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Why Victoria needs a Giant Forest National Park

The Central Highlands of Victoria are home to the world’s tallest flowering plants, the Mountain Ash, and one of Australia’s most endangered mammals, the Leadbeater’s Possum. Both are threatened by ongoing…

One reason why: Leadbeater’s Possum will become extinct unless further action is taken to protect their Mountain Ash habitat. Flcirk/Greens MPs

The Central Highlands of Victoria are home to the world’s tallest flowering plants, the Mountain Ash, and one of Australia’s most endangered mammals, the Leadbeater’s Possum. Both are threatened by ongoing clear-felling and bushfires.

To ensure their survival, I would argue we need to create a new national park, not only to protect possums and forests, but carbon stocks, water supplies, and lower the risk of bushfires. Here’s the evidence.

Extinction and collapse

The central highlands region of Victoria is located around towns such as Healesville, Warburton, Marysville and Woods Point. The region includes the vast majority of remaining (and declining) Leadbeater’s Possums, Mountain Ash, the most carbon dense forests in the world; and supplies a large proportion of the drinking water for the city of Melbourne.

But the Mountain Ash forests are threatened by recurrent and widespread industrial clearfell logging and major fires (including the Black Saturday fires of 2009).

The result is that we now have 1,886 hectares of old growth forest, spread across 147 different patches. This is estimated to be 1.5-3% of the historical area of old growth forest.

The population of large old hollow-bearing trees has collapsed. These are a critical habitat for the animals that use them, including Leadbeater’s Possum. There is a high risk that the possums will become exinct in the next 20-40 years.

And as forests regrow from logging, they are at increased risk of re-burning at high severity.

Leadbeater’s Possum and Mountain Ash forests have persisted for tens of millions of years, including through major wildfire events. But in just the last few decades the possum is at risk of extinction, and the forests are at risk of ecological collapse.

Mountain Ash forests are at serious risk of ecological collapse. Flickr/sitkasitchensis

The threat of clear felling

The one factor that has demonstrably changed this ecosystem in the past century and created these risks has been intensive and widespread industrial clear felling. Clear felling has a number of significant detrimental effects in Mountain Ash forests.

Clear felling kills animals outright. Logged areas are unsuitable for animals that depend on hollow-bearing trees for over 150 years. Logging accelerates the loss of tree hollows; and we know that these hollows can’t be replaced by nest boxes. Logging stops old growth forest regenerating, and it increases the fire proneness of the forests.

A bigger reserve

To preserve Leadbeater’s Possum, and in fact the entire Mountain Ash forest ecosystem, we need a bigger national park in the central highlands. There are already reserves and national parks in the area, but these need to be expanded and connected to deal with the threats facing Leadbeater’s Possum and Mountain Ash forests.

The new national park is important as it removes the key process - industrial clear felling - that is threatening both Leadbeater’s Possum and Mountain Ash forest.

Why do we need to expand our reserves in the area?

First, the current reserve system is too small to support a viable population of Leadbeater’s Possums, particularly if there are more fires in the next 50-100 years.

Second, a large ecological reserve provides a greater chance for natural fire regimes and growth of large old trees to be restored.

Third, as Mountain Ash forests store vast amounts of carbon, a new national park will be critical to maintaining carbon stocks. The park would therefore be critical to any policy to reduce carbon emissions.

Our studies clearly indicate that clear felling significantly depletes carbon storage in Mountain Ash forests whereas allowing stands to grow through to a mature or old growth significantly increases carbon storage (even in the event of a major wildfire).

Fourth, water yields from Mountain Ash catchments are maximised when forests are dominated by old growth stands.

Location, location

The new park needs to connect key areas of habitat for Leadbeater’s Possum, and also connect existing reserves. Connectivity like this promotes the dispersal of the possums through the forests, including those recovering after wildfire.

The national park must encompass areas of existing old growth forest and also areas where environmental modelling indicates old growth will develop in the future.

The park must also be big enough to be larger than major disturbance events such as wildfires. This will ensure there is sufficient habitat to support viable populations of Leadbeater’s Possum.

At the same time as creating the park, pulp and timber yield from the the Mountain Ash forests must be reduced. Mountain Ash forests have already been over-cut, and to maintain sustained yield from the forests and set aside the Giant Forest National Park will even further increase over-cutting. This is because it will concentrate indutsrial clearfelling on a reduced area of available forest.

Economic benefits

A new Giant Forest National Park could be a major economic boost for Victoria. It could be particularly helpful for regional economies like those around Marysville still rebuilding after the 2009 wildfires.

Victorian governments have never seriously advertised the fact that, within 1.5 hours from the MCG, you can find the world’s tallest flowering plants and some of the most stunningly beautiful environments on the Australian continent.

The park will need some seed funding to establish and maintain walking tracks, huts, caravan parks for grey nomads as well as other visitor infrastructure. The benefits of such investment – when done strategically - have been documented by many authors over the past few decades. Moreover, investments in tourism would be in stark contrast to the significant loss-making native forest paper pulp and timber industries in eastern Australia.

Large ecological reserves are at the core of any credible approach for forest biodiversity conservation plan. This is particularly true in the case of Victorian mountain ash forests.

The incoming federal government’s policy on forests is broadly to: “stop any further lock-ups” of forests. But the scientific and other evidence supporting the need for a new national park in the wet ash forests of the Central Highlands of Victoria is both overwhelming and compelling. Moreover, there are strong social and economic arguments to establish a new Giant Forest National Park.

The Central Highlands region of Victoria, showing existing reserves. Google Maps

Join the conversation

41 Comments sorted by

  1. Mike Swinbourne

    logged in via Facebook

    Hi David

    Thanks for your article. You mentioned the issue of wildfire events, but I wonder what research has been conducted and whether or not you have any idea of the sort of fire regime that would be suitable for optimum conservation outcomes?

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  2. John Newlands

    tree changer

    Much is made of the 40% or so of Tasmania set aside for conservation but the hotspots for E. regnans or swamp gum as they are called here are among logging areas. The 'swampies' are not on the wild west coast but close to bitumen roads. Nearby I've seen 70m (?) tall blackwood trees, surely the world's biggest acacias.

    I fear that we will never again see 100m tall mountain ash. There are the ferocious hot winds in summer which old timers say are unprecedented. Secondly I have a hunch they need post-glacial conditions and no humans playing with matches. We could harvest swampies on an 80 year rotation so a kid born today could keep fire away, maintain irrigation and see them felled in the year 2093. Somehow this doesn't gel with the current economic paradigm.

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    1. Peter Volker

      Professional forester

      In reply to John Newlands

      Since the passing of the Tasmanian Forest Agreement Act 2013, it's now 58% or so of Tasmania set aside for conservation, admitedly not all of that is forest. Included in that is over 90% of the old growth E. regnans forest. There is a hundred metre tall mountain ash tree less than an hours drive from Hobart. 70 metre tall blackwood - are you sure about that?

      Even the so-called industrial forestry program in Tasmania's native forests allows for rotation lengths much longer than 80 years. State…

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    2. David Maddern

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Peter Volker

      The trouble with the logging ( aka clear felling ) industry is in definitions. If one drives into a forest of big trees and happens to see a stump with axe marks made by a logger up to 150 years ago then that whole area is deemed REGROWTH not OLDGROWTH even though that stump tells us that the trees haven't been touched since that craftsman picked out that stem and used his axe and a crosscut saw for many hours.

      And we also see on television plantations of trees planted under the MIS binge being burnt. Why cant this be used for dunnyrub. There are huge areas of plantation that can be used for everything except veneer.
      Given that definition I mentioned in the first paragraph, is this why no OLDGROWTH has been logged in 30 years?

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    3. Peter Volker

      Professional forester

      In reply to David Maddern

      The so-called craftsmen you refer to actually "high graded" the forest taking only sawlogs, leaving the rest of the tree behind and all the unsuitable trees as well. When clear fall techniques accompanied by a market for the waste commenced in the 1960s it gave foresters an opportunity to adequately regenerate forests. Now that there is no market for waste (again), how do you suggest we harvest high value sawn timber and still get adequate regeneration in fire dependent forests with light dependent…

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    4. David Maddern

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Peter Volker

      "how do you suggest we harvest high value sawn timber and still get adequate regeneration in fire dependent forests with light dependent species?"
      Like my 'craftsmen' did but with a bit of brain. Use a robot rig. Setting up a machine to make 2 or 3 cuts is very easy with programmable chips, and the problem of how to regenerate is supplied by the age class the selective logging happened in, in other words the head started trees would grow more.
      You wouldn't be going hell for leather cutting all the time, as in Tasmania 4 or 5 years ago plantation wood was found to yield good house framing timber.
      Then there are two potential uses for off cuts. Near Canberra there is a pilot plant that makes crude oil from biological material including wood as sawdust. That technology has huge potential in this field.
      Then there is the 'craftwood' manufacturing. Sawdust bonded with an apparently strong purpose-built glue.

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    5. Dianna Arthur

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Peter Volker

      Excellent definitions, Peter.

      You present as a forester who sees the forest rather than the trees.

      ;)

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  3. Mark Poynter

    Forester

    This article omits some critically important information in order to create greater urgency to prosecute an anti-timber agenda. The questions that need to be answered are:

    Why doesn't it acknowledge that two-thirds of the Leadbeater's Possum's preferred forest type in the Central Highlands is already contained in closed water catachments, nature conservation reserves and forest management reserves where no logging is permitted?

    Why doesn't it acknowledge that the unharvested part of the other…

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    1. Suzy Gneist
      Suzy Gneist is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Multi-tasker at Graphic Design & Montville Coffee

      In reply to Mark Poynter

      As long as you do not place a high enough value on the unique environment and ecosystem which is being pulped for tissues, toilet paper and paper, the industry will remain lossmaking since what is gained in economic value and product bears no relation to what is lost for a significant time, sometimes forever.

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    2. John Hargreaves

      Writer

      In reply to Mark Poynter

      Mark; perhaps you should acknowledge that your opinions are presented primarily from a perspective of self interest. Cutting down trees is your job, your chosen career, the way you pay your bills, and this was your choice. It would be widely held that this does not give you the right to justify and maintain your choices regardless of the costs. Habitat loss and species extinction will be permanent; restructuring an industry is a short-term inconvenience; changing your job is something most of us face... or have already. We can choose to stop harvesting old growth; you can chose to change your job. It is all the more difficult to understand the logic behind the forestry process you are defending when it consists of clear felling old-growth coupes of inestimable environmental value, in a landscape already denuded of old growth by wildfire, for low value pulp and pallets, with much of the product being shipped overseas where the value adding is done. It's simply irresponsible.

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    3. Nick McKenzie

      Account Manager

      In reply to John Hargreaves

      I think Mark has every right to put forward his views and opinions, afterall he clearly has expertise in this area. He has no more self interest than the author does, who has aimed his piece fairly and squarley against the forestry industry.
      I appreciated the other side of the argument, isn't that what the conversation sets out to create - Academic rigour, journalistic flair ??

      I would also point out that the creation of National Parks by no means garuantee's the protection of our native flora or fauna, Kakadu being a prime example of this. In fact I agree with other posters here that the biggest risk in these area's is hot, catostrophic fires - which are ineviatable in a "locked up and left" national park ....
      Perhaps the best way to save both the Mountain Ash and LBP is to more serisouly look at the fire management plans and implement more "cool burning" so as to avoid another black saturday situation....

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    4. Mark Poynter

      Forester

      In reply to John Hargreaves

      John Hargreaves

      John, it clearly says under my name that I am a forester, so isn't this enough? Having said that, I am not employed in the hardwood timber industry in Victoria, so no, I don't actually cut down trees.

      I am a forest scientist not a tree-feller, but certainly as a forestry consultant I have in the past worked on projects for the Govt forest management agencies that regulate the industry and sometimes for the industry association itself. This of course, gives me the knowledge to…

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    5. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Mark Poynter

      Thank you for your input Mark - as Nick said I think it is important to hear the perspectives of many involved in the debate.

      But I am going to take issue with something you said and ask you a question as a result. In your concluding paragraph you were rather scathing of the so-called lack of balance by environmental activitists in regard to the degree of protection afforded to Victorian forests. Fair enough I guess.

      You suggest that only 9% of forests are managed for extraction and 91% are…

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    6. Nicolas Bertin

      Physicist

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      Myself I would like to know why logging is happening all over the place in small patches, preventing the creation of big uninterrupted wilderness areas, instead of having a big round logging area set aside, and one big round National Park... It sound stupidly simple, but it's never done...

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    7. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Nick McKenzie

      cool burns are not the answer, they are only part of the answer

      Humidity plays an important role fire risk - the humidity actually matters far more than how much fuel there is

      if you have 1 tonne of dry fuel - it will catch pretty quickly and burn fast

      if you have 10 tonnes of wet fuel - it will catch much more slowely if at all and will smolder away

      but we never ever ever hear anyone talk about anything other than burning, seems to be a very australian problem where the only suggested solution to the bush burning is to burn the bush

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    8. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Mark Poynter

      Ironically the Real Greens are guided equally by their principle of economic and social justice, to which the above post clearly appeals.
      Set to be ignored, as is usual, by single-issue conservationism?

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    9. Mark Poynter

      Forester

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      Yes, I am scathing of the determination of activists and others such as the author of this article, to refuse to acknowledge the balance between consevation and use, because it would obviously deny them an ability to sensationalise the issue if it was widely appreciated that less than 10% of Vic forests are used for timber supply.

      On your question, about 35% of Victoria's land mass currently has a forest cover, whereas prior to European settlement apparently around 90% of the state was covered…

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    10. Jean Dind

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Mark Poynter

      Mark Poynter,

      You mention half of the timber going to local sawmills, the other half to paper manufacturing. I was under the impression that sawlogs made up a much lower percentage. Can I ask you for a link to a report/study confirming this?
      I think an important prt of the debate is what's being done with the timber. If most of it goes to woodchips, with the carbon being released within a few years, there is no environmental benefit. If, however, most of the timber goes to sawlogs that store carbon for a significant amount of time (furniture, building, etc.), then there might some benefit from logging regrowth forest.

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    11. Mark Poynter

      Forester

      In reply to Jean Dind

      The confusion around this issue is largely due to differences in what is meant by timber. I am referring to logs harvested from these forests and carted respectively to a sawmill or to Australian Paper. VicForests on their website have some fact sheets which confirm this.

      What you are referring to is a figure that also takes account of what happens in the sawmill where a round log is turned into square or rectangular sawn pieces. Obviously there are lots of off-cuts and waste which is usually…

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    12. Peter Volker

      Professional forester

      In reply to Suzy Gneist

      Let those who do not use tissues, toilet paper and paper throw the first stone!

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    13. Suzy Gneist
      Suzy Gneist is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Multi-tasker at Graphic Design & Montville Coffee

      In reply to Mark Poynter

      I don't think anyone wants to completely 'kill' the entire timber industry. I do think the most contentious issue are the methods used and the uses and industries the product feeds.
      Clear felling, followed by burning, on an industrial scale does not just harvest timber, but destroy entire habitats and longterm uses of previous occupants of same area - animals, like humans, have homes and territories. Planting new trees does not compensate for this. We wouldn't bring in heavy machinery to clear fell…

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    14. Peter Volker

      Professional forester

      In reply to Suzy Gneist

      The biggest cause of deforestation has been clearing for agriculture. So you propose the use of an agricultural crop like hemp..

      If you knew anything about fibres suitable for paper making you would know that trees can produce about 5 tonnes per ha per annum of pulp out the factory door. Hemp and bamboo at best produce about half a tonne per ha per year of useful fibre for paper. They do produce lots of other fibres, useful for rope and linen, but even then only 1 to 2 tonnes per ha per annum…

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    15. Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      Boss

      In reply to Peter Volker

      Peter,
      Yes, some people seem not to have done the sums. (APPM was a subsidiary some while back and was well into Tasmanian forestry. Forester input is needed here).
      When you calculate it out, Australians use toilet paper at over 1,500 km per hour, somewhat above the sound barrier.

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    16. Suzy Gneist
      Suzy Gneist is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Multi-tasker at Graphic Design & Montville Coffee

      In reply to Peter Volker

      There are several paper suppliers who have a range of recycled products from 100% post consumer to part recycled, including using print waste for a lighter result - I've been using these materials since the '80s when almost all were produced and imported from Europe. I'm sure with your research skills you can find what would suit you, paper miles and recycled content included.
      The biggest hurdle will be to reduce modern wasteful resource use of paper in all its forms to what is essential for any use. That's an individual contribution.

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  4. Nicolas Bertin

    Physicist

    You need to be more specific about the areas you want to connect. It sounds like a nice idea, but it would only work with new protected areas, providing wildlife corridors, and not just an amalgam of every reserve there. A giant Cathedral Ranges/Lake Eildon/Kinglake/Yarra Ranges/Bunyip park sure sounds nice, but there is too much farmland around to make it happen. It actually looks more feasible and realistic to extend Baw Baw to the North, and merge it with Mondarra to the South. Regarding the Yarra Ranges, first the 3 mains areas of the park should be better connected. There are big gaps between them where State Forests are, meaning open for logging. You should also detail the areas that are currently being logged intensively. Reading the article, I was frustrated not to get more specifics.

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  5. Michael Shand

    Software Tester

    Good Article, although unless you are going to actively manage and design the forest you might be wasting your time and just be creating a huge unmanagable fire zone

    "Lessons from Loess Plateau" is a great documentary about restoring landscape

    Here's a hint, Summers are going to get hotter and dryer - cool burning alone is not enough to manage fire risk, we need to widen our scope ie. what is a hydrological cycle?

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  6. Thomas Wiedmann

    Associate Professor at UNSW Australia

    Hi David. Convincing arguments for a Giant Forest NP. How can one support a request/application for a national park in this area? Where/Whom to lobby? Thanks.

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  7. Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

    Boss

    Why not demonstrate an ability to manage present national parks in Australia before asking for more?
    Or do you plan to hand in some of the earlier ones in exchange for this?
    Think in terms of a sustainable area of national parks.

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    1. John Foley

      Various ...

      In reply to Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      You can only do what your funding and resources permit, Geoffrey.

      There is a fairly large difference between funding to parks (and conservation in general) and what the stated legislative aims of our respective governments are.

      I don't know the answer. I have an opinion, but I'm grown up enough to know its an issue i don't know enough about to comment on, lest my own prejudices overtake my limited knowledge.

      I'm sure David Lindenmayer has an opinion on the matter, a part of which he has put here, with some considered reasoning. Just as Mark Poynter has also added some considered reasoning. The issue is bigger than a few throw away lines.

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    2. Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      Boss

      In reply to John Foley

      John,
      My experience with national parks was more concentrated some decades ago when many were being proclaimed. I wrote some inputs into plans of management for places like Kakadu and gave evidence to a Senate Inquiry. Went as far as the High Court with some plans.
      As is not uncommon in 'environment' discussions, any proposals that did not suit the green dream were ignored in total.
      Therefore, the throw away lines I used were more the summary experience of watching large area mismanagement that…

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    3. John Foley

      Various ...

      In reply to Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      I'd like to see a much more robust take on land use, but certainly not one based solely on either economics or a certain view of conservation. Or recreation for that matter.

      While your'e fairly right about land use / management, in my part of the world, parks are generally the 'land left over'. If the parks were not in charge, some other government department would be responsible for managing these large, rugged, infertile, fire prone areas. While some 'other' may or may not be more flexible in their approach, and may or may not be more successful, I'd suspect that the large proportion of the problems you mention would still be there. Easier to throw up a gate and try and ignore it methinks.

      Actually, there is one use these lands serve. And endless of source of argument and conflict for various interest /political groups, few or any of which are genuinely interested in working towards a better outcome. Maybe thats been the game all along?

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    4. Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      Boss

      In reply to John Foley

      John,
      Life as managed by others is never completely to our liking.
      I've had the personal experience of having promising mineral shows that we discovered - values still unknown, but one location could have returned several hundred million $$ on known ore - taken off us with no compensation. Kakadu & Shoalwater Bay are 2 examples where history will show that the Parks were created on land not as as good as neighbouring, partly to curtail mining possibilities.
      Contradictions - several thousand buffalo…

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    5. John Foley

      Various ...

      In reply to Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      Therein lies the conflict, well the conflict as its framed. Money vs conservation. There are a lot of people that would disagree that conservation reserves are subject to gradual decay and would be better off subject to mining and grazing. Having said that, we are talking about / from very different areas so I'm not sure we are talking about the same things in practice. For starters, the only thing grazing would do in my local parks is feed dingoes and send (very silly) farmers broke. As happened…

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    6. Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      Boss

      In reply to John Foley

      John,
      It's not a simple matter of money versus conservation. Money is a device invented to show success or failure by selected criteria. The argument is in fact about the best way to use land. You cannot start such an investigation be declaring that huge area are not to be discussed because they are already parks. That's putting on a social value that you might think is so high that it is untouchable, while all around you there are many people who do not share your green view.
      One of the promising…

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    7. John Foley

      Various ...

      In reply to Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      I don't have a problem with change. Its what driving the change. In NSW its not reason that's driving the change, its money pure and simple. 'Economics' are the prime driver in the approvals process when it comes to mines thanks to Barry O'Farrell.

      Previous to this it was Bob Carrs' 'Faux Parks'. Land without funding, which had at least some scientific input. With all that as background music, i can understand folks being (putting it mildly) apprehensive about any adjustment to parks…

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    8. Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      Boss

      In reply to John Foley

      John,
      What is your evidence that biodiversity is preserved by creation of a park?
      What is your evidence that biodiversity cannot be preserved outside a park?
      What is your evidence that preserving biodiversity by artificial means is a good object?
      These are not givens. They need support by business cases.
      Example - there are many researchers claiming that climate change is shifting optimum habitation boundaries for many biota. Do you propose shifting park boundaries to keep up with the (postulated) migrations?

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  8. Dianna Arthur

    Environmentalist

    Excellent article.

    A shame that those motivated by vested interests and/or an inflated sense of their own importance have to derail what could evolve into a progressive and positive discussion of retaining and maintaining our few vital, relatively undisturbed ecosystems, which hold far more diversity of life that, even in the 21st C, we have yet to fully understand.

    We do not have to crop flora that takes decades to mature. As Suzy Gneist has pointed out, there are productive alternatives, which may be grown on land already cleared for agriculture. Our understanding of genetics means enhanced production of hemp, bamboo, papyrus and other fast growing high-yield flora, which will more than replace the current destruction of forests.

    What is needed is the will to ignore all the naysayers.

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