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ROSSLYN BEEBY 17 Sep, 2011 12:00 AM

‘Life on earth is inconceivable without trees,” the great Russian playwright Anton Chekov wrote in a letter to a friend in the late 1880s. ”Forests create climate, climate influences peoples’ character, and so on and so forth. There can be neither civilisation nor happiness if forests crash down under the axe.”

And in the first act of Uncle Vanya, there’s an environmental monologue, in which the country doctor Mikhail Astrov passionately rails against the destruction of Russia’s forests for firewood.

”Why destroy the forests? The woods of Russia are trembling under the blows of the axe. Millions of trees have perished. The homes of the wild animals and birds have been desolated; the rivers are shrinking, and many beautiful landscapes are gone forever … Who but a stupid barbarian could burn so much beauty in his stove?”

Only last month, the Sydney Theatre Company performed a revival of Uncle Vanya at the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC, with Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh in the lead roles, and Hugo Weaving playing Astrov. The New York Times gave it a glowing review, describing the production as ”deeply, outrageously funny [and] also heartbreaking enough to make you want to dive straight into a bottomless vodka bottle”.

What’s also heartbreaking enough to warrant a plunge into a bottomless bottle of booze, is that Chekov wrote his ”save the forests” monologue in 1897, maybe even earlier. More than century later – 114 years in fact – there is no equivalent eco-outburst in contemporary theatre. And in Australia, despite logging of old-growth forests being one of our most politically contentious issues, there are no Astrov inspired eco-monologues in any of our popular contemporary plays. Lots of social drama, but nothing to make a federal environment, or forestry minister squirm uncomfortably in their theatre seats. That’s if they’re inclined to go to the theatre.

Australia’s forests have provoked more than their fair share of political drama, and protests over their destruction pre-dates demonstrations with people dressed in fluffy koala suits. It began in the very early days of colonial settlement. Australian National University cultural historian and environmental lawyer Tim Bonyhady traces this concern in The Colonial Earth, shattering the myth that ”the invaders wreaked havoc on their new environment both gratuitously and as an inevitable part of the process of settlement”. Bonyhady shows our earliest forestry conservation battles date, not from the Daintree blockade of the 1980s, but the 1790s, when colonial magistrate Richard Atkins suggested Australia’s weather was changing ”in consequence of the country opening so fast” by land clearing for pasture and settlements. By 1804, several environmental protection and planning laws were in place, including what was ”probably the world’s first prohibition of cruelty to animals” writes Bonyhady.

Australia’s forests had their colonial champions, including the artist John Glover who described Tasmania’s eucalypt forests as ”a painter’s delight”. Within a month of becoming Governor of NSW in 1795, John Hunter banned the felling of native cedar trees on public land along the Hunter river.

”Australia perhaps more than anywhere else began with a form of colonialism alive to the importance of environmental protection and planning,” writes Bonyhady.

”Some species of eucalypt also acquired global significance … The Victorian mountain ash was acclaimed as a ‘wonder of the world’ after the government botanist Ferdinand von Mueller announced in 1866 that it was probably the tallest tree on earth, eclipsing the giant sequoias of California.”

Earlier this week, ANU forest ecologist Professor David Lindenmayer published a scientific paper that paints a shockingly bleak future of those old-growth mountain ash forests. Less than 1.1 per cent remain, destroyed by ”the interacting effects of wildfire [and] logging” creating a previously undocumented ecological condition called ”a landscape trap”.

Lindenmayer describes it as ”a positive feedback loop” between the frequency and severity of bushfires and the reduced age of trees in the mountain ash forests.

”These old growth forests are being wiped out, and up to 40 per cent of old trees are dying,” he says.

”They’re being replaced by young, fire-prone trees. that means a huge shift in the forest ecosystem. Young trees don’t have nesting hollows, they don’t have as extensive bark streamers which are essential foraging micro-habitats for wildlife …

”We’re seeing a whole lot of changes in vegetation structure that are likely to lead to irreversible losses of suitable habitat for around 40 species of animals that are dependent on big, old-growth trees with nesting hollows.”

Lindenmayer has called for an urgent review of all of Australia’s joint federal and state regional forestry agreements in the light of these findings. But both federal Forestry Minister Senator Joe Ludwig and Environment Minister Tony Burke have defended the 20 year agreements between the Federal Government, NSW, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia.

”These agreements are already regularly reviewed,” a spokeswoman for Ludwig said.

Burke said an assessment last year by the former Bureau of Resources Sciences found that 73 per cent of all old-growth forests in areas covered by the agreements were in protected areas.

”The effective management of these forests is important, so any published research that can support improved management is welcome,” he said.

Lindenmayer co-authored his recent research paper with three of the world’s most distinguished ecologists – Professor Gene Likens, Professor Richard Hobbs and Emeritus Professor Charles Krebs. Likens pioneered the study of acid rain and its impacts on ecosystems, and was awarded a a US National Medal of Science for science leadership. Krebs, from the University of British Columbia, is the author of several influential ecology textbooks (one standard work, widely used for ecology courses at universities throughout the world, is simply referred to as ”Krebs”) and an expert on cool climate forest ecosystems.

Hobbs, from the University of Western Australia, is an Australian Research Council Laureate, and of the world’s top experts on restoration ecology.

In the world of environmental science, these are four names that resonate loudly, and the paper – Lindenmayer is the lead author – published this week in the United States in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is already creating more than a ripple of interest. But not, it seems, among Australia’s politicians. Lindenmayer has not met Burke or Ludwig, and no one from the Federal Government has contacted him following news reports of his findings. And despite being one of Australia’s most published and awarded scientists (more than 20 books, a Harvard University forest ecology fellowship) he has never been asked to brief a federal minister on forestry conservation or related biodiversity issues. He has also not been asked to brief the Coalition or the Greens.

”There is a general disrespect for science these days among politicians. The Government will pick up the phone to talk to lobbyists before they will – if ever – talk to a scientist,” he says.

”As a result we have an atrocious forest management policy, and as a result if that we will see extinctions within 20 to 30 years.”

Lindenmayer says he’s been told by federal contacts that Burke has ruled out any changes to the regional forestry agreements although, as Environment Minister, he has the capacity to request a review.

”I’ve been told the RFAs are right off the table,” Lindenmayer says.

”That’s crazy because we have had massive changes in recent years, not least the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria. We need to revisit those agreements, and do it immediately.”

The agreement for Victoria’s southern highlands was drafted in 1997, and states in its biodiversity technical report that ”effects of timber harvesting and wildfire on water harvesting is not well understood” and biodiversity data ”is incomplete”. It notes populations of 13 wildlife species – including Leadbeater’s possum and squirrel gliders – have declined, and the status of a further 15 species ”is unknown”.

But a 2010 independent review of the agreement made no new recommendations regarding ecologically sustainable forest management, but did recommend giving ”priority to monitoring of sustainability indicators to enable comprehensive reporting in the next State of the Forests report due in 2013. The next five-year review of the agreement is due by June 2014.

Lindenmayer says this is ”way too late, and far too bureaucratic to be in any way meaningful”.

”How can you not review a forestry agreement after a massive loss of resources caused by one of Australia’s worst bushfires? How can you not review the agreement when you discover you’ve already lost 99 per cent of old-growth mountain forests? It’s insane.”

The Australian Forest Products Association has unexpectedly backed Lindenmayer’s call for a review of the agreement. The association’s policy manger Mick Stephens says there is a need for ”new discussions”, in order to give certainty – or adequate compensation, in some cases – to sectors of the forestry industry.

”We don’t always agree with David Lindenmayer, but in this case, we would support him in calling for a review of the regional forest agreements. We have been advocating a review for some time, including comprehensive re-assessment of wood supplies,” Stephens says.

”We also want to see monitoring and performance of all forest land tenures to ensure environmental and biodiversity management objectives are being met. That’s a necessity.”

But Australian Greens forests spokeswoman Senator Lee Rhiannon wants the agreements scrapped. She said the Greens had already written to Ludwig ”pressing for a review of regional forest agreements and we will continue this call in the Senate”.

Rhiannon described Lindenmayer’s research paper as painting ”a devastating picture of a landscape that is irreversibly changing from healthy old growth forests to young fire-prone forests without hollows and microclimates for habitat”. She has accused the Gillard Government of ”sleepwalking into an environmental disaster”, with a forests policy that is failing to protect biodiversity, water catchments and local communities.

Lindenmayer has thrown down a challenge for Burke to visit the old-growth mountain ash forests in Victoria’s southern highlands. In recent weeks, he has taken some of the world’s top forest ecologist on a tour of the research sites where he has worked for more than 20 years on one of Australia’s longest-running environmental studies.

”They have been emotionally and physically sickened by what they saw,” he says.

”These are some of the world’s leading authorities – from Seattle, Japan, Vancouver – and they have all asked me how the hell something like this could happen. How could Australia allow this?”

He says University of Washington ecologist Professor Jerry Franklin – was ”rendered speechless by the scale of devastation” and angrily demanded ”why science had failed these forests. Franklin, who has advised the White House on forest conservation, is also writing a paper on the devastation of Australia’s old-growth mountain ash forests. So, memo to federal ministers, this is about to go global.

Lindenmayer says the ”landscape trap” described in this week’s scientific paper is ”historically unprecedented”. It is a landscape that is in ”start contrast” to the mountain ash forest landscape recorded last century, both in historical accounts and photographs. He explains that data analysis in the two years following the February 2009 Black Saturday bushfires show ”young forest burns at higher severity than mature forest” and is more fire prone. Therefore, it increases the risk of bushfire, and also ecological functions such as carbon storage, water production and wildlife habitat.

”The irony in all of this is that we’re going to get a carbon tax, and yet the Government is not willing to do anything to protect one of the most important carbon storages in the world, that’s worth tens of billions of dollars,” he says.

”These old growth mountain ash forests are the world’s most carbon-dense forest. There’s a lot of talk about the need to stop logging tropical forests in developing countries, but why not have a forests policy that starts by recognising the carbon benefits to be gained from protecting our own native forests.”

Any chance of getting Andrew Upton and Cate Blanchett, co-directors of the Sydney Theatre Company, to rework an Australian version of Uncle Vanya? David Lindenmayer could surely offer them a few ideas about an updating Astrov’s forestry speech.

Rosslyn Beeby is Science and Environment reporter.