The recent history of Australia's native forest management is rife with conflict. No one disagreed that the forests were important to us all. The stumbling block was the diverse range of opinions on their management and use.
The first comprehensive national attempt to settle the conflict was the 1992 National Forest Policy Statement. Governments then identified the concept of RFAs as the best means to achieve a win-win outcome for all stakeholders.
The Commonwealth and four State Governments progressively signed the 10 RFAs between 1997 and 2001.
The RFAs achieved a middle ground. They lay down guidelines, tasks and responsibilities for sustainable forest management. The 20-year agreements are ongoing, not static.
The forest debate ranges over a variety of topics. They are listed below.
The RFA process added considerably to our storehouse of knowledge of forest uses and values. It covered the entire spectrum - from their complex ecosystems to their mineral deposits, their heritage values and their importance to tourism and recreation. The information is available on this site and other linked websites.
Regeneration and regrowth forest
Regeneration is the re-establishment of a forest following disturbance, such as a bushfire or forest harvesting. Forests regenerate either naturally or from prepared seedbeds. Regeneration can occur after the removal of selected trees. In other instances nearly all the trees are felled to expose seedlings to sunlight to assist the regeneration process. These approaches vary depending on the type of forest and help to develop new forests.
Regrowth forest describes the plants, particularly trees of similar age, that grow in an area following disturbance. Forests create different fauna and flora habitats as they grow and develop. Each stage of forest growth, including regrowth, provides a suite of conservation values. A range of forest growth stages is essential to maintain the full set of values that they provide.
Many people believe that there is wholesale destruction of our old growth forests by the timber industry. This is not so. Australia's national forest reserve criteria (known as the 'CAR criteria') call for the protection from timber harvesting of 60 per cent or more of existing old growth forests. This increases to 100 per cent where the old growth forest is rare or depleted. The application of the CAR criteria in the RFA process has resulted in around 68 per cent of the extent of old-growth forest identified in 1997 or 1998 being protected in reserves in RFA regions.
Woodchips are increasingly being produced from eucalypt plantations grown specifically to produce high quality fibre for papermaking. They are also produced as a by-product from thinning production forests, timber harvesting and saw-milling.
Management on and off reserves
State Governments manage native forest on public land, in conservation reserves and in production forests. The forests are managed according to systems and processes for achieving ESFM. ESFM covers the whole range of forest management values, including harvesting at sustainable rates, protecting biodiversity across the forest landscape, protecting wildlife habitats and watercourses, and preventing soil erosion and land degradation. Each of the RFAs included accreditation by the Commonwealth Government of the State Government's ESFM systems, based on the recommendations of independent panels of eminent scientific experts.
Native forests are found on private as well as public land. Management of native forests on private land is provided for in the establishment of ESFM systems that cover the whole range of forest management values on private and public land. These ESFM systems require that adequate steps be taken to protect native forest on private land. The RFAs established the CAR reserve system from public forests and attempted to meet all reservation targets from public land. Private native forests can also contribute to the CAR reserve system.
Plantations supply more than 50 per cent of Australia’s domestic wood needs. This will increase to around 70 per cent by 2015, as more recently established plantations start producing timber. This proportion could increase as we move closer to the goal agreed by governments under Plantations for Australia - the 2020 Vision. This goal is to treble the 1996 area of Australia's plantation estate by 2020. Plantations are good for the environment. They can help reduce soil salinity, wind and water erosion and waterlogging on agricultural land. Because they absorb carbon dioxide, they can help reduce Australia's greenhouse gas levels.
Plantations can provide an alternative source of income for farmers. They create jobs in planting, maintaining, harvesting and processing in regional areas. However, they can only ever supplement, rather than replace, timber from native forests. The range of species suitable to establish commercial plantations is limited, restricting their output. Timber is taken from native forests to meet requirements for species not grown in plantations. Examples include high quality ironbark-based structural timbers; craftwood; and specialised appearance products (eg furniture for which "timber faults" are a distinctive feature).
Despite the hazards, fire is a part of the Australian landscape and plays an important part in many regeneration processes in our ecosystems. Forest managers are responsible for ensuring the health of our forests and preventing bushfires. The main way they do this is by using planned burns: burning small areas of forest under specific conditions (eg. on days that aren't too hot, dry or windy). These burns, in harvested areas, have several benefits. Planned burns reduce the fuel on the forest floor by removing inflammable branches and leaves, creating potential seedbeds for forest regeneration.
Regulation of forest operations
The timber industry is one of the most restricted and tightly regulated industries in Australia. State agencies impose strict limits on both the areas in which the industry can operate and also the amount of wood it is allowed to remove from native forests. More than 40 per cent of the forest in RFA regions is protected from logging. Additionally, the amount of wood that can be removed is strictly defined in 'sustainable yield' calculations designed to ensure the forest will re-grow at the same or even a faster rate than it is harvested. As a result, less than 1 per cent of the available area for harvesting is actually harvested each year. A further control is provided by codes of practice that define how and where the forest may be harvested, what must be protected during harvesting and what other precautions are to be taken to safeguard the environment. This level of control over forest operations is an important aspect of Australia's reputation for supplying wood from forests managed in an ecologically sustainable manner.
Other uses, including multiple use
Forests mean different things to different people. They are important to the environment because they support a variety of plant, animal and other living organisms. They are important to the economy because they support more than 86,000 jobs both directly and indirectly. They also provide a wide range of recreational activities from camping, bushwalking, rock climbing, caving, boating and rafting to four-wheel driving, horse riding, fishing, hunting and prospecting.
Forests not only provide timber but also provide a variety of other forest products and services, such as honey, wildflowers, natural oils, firewood, recreation, tourism, craft wood, fodder, minerals, water, water filtration and carbon cycling.
All activities in multiple-use forests affect the environment in some way. It is important when managing timber harvesting in these forests that the management practices be adaptable and carefully monitored to avoid seriously degrading other forest values.
Multiple-use forests are vital to all Australians. Managed carefully, they will be available for generations to come.
Endangered, threatened, vulnerable and rare species and ecological communities
The RFAs offer protection for endangered, threatened, vulnerable and rare species and ecological communities. The Agreements list the priority species and ecological communities within each region and specify ways to protect them. These include:
- protection within the CAR reserve system
- protection of key habitats, such as rainforest, heaths and swamps, as well as their components, and
- development of recovery plans and threat abatement plans.