We know that climate change will lead to more frequent flash flood events, among many other impacts. As reported by The Climate Council, the fingerprints of climate change, which drives more intense storms and downpours, are on the ‘Great Deluge’ floods of 2022. Across much of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania, the floods were the latest in a long line of climate change-driven extreme weather events the country has experienced in recent years, including prolonged drought, scorching heatwaves, the Black Summer bushfires, and powerful storms.
Climate change is driving a new era of ‘unnatural disasters’ – and as a country we are not prepared to cope with the impacts of these events.
In the north east of the state, significant areas of public land were cleared of native forest and planted with exotic pine species from the 1960s to 1980s. Many of these plantations are currently being harvested, including on very steep slopes.
In early 2023, a number of locals from the north east approached Friends of the Earth because of concern about potential erosion which could happen after the harvesting because entire slopes have been left bare.
Heavy rainfall over clearfells can lead to high quantities of soil (and herbicides) leaching into local waterways, including the Ovens River. The north east continues to rely heavily on the timber industry - and the reliance on softwoods will continue with the imminent end of native forest logging - so it is important that we get the management and harvesting right. And we must remember that towns like Bright are changing to be more focused on outdoors and nature based tourism, with more people out in the bush and aware of the impacts of harvesting.
A logical option is for Hancocks Plantations Victoria to ensure that drainage lines are replanted with appropriate indigenous species when the pines are planted on the slopes, with a commitment to keep the drainage lines intact during the next harvest operations.
We wrote to HVP, asking them to commit to the following:
- Commit to replanting cleared drainage lines on steep slopes with appropriate indigenous species. We are not recommending a specific distance from drainage lines, but would trust that HVP would base this on the best available evidence about what will reduce erosion in the next round of pine harvesting
- Commit to exclude these areas from the application of broad acre pesticides
- Commit to excluding these drainage lines from harvesting in future harvest rotations. This would greatly reduce sediment load in drainage lines after the next harvest cycle
They declined the request.
Do we need better management of pine plantation harvesting?
Perhaps we need a change in the guidelines regarding how pine plantations are managed and harvested? We fully understand the value of the plantation resource in north eastern Victoria – in terms of wood supply, jobs and downstream economic benefits. But if the company is unwilling to enact a simple modification to its planting and harvesting operations in order to protect waterways and reduce erosion, perhaps the state government needs to intervene?
Or do we leave it to the courts?
We note that in New Zealand/ Aotearoa, there are growing concerns about what happens to plantations that have been harvested and then been subjected to heavy rain. The problem is ‘slash’, which is the woody material (including large logs) left after clear-fell harvesting of commercial forests. Landslides in harvested sites can pick up the material and carry it downstream where there are no barriers to that movement, causing significant damage. All the evidence from Cyclone Gabrielle shows that much of the damage was caused by radiata pine slash. (Severe Tropical Cyclone Gabrielle was a tropical cyclone that devastated the North Island of New Zealand and affected parts of Vanuatu and Australia in February 2023).
The impacts from these storms can sometimes end up in court: Sediment and slash from exotic tree harvesting sites were established as major factors in the damage that occurred during the June 2018 Tolaga Bay storm in recent court cases taken by Gisborne District Council.
Five plantation companies were found guilty and fined for breaching resource consent conditions relating to their management practices.
Multiple groups in the country have called for an inquiry into the way plantation harvest sites are being managed in Tairāwhiti and elsewhere.
An environmental group has called for a commission of inquiry into forestry practices following reports of multiple properties being inundated by storm debris all over the East Coast.
The Environmental Defence Society EDS has called the issue a “disaster”. EDS chief executive Gary Taylor said the consequences of inadequate controls over exotic plantation forestry operations had been seen again with ‘massive inundation of private property by slash and debris from upstream forestry land’.
“It is time for a full-blown, independent Commission of Inquiry to take a fresh look at the sector, the rules that govern it, whether clear-felling with its adverse consequences should continue, and where liability should lie for any and all offsite damage such has occurred at Tolaga Bay.”
“A formal inquiry is urgently needed because these extreme weather events will become more frequent with climate change”.
What next for plantation management?
Back here in Victoria, living as we do in a time where climate change is driving a new era of ‘unnatural disasters’, we also have to ask whether our current management of pine plantations is fit for purpose given the realities of the 21st century. While we don't experience cyclones here, we have to expect more regular flash flood events. It is hard to see that current management of harvesting of pine plantations is suitable if we wish to minimise the environmental impacts of the next round of harvesting.
IMAGE BELOW: recent harvesting near Bright.