What does ‘Ecological Thinning’ mean for your National Parks?
The Victorian and NSW State governments plan to run a trial of “ecological thinning” inside the Barmah-Millewa National
Park. The trial will use logging machinery to test weather cutting out trees from these River Red Gum forests will improve the health of the ecosystem. The project will have a range of impacts on this landscape of international significance.
Friends of the Earth is asking for your help to keep logging out of our iconic River Red Gum forests and to safeguard the natural environments we all love.
What is the ‘ecological thinning’ trial?
The trial is essentially a scientific experiment that will test the use of “ecological thinning” as a management tool to improve the ecological function of River Red Gum forests.
Changed flooding regimes, logging and cattle grazing over the years have changed the structure of River Red Gum forests. The proponents of the trial argue that dense stands of smaller trees are more sensitive to drought and die-back and also provide less habitat values for native species.
The “ecological thinning” trial would test weather cutting out large numbers of these trees would improve the health of the forest.
How would the trial be conducted?
66, 9 hectare ‘plots’ have been chosen across the Barmah and Millewa forests. 44 of these will be ‘thinned’, with either 7 or 15 metre ‘spacings’ between the remaining trees. [i] This is similar to thinning treatments used in forestry management. In all, around 400 hectares of forest will be ‘thinned’. The results will then be monitored to see if the health of the forest improves.
When would the trials start and how long would they run for?
The trial was planned to commence in August 2012, but was delayed due to floods. Meanwhile, public concern led to the trial being referred to the Federal Government for approval under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. Monitoring would begin 6 months after the first round of thinning and continue over a 5-year period.
What’s wrong with the trial?
The benefits are unknown, the impacts are certain
No one knows if cutting out trees will improve the health of these forests. The trial is a scientific experiment, not a response to a conservation problem. It is ‘scientific logging’ with no proven environmental benefits. Even an independent scientific review of the trial stated that the ‘overall effect of thinning upon these [ecological] conditions is not known.’[ii]
The trial has significant design faults which will mean that it will be unlikely to provide a strong conclusion about thinning as a tool to improve the ecology of these ecosystems.
Mechanical thinning of the forest could undermine its long term, natural ability to respond to variability and climate change. Natural thinning (whether driven by drought stress or other factors) allows for “self-selection” of the most resilient individual trees from the populations, potentially increasing the resilience of the ecosystem under prevailing conditions as time goes by.
Impacts on Ramsar wetlands
Ramsar sites are internationally significant wetlands listed under the Ramsar Convention. The Millewa and Barmah forests are part of the largest complex of Red Gum wetlands in the world. These wetlands support threatened species as well as large numbers of migratory birds and colonial nesting waterbirds, and provide healthy watercourses for native fish to migrate through.
Potential impacts on the ecological character of the Ramsar wetland site include soil compaction and alteration, contamination of soil and water, transference of diseases and pathogens, siltation, noise pollution and emissions.
Impacts on threatened species
Over 15 nationally listed vulnerable and endangered species are known or likely to be present in the vicinity of the proposed trial. The trial will inevitably impact on potential habitat for these species through disturbance, vegetation removal, noise pollution and haulage activities. It is also likely to increase the abundance of feral predator species like foxes.[iii]
Increased fire risk
Because small trees will be cut down and left on the forest floor, the thinning trial will lead to higher fuel levels and increase the risk of bushfire.[iv]
Huge cost for taxpayers
The trial will impose a huge cost on taxpayers in Victoria and NSW. In Victoria alone, the project could cost end up costing taxpayers nearly a million dollars over three years. This comes at a time when Park Ranger jobs are being cut due to reduced government funding.[v]
Degrading cultural landscapes
The Barmah-Millewa forest is a landscape of deep significance to Indigenous Traditional Owners the Yorta Yorta and Bangerang Nations. Introducing logging machinery into this landscape will degrade cultural heritage values. Rare and culturally significant species could be impacted on, affecting Indigenous people’s ability to care for Country.
Traditional Owners have expressed their disappointment at not being adequately consulted regarding this trial. The Yorta Yorta people have a joint management agreement over the Victorian side of the Park. They should be partners in the long-term management of this ecosystem. Responses to ecological problems should be developed with Indigenous involvement and direction from the beginning.
Opening National Parks to logging
Logging has had a long-term impact on the environmental health of River Red Gum forests. In 2009 logging was banned in the Barmah-Millewa Forest to protect the values of the forest. Sending commercial logging machinery back into national parks threatens their values and undermines the public’s faith in our conservation laws. If a national park isn’t safe from logging, where is?
Sending the wrong message to Parks users
The Victorian government is running ‘Operation Detroit’ to try and crack down on illegal firewood gathering in Barmah National Park. Firewood poachers have been caught and fined selling firewood meant for personal use.[vi] Yet, at the same time, plans are underway to fell trees across hundreds of hectares of the park and give the residues away as firewood. This sends a very confusing message to locals, parks users and firewood businesses. There is no way to guarantee that wood sourced from the felling of these forests would not end up being sold on the commercial market.
What are the alternatives?
River Red Gum forests have suffered decades of mismanagement, drought and now dangerous climate change. These iconic forests need long term, visionary solutions to ensure that they flourish into the future. Restoring natural flooding regimes and incorporating Indigenous knowledge into the management of these forests will create the right conditions for them to prosper once again. Friends of the Earth works closely with Traditional Owners throughout the Murray-Darling Basin to advocate for water entitlements for Indigenous people. Properly managed environmental flows, informed by Indigenous land management, could improve the health of these forests.
If a ‘trial’ of ecological thinning is necessary, there is no need to run it in National Parks. There are thousands of hectares of Red Gum forests in State Forests, where timber harvesting is still practiced, that would be much more appropriate. These areas would also be more appropriate sites to test the forest’s response to drought stress as they are experiencing ongoing water shortages.
What can you do?
You can help protect these forests for the long-term. The thinning trial has been referred to the federal government for assessment under the EPBC Act. The state governments must prepare a Public Environmental Report that documents the likely impacts of the trial. Once completed, the Report will be open for public comment.
Please consider contributing half an hour of your time to prepare a short submission expressing your concerns about the trial. Friends of the Earth will make a template submission available as soon as the Public Environmental Report is released. You will be able to find this and more information at www.ourdarlingmurray.org
Take two minutes to sign our online petition to Environment Minister Greg Hunt.
Tell your friends about this issue and spread the word!
For more information contact the Barmah-Millewa Collective, Friends of the Earth Melbourne.
Phone: 03 9419 8700
[i] NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, Parks Victoria. Ecological Thinning Trial in NSW and Victorian River Red Gum Reserves. Experimental design and monitoring plan. May, 2012.
[ii] Robinson, Andrew. Review of Ecological Thinning Study Design. 2011.
[iii] Experimental design and monitoring plan. p. 30.
[iv] Experimental design and monitoring plan. p. 30.
[vi] Arup, Tom. ‘Conservationists give firewood the chop,’ The Age. 7th July 2013. http://www.theage.com.au/environment/conservationists-give-native-firewood-the-chop-20130706-2piva.html#ixzz2gdF71WAg