High ecological value State Forests to be logged in Queensland

Friends of the Earth, Kuranda

Chain Reaction #120, March 2013, www.foe.org.au/chain-reaction/editions/120

The Newman Government has recently announced its intention to log some State forests, including Kuranda State Forest which borders the World Heritage Area. These types of 'ecotone' forests are rich in wildlife and some of the most endangered fauna is dependent on these forest types. It had been the government's policy to merge state forests bordering the World Heritage Area into the World Heritage Area. Logging them before their inclusion is an act of ecological desecration.

The very existence of Queensland's Wet Tropics once hung by a very slender thread. In the 1960s, Australia's very first export woodchip industry was proposed for the Wet Tropics of Far North Queensland (FNQ). The idea was abandoned only after evaluation of the total resource indicated it was inadequate to "service" a woodchip mill for the requisite period. Soon after, the Japanese buyer shifted its attention to Eden in southern NSW.

Nevertheless, a substantial saw-milling industry in FNQ persisted, even though a century of unsustainable logging had already wiped out almost all the old growth forest. By the 1980s, giant trees found throughout the region by European invaders back in the 19th century were almost entirely gone.

After a massive national campaign to "save the rainforests", the Hawke Labor Government declared large areas of the Wet Tropics World Heritage in the late 1980s. It was a popular decision, despite bitter opposition in small pockets where a significant sawmill industry had lingered on. A generous federal compensation package alleviated the economic pain − and tourism received a major lift from the World Heritage declaration. 

By the 1990s, the National Party lost power in Queensland. A Labor Government took the far-sighted decision to transition out of native forest logging, state-wide. This spared Queensland some of the fierce environmental conflicts over logging that persist to this day in other states. Some native forest logging continued on private land, but State Forests were managed on the understanding that native forests were no longer viewed as a long-term source of timber.

In centuries to come, as long as we protect the regrowth forests, old growth will slowly be restored in the highly biodiverse Wet Tropics. There are still plenty of environmental concerns, of course − past loss of old growth, fragmentation and the near-complete loss of rare vegetation types means that much of FNQ's unique flora and fauna remains at risk.

The prospect of rapid climate change is an additional factor; studies suggest a continuing loss of species even if we keep all remaining forests intact. However, the absence of a large, entrenched native forest timber industry has given environmentalists in FNQ some sense of optimism that we'd turned the corner on forest protection. 

Sadly, that's no longer the case. In 2012, the Liberal-National Party swept back to power with a policy agenda that sets back the clock on some of the hard-won environmental gains of recent times. Whereas Labor was committed to ceasing logging in public native forests, the Newman Government intends to "restore" the industry. This regrettable policy applies to FNQ as well as other parts of the state.

Unfortunately the Hawke Government's World Heritage declaration did not protect all the forests of FNQ. Large areas of private and State-owned forests were left out of the declaration, which was made in a rush without the benefit of modern mapping tools such as GPS. Because the focus of the declaration was protection of rainforests, adjacent areas of wet sclerophyll forest were generally omitted. These are the focus of the Newman Government's new plans to re-start native forest logging in FNQ.

Since there is no longer a timber industry in FNQ reliant of public forests, and given the central importance of tourism to the region's economy, it's hard to understand the rationale for re-starting logging once again.

Friends of the Earth, Kuranda's initial inquiries to the Forestry Department and Parks Service indicated confusion within the bureaucracy over the Newman Government's intentions. Re-starting the native forest logging industry seems to be more a matter of ideology than economics. According to a letter received in 2013 from the Director-General of the Forest Department, "it is expected to be approximately five years before sawlog harvesting commences in Kuranda State Forest and, once started, harvesting operations are likely to be completed in under a year".

If that's really the intention, one wonders why the Government is bothering at all. Why raise employment expectations over a resource that's clearly unsustainable? Why jeopardise the dominant tourism industry for such a trivial and short-term timber grab?

Two State elections are due before the proposed logging of Kuranda State Forest. That's two elections at which we can mobilise opposition and punish offending politicians. If all else fails we will have to call on our friends and supporters around the nation to come visit us in this wonderful area and join us at the front-line.