the real bonus of shifting from logging to tourism – apart from clear financial and employment advantages – is that the tall eucalypt forests, owned by the taxpayers of Australia and part of our heritage, would be allowed to grow back for future generations to experience and enjoy. Water production would increase. Carbon would be efficiently stored long term in the biomass of trees. The fire susceptibility of forests close to Melbourne would decline as the trees progressed through to old growth. Rural towns would be revitalised. And the survival of Leadbeater’s possum and so many other forest wildlife species would be secured.

A recent glimmer of hope has come from the latest State of the Environment Report for Victoria (2018), which aims to include economic and environmental accounting in the assessment of natural assets such as native forests. The report suggests this will lead to significantly less logging and a far greater focus on other financial opportunities, such as payments for storing large amounts of carbon in native forests.

So here I stand beneath my tall tree, looking up as darkness spreads its mantle over the landscape. Like David, I’m trying to be an optimist. We’ve been on this journey together for more than three decades, and it’s clear the number of possums and gliders seen in these old-growth patches is declining. However, I’m still hoping the forest will relinquish its secrets and show me its creatures of the night, just as I’m hoping that governments, driven at last by sense, logic and humanity, will step away from the crime of over-exploiting these forests – before the last tall tree falls and Leadbeater’s possum is gone.

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