Miranda’s Daily Blog: Day 27 & 28
She looked at me in disbelief. “But, surely” she said “the forest will grow back?” I was talking forestry politics with a woman who was giving me a lift. She couldn’t believe what I was telling her about the destruction of old growth forest here in Tasmania. She desperately wanted to believe the Forestry Tasmania propaganda, it was easier that way. But the facts, sadly, tell a different story.
I was remembering this conversation after writing Day 24’s blog, in which I talked about the cycle of life and death in the forest. I talked about how all these trees will grow old, rot and fall over eventually. But they will live on in the ecosystem. I wanted to address this question of ‘regrowth’ in relation to that idea.
There is a big difference between a tree falling in the forest and the entire forest being felled and burnt. Forestry Tasmania claims that the fire regeneration regime replicates the natural processes of the forest. This is a bit of a long stretch of the imagination! The reality is that yes, fire does play a crucial role in these landscapes – but the clear-fell, burn and sow routine can hardly be compared to the usual processes of this forest.
Firstly industrial forestry operations come into these forests – it is not one tree that falls, it is every single tree, plant, fungi, bryophyte, animal, animal dens, waterway and even the soil itself that is killed. Then to top it all off, napalm like substance is dropped from helicopters and whatever managed to survive the machines and chainsaws in obliterated in a high intensity burn.
When trees fall naturally in the forest, they are left behind to form important roles in the ecosystem as they decompose. Providing shelter for animals and insects, storing carbon and giving nutrients to the soil for future generations of trees. When an area is clear-felled all those trees are removed from the area to be taken to mills, made into veneer and furniture and shipped around the world. Instead of providing a home for a spot-tail quoll, they become somebody’s Harvey Norman coffee table.
This is what is so disturbing about standing in a smoldering clear fell. Something is greatly out of balance. There is nothing natural about it. The cycle of life and death has been obscured and perverted. The living forest is converted into a machine, churning out furniture and flooring. Leaving behind an apocalyptic dead landscape.
When the smoke fades and the ash settles, the forest starts its slow process of regrowing. But things have changed. The diversity of the forest has been manipulated into a virtual monoculture forest. This is particularly true for these types of forests here. The forest I am in is called ‘mixed forest’ – a unique interplay between eucalypts and rainforest. When they are felled and burnt they are changed forever. Rainforest species generally don’t like fire. That is what makes rainforests the way they are. Eucalypts on the other hand love to regenerate after fire. This is why fire is such a tool used by the forest industry to create eucalypt dominated regrowth that suits their logging desires. Meanwhile, the rainforest species such as sassafras, myrtle, leatherwood, celery top pine…. they are few and far between in these new regrowth forests. Once areas of rainforest are burnt, they may take hundreds of years to recover (Kirkpatrick & Dickson 1984).
When fires go through these forests naturally they are very different from the high intensity burn offs of industrial forestry. There is interplay between fire and the landscape in which some vegetation types rely on fire to regenerate and they also provide the right environment to encourage fire. Fire is likely to stop along the boundaries of rainforest areas, because these species provide less flammable material. In this way the vegetation ensures its own survival through maintaining the correct fire regime. Button grass regenerates well if it burns every 5-10 years. Dry eucalypt forest generally have a higher fire frequency than wet forests and rainforest species are not that keen on fire. And if an area like this with eucalypts and rainforest has no future fire disturbance then eventually it will transition to pure rainforest.
This area of forest here is the perfect example of this complex balance. There has been a fire go through this area in the past. Possibly a very long time ago. Evidence of it remains in the landscape like a map of the past. You can see the big old Eucy’s scared black. Some hollow on the inside, the fire burning up through their guts. But they lived on. Around them young eucalypts grow, their seeds given a chance at life from the fire. This is what a natural fire disturbance looks like in the forest. Old trees that survived the fire grow beside the young ones. The gullies of pure rainforest that escaped the impact of the fire and the areas of young rainforest that has begun to grow since the young eucalypts enclosed the canopy creating the right conditions.
Go from here and walk down the logging road there, take a walk through the regrowth forest. It doesn’t take a scientist to see the difference. It is blatantly obvious. The trees grow together densely; they are all the same age. They compete for space and suck up water from the ground as they all struggle to consume the limited resource at once. They are all the same species. Or at best a few different types of eucalypt might grow together. Some tree ferns may have survived. But there is not much else. Invasive weed species are likely to have taken the opportunity to spread into the open area that was previously impenetrable.
So, when they say the forest regrows, I guess in a way they are right. But what they don’t tell you is that it regrows as a different forest, an anthropogenically changed forest that is incomparable to the ecosystem which it has replaced. The loss of our forests as they are naturally is a real injustice. It is the loss of life itself and an abrupt end to the cycle of life and death that has existed here since the beginning of time.
This is not to say that logged areas can never be regenerated. They can if we do it right, with conservation in mind not future logging operations. And with enough time. Given 500 years those clear-fells I can see down there in the valley may begin to look the way they used to a year ago before the chainsaws moved in. Forestry doesn’t really want to give them 500 years of course, they prefer 80 year rotations, and it’s more profitable I guess! That is why this area so desperately needs protection. So that these areas that are left can remain intact and those that have been disturbed can be given the chance to slowly regain a sense of what they once were.
(Photo of TN048A, a logged coupe at the base of Mount Mueller, just over the ridge behind me. Photographer: Peter Maarseveen).