Environment Essay: Old Growth Forests in Western Australian

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How does one rationalize reducing majestic, centuries old, life-giving trees to piles of woodchips, sawdust, timber or waste? Examine where these products end up and you will realize that the plight of Western Australian (WA) old growth forests is more than just a local issue.

The message from conservationists is loud and clear - "Stop logging and save our trees". This is the notion at the heart of what has become a bitter, bureaucratic argument in Australia, centered around the Government's recently signed Regional Forest Agreement (RFA).

However, implementing this apparently simple plea has complex repercussions. Surely, the first objective we should have if attempting to preserve our forests is to reduce demand. To simply condemn the logging of old growth trees seems to ignore the reality that the products manufactured from old growth logs will be gained from elsewhere if not from Australia's own forests.


For example, 99% of the Marri and 57% of Karri wood logged during 1996/97 clearfelling operations became woodchips which were sold to Japan by Westfarmers, Bunnings and Whittakers (Take A Stand, 1998). If the Australian Government did not sell Australian woodchips to these companies (for a price that is too low according to conservationists), the multi-million dollar corporations would buy woodchips from elsewhere.


A likely second choice is the rich and diverse forests of South America, in countries such as Brazil. Such a choice would be even more socially irresponsible given that the Brazilian forest ecosystem is less managed, less regulated and less controlled than forests in Australia. Forests such as those in the Amazon Basin have already been exploited to the point where scientists are afraid the damage has already affected global biodiversity (The Macquarie Illustrated World Atlas, 1984).


Another question that should be considered is what would happen to old growth forests if they were not logged? Some people claim that forest management procedures such as clearing, road construction, clearfelling and prescribed burning have directly led to the destruction of WA forests (Endangered species and Our Old Growth Forests, 1998).


To prevent risk to human lives, wildfires are now strictly guarded against. An old growth forest existing before human settlement would typically be swept through by a major bushfire about once every decade (Facts About WA Forests, 1996, p. 6). The forests depend on fire for regeneration and survival and without intermittent natural fires; human designed forest management programs must be implemented if the forest ecosystems are to remain productive.


Prescribed burning is a technique that goes hand in hand with logging in the forest management process. These are measures that are contained in the RFA and described by Conservation and Land Management (CALM) supporters as aiming "to fulfill biodiversity conservation" (Australia's Forests - The Path to Sustainability, 1998). Anti-logging promoters such as the Conservation Council of Western Australia maintain measures are "fudged definitions, maps, data and information ... [and that] the Government is trying to sell the whole charade to the public with a massive public relations campaign" (Green View, 1999).


Perhaps the main issue is a blurred understanding of the term "protection". Both sides want to "protect" the old growth forests of WA. The Australian Government body CALM claims to be protecting and managing WA forests under the RFA. However, conservationists who are also advocating forest protection, claim that the RFA is causing the destruction of old growth forests.


There have been so many different accusations made and issues raised that those embroiled in the conflict have strayed from their main aims. It appears that the feuding conservation groups "cannot see the wood for the trees". Ironically, they seem to have forgotten that their respective aims of global social responsibility and local benefits from our forests are essentially the same. It's time to step back and look, once again, at the big picture.


Recommended references:

The Macquarie Illustrated World Atlas 1984, 4th edn, Macquarie Library Pty Ltd, New South Wales.


Schultz B., "Green View - Forest sellout is a slap in the face", The West Australian newspaper, 10 May, 1999, p. 12.


"Fire and Forests" 1996, Facts about WA Forests, Department of Conservation and Land Management, Australia.


"Reserve and Off-reserve Management" 1998, Australia's Forests - The Path to Sustainability, Department of Primary Industries & Energy and Department of Environment, Australia.


"Take A Stand - Jane State Forest", 1998, Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics Report, Friends of Jane Inc, Australia.


"Where Do Our Old Growth Forests Go?", 1999, Forest Information Resource Kit, WA Forest Alliance, Australia.


"Endangered species and Our Old Growth Forests", 1999, Forest Information Resource Kit, WA Forest Alliance, Australia


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