WARBURTON, Australia – In the Yarra Ranges, in southeastern Australia, a logging clearcut sits like a scar on the hillside.
The largely barren area — a short drive from the town of Warburton, about 50 miles (80 km) east of Melbourne — used to be covered with trees native to the state of Victoria.
But in April it was harvested by contractors working for VicForests, the state-owned business that logs, sells and regrows timber from Victoria’s native forests.
After cutting down most of the trees, timber workers torched the area to simulate a bushfire and encourage the forest to regenerate. A month later, the ground was still smoking.
The Warburton clearcut and others like it in the state are becoming a key battleground for Australia’s environmental policy in the wake of the worst recorded bushfires in the country’s history.
A new report by a group of leading Australian scientists suggests logging of native forests increases the risk and severity of wildfires.
The scientists singled out “salvage logging” — the practice of harvesting in fire-affected forests — as particularly harmful.
The study’s release in May coincided with reports that, in the wake of the wildfires, VicForests plans to begin salvage logging operations in parts of eastern Victoria.
“With forecasts of worse bushfire seasons to come, it is absolutely vital to consider our research that native logging adds significantly to fire severity,” said lead author David Lindenmayer, an ecologist at Australian National University.
Bushfires late last year and early this year — a period now referred to as the Black Summer — burned more than 17 million hectares (42 million acres) of forest across Australia.
The federal government has since launched a national inquiry into the fires, focusing on changing environmental conditions.
In March, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, an Australian government science body, warned that a changing climate has led to and will result in “longer, more intense fire seasons.”
But alongside concerns about climate change driving the fires, a debate is growing about the role of “fuel loads” in forests.
The more flammable material available to a fire, and the drier it is, the faster and more intensely the fire can burn and the more dangerous it can become, researchers say.
Logging areas might sound like a way to cut risks, but the May study suggested the reverse can be true.
“Our research shows that if you strip large trees out of a native forest system, the forest composition alters,” explained Lindenmayer.
“Forests, which should be moist, become drier and more fire prone, and flammable species will grow up and take the place of the original species.”
The debris left behind by logging activities also can increase the fuel load, raising fire risk, Lindenmayer added.
But VicForests, the only company allowed to harvest native timber in Victoria under a government mandate, challenges the study’s findings.
“Many academics and fire experts agree that harvesting does not elevate fire risk,” a company spokesman said, asking not to be named.
“We work with partner agencies and use scientific research to develop a harvest program that protects the environment and mitigates the impacts of bushfires,” he said.
VicForests has said that as part of its post-fire timber recovery plan it will not harvest trees in national parks or reserves.
The timber industry’s leading national body, the Australian Forest Products Association, has called for fire-damaged state forests and national parks to be opened to salvage logging.
VicForests said that if it does start salvage logging, it will not harvest healthy trees within fire-damaged areas but instead focus on burnt timber which can be used to make low-quality products such as wood chips.
“Salvage harvesting is prescribed by strict regulations designed to protect environmental values that go above and beyond the already strict provisions applicable to unburnt forests,” VicForests’ spokesman said.
Lindenmayer’s study, however, said salvage logging further disturbs areas where plants and wildlife are trying to recover.
He explained that the process has the potential to add extra fire risk by clearing the way for the growth of fire-susceptible plants.
“Salvage logging is absolutely the worst type of logging,” he said.
VicForests was asked for more information to support the company’s assertion that native logging, and salvage logging in particular, do not increase the risk of wildfires, but it declined to respond further.
The study comes at a time when the native timber industry, once a bedrock of eastern Victoria’s economy, finds itself on shaky ground.
Last November, the state government passed legislation that will phase out all native forest logging by 2030, with the industry transitioning to solely harvesting planted timber.
The Victorian government noted in a press release in February that, over the last decade, the amount of native timber available for logging has fallen by about half due to bushfire damage and wildlife protection measures.
VicForests has said that its 500 contracted personnel and the heavy machinery they operate are often called in by the state government to help maintain fire containment lines or clear vegetation to slow the spread of bushfires.
This service will be lost with the end of the native logging industry, the company warned.
In the lead up to the Black Summer, Victoria’s environment minister, Lily D’Ambrosio, described VicForests as one of the state’s “key fire management agencies.”
Protests and fears
Near Warburton, local environmentalists have launched protests over logging plans.
Nicole Fox, who alongside other conservationists chained herself to harvesting machinery and was arrested in an attempt to halt logging, spoke of the need to cut bushfire risks for the sake of threatened wildlife.
Authorities have estimated that the Black Summer fires could have incinerated a billion animals.
“We desperately need to protect those remaining unburnt patches of habitat for bushfire-affected threatened species,” Fox said.
Last week, the Federal Court of Australia ruled VicForests had breached environmental laws by logging in areas near Warburton that were key wildlife habitat, including for the critically endangered Leadbeater’s Possum.
Some Warburton residents say they see themselves — as well as local wildlife — in the path of the country’s growing bushfire threat.
“Logging is making the forests more flammable. It’s so close to our homes,” said Fox. “I fear for my community.”