Fire as a Threatening Process: A Note from Roger Underwood

ABOUT two months ago I received a “heads-up” from a mate who works in Canberra that Environment Minister Peter Garratt was considering listing prescribed burning as a threatening process under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Act. At first I thought this was nonsense, but then I reflected on the attitudes towards prescribed burning that we hear constantly from some well-known academics and environmental groups, and it suddenly seemed highly likely. So I wrote a letter to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, seeking clarification. All of this was going at about the time of the catastrophic bushfires in Victoria.

I have now received a reply to my letter.  It was written by Ms Kerry Smith, an Assistant Secretary with the Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and Arts. Mr Rudd had forwarded my letter to the Minister for the Environment, who in turn forwarded it to his Department, where it eventually filtered down through the Department’s Approvals and Wildlife Division to its Wildlife Branch and thence to the Species Listing Section. 

I now realise that the situation is complex and has many ramifications, as demonstrated by the following advice from the Department:

1.     In 2007 the Environment Department received a nomination (they cannot identify from whom) requesting that the Minister list as a threatening process under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Act: Contemporary fire regimes resulting in loss of vegetation heterogeneity and biodiversity in Northern Australia. The basis of the nomination was concern about widespread late-season fires in the seasonally dry tropics. The nomination did not raise prescribed burning as a threatening process. In fact, according to the Department, it took the position that prescribed burning at the right time of the year was appropriate as a measure to minimise the problem of wide-spread late-season fires.
2.    The nomination was referred to the Minister’s Threatened Species Scientific Committee (TSSC), whose job is to review these proposals and make recommendations to the Minister. However, the Committee decided off its own bat that this nomination was relevant to the whole of Australia. So they then broadened the nomination, thus setting themselves the task of reviewing the impacts of contemporary fire regimes (obviously including prescribed burning) on vegetation heterogeneity and biodiversity for all ecosystems across the whole of Australia.

3.     The TSS Committee  has advised the Department that they propose to undertake a “transparent, rigorous, science-based assessment with full consultation with stakeholders and the public”. There will be a consultation period and public input will be sought. The Committee will identify independent scientists and consult with them. The final nomination will be released for public review and comments on the draft paper will be sought. The whole process is expected to take about a year. No start time and no budget were mentioned in the Department’s letter.
4.    The TSSC has been given a deadline to provide its recommendation to the Minister by 30 September 2010. Minister Garrett will make the final decision, perhaps in early 2011

The Department’s letter concluded by referring me to Mr Peacock, Director of the Species Listing Section who would answer any further questions. 

In the light of this letter, I have looked up the TSSC. It’s members are listed on the Department’s website. The Chairman is a Professor at the University of Qld and the other members are well-qualified academics and scientists. There is a marine biologist, a freshwater biologist, a river ecologist, a fisheries expert, a plant ecologist, a botanist, and an authority on fauna.

As far as I could see, there is no mention of bushfire management, fire science or fire ecology research in the resume of any of the members of the Committee. I assume that they will hire consultants to assist them as special advisers, as is normal practice with Committees like this.

I have also looked up a couple of the TSSC’s previous recommendations and it seems clear from this sample that they are wedded to the Precautionary Principle. This suggests a bias against action in favour of research, perhaps reflecting the weight of academics and scientists on the panel, as opposed to land managers with responsibility for fire outcomes.

The Department also advised in the same letter that even if this process results in contemporary fire regimes (which include prescribed burning in forests) being listed as a threatening process under the Act, “it would not result in the Australian government enforcing additional regulations on prescribed burning practices.”  If something is listed as a threat the Minister “might decide to have a threat abatement plan” prepared, that “might consist of guidelines”  regarding fire management practices.

I agree fully with the initial nomination. There is a serious problem with wide-scale late-season bushfires in northern tropical savannahs and woodlands. However, this has been known for at least 30 years or more, as has the solution, which is early-season prescribed burning to create a mosaic of fuel-reduced areas; these prevent late-season fires from burning too intensely (as the Aborigines knew maybe 30,000 yrs ago). We do not need a federal agency to research this any further. What is needed is for the governments of WA, NT and Qld to develop the appropriate land management plans for these areas, and to allocate the resources to get the plans implemented. Both the WA and NT governments, to my certain knowledge, are already active in this work, and there are a number of Aboriginal communities which are privately funded to carry out early-season burning.

It is interesting to note, and maybe the Committee will note it, that probably the most progressive and intelligent fire management practices in northern Australia at the moment are actually being carried out by corporate conservationists. I have reviewed the fire management policies and practices of the Australian Wildlife Conservancy for their large conservation estates in the Kimberley and north Qld, and I find that they are implementing exactly the sort of bushfire management that will optimise biodiversity and minimise carbon emissions, while also ensuring sensible fuels management. This is an instance of private land management setting first class standards, based on indigenous knowledge and excellent research from scientists, including Jeremy Russell-Smith and David Bowman.

The task which the TSSC has set itself cannot be accomplished in anything but a superficial way. How many contemporary fire regimes are there? Two hundred? A thousand? How many ecosystems across the whole of the country are being impacted by fire regimes? How is vegetation heterogeneity and biodiversity determined for each different ecotype?

It will be possible for the Committee to spell out some principles, but these are already well known to practicing fire ecologists. 

I assume that the TSS Committee is competent and is honourably driven by a desire to protect Australian ecosystems from threats. But I question whether they can tackle this project in isolation from other considerations. For example for most settled areas, it is not possible to separate the threat of fire to flora, fauna and ecological communities from the threat to human lives, communities and social and economic assets. Humans are also a threatened species in some bushfire situations. I also question whether the TSS Committee has the expertise in bushfire science to enable them to make an informed assessment of all the many elements that will need to be taken into account in each different situation.

The inevitable appointment of consultants to assist the Committee presents serious dangers. The Committee will be tempted to select academics, who are always available for this sort of work, are inexpensive compared to professional consultants (the academics are already being paid by their institution) and are keen to influence decision-making about the environment. Unfortunately bushfire scientists are very thin on the ground in Australian academic circles, and their ranks include several who are already saluting the anti-prescribed burning and pro-wildfire flag. It is a sad commentary on the state of intellectual leadership in bushfire science at the moment that I can think of only one Australian academic who would not be considered (by people involved in bushfire management) as a complete disaster if selected by the TSSC as their scientific adviser.

The Federal government does not need to get involved in this issue. There are already existing agencies in each State who have this role. For example in WA we have the EPA, the Conservation Commission, the Department of Environment and Conservation, and a Threatened Species and Communities Unit. The specific job of the Unit is to identify, review and deal with threats to species and ecological communities. In a former life I chaired this body, and I know that they work professionally, taking into account the latest information from competent and experienced scientists and land managers.

The Environment Department’s assurance that no new regulation will arise, even if a listing is made ….. but the Minister “might decide to abate” a threat….. strikes me as threatening in itself. If the Committee was persuaded by, say, the views of the Wilderness Society that prescribed burning in the jarrah forest must be listed as a threatening process, and if Minister Garratt then decided that this threat must be abated …. how would he succeed without imposing some form of Federal regulation on fire management operations by the responsible WA agency? A State-Federal stand-off on the issue would be inevitable, and would provide environmentalists with a heaven- sent opportunity to ridicule the State’s land managers, and to take legal action against them.

The TSSC’s review and report will overlap the Royal Commission into the Bushfires in Victoria, who will be covering many of the same issues. This makes for some interesting possibilities. For example, the Royal Commission could decide that in order to mitigate future bushfire disasters in Victoria, there needs to be a larger annual program of fuel reduction burning under mild conditions. Simultaneously the Threatened Species Scientific Committee, having conducted its own independent assessment, could decide that prescribed burning is a threat to Victoria’s forest ecosystems. Where will this take us?

I consider this project and its lengthy and costly processes to be a waste of time and money. The project is too large and complex. No Committee, and especially one proposing to involve the public in its deliberations can possibly achieve an outcome within the proposed time frame that will have any scientific credibility. Moreover, I oppose the Federal government entering an arena in which there are already existing State and Territory agencies set up to do the job. I would prefer to see Federal money going to independent audits of State agency performance – have they set, and are they meeting appropriate standards, targets and objectives – and then publicly reporting the results. This would overcome the problem that most Australian park and forest management agencies are not subjected to any independent and professional performance audits against performance standards.
My concerns, of course, count for nothing. People in the fire management community already know that they will have to take this new review seriously. It has taken on a life of its own, expanding from a small and appropriate study of fire impacts on northern savannahs to a continent-wide review of everything to do with fire, ranging from fire exclusion to high intensity wildfires and every combination and permutation in between. This means that we will need to prepare submissions, attend hearings, comment on draft papers, meet with consultants, defend our positions against 19th century northern hemisphere ecological concepts, and computer models put up as a substitute for field research. In other words, hours, days, probably weeks of work, and because most of us are volunteers, it is work for nothing. We have to do this because we know that if we don’t, and our voice is not heard, the TSSC will be swamped by fire mythology, by un-researched ‘science’ and by laughable but plausible-sounding assertions from the anti-prescribed burning brigade.
I know in saying all this I will be pounced upon by the usual voices of green outrage, and be accused of trying to undermine the most important scientific review since European settlement.  And perhaps I am being too pessimistic. I have participated in dozens of bushfire reviews over the years, and invariably they come out in favour of prescribed burning (with the usual qualifications and provisos, with which I invariably agree).  Maybe there is a chance that this committee, coming to bushfire management and fire science with fresh eyes, might see through the nonsense which will come at them from retrogressive institutions like the Fenner School of Environmental Studies at ANU. Perhaps they will visit the fire areas in Victoria and see for themselves the vegetation homogenizing and destruction of biodiversity associated with large high intensity bushfires. They might even compare this with the diverse and heterogeneous outcomes from patchy frequent mild fire. We might even be able to demonstrate to the Committee that there is another way of looking at the Precautionary Principle, one which applies specifically to bushfires and their impacts on lives, ecosystems and the environment.

If not, we just have to keep on doing what we are doing already, and never give up: trying to teach politicians and senior bureaucrats the two fundamental truths about fire management in Australia: (i) bushfires are inevitable; but (ii) we can chose between controlled fires burning under mild conditions, or massive wildfires that take all before them.


Roger Underwood is Chairman of The Bushfire Front Inc, an organisation devoted to improving the standards of bushfire management in Australia.

21 Responses to Fire as a Threatening Process: A Note from Roger Underwood

  1. janama March 31, 2009 at 2:52 pm #

    It seems a shame that they lumped the northern fire situation in with the southern – they are two totally different beasts. We are overburning the north and underburning the south.

  2. Ian Mott March 31, 2009 at 4:56 pm #

    Yep, that would be about right. Cold, low impact, small area fuel reduction burns done by competent land managers will be listed and effectively prohibited with greentape. Meanwhile hot, high impact, broadscale and lethal burnouts caused and exacerbated by incompetent ideologues will be classified as natural events so the bimbocrats can sit back watching.

  3. spangled drongo March 31, 2009 at 6:59 pm #

    I gave up depending on officialdom for protection 20 years ago. I maintain my own fire trails and the ones in the NPs next door. If they come up with FRB well and good but I don’t hold my breath. I back burn when and if I have to.

  4. Phil Maguire March 31, 2009 at 10:52 pm #

    “However, the Committee decided off its own bat that this nomination was relevant to the whole of Australia. So they then broadened the nomination, thus setting themselves the task of reviewing the impacts of contemporary fire regimes (obviously including prescribed burning) on vegetation heterogeneity and biodiversity for all ecosystems across the whole of Australia.”

    How does this work under the legislation? Does this committee have the authority to broaden a nomination? Does it need to seek approval from the original nominator? This sounds suspiciously like The Minister, Mr “Beds Are Burning” Garrett is using this committee to further his own agenda.

    Interestingly enough, in Roger Underwood’s recent speech to the Stretton Group, he mentioned that the Victorian Government had failed in its duty of care towards its citizens.

    This is where I believe the future of the debate lies. Litigation may well decide the fate of fuel reduction at least in Victoria. If a government department is found by a court to have failed in its duty of care by a refusal to maintain a safe environment or by forcing citizens to place themselves at risk by encouraging a build up fuel on their properties substantial damages could be awarded.

    The law could yet provide for the downfall of green hegemony.

  5. Walter Dnes April 1, 2009 at 8:39 am #

    I hesitate to make my point. It might be taken seriously of the “nature-loving” idiots who outlaw firebreaks, and sue anybody who makes their own… fighting forest and grass fires is 100% unnatural. That’s right, it interferes with the processes of nature, which would have fires burning continuously worldwide. How dare mankind impose its will on nature? Next thing you know, people will be insisting on building firebreaks when fires approach… and maybe even sandbag dikes around their houses during floods. Continuous fires are natural.

    The smoke and aerosols from forest/grass fires shades the earth and cools it. I wouldn’t be surprised if all the global warming over the past 30 years has been due to the absolutely unnatural removal of smoke and aerosols from the air, caused by suppressing forest/grass fires.

    Write your legislators, demanding an immediate end to the unnatural practice of fighting/suppressing forest/grass fires. We must stop global warming, even if it means that all our cities burn down. Let Mother Gaia once again hide her nakedness beneath a worldwide pall of smoke.

  6. MAGB April 1, 2009 at 10:17 am #

    “wedded to the Precautionary Principle” .

    The Precautionary Principle was invented by green zealots when their opinions were not supported by objective science and cost-benefit analyses.

    This shows that the Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and Arts is hopelessly politicised and is still hostage to green extremism.

  7. allan April 2, 2009 at 8:14 am #

    Having the Federal Department for the Environment introducing probition on prescribed burning as a land management tool would see it in the High Court quick smart as the States would see it as a challage to their rights given under the constitution to manage their land and water.
    Currently there is a quite a push on by the Bushfire Co-ordinating Committee in NSW to get prescribed burns planned and completed.
    In the forward by Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons in the latest BushFire Bulletin, he asks that any impediment to effective hazard reduction be reported to him.
    Interesting times!

  8. cinders April 2, 2009 at 7:16 pm #

    Roger, this review was raised by a Tasmanian Senator in Senate Estimates on 24 February in looking at the additional estimates for the Department of Environment, however no mention of a dollar value. Here are the questions and responses by one of the Ministers and Departmental officers.

    Senator ABETZ—Is the department working on listing fuel reduction burning as a threatening process under the EPBC Act?
    Mr Burnett—The Threatened Species Scientific Committee, which is an expert committee under the act, has a work plan called the finalised priority assessment list, or FPAL. One of the items on that work program is a possible key threatened process under the EPBC Act and the item is ‘contemporary fire regimes resulting in the loss of vegetation, heterogeneity and biodiversity throughout Australia’.
    Senator ABETZ—In laymen’s terms, for a country boy like me would that definition embrace or include fuel reduction burns?
    Mr Burnett—I think so.
    Senator ABETZ—I was hoping you would simply say no and I could move onto the next topic. How far advanced is this particular issue?
    Mr Burnett—It is in the very early stages. On the work program it is not due to report to the environment minister until 2010, so this work is only just beginning.
    Senator ABETZ—I hope the expert committee takes itself to the mountains of Victoria that were burnt in the last fires, to north-east Tasmania, to New South Wales in the former electorate of Gwydir and to Victoria as well to see what uncontrolled bushfires do to assist threatened species and I think they might take a different look at that. But I do not think I can take this any further rather than to give some gratuitous advice that I am very concerned that that is the case.
    Senator Wong—I am sure that you would share our view that everyone in the parliament is shocked, appalled and saddened by what has occurred in Victoria and agrees that we need to treat the approach to the consideration of what lessons we can learn from this tragedy with the utmost seriousness and gravity and that no different implication was being made by you in your previous comments.
    Senator ABETZ—That you should seek to make those comments I find totally unnecessary. I raised these issues at another committee in relation to the failure of the ministerial council, which I used to be a member of, to deal with the issue of fuel reduction burns back in 2007 when I gave the ministers in Victoria and New South Wales a warning as to what might, unfortunately, happen. I have a track record of following through on this issue because I was concerned that something like what has happened in Victoria would actually happen. I can assure you I have a track record in this area and I have consistently pursued it.

    Full transcript see

  9. Ian Mott April 2, 2009 at 11:04 pm #

    What might really make the hair on the back of your head stand up is the fact that the threat assessment process has no requirement to balance ecological needs against human needs.

    The whole purpose of threatened species legislation was to sidestep the requirements in all the planning legislation to strike a balance between economic, social and environmental imperatives. This so-called “tripple bottom line” sounded suitably high minded and reasonable during the process of obtaining planning powers but the servants of Greenzilla soon tired of such balance.

    So they overlaid the threatened species assessment process which had even higher sounding ideals but masked a complete abrogation of balance and proper process. For example, the threat assessment process looks only at the adverse impacts of any action and has minimal regard for subsequent recovery rates from such actions. So a farmer who has re-established 50,000 native regrowth trees on what was once a bare paddock, is assessed only on the impact of the harvesting of as little as 500 of them on the listed species that might have moved back into that paddock since the regrowth forest has been restored.

    The entire threatened species assessment process is incapable of recognising the initial threat reduction created by the expansion of habitat and the resulting improvement in the circumstances of the relevant species. There are no credits or any form of recognition for the beneficial outcomes of an on-going farming operation so there is zero capacity for reconciling subsequent adverse impacts against a larger accumulation of ecological capital.

    And that, folks, is the unambiguous anatomy of injustice, inequity, and improper exercise of power under the reign of Greenzilla.

    So beware, the listing of threatening processes does not require full consideration of any compensating beneficial outcomes, even to the listed species themselves, let alone to the wider habitat, or indeed, to humans who live in, but are assumed to be not part of, that habitat.

  10. Green Davey April 3, 2009 at 8:06 pm #

    On another thread Pikey suggested that there are three types of ‘green’, and I tried to give them Latin names. Perhaps Latin is not favored in these times, although ‘rare and endangered’ lists will always give ‘scientific’ names in that odd mixture of Greek and Latin beloved of biologists.
    However, your use of the vivid term ‘Greenzilla’ suggests another classification into Greens (people genuinely concerned with conserving nature, such as some landowners, farmers, foresters etc.), Greenhearts (well meaning urban people genuinely interested in conservation, who join landcare groups etc, but who are often naively misinformed), and Greenzillas (those who do the misinforming, in order to gain political power, which they would like to shift far to the left).
    There is possibly a fourth group, the Greenfloggers, those in business who misinform in order to sell shonky products.
    Can we foresee a religious schism, like those between Catholics and Protestants, or Shia and Sunni? The newshounds should be on to this. Kerry O’Brien could do a good number. It might offer him an escape route from ‘inevitable climate change’.

  11. spangled drongo April 4, 2009 at 11:29 am #

    Davey, you missed the “Greengrants” who run the green orgs, manipulate for grants, design green infrastructure such as interacting maps showing the “greening” of their patch thanks to the grants they have been granted and how it will grow in the future with more grants etc.
    The level of achievement is actually quite poor but the virtual effect is impressive so the grants keep rolling in.

  12. Green Davey April 4, 2009 at 1:48 pm #

    Good one, Spanglo. I will add it to my taxonomy. I know one of those. She is on a research team with which I am involved. Despite the lack of evidence, she blathers on about risks due to ‘climate change’. Despite the evidence, she will not listen to the risk of serious bushfires due to lack of prescribed burning. I think she is a hybrid Greenzilla/Greengrant. There seems to be cross-pollination. God forbid genetic modification.

  13. Geoff Sherrington April 5, 2009 at 9:07 pm #

    Jet’s get the science right.

    We’ll stick to CO2 sequestration above the land surface for simplicity.

    Unless one is forming coal or something similar, sequestration happens to a given land area when and only when –
    (a) the mass of carbon in vegetation is increased from its previous level; and (b) that mass of carbon is maintained in perpetuity. Forever.

    If you want a get-rich-quick scheme, rush to invest carbon credits in a tree plantation then forget about it. Eventually is dies or burns and will be replaced by other vegetation or nothing. The net effect on CO2 gas been to tie up an amount while the area of land was heavily vegetated, before reverting unmanaged to its prior natural state. The way to fix this dodge is to have annual accounting of tied-up CO2 and pay rewards or collect imposts according to the actual change in stored carbon, up or down.

    It makes almost no difference if you use early fires or late fires or big fires or small fires. The carbon in the vegetation will revert to CO2 in the fullness of time, back to the start point, unless constant effort is made by man to keep the carbon load large.

    There is actually a scheme running in the NT whereby the electricity producer pays aborigines to light smaller fires each burn, not larger ones. Smaller fires make less CO2. (There is a slight scientific rationale – explained as the heat of the fire affects the relative abundance of other GHGs besides CO2). I suspect that the bulk of timber in the Top End produces GHGs through termites, not fires.


  14. Ian Mott April 6, 2009 at 12:54 pm #

    Geoff, your post follows a logical sequence but it is still incorrect. And the error is in the IPCC accounting standards that limit the carbon balance to the forest site without considering off-site carbon storage.

    For example, a continually harvested forest may show zero net on-site change in carbon stocks but as long as the timber is converted to long term carbon storage products, like houses, good books, fence posts, power poles and even newsprint in landfill, then the whole of chain carbon balance is unambiguously positive.

    A healthy native forest that has had a 50% volume removal from harvest can take as little as 20 years to recover that volume. Individual trees may take 80 years to reach maturity but vigorous adolescent stems need only a fraction of that time to fully occupy a gap left beside them. And when this takes place the increase in carbon stocks becomes cumulative.

    If the harvested wood is stored for twice the time taken for the forest to re-absorb the equivalent carbon then the off-site carbon stock will end up being as much as the on-site storage capacity. Store it any longer and the long term carbon state will be continually expanding. But don’t expect any IPCC neanderthals to figure that out too soon.

    Cold burns are one of the most effective and least cost methods of long term carbon storage. They are particularly effective at giving wood a coating of charcoal which can protect the remaining wood for up to 1000 years, provided a hot fire does not subsequently nuke the lot of it. So cold burns can produce a continuous accumulation of carbon stocks while a single hot burn can undo centuries of charcoal carbon accumulation.

    The murderous green ideology, of “Greenzilla” if you will, remains in denial of the fact that the fundamental change in fire regimes that they have implemented over the past two decades has produced a fundamental change in natural carbon stocks. They have not only prevented the on-going accumulation of charcoal carbon that has been going on for millenia of firestick management. They have also actively pursued policies that have released huge amounts of past charcoal carbon capital stocks.

    As it is a result of a human management decision then this change in natural stocks is of anthropogenic nature. It is huge, but it has never been allocated to the industry group that created the net emission for proper costing. If it were, then there is no doubt that the community would regard it as an entirely preventable carbon indulgence.

    Strip Greenzilla of his forest tenures and our real carbon footprint would be minescule.

  15. Geoff Sherrington April 6, 2009 at 4:54 pm #

    Re Ian Mott,

    Thank you for your long explanation. For background, I used to attend the monthly management meetings of APPM when it was one of the largest planters of trees around the country in the 1980s. For the parent company of APPM, North Limited, I did a complete audit of CO2 balance, using the maths of carbon uptake with growning and dying trees as well C use at our several mining operations, including Ranger. I suspect this was the first ever large company, detailed CO2 audit worldwide. So, my comments are not ab initio.

    I guess we differ on timescale. If, in the fullness of time, your scenario was correct, we would be forever falling over the remains of trees from centuries ago. Tree ring counting would go back hundreds of years with ease, because the trees would survive. I have studied old trees and the oldest I have seen, in China, is about 700 years in the records of Kubla Kha, late 1200s. We would have forests or litter stands of bristlecone pines to stir up arguments, while in reality we have merely a few isolated examples. Rare books would have been preserved and we would not have to rely on clay tablets. Make an estimate of annual book production and compare it with the weight of books now in libraries. The wood frames of old houses could be used again – but they seldom are. Most vegetation products older than say 200 years have been burned or decayed by the ways Nature devised. See how few wood & paper products appear on the “Antiques Roadshow”.

    I repeat that the eventual fate of almost all C once housed in vegetation is a return to the gas state, mostly CO2.

    I covered off-site carbon storage with a comment above about “unless you are forming coal or similar”.

    If you want to reduce CO2 in the air from vegetation management, the ONLY significant factors are (a) increasing the carbon above a given land area and (b) maintaining that higher load forever. I think we can leave out making coal and charcoal. Fire regimes are essentially transient and immaterial, though there is an advantage in the biochemistry of plant growth in maintaining a nice carbon rich soil.

    But I do hate rip-offs where people make a quick quid from credits, to plant forests that they will harvest and not replace. That’s double dipping.

  16. Green Davey April 6, 2009 at 6:54 pm #


    I think Ian has a good point. I agree that all vegetable matter will, eventually, burn, rot, or be eaten by termites and other wee beasties, so releasing carbon gases. The point is the timing. Conversion to charcoal by mild fires introduces a long sequestration lag – hundreds, or even thousands of years. Even longer than sawn timber.

    There is ample historical evidence of plentiful charcoal, at least in WA, around the time of European settlement. For example, George Vancouver (1791) mentioned ‘trees had been burnt, though slightly; every shrub had some of its branches completely charred’.

    James Backhouse (1837) said that the Perth streets ‘are of sand, mixed with charcoal, from the repeated burning of the scrub, which formerly covered the ground, on which the town now stands … the Natives are now setting fire to the scrub, in various places, to facilitate their hunting, and to afford young herbage to the kangaroos’.

    An elderly English clergyman (John Wollaston) complained, in the 1830s, that the charcoal rotted his boots.

    So Peter Garrett is missing the point altogether by trying to ban, or diminish, mild, prescribed burning. His ecological ignorance is disturbing. If he wants to reduce carbon gases in the atmosphere, the most effective way is to burnt often and mild, over large areas, so depositing charcoal. To persuade the Greenzillas, he may need to relabel charcoal as ‘biochar’, or possibly ‘organic envirochar’? Such language games are second nature to Greenzillas. However, I get the impression that they would like to sideline the topic, as too close to the jugular.

  17. spangled drongo April 6, 2009 at 8:26 pm #

    I have found that with continuous cool burning I can progressively re-establish [to varying degrees] a wet sclerophyll/rain forest from a dry forest.
    This is because a lot of the dry scrubby undergrowth needs a hot burn to propagate and with only cool burning eventually dies out and doesn’t regrow, allowing the rainforest types to spread and begin to take over. Usually amongst the bigger eucalypts.
    Many of these rainforest trees are quite drought tolerant and will start producing a fire resisting forest.
    This type of forest is much more humid than dry forest and becomes to some degree self sustaining.
    Have one hot fire, though and it’s a different story.
    Excess hot fires in steep mountain areas also cause slope destabilisation.

  18. Ian Mott April 7, 2009 at 1:33 am #

    No Geoff, you miss the point and over simplify. Even if the wood from old houses is not reused it will end up in a landfill just as books that are not recycled do and just as newspapers that are not recycled do. And the evidence from 60 year old Sydney landfills is that newsprint is entirely intact, perfectly readable, after 60 years underground.

    Your sidestep of the issue of in-stand replacement time is noted. So I will say it again. If the growing forest re-absorbs the eqivalent volume of carbon as was removed during a partial harvest (ie in a native forest, not a plantation clearfall) then any storage of the harvested wood for a longer period will produce a carbon surplus.

    The wood in one of my houses is 90 years old, the wood in another is 60 YO and another is 45 YO. And while the sawn timber might only represent less than half of the carbon volume harvested, I can confirm that two years ago we found a sawdust heap, completely intact under a carpet of Kikuyu, where it was left in 1943. I also have tree stumps still in situ from the original clearing prior to 1927 and we still have fence posts from the same period that have outlived the barbed wire they held up.

    In all of these cases the IPCC wrongly assumes that all the carbon was released to the atmosphere back in the 1920s. But the forest has regrown over most of the cleared area. The current standing wood volume is still less than the original forest volume but the main reason for this is that it is not standard practice to include the wood/carbon from old stumps in stand inventories. I can also confirm that close to the current standing volume has been removed during the past 60 years.

    Most of that volume is still intact so there is zero room for doubt that the total carbon absorbed and stored by that forest through active forestry is much greater than the original forest volume.

    So let me spell it out for you. As long as the growth rate of new wood in the forest stand is faster than the decay rate of the harvested wood then a managed forest will sequester additional carbon for centuries. Im sorry to have to say this but this notion of yours, and the IPCC’s, that the products from a forest can be excluded from the carbon budget for a forest is either ill-informed or downright moronic.

    The same sort of myopia applies to charcoal. A good coating of charcoal can convert even low durability class wood into long term stable carbon storage, both above and below the surface. We also know that one of the major elements of soil structure decline and moisture retention capacity is the reduction in retained charcoal volumes. The two main processes that lower these levels are over cultivation and very hot fires that incinerate everything in the upper 20cm of soil. And as most of our rangelands are not cultivated then the latter is the culprit.

    Mild fires create a continuing supply of charcoal, a portion of which gets rubbed off by stock and added to the soil. Other bits are left on the surface and are subsequently covered by litter or sediments. And here is the key. The volume of charcoal found in soils can vary from zero to 250 tonnes per hectare. Charcoal is the ideal storage method for the portion of harvested trees that does not get converted to long term storage products.

    And it is the best natural preserver of on ground habitat hollows there is.

  19. Green Davey April 7, 2009 at 11:40 am #

    Absolument, Messieurs Mott et Spanglo. Ze truth ‘as, ‘ow you say, a distinctive ring to it. Yet the Greenzillas are, indeed (email this morning) trying to rev up a campaign against soil carbon. One claim is that plantation owners will use vast microwave ovens to create ‘biochar’, so overheating an already ‘burning planet’. There is some mention of burning old tyres too.

  20. Geoff Sherrington April 10, 2009 at 10:59 pm #

    Ian, If you do a global mass balance you find a stasis, that the rate of growth of new C-containing vegetation equals the reate of destruction of older vegetation. The weight of C compounds in landfills is but a tiny fraction of the vegetation that decays. As I said, the forest floor is not littered with the remains of old trees. Such trees as are there are usually quite young. Say, on average, less than 200 years. The Houn Pine sought by age daters in Tas is mostly recovered from under water where it has been preserved and there are only a few logs like that. Not millions, not like like the number of Huon Pie trees that would plausibly have grown in Tas since they first sprouted.

    It’s all about time frames. I can see no value at all in including temporary use of C in wood as a credit, because in time it will cease to be one. The name of the game is to PERMANENTLY reduce GHG, not to cause a temporary man-made blip on a scale of thousands of years, or even hundreds, or as some schemes are headed, a career lifetime. We planted so much hardwood at APPM (and it was a big effort) in the knowledge that we would not get a return from thinning for 20 years and perhaps the main return in 30-40 years. But it was not planted to tie up GHG. Its purpose was simply because you can recyle wood fibre only so many times before it degrades, which means that about 40 % recycle is the max that was feasible to add to new harvest for making waste products like paper after the saw wood had been taken. The bark was left to rot and it did, quickly.

    I’m quite alarmed by your accounts of charcoal in soil as noted by early observers. I used to own a soil test lab and we routinely measured organic carbon in soils by colour change of chromic acid. It was really rare to go above 10% of dry weight, was usually around 3% from memory. I spent 20 years bashing throught the bush doing soil geochemistry and never once did I meet sights similar to those you describe. I don’t want an argument abou the reliability of observations of early explorers. The subject can be tested by observation and chemical analysis in a couple of contemporary days. And has been.

    You have badly failed to change my contentions that if you want to tie up C in vegetation, (a) you have to increase the weight of C in vegetation per unit area and (b) you have to do so FOREVER. That’s the only gross equation that works, unless you add coal-type formation.

    I agree with you “Your sidestep of the issue of in-stand replacement time is noted. So I will say it again. If the growing forest re-absorbs the eqivalent volume of carbon as was removed during a partial harvest (ie in a native forest, not a plantation clearfall) then any storage of the harvested wood for a longer period will produce a carbon surplus.” However, when you take this thought to longer times, it fails. That’s because the “longer period” is not long enough to make a significant, permanent difference. No sidestep, I’d already said it was a matter of time scales.

    Like you and the IPCC, the latter of which I do not quote as a scientific authority, I agree this is wrong “In all of these cases the IPCC wrongly assumes that all the carbon was released to the atmosphere back in the 1920s.” I did not say that, I did not infer that. But the 5000 year old Huon Pines have mostly done that and the vast majority are gone forever.

    It’s a matter of time scale.

  21. jennifer April 16, 2009 at 10:02 pm #

    Hi Jennifer

    here is the response I posted on the blog on Tuesday 14 April. Can you tell me if it will appear?
    Gabriel Crowley

    Roger Underwood’s summation is refreshingly devoid of emotion and partisanship. If we are going to reach a good outcome for people and the environment, we need to stop attacking people for their ‘positions’, and base our conclusions on evidence. Getting fire management right is a complex and ever-changing challenge.

    The nomination to which he refers in point 1 was prepared by Jarrad Holmes (then of WWF) and myself (Gabriel Crowley, Tropical Savannas CRC). It is entitled “Key threatening process nomination: Contemporary fire regimes resulting in the loss of vegetation heterogeneity and biodiversity in the non-fragmented landscapes of northern Australia”, and a copy has been posted on since March 2007. It argues that, for the sake of biodiversity, active fire management is required in northern Australia. The situation is far different from that in southern Australia, but the principles are not. If we want to keep pretending that the Australian environment has not been shaped, but only sullied, by human management, then we are continuing the racist “Terra nullius” view of the continent. And it will do no good for biodiversity or for the humans that cherish the environment, especially those who chose to live in it.

    Let’s get the emotion out of this issue and look at the science and the values we each hold, and move forward from ideological positions.


    Hi Gabriel, Sorry, it appears to have got eaten by the spam machine, posted now.

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