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Janet on International Day of Forests

Speeches in Parliament
Janet Rice 21 Mar 2018

Tomorrow is International Day of Forests. While we celebrate the beauty of forests across the globe, it's also a chance for us to have a sober look at what we're doing to the forests of Australia. I can tell you, it is not a pretty sight.

But we have a choice. We can let our forests be destroyed, allowing clear-fell logging of forests and broad-scale clearing of woodlands, or we can halt the destruction of our native forests and make sure that they are intact for future generations to come. Australians are rightly proud of our incredible natural landscapes. Our island home is a tapestry of wonders, from the Great Barrier Reef to the vibrant landscapes of Kakadu, with incredible beaches and coasts and the charm of our gorgeous native wildlife.

Selfies with quokkas in WA are a global hit for a very good reason; there's nothing quite like a cute Aussie creature. But the stewardship of our natural places and wildlife is failing. We are failing to protect and to restore nature, and we're losing precious parts of our natural heritage, potentially for good. Future generations will ask us, 'How did you let this happen?' I want us to act now so that we don't have to look our grandkids in the eye and just answer with a shrug.

On International Day of Forests we have to recognise that here in Australia we are managing our forests with very little regard to their many values. I've been lucky enough to spend a lot of time in our forests, particularly in my home state of Victoria, and I know, like anybody else in this place who has visited a pristine forest, how invigorating it is to breathe in the fresh air, to look up at the awesome, amazing trees, to marvel at the ferns and mosses and to hear cascades of fresh water—fresh and clean enough to drink straight out of creeks and rivers.

Most Aussies would assume that we had left the worst of our knock-it-down, ship-it-out logging practices in the last century, but the truth is that the native forest logging industry is still running rampant in forests like these. Victoria takes the cake for the most destruction. On latest figures, there are more logs coming out of Victorian native forests than there are coming out of Tasmania, Senator McKim, and most of these logs are ending up as woodchips. Just think about that for a moment: we are razing forests, including trees that are hundreds of years old, that are the habitat of an amazing diversity of plants and animals and that provide us with clean air and water, largely for woodchips. This is absolute madness. This is all happening despite the fact that we now have plantations providing almost 90 per cent of the wood produced in Australia, without destroying our natural heritage.

A clear-felled native forest takes well over 100 years to return to how it was before logging, if all goes to plan. But the plan is to log it again well before then, anyway. There are those in this place, including our current minister responsible for forests, who say our native forests are put there for our taking and that we can cut big old trees down and presume that they'll just magically reappear in their original form in the landscape.

But what happens to the balance in the ecosystem in the meantime? What happens to the clean air, the clean water and the habitat these trees provide? What happens to the visitors going for a nice drive? Are they going to wait 100 years for the trees to return to their former glory before they spend their tourist dollars in our regional communities? 'Surely we have laws to protect our forests,' I hear you say. You may be interested to learn what happens under our national logging laws—the regional forest agreements—when a forest-dwelling species is identified as having become threatened or endangered. The answer is absolutely nothing.

When a species is listed as threatened under our federal environment laws, nothing happens in terms of changing logging practices. It's carry on, business as usual. Meanwhile, Australia has the highest rate of animal extinctions in the entire world. The 10 regional forest agreements across Australia have been in place for 20 years. They were meant to balance the needs of a sustainable logging industry with protecting our forests. They have failed on nearly every count, leaving industry uncertainty as wood runs out, and leaving our forests in a precarious state. The Turnbull government is committed to simply rolling these destructive laws over for another 20 years. The Greens, in stark contrast, think that the regional forest agreements should be scrapped.

The sad case of greater gliders is just one example of how the regional forest agreements have failed. Greater gliders are gliding possums. About the size of a cat, they have a luxurious fluffy coat and big, teddy-bear-like ears. They feed exclusively on the leaves, buds and flowers of eucalypts, and they're active at night, gliding up to 100 metres from tree to tree. They spend most of the day asleep in one of the many dens that they create in the hollows of old trees. Up to 20 of these dens can be spread across their territory of between one and four hectares.

Two decades ago, greater gliders were abundant along the east coast, but a combination of land clearing, logging and the rising threat of bushfires linked to climate change has caused their population to crash. They were listed as 'vulnerable' on the federal list of threatened and endangered species in 2016, but that has prompted absolutely no action from the federal government. Clear-felling of the forests, including the old trees where greater gliders live, has continued unabated. Our logging laws say that, if logging is occurring in an area covered by a regional forest agreement, the states and the federal government have a full three years before they even need to begin working on a plan that might do something about reducing the impacts of that logging. But that plan, known as a recovery plan, is likely to be vague and compromised, and it won't even be legally enforceable.

It's not just greater gliders, of course. We have critically endangered Leadbeater's possums. We have critically endangered swift parrots, whose habitat was clear-fell logged in Tasmania late last year, dismaying the scientists who were trying to protect them. There are only about 2,000 swift parrots left. There is a recovery plan. However, it only refers vaguely to encouraging and supporting 'the protection, conservation management and restoration of swift parrot nesting and foraging habitat through agreements with landowners, incentive programs and community projects'. It doesn't specify limits to the loss of habitat through either clearing on the Australian mainland or logging of the birds' critical habitat in Tasmania.

Australia is one of the worst offenders globally when it comes to broadscale land clearing and deforestation. In fact, it's the only developed country listed as a global deforestation hot spot. The rate of clearing of forests and woodlands by landholders is rising, especially in Australia's north, and the effects are devastating. The bulldozers go in, they leave native wildlife dead or without a home, and they destroy massive amounts of carbon-storing vegetation.

The sharp rise in land clearing has been driven by a weakening of state laws and ineffective federal laws, allowing landholders to clear vast swathes of forested land. As we march through the 21st century with logging and land clearing still continuing, the important role of forests and woodlands as carbon stores combating dangerous global warming has become ever clearer. We Australians like to think of ourselves as a modern, sophisticated nation.

So, on International Day of Forests, the question must be asked: will we continue the destruction of our precious forests for such little gain, or will we act to protect them and restore nature for future generations? In this place and in this parliament, we must not squib this one. The choice is ours.

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