In the last few weeks, social media has begun predicting a “roll-over” for the Regional Forest Agreements (RFAs). RFAs are arrangements between the Commonwealth and States aimed at balancing the needs of the forestry industry and its small dependent communities with the need for environmental protection. These agreements were struck in response to intense conflict between environmental and forestry interests spanning the 1970s to the 1990s. From the point of view of governments, it was hoped these agreements would bring some peace to the industry. The RFAs are due for State-by-State review, beginning in February 2017. Environmental advocates fear the Commonwealth simply wishes to roll these agreements over for a further 20 years.
An updated scientific review as comprehensive as the now obsolete work done in preparation for the current Agreements is already overdue. If a roll-over occurs without this, it will be a sure sign that “nimble and innovative” is a hollow slogan and “putting people first” is short-termism. No independent ecologist will say the RFAs are a success. No independent economist will deny the native forestry industry is in need of restructure.
Native forests are the south-east’s Great Barrier Reef. The canary in the coal mine, all the way from Noosa to Eden, is the koala. Arguably the plight of the koala is the south-east’s equivalent for coral bleaching. South-east forests’ parallel with Queensland coal-mining is wood-chipping.
There are fascinating and disturbing back-stories to the NSW Government’s declaration of a koala reserve in ex-State Forest at Tanja (between Bermagui and Bega).
Although the drastic decline in NSW south-east koala numbers since the middle of the Nineteenth Century is clearly related to farming on fertile lowlands (and probably hunting – never spoken about in white settler records), other contributing factors critical to any hope of koala population recovery include urban, bush-block and “acreage” development, roadworks and high-efficiency mechanized logging, all of which have expanded exponentially since the mid-Twentieth Century, coinciding with the disappearance of easily visible koalas from pockets of the Eurobodalla Shire.
A low-density koala “breeding association” (or “family”) needs several hundred hectares of suitably mixed eucalypt browse species as its home range, protected from severe disturbance like hot fires and dog attack. Between each home range there must be safe, viably vegetated corridors from two to fifty kilometres long, to permit breeding behaviours and maintenance of healthy genetic diversity.
Research used in consultation for the RFAs nominated certain south-east landscapes as poor or good quality koala habitat largely based upon assumptions about what eucalypts constitute “primary” or “supplementary” browse species. In the NSW south-east, the primary species definitions tend to congregate around the red gums and the supplementary species around the stringybarks. These definitions are still being used for purposes like regulating private native forestry clearing practice. As a general rule, State forestry activity is restricted to the presumed low quality habitat. Habitat protections within logging areas nominate individual trees, rocky ridges, narrow riparian corridors and search zones of a kilometer or two if koala evidence is found, but do not guarantee maintenance of the full eucalypt species mix, undisturbed home ranges or landscape-scale connectivity.
By contrast, emerging new research not only calls for viable home ranges and broader linked corridors, but postulates that low density koalas in less than optimum habitat have adapted to a quite different mix of primary, secondary and supplementary browse species (as well as different slope and altitude conditions). For example the Tanja decision has a background of findings about the importance of woollybutt as a primary browse species, and white stringybark as a species of choice during drought.
The NSW Office of Environment and Heritage has conducted a thousand koala plot surveys since the early 2000s, in which thirty trees per plot are identified. A statistical analysis is undertaken around the presence of koala fecal pellets under individual trees, permitting estimates of localized koala population size. The surveys range across State Forests, National Parks, Crown Land and some private properties in all of Bega Valley, Cooma-Monaro, Eurobodalla and Palerang Local Government Areas. A simple independent query of this database would prove that rolling over the RFAs based on unrevised science and continuing the present guidelines for private native forestry on previous habitat assumptions, are nonsensical.
Permanent koala recovery in the NSW south-east, and adapting the south-east as a sanctuary for doomed populations elsewhere in NSW and south-east Queensland, remains feasible but requires all tenure-holders to collaborate in protecting and rehabilitating a landscape-scale mosaic of safe, linked habitat.
The timber industry asserts that, in the light of the farming impact the very existence of native State forests is the koala’s savior and koala recovery activity should focus on rehabilitating private lands. This begs the question of State forestry’s role in a cross-tenure recovery partnership, and indeed the timber industry’s own ability to apply what it considers non-priority resources to the effort. Examination of the bushland and commercial cost-benefits of the low-value wood-chip component calls into question not only the environmental sustainability but the economic viability of the so-called “integrated” forestry model.
It might be no coincidence that the creation of the Tanja reserve and the increased intensity of logging in Boyne State Forest (near East Lynne) have happened together. Environmentalists argue the relentless creep of more intensive logging northward from Eden is associated with the disappearance of sufficient resources to feed the wood-chip contracts. Locals around Nerrigundah (the possible last remaining hot spot for Eurobodalla koalas, few as they are – only three have been observed since 2009) say that intensive Twenty-First Century logging near their district is suspect in the disruption of any resident koalas that might still exist nearby.
The deliberate obscurity masking the native forestry business model is scandalous. Unsurprisingly, one of its past ministerial defenders was found corrupt by ICAC, not to mention the fate of one of its high profile business executives. Upon enquiring, investigators are routinely told that the “integrated nature of the industry” makes it impossible to separate the figures and cost-benefits of the high value timber component (eg for furniture and quality building construction) from the low value component (particularly wood-chips). The “integrated” obfuscation is the first part of the answer. If one is to enquire into the detail of wood-chip contracts per se, whether they over-inflate the capacity to supply and whether the product is selling at less than world market value, the second part of the answer emerges: “commercial-in-confidence”.
Both major political parties are culpable. Both protect and sustain the low-employment native forestry industry despite its commercial non-viability and its impact on indigenous flora and fauna. Both will challenge the status quo at their peril. John Howard adeptly driving the dagger into Mark Latham’s heart amidst cheering Tasmanian trade unionists was one of the great anachronisms of our time, but a political master stroke. In the NSW south-east, the issue sits squarely in the litmus-test marginal electorate of Eden-Monaro.
A roll-over of the RFAs, especially in the absence of new science will be a purely, cynically political act. The downsides in taxpayer dollars, sustainable employment, the survival of small bush communities and the retention of a natural environment populated by animals like koalas, greater gliders, sugar gliders and powerful owls will be borne by a generation much closer to ours than we imagine, all for the lack of will to restructure a faulty government enterprise and to seriously implement any one of a litany of neglected koala recovery strategies.
Keith Joliffe is a past Management Committee member of The Coastwatchers Association Inc,
a not for profit Eurobodalla environmental advocacy group,
and coordinator of the volunteer Eurobodalla Koalas Project.