Any Australian under the age of 30 is unlikely to have heard of Regional Forest Agreements (RFAs). The RFAs, signed in the late 1990s and lasting for 20 years, were designed to facilitate multiple uses of public native forests including timber extraction, nature conservation and recreation. They haven’t worked as planned, and logging now threatens multiple values of forests, including fundamentals for human well-being like water. We should heed the evidence and use the end of the RFAs to put forests at the heart of regional communities. We have a plan that can help us do that.
To many this is going to sound strange: forests are rare ecosystems in Australia. Since European colonisation, 40% of all forests have been cleared and much of the rest is highly fragmented. Overall, forests now cover 16% of the continent. Two thirds of these ‘forests’ are woodlands. The eucalypt forests that the vast majority of Australians living on the east coast will be familiar with account for just 5% of our landmass, and the spectacular tall eucalypt forests (containing trees over 30 metres tall) under 1%. For the purposes of this article, we’ll ignore woodlands, as they’re not subject to logging under RFAs (though they are increasingly threatened by land clearing).
Despite their small extent, our forests support enormous biological diversity. The Forests of East Australia are one of just 36 global Biodiversity Hotspots, and the forests of south-west Western Australia are located in another Hotspot. Forests are home to many of our favourite animals. Gliders, koalas, quolls, phascogales, brush-tailed rock wallabies, powerful owls, Tasmanian devils are all forest species and all are threatened, at least in part, because of the rapid loss and degradation of forests, including from logging. Entire forest ecosystems are at risk: the mountain ash forests of Victoria are critically endangered from the combined impacts of logging and fire, while temperate forests in NSW, Queensland and Victoria are described by scientists as a ‘crisis ecoregion’. A recent report into bell-miner associated dieback confirmed that logging is the driver of this insidious threat to forests, stating that in susceptible vegetation communities “disturbance of the canopy should be minimised where possible”.
The richness of Australian native forests is why logging them is so damaging. Measures to protect the myriad environmental values cost money, so we’re increasingly seeing these values sacrificed in the drive to maximise profit. Breaches of environmental protections are routine and regulation lax.
RFAs apply across almost seven million hectares of public native forests in Australia. In NSW, the RFA process resulted in a massive expansion of national parks under the Carr Government, so there were some good outcomes. However, these tended to be biased away from the most productive, and therefore threatened, forests. These forests are now subject to ever more intensive logging, logging that, at least in NSW, has been shown in some cases to be outside the rules.
One of the goals of the RFAs was to ensure security for the timber industry. This hasn’t been achieved. The economic performance of logging is dismal in NSW, Victoria, Western Australia and Tasmania. The Australian reported a 62% decline in logging and forestry jobs nationwide between 2012 and 2017, which I calculate (from NSW Government figures derived from the 2011 census) as meaning there are now 2,873 direct employees. Given 85% of wood comes from plantations, direct employment in the native forest sector is likely about 400-500. Over the life of the RFAs the number of hardwood sawmills has declined by 79% to 182, so there are unlikely to be many employed in processing either. Mechanisation is not a future threat to logging jobs, it has already happened.
Drivers of industry decline are primarily market-based, such as competition from plantations and engineered products, though the conversion to protected areas has played some role. This suggests that the decline will not be reversed by watering down environmental protections, as proposed in NSW and Victoria.
Rather, we must be bold at this juncture. The privileged access to rate-free wood on public land enjoyed by State-owned logging companies has failed to result in a thriving industry. But it has also come at the expense of the public interest in both an environmental and economic sense. NPA is proposing that we reverse that, and we use the pending end of the RFAs to get out of industrialised native forest logging. We want to put forests at the heart of regional communities.
Our Forests For All plan (designed for NSW, but readily applicable to other States) proposes that we protect all forests under either the National Parks and Wildlife Act or as Indigenous Protected Areas. Reserve categories and Plans of Management would then be applied according to the aspirations of local communities and consideration of factors such as conservation value, connectivity and climate change predictions. Government investment would be needed for infrastructure, following which small businesses could establish to take advantage of the opportunities. Coupled with a funding boost to the National Parks and Wildlife Service for management and restoration, as well as incentivisation of the plantation industry and alternative fibres, we can ensure a just transition of workers and grow job numbers.
How is this investment justified? In multiple ways. There are significant opportunities in the tourism industry from iconic proposals such as the Great Koala National Park and the Great Forest National Park. A stronger focus on access to native forests as a preventative healthcare measure has the potential to realise improvements in health and wellbeing and reduced health care costs.
We would stop wasting money by funding threatened species conservation while subsidising logging: in NSW, about $20 million is spent every year on species recovery, and $25 million on subsidising native forest logging. Ending logging would help tackle climate change—which threatens multiple areas of human well-being as well as the environment—by replenishing carbon stores lost through logging. The economic value of water from forests is well documented. And there are demonstrated economic benefits from protected areas that flow to local government—unlike the cost burdens imposed by logging that are borne by ratepayers.
Change is disruptive. It doubtless was when we ended whaling and koala hunting. But the forest industry has declined despite efforts to resist change. Simply papering over the cracks doesn’t help industry employees, and it’s certainly not in the public interest. We can do better than continuing the destruction of our increasingly scarce forests
Dr Oisín Sweeney is the Senior Ecologist at NPA. NPA is a community-based organisation that seeks to protect nature through community action. NPA is in its 60th year and has played a lead role in the establishment of many of NSW’s national parks, including the Murray Valley.