Post-bushfire logging makes a bad situation even worse, but the industry is ignoring the science - Prof David Lindenmayer

30 January 2020

By Professor David Lindenmayer, Fenner School of Environment and Society, ANU College of Science.

Australians have expressed extraordinary levels of concern about our native animals and the ability of environments to recover from the recent catastrophic wildfires. The bush and the animals it supports are a core part of Australian culture and psyche.

Yet, just as the trees are sprouting green shoots and the first signs of forest recovery are beginning to emerge, the forest which survived the fire is threatened by post-fire logging. Multiple independent, peer reviewed studies show logging forests after bushfires increases future fire risk and can render the forest uninhabitable for wildlife for decades or even centuries.

Yet logging of burnt areas is exactly what logging industry lobbyists are pushing for right now.

On January 15, the Australian Forest Products Association sent a briefing note to MPs with an "interest in forest industries" that outlined "the massive bushfire recovery harvesting operation that must occur in the coming weeks and months to recover as much of the burnt trees for timber as possible — within environmental, safety and market constraints — before they deteriorate and become unusable".

"It is vital that all levels of Government work together to ensure these operations occur in a timely manner and prepare the land for regeneration (in the case of native forests) and replanting (in the case of plantations)," it read. The science shows that post-fire logging would significantly impair regeneration, yet the industry ignores it.

Post-fire logging is a loss-making exercise

Burnt trees are not used for sawn timber (such as to make furniture or roof trusses). They are woodchipped. Post-fire logging is often a large loss-making exercise for the taxpayer-owned companies and contractors which do it (native forest logging is generally done by State Government-owned businesses, hiring contractors).

In fact, hardly any native forest timber is used for anything but woodchips or paper pulp, even when it is unburned. For example, 87 per cent of all native forest logged in Victoria goes to woodchips and pulp to make paper. Plantations provide 88 per cent of the sawn timber in Victoria and also in NSW. The percentage of native forest going to woodchips will only further increase following these fires.

The impacts can last for decades

A major body of scientific research spanning hundreds of studies from Australia and around the world over the past 20 years shows that so-called post-fire "salvage logging" is the most damaging form of logging in native forests. Its impacts can last for decades or centuries and seriously impair the recovery of animal, bird and insect populations. With so little intact forest left, this will spell disaster for native wildlife.

Studies following the logging after the tragic Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria in 2009 found post-fire logging had profound negative impacts on birds, soils, and plants. Hiring helicopters to drop food to surviving animals while logging what remains of their habitat seems counterproductive to say the least.

Research has also shown forests that are logged post-fire and then regenerated have an increased risk of burning in high-severity crown-scorching fires. This extra fire risk lasts for about 40 years after logging. That is, a burnt forest which is logged tomorrow will still carry an elevated fire risk in 2060.

A global review published in 2009 showed that links between logging and elevated fire risk is a problem seen in wet types of forests worldwide. In 2016, an Australian study published by the Ecological Society of America found tree fern populations crashed by 94 per cent after post-fire logging.

Recovering trees are essential for animal survival

Long-term monitoring shows that most burned areas recover well if we leave them alone.

This has been documented countless times since the birth of the discipline of ecology in the 1920s. Many burnt trees that look dead now will re-sprout in the next few weeks or months. This is already occurring in the burnt coastal forests of NSW.

These recovering trees must not be logged. They are essential for the survival of animals like gliding possums — research shows that these animals are unlikely to return to forests that are logged immediately after burning for 180 years (if they can return at all).

Heavy logging machinery will kill many of the plants that germinate in the nutrient-rich bed of ashes on the forest floor. Animals that have miraculously survived in burnt areas can also be killed in logging operations.

Pioneering research from southern Australia has shown that fungi and nutrients in soils can take up to a century or even longer to recover from salvage logging. Mass movement of soils in areas logged post-burn can choke rivers and streams and trigger fish kills as well as kill many other kinds of animals.

It's time to listen to the science

Australia's forests and its wildlife have been badly impacted over the past few months.

More than a billion animals are likely to have been directly killed and some species are now close to extinction. Some ecosystems have burned that should never be exposed to wildfire. Species and ecosystems need time to recover without further disturbance by logging. Our wildlife and the forest that support them cannot take another beating now.

It's time for politicians and the media to listen to the science. We must keep Australians safe. Perhaps it is time to start hiring logging contractors to use their skills on machines as full-time firefighters.