We can’t see the trees for the wood

Dr Oisín Sweeney, Senior Ecologist, National Parks Association of NSW

This is an amended article from one that first appeared on the Independent Australia website on 27 March 2017

On the morning of March 21st I got a call from a journalist in response to a media release NPA had put out for International Day of Forests. She wanted me to discuss forests – after she spoke to Planet Ark, who were celebrating World Wood Day!

This was the first anyone at NPA had heard of World Wood Day. It got me thinking. Is it an accident that it falls on the same day as International Day of Forests? Hard to know, but the fact that it does highlights a problem with our relationship with forests: we view them almost exclusively as sources of wood. But they’re much more than that.

If we want forests to continue to help human society flourish, as they have done throughout our existence, our leaders urgently need to recognise this.

Let’s start with water. Many of the largest cities on earth, including Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, depend on forested catchments for clean, reliable water. In the majestic mountain ash forests of the Victorian Central Highlands we know that logging results in a temporary spike in water yields as all the trees are removed. But yields quickly fall as dense regrowth establishes, and it takes over 200 years to reach pre-logging levels. Old-growth stands yield about twice as much water as young regrowth on an annual basis. Staggeringly, lost water via logging in the Goulburn-Broken catchment has been valued at $16 million per year.

We’re also starting to understand that forests generate rain. Clearing of forests and woodlands has driven reductions in rainfall in south-west Western Australia and south-eastern Australia. This should be a source of extreme concern for farmers in an arid continent. But primarily it should be a call to action for our leaders, because it’s reversible if we restore forests.

Then we’ve got carbon. We know that, on average, logged forests store 50% less carbon than undisturbed forests. In southern NSW and the mountain ash forests, there are no circumstances under which logged forests can achieve comparable carbon stores to protecting forests. In contrast, logging mountain ash forests reduces carbon stores by 143 tonnes per hectare. At the average Direct Action carbon price of $10.69 per tonne, lost carbon is therefore worth $1,529 per hectare – about 60 times the timber value.

We have a responsibility too to look after the extraordinary natural beauty that Australians have inherited. Species like gliders, koalas, quolls, phascogales and powerful owls are all forest species that are only found in Australia, and all are threatened by logging and clearing. This nature is economically valuable. It’s the number one reason people visit Australia, and protected areas are cornerstones of regional economies.

We should also spare a thought for ourselves. Though most of us now live in cities and probably don’t think about it on a daily basis, humans are intrinsically attached to nature. This probably explains why contact with nature is good for our physical and mental health. But I challenge anyone to look at the picture above of a recently logged forest and have any sort of positive emotion. Given the increasing costs of health care and rising rates of obesity, it’s no surprise that the health benefits of nature can save us lots of money.

But because we can’t see the trees for the wood, the backdrop to all of this is that we’re clearing and degrading our forests faster than any other developed country and are the only developed nation with a deforestation front. This in a country where forests cover only a small fraction of our land mass.

Because of the wide ranging impacts that logging and clearing are having on the values of forests – and on the benefits that forests provide to humans – NPA is calling on state and federal governments to make the protection and restoration of forests a national priority. This would both protect nature and secure key human needs like water supplies, carbon storage and good health.

Josh Frydenberg said in his op-ed to launch the State of Environment Report on March 7th that “regardless of one’s political persuasion, we all have a vested interest in protecting our commons”. Hear hear Minister, but actions speak louder than words.

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