Tasmanian Times

Bob Burton

Funny business over forests

In July last year I heard about a Wilderness Society project to assess the amount of carbon held in native forest areas scheduled to be logged. Thinking I might write about this, I contacted Forestry Tasmania to get its reaction, and therein lies a tale.

At first I thought this would be a story about facts and science. Forests capture and store prodigious amounts of carbon, and scientists have been vigorously trying to quantify carbon stocks and flows to establish how we should manage these resources under a new international climate regime.

Everyone accepts that this is a good thing. But my attempts to make sense of the science have highlighted something else entirely: how science can be rendered ineffective and almost irrelevant by entrenched cultural mindsets and the animosities that can arise when they’re questioned.

The Wilderness Society project seeks to measure how much carbon is being stored in forest coupes scheduled for logging in different parts of the state. A low-cost project using volunteers, the methodology was developed and the project is being broadly overseen by plant scientists from the Australian National University, where data from the project is being deposited.

This project was always going to be used politically in the forest debate, with one side playing up its credentials and the other its flaws. My main interest was in how good carbon accounting might help Tasmanian forestry benefit from carbon management as well as wood production, especially in the crucial near-term when global emissions must begin to fall sharply.

My meeting with Dr Hans Drielsma, Forestry Tasmania’s Executive General Manager, and Ken Jeffreys*, General Manager Corporate Relations, didn’t get off to a good start. I got a heated 15-minute lecture on why I should stop questioning official information about Tasmanian forestry management, before we finally got to the issue of assessing forest carbon.

Dr Drielsma told me that in contrast to the Wilderness Society’s “amateurish” project involving a handful of sites, “we have been doing this work for years, and we have a mountain of data from over 3000 sites”. He commended Australian government statistics and a 2007 consultant’s report as the best sources for information on carbon emissions from forestry.

I have seen government forestry emissions figures and have read and re-read the 2007 MBAC Consulting report. Such official sources assert the carbon-friendliness of Australian forestry in replacing harvested trees with new ones. Contrast that with those unfriendly tropical practices where forests simply disappear.

Forestry Tasmania rightly draws attention to the environmental cost of wood alternatives such as steel, aluminium or cement. There’s no disputing the value of wood and our continuing need for it. The question isn’t whether we should go on harvesting, but whether we should continue clearfelling in the large carbon reservoir that is our natural forests, or focus entirely on plantation timber.

There are two kinds of forest science: that which serves the industry in getting the most out of our wood resource, and that which looks at how natural ecosystems work. They are both valuable, except when they are at loggerheads. As Churchill observed, the first casualty of war is truth.

Take, for instance, the conclusion by an ANU-based team headed by Prof Brendan Mackey that Australia’s oldest tall eucalypt forests are the most carbon-dense in the world, containing several times the official carbon estimate.

A CSIRO forest industry scientist told me of “problems” with Mackey’s research, but I could not get him to identify what they were. I was similarly left up in the air by an exchange of emails with Forestry Tasmania’s Ken Jeffreys and Dr Martin Moroni, its new forest carbon scientist.

Among other things I wanted to know why the Mackey team’s findings, and the resulting proposition that in the present high-risk global emission scenario we should not be logging mature natural forest, should be discounted. All I got were general referrals to the same official reports (which don’t address the Mackey findings) and questions about my own sources.

The other main object of my questions was to find out more about those 3000 sites and years of professional carbon assessment which Dr Drielsma had contrasted with the Wilderness Society’s effort. To compare the two projects I needed to know how and where Forestry Tasmania had undertaken this work and what data had emerged from it.

There, too, I drew a blank. Dr Moroni told me that “an enormous amount of resources have been used to develop the permanent and temporary sample plots and to take measurements and re-measurements, so the full dataset is unlikely to be released without good need and an agreement being in place”. In other words, details about this work are commercial-in-confidence.

So this publicly-owned agency, wearing its “business enterprise” hat, is refusing to release its mountain of data on the carbon content of Tasmanian forests. What does David Bartlett, whose government is responsible for the charter of Forestry Tasmania, have to say about this?

Meanwhile, the world forestry debate is shifting. An agreement which would have covered natural forest logging everywhere, including Tasmania, was concluded and would have come into effect had Copenhagen produced an over-arching protocol. With the agreement remaining on the table, Tasmanian forest authorities need to prepare for externally-imposed controls.

The forest war in Tasmania is stifling essential action to understand, preserve and benefit from our forests’ carbon-carrying capacity. Forestry Tasmania management sees me as an agent of the forest preservation movement (definitely not true); it also finds me annoying (probably true), a sentiment made clear both in meetings and in correspondence, which they have now terminated.

I regret this, because I’d like to think that addressing the climate challenge can bring people together. But I find myself increasingly drawn toward the Irish cynicism of Claud Cockburn’s advice about government and bureaucracy: “Never believe anything until it is officially denied”.

Mature forest in Tasmania’s Weld Valley. Photo: Rob Blakers

*All about Ken Jeffreys: On SourceWatch: HERE

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  1. J A Stevenson

    January 26, 2010 at 6:51 pm

    The title Doctor was once honoured and respected. It still is in Medical and Veterinary circles.
    Similarly also, the Forester, cared tendered to the trees in forested areas. Unfortunately these titles have become degraded and abused. These chemistry , Doctors of Death ,inventing and advocating their poisonous substances and more inhumane treatment of helpless creatures are just that. Doctors of Death. These later day, so called state foresters are wreckers and dis spoilers of natures masterpieces, or to frightened for their jobs to speak our. Farm forestry foresters and advisors in Tasmania are not included
    Foresters of the old school in Tasmania are appalled at the wastage of prime timbers being smashed and split by excavator buckets in haste to obtain the tonnage required. Timber valued at $100 per metre being reduced to $10 dollars per tonne. Perhaps the Tas: Gov: employed foresters straight out of college with brand new certificates are similar to some UK foresters. I have personal experienced these people. A plantation of oaks had been nurtured and tended, fine looking trees they were. The conservator was proudly showing a party of private foresters around this Forestry Commission masterpiece. After gazing for some time one of the private foresters asked what what the purpose of these trees. They are being retained as seed trees, was the answer. You do know they are Turkey Oaks? came the reply.
    Sessile and Pedunculate Oaks were the wooden ships hearts of oak. Turkey Oak is similar to look at but useless for anything but firewood. Unfortunately Turkey Oaks are the host of the Knopper gall which, after the first year moves to the valuable oaks turning all the acorns into green flower like grows. Turkey oak acorns are twice as large and much easier to collect for sale to unsuspecting customers. On my last estate near Reading all the acorns were destroyed yearly. No viable seed being produced. Natural Oak woodlands will soon be a thing of the past.

  2. Mark Duffett

    January 26, 2010 at 11:28 am

    If Hans Drielsma’s data is too sensitive to reveal then it’s not ‘science’. Science relies on peer review and objective discussion.

    Dead right, Karl Stevens.

    The irony is that Forestry Tasmania apparently haven’t learned from the recent experience of climate researchers who had the same attitude to their data. Their misguided secrecy (for data the collection and maintenance of which was also ultimately underwritten by the public) came back to bite them, and so it will prove with FT.

  3. John Maddock

    January 25, 2010 at 10:27 pm

    Peter Boyer’s comments on FT’s response to his questions sounds familiar.

    Over several years, Timber Workers For Forests asked FT for information on management of special species timbers.

    In short, we got nothing but the run around.

    Can the leopard change its spots?

  4. john Hayward

    January 25, 2010 at 9:04 pm

    If mendacity were capable of sequestering carbon, the Tasmanian logging industry/government could save the world by itself. They lie about everything. They could also make a killing if their secret recipe for suppressing conscience, evident in their spokesmen, could be applied to human vices and marketed.

    John Hayward

  5. Russell

    January 25, 2010 at 8:41 pm

    “we have been doing this work for years, and we have a mountain of data from over 3000 sites”

    All recorded on a mountain of exhorbitantly priced old growth wood-chipped paper, no doubt.

    “Dr. Martin Moroni”…geez these guys are incredibly and constantly just so well named. Chipman’s another perfect example. Green, Kons, two more.

    ““an enormous amount of resources have been used to develop the permanent and temporary sample plots and to take measurements and re-measurements, so the full dataset is unlikely to be released without good need and an agreement being in place”. In other words, details about this work are commercial-in-confidence.”

    Also means “we’re not Gunna tell ya unless we absolutely have ta…and we don’t.”

  6. Justa Bloke

    January 25, 2010 at 8:29 pm

    “…the environmental cost of wood alternatives such as steel, aluminium or cement”??

    Since when have these been used to make woodchips?

    When will FT stop pretending that most of our trees are made into socially beneficial products?

  7. Pete Godfrey

    January 25, 2010 at 5:02 pm

    As usual Peter, FT make many claims but can’t back them up.
    I have a problem with relying on Plantations for our timber in the future. The problem is that since 2001 in Tasmania 64,625 ha of Native Forest has been converted to Eucalypt Plantations. (source FPA annual reports on Forest Practices Plans issued)
    So we have already lost a vast resource. Eucalypt plantations are not forests and as such do not add to biodiversity or lend themselves to long rotation harvesting.
    If we planted mixed species plantations with the intention to log them on a long selective rotation then maybe but unfortunately most of our plantations are only put in with the intention to log them for pulpwood. As such they are not managed for sawlog production.

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