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Wombat Forestcare: Fire risk mitigation or log grab?

Written by Gayle Osborne. From Wombat Forestcare newsletter - Issue 66, December 2023

Despite there being no evidence that the storm fallen timber in the Wombat Forest poses an increased fire risk, every large fallen log from an area to the north and west of Barkstead [in the Wombat State Forest] is being removed and the bark and branches pushed into piles. Although VicForests’ contractors are carrying out the salvage, this is a Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action (DEECA) operation. Under the Forests Act 1958 the Secretary of the department “must carry out proper and sufficient work in State forests, national parks and on protected public land…….(b) for the planned prevention of fire.”Credit: Gayle Osborne

This power is delegated to the Chief Fire Officer and “prevention of fire” is undertaken by Forest Fire Management Victoria (FFMVic), a branch of the Department of the Environment. The decision regarding what works constitute “prevention of fire” is decided by FFMVic and even if this decision will not reduce risk of fire and is environmentally damaging, the department is still acting within the law. There is no independent regulatory oversight of the works carried out in the name of “planned prevention of fire” and no way of challenging the decisions.

The DEECA website states, “We will keep fallen trees that are important for protecting biodiversity values and have provided buffers to trees with hollows, which are commonly used as habitat for a range of species.” It is not evident at Barkstead that any large logs are being retained. Large piles of bark and branches that would be considered a fire risk cover the site and we assume that the area will be subjected to a burn. As detailed in previous newsletter articles the large wind fallen logs provide critical habitat for fungi, insects, frogs and small reptiles and mammals. They also shade the ground and help keep moisture in the soil. They provide protection for emerging seedlings.

As they rot, they act as a sponge absorbing moisture and keeping the ground damp. The operations have been carried out under moist soil conditions resulting in soil compaction. Heavy machinery presses the soil particles together, reducing the pore space between them. This causes a reduced rate of water infiltration, and also makes it more difficult for plant and tree roots to penetrate the soil. Areas of the forest where machinery and logs were stored up to 40 years ago are still evident due to stunted vegetation.Credit: Gayle Osborne

These areas were usually ripped with a plough to encourage regeneration but generally the compaction of the soil has prevented eucalyptus species re-establishing. The size of the current log storage areas and the weight of the machinery far exceeds the previous timber harvesting operations in the forest, and they may not be able to be rehabilitated in the foreseeable future. The most likely long-term scenario is an influx of both Montpellier and Cape Broom as well as Blackberry, which will create a fire hazard on the edge of the township.

We need to respect and nurture the forest environment that surrounds us. Fallen trees are part of an ecological cycle and although the wind event of June 2021 was extreme, it was a natural event and not an exceptional, catastrophic occurrence. This is not an argument for no intervention, rather the careful removal of timber where necessary while considering the environmental impacts. It is important not to disrupt the natural process of regeneration.

Wombat Forestcare in partnership with the Victorian National Parks Association continues to campaign for the creation of the Wombat-Lerderderg, Mt Buangor and Pyrenees National Parks. You can sign their open letter here to call on the state government to fulfill their promise for new National Parks in the Central West.


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