Forests - Western Australia
The forests of SW Australia
In the south-western corner of Australia, the fate of some of the worlds tallest trees is currently being contested. Karri forest is being clearfelled under logging plans established by the Western Australian government department in charge of native forests. Opposing them are groups of committed forest activists utilising an ingenious variety of non-violent direct actions to slow down and stop the logging.
Western Australia (WA) has a huge area, mostly of arid and semi-arid land. Forests occupy only about 2.5 million hectares (6.25 million acres) and most are in the south-west corner of the State. The karri is the second tallest hardwood tree in the world, growing to heights of 90 metres (295 feet), almost 3 metres (9.8 feet) in diameter and over 400 years of age. These and other giant eucalypts such as jarrah and marri are geographically isolated from the forests of eastern Australia by several thousand kilometres of arid land and scrub, and consequently are biologically unique, harbouring a wide range of endemic plant and animal species. Western Australia’s forests, like the forests in the rest of the country, are the result of millions of years of evolution and tens of thousand of years of Aboriginal land management.
The forests have been cleared for farms and towns and logged for timber that was exported or used for the construction of railways, houses and furniture since the State was colonised in the 1820's. Before the arrival of Europeans, these forests covered about 2% of Western Australia's land area, but now only about half of that remains.
There are various methods of logging. In selective logging, only some trees are felled, and smaller younger trees are left to grow bigger. Selective logging was until recently practised in jarrah forest. On the other hand clearfelling involves using heavy machinery to remove all the trees and ground plants and this results in a flattened wasteland with the whole ecosystem being destroyed. Clearfelling is practised in karri forest and now in much of the jarrah forest. Since colonisation an enormous variety of species have been lost as a result of logging. Selective logging meant the process of deforestation was gradual at first but clearfelling has accellerated the deforestation.
In the past, almost all marri logs were turned into wood blocks called woodchips. These woodchips were shipped to Japan where they were made into paper products. Eventually this ends up as rubbish in landfill sites around the world. Currently only those Karri logs not good enough to be sawn up are chipped. Since 1976, when woodchipping began in Western Australia, approximately 15 million tonnes of karri and marri woodchips have been exported to Japan.
About 10,000 hectares of forest are being logged each year.
Since 1975, conservation groups have been campaigning for the better use and management of native forests. Since 1994 non-violent direct action and legal action has resulted in some parts of the forest being saved, but has failed to prevent large areas of intensive logging from taking place. Direct actions included tree-sitting in platforms high in the giant trees, people padlocking themselves to heavy machinery, trains and old cars dug into the ground across roads. There were hundreds of arrests.
The Liberal State government made it illegal for anyone to be in a State Forest between 9 pm and 6 am and forest rescuers were fined for camping overnight. Refusal to pay the fines resulted in confiscation of the person's driver's licence until the fine was paid.
In the February 2001 State election the Labor Party won power and stopped logging in unlogged old growth forest. However areas of mixed mature forests and regrowth are still being logged and the shift to plantation timber is slow.
Today not many people in the south-west of WA depend on the timber industry for employment. As the forests were overcut and the resource ran out, timber mills have been closing down and workers sacked. Appropriate restructuring of the forest industry must be linked with conservation. Under the Labor Government timber industry workers are to be retrained and given new skills with which to earn a living.
The area of unlogged native forest in Western Australia is about 350,000 hectares (825,000 acres).
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is an independent watchdog body set up by the state government to protect Western Australia’s natural environment. In December 1998, the EPA issued a report which concluded that karri and jarrah logging operations are not sustainable, and called for reforms.
The Regional Forest Agreement
The Regional Forest Agreement (RFA) is a process whereby each state government works out by discussion with the various interested parties (logging companies, conservationist, scientists etc) how to divide up the last remnants of ancient forests in Australia. The first RFA was signed in the State of Tasmania in 1997.
The The Regional Forest Agreement was intended to give Australia a comprehensive, adequate and representative forest conservation reserve system and ecologically sustainable forest management. The conservation groups in Western Australia were left out of the RFA steering committee and boycotted the process. The WA RFA was signed in May 1999 between the Federal and State government and was obviously biased in favour of the logging industry. Under strong community pressure it was changed and then largely rejected by the State Government.
The prices paid for native forest logs are very low (A $34/tonne for 1st grade jarrah sawlogs; Aus $44/tonne for 1st grade karri sawlogs; Aus. $6/tonne for charcoal grade jarrah and Aus. $20/tonne for woodchip grade karri. This effectively represents massive government subsidies of the logging operations. It makes no sense at all for Western Australia, one of the wealthiest areas in the world, to be selling its remaining priceless forest heritage, at prices which cost the taxpayers money!
In the current economic system, the price of native forest logs does not reflect the true value of the product. The price of a product must include the hidden costs to the environment and to the community. Currently only the cost of growing the trees, the labour cost, the production cost and the raw material cost are accounted for. Set against the timber value, native forest has environmental value; water value for downstream users; recreational value; non-wood forest products; cultural, scientific and educational value.
We do not take into account the loss of organic matter, the cost of soil loss through erosion and salination on the land and in the rivers. Economically, logging native forest in Western Australia results in a net economic loss to the State.
There is the protective role of forests in air purification, noise buffering, providing shelter and their contribution to climate regulation on a regional and global level. The cost of damage from global warming is yet to be realised. Forests help maintain and conserve soils and other geomorphological features, and they act as a storage bank for carbon. The loss of natural capital, ecosystems rich in diversity, is a major source of concern. We lose great beauty with clearfelling and this impacts on the tourist industry.
We lose forest products and collectables such as fibres, grasses, bamboo, cones, oils, seeds, tans, dyes, gums, resins, drugs, spices, poisons, natural insecticides, edible plants and chemical compounds for medicines. There is loss in employment in forest gathering activities. Intensive logging involves the wholesale destruction of ecosystems.
Our fundamental need for clean air, water and food depends on appropriate environmental conditions. Forests regulate the air and water quality. They influence atmospheric and hydrological cycles, ensuring water supplies.
Forests are an important source of biodiversity. The life support systems have to be included in economic calculations. Biodiversity includes diversity of gene pools, of species and of landscapes or ecosystems. As yet undiscovered foods, medicines and other useful natural chemicals are present in these ecosystems. Forests are the habitat for millions of organisms, many of which are unknown to science. In the not too distant future we will realise the genetic material these forests contains is worth a fortune.
We need a level of human activity which retains natural biodiversity. Due to their complexity and uniqueness, once ecosystems are destroyed or lost they cannot be replaced.
We need to conserve large areas of complex ecosystems as insurance for our survival. This requires economics which looks at the longer time scale of human needs. Currently, we are not looking at the whole economic perspective.
We are squandering our natural resources! We have not scientifically evaluated ecosystems before they are destroyed. We compensate the owners of ecosystems lost through dams, clearfelling, urban growth etc as if you can put a monetary value on irreplaceable and unique ecosystems. Ecosystems are a basic form of capital on which we depend. We cannot put a value on the extinction of a species.
The cost of ending the logging of old growth forests is relatively small. A shift in the timber industry to the production of plantation timber would add value to areas of cleared land and protect against problems or soil erosion, salination and desertification. On economic grounds, we should stop logging old growth forests. The use of native forests for logging is causing losses in other values, greater than the value of logging.
The benefits of logging include the value of the timber plus the social benefits of employment and there may be benefits for fire control. Clearfelling forest supports a timber and woodchipping industry and provides jobs. But at cost, and only in the short term. It is estimated that at the current rate of logging, there is only a ten to fifteen year supply of native timber remaining.
In the forests of SW Australia threatened species includes Baudins cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus baudinii), a bird that grows up to 60 cm. long, and is endemic to the jarrah, karri and marri forests of the SW of Western Australia. These birds mate for life and research has indicated that they always return to the same nest site - a hollow in a mature karri tree - every year. Thus, the felling of old growth forests means that the Baudins cockatoos living in them are deprived of their nesting sites, and therefore may never reproduce again.
Logging of forest also permanently displaces the other fauna which live in the forest, including the quokka (a small wallaby), the mardo (a small carnivorous marsupial) and the quenda (or southern brown bandicoot), which is a threatened species in Western Australia.
The conservation groups have drawn up their own proposals for a comprehensive conservation reserve system, which would substantially expand the area of protected old growth forest and forest of high conservation value, end all woodchipping and clearfelling and, at the same time, would allow for a sustainable logging industry based on plantation harvesting and high-value end-use logging of some state forest areas. Sufficient capacity already exists for a rapid transition to plantation forests. Blue gums, pine and hemp plantations could replace current native forests as a timber resource.
Conservationists demand nothing less than a complete ban on logging of old growth and other high conservation value forests. Funds are available from the Commonwealth Government for retraining forest workers. Under the State Government’s “Protection our old growth forests” policy timber industry structural adjustment funds have been made to ‘facilitate the transition of logging from old growth forests to regrowth and plantations’.
Employees and contractors are being compensated for any loss of income. The price for native forest logs must be increased, so that the alternative of plantation timber is commercially viable. A plantation based pulp mill must be created. A college for research and education in the areas of forest ecology and management and the design and manufacture of high value timber wood products should be established. A sustainable tourism industry in the SW, should use the magnificent old growth forests as a premier attraction. All of WA's wood products should be certified by the Forest Stewardship Council to ensure that they come from sustainable sources.
A statement by the West Australian Forest Alliance (WAFA)
We can have a ‘win-win’ outcome for the forests and the community!
What you can do
Do not buy products from shop that purchase timber from unsustainable sources.
Buy plantation timber.