It’s possible with diverse community support

Dr Oisín Sweeney, Senior Ecologist, National Parks Association of NSW

Last year the National Parks Association NSW (NPA) released a report that showed how, despite being a noble attempt to marry some pretty uncomfortable bedfellows (logging, conservation and recreation), the Regional Forest Agreements (RFAs) have failed in all of their high level aims. From protecting the environment to maintaining long-term economic stability and jobs in forest industries, the RFAs have not worked. A new approach is desperately needed writes Oisín Sweeney.

Building a broader consensus

NPA has tried to develop an approach that can engage a broad range of people. Appealing to ‘traditional’ forest supporters is unlikely to be enough, so we need to involve the wider community and diverse groups by showing that a change of use of forests is a good idea. In turn, we will seek support for our approach from those groups and ask them to advocate for this change in use of public forests.

We think we can do this by making the connection between protecting forests, meeting local needs to access forests for recreation (and, in the case of Aboriginal communities, resources) and promoting nature-based, adventure and cultural tourism. With smart planning, this could be achieved without damaging the environmental values of forests. In fact, the opposite would be the case: protection of forests would allow their long-term recovery from intensive native forest logging.

This approach has been in development since it was raised at State Council in Wingham back in July 2015. The beauty of it from an NPA perspective is that one of NPA’s goals is fostering an enjoyment of nature as a means to build support for conservation. With all regional communities on the eastern seaboard predicted to grow their populations in the coming decades, pressure will increase on natural areas. We therefore need to find solutions that cater for future community needs while protecting nature.

Assuming State Council gives the plan the tick of approval on the 4th March we will then launch it on International Day of Forests on March 21st. The next steps after that would be to bring the plan to decision makers in government and to begin the process of building broad support among diverse groups throughout the state. Cole Neder, our latest intern, has already done fantastic work in identifying groups that we can approach for support so we’ll be able to hit the ground running.

The plan

In a nutshell, our approach would protect public native forests in one of two types of protected area: Regional Parks and National Parks. National Parks we’re all familiar with: they’re protected under Category II of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Regional Parks though are protected under IUCN Category V. That’s an important distinction as, alongside conservation, a key focus of Category V is recreation and tourism. There are currently 20 Regional Parks protecting 20,000 hectares of land in NSW.

How this distinction would apply to NSW forests would depend on several factors including conservation value (or the inverse, degree of degradation), whether the area could contribute to wilderness, habitat connectivity, Aboriginal needs and geographic location. We don’t yet have a complete picture on which areas would become National Parks and which Regional Parks. That’s one we’ll be working on in 2017 as part of our ‘50 reserves for 50 years’ campaign. Either category of protected area would be managed by the NPWS as the appropriately skilled management authority.

What we’re not proposing

We’re not offering government a softer option than creating National Parks. On the contrary, state forests with high ecological values should become National Parks. And many of these could in future contribute to new World Heritage nominations, the ultimate jewel in the crown. In fact we see this approach as benefiting existing National Parks: there is ever-increasing pressure on National Parks to host activities and infrastructure unsuitable for sensitive areas. By using less ecologically valuable areas to host such activities and infrastructure we can help lower the pressure on National Parks while simultaneously increasing protection for public forests that are currently logged. We also think that consulting and involving regional communities in the management of Regional Parks can help to develop community ownership over the areas in future and increase awareness of conservation issues.

NPA has long opposed inappropriate development in National Parks, so of course we aren’t proposing large-scale developments or the exclusion of the public from public land. The way we see this working is through the creation of forest ‘hubs’ which would serve as focal points for day visitors, provide overnight accommodation and camping, and facilities for education and outdoor activities. Other development that would be necessary would be that which already commonly occurs on public land: infrastructure, like trails, bike tracks and signage, to ensure that communities could better access forests.

Various experienced NPA heads have pointed out that there will be issues to be resolved in regards activities that currently occur in state forests but which NPA opposes in National Parks. For example, some state forests are grazed, some are used by beekeepers, and timber collection is permitted in some coupes. That’s true and we’ll need to think about our approach to them, but we do have policy positions on some of these issues that can guide us. In any case, if we get to the point where we’re in discussions about these uses in newly-protected forests, we will have already been hugely successful!

Location, location, location

Up and down the eastern seaboard of NSW communities live in forested landscapes. By protecting those forests close to urban areas as Regional Parks, we can both protect nature and offer increased access for local people to forests. Regional Parks are reserves that protect areas in either natural or modified landscapes, and provide for activities and infrastructure that are not suitable for protected areas like National Parks, Wilderness or Nature Reserves. A feature of these areas is that they permit uses that don’t (or at least shouldn’t) occur in National Parks, such as dog walking and horse riding, but which are desired by adjacent communities. Regional Parks are typically close to human habitation and managed to provide for the needs of local communities as well as nature.

By protecting some forests as Regional Parks, we can also open up new economic opportunities for regional communities: forests could be used to host recreational and tourism activities undertaken by small and local business. Focal points for forest recreation, outdoor education and tourism could be located in cleared areas of forests (unfortunately, almost every state forest has multiple cleared areas that have been used as log dumps). Locating these places close to regional communities would mean increased visitor nights for local businesses and jobs for local people. Although many forms of recreation are already allowed in state forests, there is no potential for a thriving nature-based tourism industry: that’s because timber production is the primary focus of state forests, and no-one will be inclined to gamble on starting a business when the forests could be heavily logged at any point.

Although we see an opportunity to increase public access to, and recreational use of, forests where the primary activity is currently logging, we recognise the potential for negative ecological impacts as a result (though nowhere near as negative as current logging practices!). Because we have identified a means for putting recreation activities in the right places to avoid conflict (the Recreation Opportunity Spectrum), and for managing the impacts of those activities (Visitor Activities and Land Management Action tool), we believe that this approach can both protect natural values while providing this increased access.

Traditional owners

IUCN Category V also promotes Indigenous management of protected areas and permits for the use of natural resources by Indigenous people. This therefore opens up huge opportunities for Aboriginal communities to play an active role in the restoration and management of forests and to benefit economically and culturally as a result. Most would agree that non-Indigenous Australians have much to learn from Aboriginal people in regards to ecosystem management. This plan could make that learning a reality. In fact, the joint-managed Arakwal National Park near Byron Bay is IUCN Category V for just this reason. The Arakwal people use the park as a source of traditional foods and fibres under an agreed management plan. This arrangement was a key reason why Arakwal was listed as one of just three Australian protected areas under the IUCN Green List—the global standard for excellence in protected area management. Initial consultations on Aboriginal views towards NPA’s proposal have been positive and we’ll seek to engage more.

Multiple wins if we win

The ultimate implication of our plan would be to see logging removed from public native forests and all public forests protected under IUCN categorisations. Given the documented impacts logging has on key habitat features like tree hollows and forest-dependent species, this would be a major leap forward.

The other huge environmental benefit would be in the area of climate change. By ending logging our forests would immediately start becoming carbon sinks again. In a future scenario with significant policy changes we may even be able to monetize this as the Great Southern Forest campaign seeks to do. Either way, we get the result we desperately need at this point of climate emergency: our forests start absorbing carbon and building up their carbon stores again.

If they can show some political bravery and leadership by committing to an end to native forest logging and setting policy to complete the transition to plantations, native forests can help the Coalition achieve its target of ‘net zero emissions by 2050’.

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