Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt has given approval for “ecological thinning” trials in a new national park on the Murray River, a move green groups say marks the first time logging has been permitted in forests granted the highest level of protection.
At the end of last month, the Environment department approved with conditions selective logging over five years in 44 plots within the Murray Valley National Park in NSW.
The previous Victorian coalition government had earlier pulled out of the trials in their state’s side of the Barmah-Millewa forest, the largest stands of river red gums in the country.
The NSW government has argued that the viability of high-density stands of red gums is at risk during extended droughts, citing research done towards the end of the dry spell in 2009 – just prior to the creation of the national park the following year.
Green groups, though, say several spells of extreme wet weather have since removed the need for thinning in what is also an internationally listed Ramsar wetland.
The planned felling – with much of the fell timber available for local firewood collection – is merely a sop to local communities that have largely opposed the national park’s creation, they say.
“The trial would mean logging red gum trees with heavy logging machinery in around 400 hectares of the park, building roads and using herbicide in this sensitive environment,” said Morgana Russell, co-ordinator for the Friends of the Earth campaign.
“This perverse ‘scientific logging’ trial could be used as a model to push for destructive intervention in other national parks.”
Mark Speakman, NSW’s Environment Minister, said the limited scientific trial would cover just 0.9 per cent of the total park area.
“The government position remains that no commercial logging is allowed in national parks,” Mr Speakman said.
“By reducing competition for water and other resources, ecological thinning will potentially have positive effects on key habitat features such as hollows, understorey plant structure and diversity and canopy condition,” he said, adding that one purpose of the trial was to determine if that was the case.
The NSW Office of Environment’s report supporting the thinning stated that sufficient water provision remains the “key ecological driver” determining the flood-dependent forest’s health after generations of livestock grazing, timber harvesting and river-flow regulation.
However, even with programs such as The Living Murray Initiative and other environmental efforts, large areas of each forest “will not receive the desired water regimes”, it said.
Oisín Sweeney, science officer for the National Parks Association, said that the approval appeared to be “pre-ordained”, and was instead pandering to local National Party interests.
“If it was based on science and a genuine drive to improve the condition of the forests, the government would have reassessed the forest’s condition after the floods to see whether they had recovered, Dr Sweeney said,
Local timber interests, paid handsome compensation to exit the forests, would now be able to take wood away again. “This is double-dipping in a major way.”
A spokesman for Mr Hunt said the trial had been designed to discover how biodiversity can be improved by creating more space for other plants and wildlife.
“This trial will not adversely impact on the delivery of environmental water to the Barmah-Millewa forest,” he said, adding that the thinning could improve the area’s ecological values.
Conditions would also be imposed to minimise disruption for various species, such as avoiding thinning within 100 metres of any Superb Parrot nest during breeding season.
Friends of the Earth’s Ms Russell, though, said there was no way to guarantee that cutting down trees in an internationally recognised wetland “will not disturb, degrade and destroy habitat and species’ homes”.
Cultural sites of the region’s traditional owners, the Yorta Yorta, were also at risk, she said.
No further thinning is planned after the current five-year trial is over, Mr Speakman said.