I would like to share an example of the absurdity and wastage which goes under the name of endangered or threatened species management in southwestern forests [of western Australia], part of the ‘great diversity hotspot’ referred to by Professor Myer and others.
A few months ago I visited the karri forest and drove out with a former colleague to have a wander in the Warren and Dombakup State forests, south of the Warren National Park. I once knew these areas very well; I had been the District Forester at Pemberton in the 1960s and 1970s. The Warren and Dombakup State forests were at the time being cutover to supply sawlogs to the big sawmill at Pemberton. Part of my job was the preparation of the logging plans for the mill, supervision of the treemarking (selection of seed trees), quality control of logging operations and the post-logging regeneration of the cutover forest. The clearfelling took place over two or three years, and the regeneration operations in the summer of 1971/72. This involved a process of “scrub-rolling” (using a bulldozer to flatten the tall dense understorey of karri wattle so we would get an even seedbed) and then burning to create an ashbed at a time when there was ripe seed in the crowns of the retained seed trees.
Karri trees only produce seed every 4 or 5 years, so the timing of regeneration operations is very critical. The burns themselves were a tremendous challenge, because of the heavy fuels in the national parks to the north and west, but we had a good handle on the seed cycle, and I had a cadre of very experienced field staff and forest workmen. The whole business succeeded wonderfully. The following winter we got a mass germination of karri seedlings, plus all the other plants which come away after fire in this country. The log landings and some of the old snigging tracks were planted with karri seedlings from the nursery at West Manjimup.
It was great to revisit this forest 35 years later. The hillsides are now covered with tall (>40 metres), swaying karri trees as far as the eye can see, and the day I was there the bush was alive with birdsong and rich with wildflowers. I was told the fauna (which is mostly nocturnal) is abundant, and I sampled for myself the good clear water running in the streams. In one section there was a commercial thinning operation going on, taking out the smaller less vigorous trees to free up the bigger and better trees, and enhance their maturity. The logs were being sold to a sawmill for the production of tile battens, and the thinned stands looked absolutely magnificent.
The whole thing appeared to me to be a working example of ecologically sustainable forest management, with the new forest replacing the old and already providing environmental services as well as commercial values, and growing sturdily into the Old Growth of the future. It seemed to me that here was a scene of beauty and productivity, something of which we could all be proud. Not so.
To my surprise I noticed that all through the regrowth, officers from the Department of Conservation and Land Management (CALM) had been designating areas in which the thinning operations were banned. These were marked with plastic tape. When I asked what was going on, it was explained to me that a CALM officer had discovered “rare” species of cryptogams (liverworts) growing on the karri wattle in the regrowth forest in this area.
A liverwort is a primitive green, moss-like slime which grows on the trunks of woody shrubs in higher rainfall forest areas all over the world).
CALM feared that the liverworts would be destroyed in the thinning operation and become extinct. So in these areas the thinning was banned. This will have a number of downsides, including a reduction in the rate of development of the stand, loss of commercial value and income, demand for officer time to delineate the exclusion zones and police them, loss of profit to thinning contractors and a much more difficult forest in which to carry out green burning for wildfire mitigation (unthinned karri regrowth is tricky to burn). Carried forward, it will mean that the areas can never be logged again and are more vulnerable to high intensity summer bushfires.
To put this into context: on an evolutionary scale, liverworts are a very ancient type of plant. They have undoubtedly lived in the karri forest for as long as there has been karri forest, and that is countless thousands of years. Certainly they have not evolved in this area during the last 35 years. Over the eons they would have survived thousands of bushfires, including mild burns lit by Aborigines and high intensity stand replacement fires lit by lightning. By their very presence in the regrowth forest, these liverworts demonstrate that they were quite able to survive the forest being clearfelled, scrub-rolled and given a hot regeneration burn and converted from old growth to regrowth. While CALM admit that the liverworts may well have recovered after the clearfelling and hot regeneration fire, they regard them as too delicate to survive selective thinning of the subsequent regrowth forest.
I did some checking and discovered that these liverwort species are well known from as far afield as the Stirling Ranges and are widespread (though scattered, and their distribution is not mapped) throughout the southern forests. They may not be “rare”, but CALM has decided they are “threatened”. So that’s that.
I challenged CALM over the idiocy of their policy, thinking that perhaps they did not understand the history of the area. Far from it. They knew, but it made not one iota of difference. The good old Precautionary Principle was duly trotted out, and as usual presented as unchallengeable. Neither did the disgraceful waste of staff resources involved in the “protection” of these non-rare and non-threatened species worry anyone. I was left wondering whether CALM has too many staff, with not enough to do.
I don’t go so far (as some Old Growth Foresters do) as to suggest that the environmental ideologues in government are deliberately playing the threatened species card to stop timber cutting in the karri forest. I think it is more likely that inexperienced young CALM staff with an academic background in environmental science rather than forestry, and with a burning desire to do something for the environment suddenly found themselves with an opportunity, and went for it, without thinking through the logic or the consequences. I have observed many young people in the new environmental and land management agencies, and they share a common characteristic: they know what they are against, but they do not know what they are for.
The multipurpose-multivalue and pro-active forest management system I was taught and then practiced as a young forester has been replaced by a vacuum, and in groping for something to do (as opposed to something to stop), they come up with something silly. The worst thing about all this, to my mind, is that the senior people in government, the people who are running the show, let it happen.