Call to actively manage ‘sick’ forests

Knowhow: Australian Fire Services Medal, Dr Tony Bartlett.



FOREST and forest fire management in Gippsland must be done on a landscape scale, with active management over long timeframes, using expert knowledge of forests, a major state and federal government review has found.

The expert panel that assessed the impact of the 2019-20 bushfires on Victoria’s forests and Regional Forest Agreements (RFAs) made 37 recommendations that highlighted the need for a major overhaul of current forest management strategies.

“These forests are sick because we are not managing them properly,” a member of the expert panel, Dr Tony Bartlett, AFSM (Australian Fire Services Medal) told a Forestry Australia conference in Albury in a report on the RFA review, which took 13 months to complete.

The other members of the panel were the Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability in Victoria, Dr Gillian Sparkes (AM) and Katherine Mullett, a traditional owner from East Gippsland.

Dr Bartlett said if the community did not learn the lessons from the massive bushfires, “we are all culpable of not treating the disease”.

“The fires affected all values reserves. Logging is not the enemy of these forests; uncontrolled wildfires is what is having the biggest impact on the multiple values so important under the RFAs,” he said.

“Whether rainforest conservation reserves or state forests, they are sick. The issue is inadequate fire management, the threats are multiple – not just loss of timber resources or old growth forest. All the values are important, even recreation values; all are being affected in a major way. If fires are more frequent and worse, they (the values) will get worse.”

Dr Bartlett said forest management plans and national park management plans were both hugely out of date.

“Fire does not care whether it’s national park, state forest or private land; the fire will go over the top. If we don’t integrate them, we have no hope in making progress,” he said.

Among the recommendations were:

-More active and adaptive management, including the scaling up of ecological burning in the forests;

-Empowering an active role by traditional owner groups in the management of forests on public land or Country, including adequate resourcing of the groups and their greater participation in bushfire management;

-The panel noted that Victoria’s harvest level review’s finding that the 2019-20 bushfires would not affect Victoria’s ability to supply the levels of ash and mixed species sawlogs committed under the Victorian Forestry Plan, and;

-Validate the effectiveness of the current CAR reserve system for listed species and communities in the next scheduled five-yearly review, including a full analysis of the current status of old growth forest post-fires.

Dr Bartlett said all parties needed to support the expansion of forest industries to drive jobs and economic benefits to the regions.

“This serves the added benefit of having knowledgeable and trained crews on the ground when fires do occur,” he said.

The Black Summer bushfires burnt 1.5 million hectares, including nearly 1.3m ha of native forest; 70pc of the forests in the East Gippsland RFA were burnt and more than 270,000ha in the North East.

About 760,000ha of the conservation reserve system was affected, with more than half burnt at high intensity. About 270,000 ha had been burnt multiple times, particularly in eastern Victoria.

Dr Bartlett, who had previously worked in East Gippsland and knew the region’s fire history, said he was “shocked” when he saw the state of some of the forest.

The premises of the RFAs was to protect the most significant environmental values in the CAR reserves system.

“The CAR reserve system – the data is showing it’s not working. There are multiple threats to forest values,” he said.

An additional 62,000 ha of old growth forest was lost, and lots of listed fauna species were affected. Ten per cent of Aboriginal sites were affected, but most Aboriginal sites had not been surveyed.

“Apiary sites suffered significant impact, with a long tail end for when the sites will produce honey. The biggest ever impact was on recreation areas, with a big impact on tourism, which have not all been fixed,” he said.

Dr Bartlett said he was visibly moved by some comments from traditional owners, who were severely affected by the fires and their impact on Country.

“The take home message is they are crying out for a whole of forest management. They need genuine engagement before, during and after the fires,” he said, although this varied across the state.

“A couple of traditional groups told us, ‘You have stuffed these forests, you now want to give back to us to fix the problems. We want to be involved; it’s not up to us to fix your problems’.”

Dr Bartlett praised Victoria’s major program to try and restore some Ash forests.

“If we do nothing more, nothing will be left of Ash forests in our lifetime,” he said.

Between the RFAs in early 2002 and now, Victoria had lost 60 per cent of its old growth forest – equivalent of four times the size of the Wilson’s Promintory National Park.

The damage was due to wildfires.

“Less than one per cent relates to timber harvesting, those with an agenda don’t talk about it,” he said.

Dr Bartlett said fire losses of plantations assets were continuing.

“It’s difficult in big fires to do something about it, but if we keep going like this, no private investor will invest in large-scale plantations because the numbers will never stack, they will never get to rotations stage,” he said. These were mainly private assets, not government assets.

“They must be integrated into the whole process. The panels were told of plantations in East Gippsland where they could not even get approval to do a backburn in the middle of the night around their plantations because decisions were made a long way away and not locally,” he said.

Dr Bartlett said in the modernised RFAs, there were lots of good things that the two levels of government had committed to in 2020, “but action has not match words in the revised RFAs”.

When the RFAs were first developed, there were very comprehensive regional-based teams, flora and fauna and forestry people teams, and divisional committee with relevant stakeholders, he said.

Each had an advisory committee of stakeholder groups, compromises were made at regional level.

“I don’t see any of that. We need to update forest management by next year. I’m not sure whether the process has started. There are big issues,” he said.

The RFA Bushfire Review can be viewed at