Koalas and Blue Gum Plantations

Anthony Amis

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

On 27 July 2013, ABC Television's 7.30 Report ran a story called 'Koala's cry at timber's threat'. The report sparked outrage across the world. A petition organised by German group Rainforest Rescue, for instance, was signed by over 85,000 people. Friends of the Earth delivered the petition to Victoria's Environment Minister in November.

The ABC report highlighted the death and horrific injuries to koalas due to logging of bluegum plantations in south-east South Australia and south-west Victoria. Estimates of the numbers of koalas living in the Green Triangle's 170,000 hectare bluegum plantations have ranged from 8,000 to 10,000. But who really knows?

According to an animal carer interviewed by the ABC: "Broken limbs, impact wounds, broken backs, severed arm. Dead mothers with joeys that are still alive, trying to survive. I had one 500 gram joey ... that had two healed broken arms. And so we can only assume from that that the mother had been dropped previous to this incident and she had no obvious breaks, but her intestines were just pulp ... On a recent plantation, we got 28 out and that includes some of them were dead and some of them were alive. There was an original estimate from one of the workers there that were probably over 50 in that plantation. We're not sure what's happened to them."

A follow up report aired on ABC television on 29 October 2013. It revealed that Australia's largest exporter of woodchips, Australian Bluegum Plantations (ABP), owned by Global Forest Partners, had been stripped of its Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification, by FSC certifier Rainforest Alliance, and that ABP had to suspend logging in key koala habitat.

One needs to ask the question, why didn't FSC Australia see this coming?

According to the ABC report in October: "The 7.30 report triggered strong denial from the country's largest plantation woodchip exporter, Australian Bluegum Plantations (ABP), which was named in the program. ABP issued its denial via the environmental certification authority, the Forest Stewardship Council of Australia (FSC). FSC ... have been advised by Australian Bluegum Plantations 7.30 showed footage of injured koalas in plantations not owned or managed by them," the FSC statement said. "The footage was old and not involving current processes ... to manage the safety of koalas."

If this was true, then why was ABP stripped of its certification and why was this ever published on the FSC website?

Not reported by the ABC's 7.30 report was the fact that Smartwood/Rainforest Alliance and FSC Australia had been well aware of the controversy regarding plantation companies and koalas for almost a decade prior to the ABP debacle in 2013, but had apparently decided that the issue was not important enough.

Timbercorp and Hancock Victorian Plantations

A 2006 audit of one of ABP's predecessors, Timbercorp, said: "The company does not have a procedure to verify the presence of koala's prior to commencing harvesting operations. ... The company should establish a monitoring program to verify the presence of koala's prior to commencing harvesting operations." Why wasn't this done?

Worse still, forest campaigners in the Strzelecki Ranges had also been alerting FSC and the certifier Smartwood/Rainforest Alliance about the destruction of key koala habitat by Hancock Victorian Plantations (HVP) during FSC scoping as early as 2000. Yet by 2008 Smartwood/Rainforest Alliance had effectively washed its hands of the issue, directly undermining local initiatives to protect koalas and habitat by stating in their 2008 audit: "If the koala population requires conserving then it is the State Government's responsibility to list the species accordingly and this has not yet occurred. As such there is no specific reason why HVP as a private land manager should be required to establish conservation measures for a species such as the koala as long as it is not required by the state or federal Government."

With this kind of logic, why have Smartwood/Rainforest Alliance taken action against ABP, when not taking similar action against Hancock? One could assume that a nationally aired television show has far more weight in terms of public relations for FSC certifiers than the long-standing concerns of environmental organisations – even after initial refutations by FSC. Friends of the Earth has learnt of a number of koala deaths and injuries in the Strzelecki region in November 2013 at Willung. Again it appears that these koalas moved into the bluegum plantations from adjacent native forest.

The rapid increase of bluegum plantations planted between 1995−2000, particularly in the Green Triangle region of South Australia and Victoria, has provided koalas with an additional 170,000 ha of habitat. Existing koala populations have expanded into some of these plantations, as habitat is limited in the region's limited native forests. The plantations provide habitat for a number of years, but once the plantations are felled there is no habitat remaining for the surviving koalas. As a result, up to 10,000 koalas may be killed, either by logging itself, or through starvation once the plantations are logged.

This has created a massive headache for the industry, which is now scrambling for a solution to this intractable problem. The industry announced policy guidelines in October 2013, however these guidelines will not solve the problem of how to manage the thousands of koalas likely to be displaced through logging.

Essentially the policy pledges that before timber harvesting operations, blue gum companies will first assess the number of koalas living in the plantations to be logged, and plan their operations in a sequence that encourages koala populations to move to adjacent reserves or immature plantations. This raises the problem of how does one encourage koala populations to move to adjacent reserves if there are none or if there is limited native forest in the local area.

Friends of the Earth is currently carrying out more research into this issue and is also pushing for the protection of Victoria's only remaining, genetically robust koala population in the Strzelecki Ranges. Donations are always appreciated.