Logging Native Forests Worsened Australia's Wildfires, Scientists Say
Australia's unprecedented wildfires that raged for months and destroyed millions of acres were likely made worse by industrial logging of native forests, according to a new commentary from five scientists published in Nature Ecology & Evolution.
The group of five senior Australian scientists from the Australian National University, Macquarie University and the University of Queensland said that logging native forests makes fire more severe and they are calling for a clearer assessment about how land management and forestry practices add to the risk of wildfires, according to The Guardian.
"Logging causes a rise in fuel loads, increases potential drying of wet forests and causes a decrease in forest height," said James Watson, a professor at the University of Queensland and an author on the paper in a university statement. "It can leave up to 450 tonnes of combustible fuel per hectare close to the ground — by any measure, that's an incredibly dangerous level of combustible material in seasonally dry landscapes. By allowing these practices to increase fire severity and flammability, we undermine the safety of some of our rural communities.
"It affects wildlife too by creating habitat loss, fragmentation and disturbance for many species, with major negative effects on forest wildlife," he added.
They say that the contribution of logging to bushfires needs greater scrutiny, and there should be more public awareness about the compelling links between wildfires and the climate crisis, according to The Sydney Morning Herald.
They also note that while most global emissions and pollution is out of the country's control, Australians have full authority over how their own land is managed.
"The first is to prevent logging of moist forests, particularly those close to urban areas," said lead author David Lindenmayer, a professor at Australia National University, in a statement. "We must also reduce forest fragmentation by proactively restoring some previously logged forests. In the event of wildfires, land managers must avoid practices such as 'salvage' logging — or logging of burnt forests — which severely reduces recovery of a forest."
Last week, VicForests Chief Executive Officer Monique Dawson criticized professor Lindenmayer, an internationally regarded ecologist, saying in a letter to the Goongerah Environment Centre that the agency "does not accept his published opinions."
Lindenmayer said he was taking legal advice about the remarks in the letter, as The Guardian reported. He added that her comments reflected an organization that was unscientific and did not rely on evidence to manage forests.
In fact, as The Sydney Morning Herald reported, despite warning from environmentalists that forests and wildlife are still very fragile, VicForests last week revealed plans to log 3500 hectares of forests burnt during the catastrophic summer fires in the next few years.
The paper says industry data showed that some 161 million cubic meters of native forest was logged between 1996 and 2018.
"Beyond the direct and immediate impacts on biodiversity of disturbance and proximity to disturbed forest, there is compelling evidence that Australia's historical and contemporary logging regimes have made many Australian forests more fire prone and contributed to increased fire severity and flammability," the scientists wrote, as The Guardian reported.
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By Katherine Kornei
Clear-cutting a forest is relatively easy—just pick a tree and start chopping. But there are benefits to more sophisticated forest management. One technique—which involves repeatedly harvesting smaller trees every 30 or so years but leaving an upper story of larger trees for longer periods (60, 90, or 120 years)—ensures a steady supply of both firewood and construction timber.
A Pattern in the Rings<p>The <a href="https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/coppice-standards-0" target="_blank">coppice-with-standards</a> management practice produces a two-story forest, said <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bernhard_Muigg" target="_blank">Bernhard Muigg</a>, a dendrochronologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "You have an upper story of single trees that are allowed to grow for several understory generations."</p><p>That arrangement imprints a characteristic tree ring pattern in a forest's upper story trees (the "standards"): thick rings indicative of heavy growth, which show up at regular intervals as the surrounding smaller trees are cut down. "The trees are growing faster," said Muigg. "You can really see it with your naked eye."</p><p>Muigg and his collaborators characterized that <a href="https://ltrr.arizona.edu/about/treerings" target="_blank">dendrochronological pattern</a> in 161 oak trees growing in central Germany, one of the few remaining sites in Europe with actively managed coppice-with-standards forests. They found up to nine cycles of heavy growth in the trees, the oldest of which was planted in 1761. The researchers then turned to a historical data set — more than 2,000 oak <a href="https://eos.org/articles/podcast-discovering-europes-history-through-its-timbers" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">timbers from buildings and archaeological sites</a> in Germany and France dating from between 300 and 2015 — to look for a similar pattern.</p>
A Gap of 500 Years<p>The team found wood with the characteristic coppice-with-standards tree ring pattern dating to as early as the 6th century. That was a surprise, Muigg and his colleagues concluded, because the first mention of this forest management practice in historical documents occurred only roughly 500 years later, in the 13th century.</p><p>It's probable that forest management practices were not well documented prior to the High Middle Ages (1000–1250), the researchers suggested. "Forests are mainly mentioned in the context of royal hunting interests or donations," said Muigg. Dendrochronological studies are particularly important because they can reveal information not captured by a sparse historical record, he added.</p><p>These results were <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-78933-8" target="_blank">published in December in <em>Scientific Reports</em></a>.</p><p>"It's nice to see the longevity and the history of coppice-with-standards," said <a href="https://www.teagasc.ie/contact/staff-directory/s/ian-short/" target="_blank">Ian Short</a>, a forestry researcher at Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland, not involved in the research. This technique is valuable because it promotes conservation and habitat biodiversity, Short said. "In the next 10 or 20 years, I think we'll see more coppice-with-standards coming back into production."</p><p>In the future, Muigg and his collaborators hope to analyze a larger sample of historic timbers to trace how the coppice-with-standards practice spread throughout Europe. It will be interesting to understand where this technique originated and how it propagated, said Muigg, and there are plenty of old pieces of wood waiting to be analyzed. "There [are] tons of dendrochronological data."</p><p><em><a href="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Katherine Kornei</a> is a freelance science journalist covering Earth and space science. Her bylines frequently appear in Eos, Science, and The New York Times. Katherine holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.</em></p><p><em>This story originally appeared in <a href="https://eos.org/articles/tree-rings-reveal-how-ancient-forests-were-managed" target="_blank">Eos</a></em> <em>and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.</em></p>
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