Reversing declines of Australian forests should be a national priority

High rates of forest clearing in Queensland and Western Australia—with NSW set to follow—act in concert with intense native forest logging as an all-out assault on Australian forest environments says the National Parks Association of NSW (NPA).

It’s easy to become blasé about forests when living on the eastern seaboard of Australia, because most settlements (including the large urban areas of Sydney and Brisbane) are fringed by forests and daily life puts millions in contact with forests and forest animals like king parrots and kookaburras.

But this disguises the reality that forests are a rare feature in this vast, arid continent. In fact, native forests only cover 15% of Australia. The vast majority of this is woodland, or scattered trees (10% of Australia), with eucalypt forests—those areas that people typically think of as a forest—only accounting for 3% of our land mass and rainforests just 0.5%[1]. Non-eucalypt forests and woodland make up the rest.

NPA senior ecologist, Dr Oisín Sweeney said: “despite the rarity of forests, they host a disproportionate number of our favourite animals. Gliders, koalas, quolls, phascogales, brush-tailed rock wallabies, powerful owls—they’re all forest species that are only found in Australia. And they’re all threatened because of the rapid loss and degradation of forests.

“In fact, this concentration of species is why the Forests of East Australia are recognised as one of just 36 global Biodiversity Hotspots. It’s incredible: almost everyone living on the east coast of Australia lives in a biodiversity hotspot!

“But with this great privilege of living in one of the most special areas on earth comes great responsibility. And so far we’re not taking that responsibility seriously.

“We have already cleared close to half of our forests in the short time that Europeans have been here, and we’re still clearing faster than any developed country on earth. What hasn’t been cleared has largely been broken up into little bits or heavily degraded—for example through intensive logging.

“We must do better or we’ll find ourselves suddenly regretting the extinction of lots of animals we once took for granted. That would be a national tragedy, because it’s the wildlife that makes Australia unique in the world.

“What can we do? Well, NPA is calling on state and federal governments to come together and make forest conservation and restoration a national priority. In particular we want governments to:

  1. Develop a full set of environmental accounts that quantify the value of hidden aspects of forests like water production, carbon storage and wildlife tourism. Without these data we’re making decisions—usually decisions to destroy or degrade forests—based only on partial information.
  2. Urgently map the growth stages of forests, particularly those subject to logging. This is vital because the oft-repeated justification for logging is that the trees grow back. That’s just not good enough for the hundreds and hundreds of species that require tree hollows, because only older, large trees have hollows. We urgently need to know the growth stages so that we can assess how much of our forests are now sub-optimal for hollow dwellers and plan accordingly.
  3. Reign in land clearing, and instead develop a long-term scheme to identify suitable areas for biodiverse reforestation and incentivise landholders to undertake this reforestation. This will also have the added advantage of helping to reverse regional climate change and protect agriculture in the long term.

“If we grasp the nettle and do this now we can halt and reverse the declines in our magnificent forests. If we wait, we’ll continue to loose forests and see our wildlife being chipped away.”

Media contact: Oisín Sweeney 0431 251 194

[1]Australia’s State of the Forests Report 2013 Criterion 1 page 31.

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