In a recent reply to an article in The Age, (Axe VicForests or chop off the public money ) David Walsh, VicForests’ Manager of Corporate Communications, reeled off the usual porkies to justify his corporation’s existence.
It is a matter of public record, as Walsh knows, that VicForests hasn’t paid a cent in dividends in the past six years, yet he states, “we contribute financial dividends to the state from our profits”. Well, yes. But VicForests hasn’t been making profits and therefore hasn’t paid a dividend since 2007.
But, shonky economics aside, Walsh’s most extraordinary claim is, “that we grow back the same mix of species on every site after harvesting to ensure the forest returns for future generations”. This is not a new claim, simply a restatement of claims that have been made in various VicForests’ reports over the years, apparently in the hope that if it is repeated often enough the public will come to accept, if not believe, it. But it is not supported by the facts.
After a coupe has been clearfelled and the saleable logs carted off, there is a huge amount of organic matter left on the ground, about 60% of the original biomass on the site. This includes low quality logs, branches, twigs, leaves and bark from the trees and also all the bulldozed ferns, shrubs and groundcover that formed the mid and understories. This is left to dry before a coupe burn is conducted. VicForests claims the coupe burns replicate natural fire events that trigger seeding in Ash eucalypts but the reality is quite different. A coupe burn is typically much more uniform and intensely hot than a natural fire and, following logging, doesn’t leave standing dead trees, known as stags, to form important habitat. After a coupe burn, the site is effectively sterilised.
The burned coupe is then reseeded, but not with the same mix of species that existed on the site before logging. Only the seeds of species that are of commercial interest to VicForests, that is, eucalypts, are used. In a mixed species stand this may include two or three different types but in Ash forest this will mean only one species, Eucalyptus regnans , seed is sown. Wattles may germinate from a natural seedbank in the soil, where Acacia seeds can wait for more than a century, and there will be some other seeds, either already present or blown in from nearby, including opportunistic fireweeds. But species that naturally regenerate after fire from the roots won’t come back if the roots have been bulldozed during logging. 95% of treeferns are lost on logged sites. At best, what will come back will be a simplified system of only a few species quite different from what existed previously; effectively a plantation, unsuitable as habitat for many native species but perfect for the loggers who will return after several decades to thin the new growth and eventually to clearfell all over again.
But even this partial regeneration doesn’t happen “on every site”. In many cases the eucalypt regeneration fails and the result is a wasteland of weeds or wattle scrub. Before a logged and regenerated coupe can be returned from VicForests to government management it must be audited and found acceptable. Over the years the area of forest “finalised” in this way has been consistently less than the area logged, resulting in a substantial “regeneration backlog”. In 2008 an expert review was conducted which suggested a way to address this would be to restrict “the total area that is vested to VicForests until coupes are handed back regenerated”. However no action has been taken on this suggestion.
To make things even worse, when VicForests was formed in 2004 it assumed responsibility for regenerating a backlog that had previously accrued under DSE (now DEPI) management. Last year’s report by the Victorian Auditor General found that only 10% of this has been regenerated and VicForests only has a regeneration plan for another 2%. The Auditor commented that DEPI has not met its responsibilities to regenerate this area, which is inconsistent with the sustainability principles and regulatory requirements of the Code of Practice for Timber Production.