The 2019-20 fire season has been significant, impacting around five million hectares of NSW, including State forests, national parks and private properties.
State forests are sustainably managed for multiple uses, including environmental conservation, community access and renewable timber production. Around half of the State forest estate is permanently set aside for conservation, with the remainder zoned for timber production and periodically harvested and regrown. Timber harvesting is highly regulated and takes place in about one per cent of NSW State forests each year, with all harvested areas fully regrown.
Timber is an essential renewable resource and will be even more important over the coming months as communities begin to rebuild homes and critical infrastructure damaged or destroyed by fires. Around 60 per cent of the areas zoned for timber production were affected by fires this year. Some timber will be selectively harvested from a small proportion of these fire-affected forests and processed by local mills into renewable timber products that will support rebuilding efforts.
Selective harvesting in fire-affected forests
Timber harvesting in native State forests is regulated by the Coastal Integrated Forestry Operations Approval (IFOA), which sets strict conditions developed with the input of expert scientific panels to protect and maintain wildlife habitat, forest flora, water quality and biodiversity across the landscape.
The NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) has developed additional site-specific rules for selective harvesting to occur in a small number of locations where it considers the environmental risk associated with harvesting operations in a post-fire landscape can be reasonably mitigated. These rules augment the already robust regulations set out in the IFOA and are designed to minimise the specific risks to soils, water, plants, animals and their habitat in a post-fire environment.
Selective harvesting in fire-affected forests will look very different from the salvage harvesting that is carried out in pine plantations or in other states. Plantations are planted specifically for timber production so, after a fire, all affected trees are harvested and the entire area replanted. In the small number of locations where site-specific conditions are established for selective harvesting following fires, a proportion of the trees will be removed while all unburned habitat within these fire-affected sites will be protected.
As the forests regenerate, operations will return to normal in line with the strict conditions of the Coastal Integrated Forestry Operations Approval.
Actively regenerating fire-affected forests
Many species of eucalypt are fire tolerant. However, the impact of fire on individual trees depends on a range of factors including the severity of the fire in a particular area. Where fire has not been intense, trees may withstand the fire and resprout from their stems. These areas may quickly regenerate. Where the fire has been intense, some trees may not have withstood the fire, even fire tolerant species. These trees will regenerate as new seedlings.
Timber is a renewable product and the same State forests have been harvested and regrown and recovered from fire many times over the past 100 years. The forests will regenerate again following the recent fires.
Good regeneration is not an accident – it is something we carefully consider from the time we first start planning a timber harvesting operation. In all fire-affected locations identified for selective harvesting under site-specific conditions, a key consideration will be ensuring that for each tree harvested, new trees germinate and grow in its place, restoring the forest and regrowing a renewable timber supply for future generations.
Protecting wildlife, water quality and biodiversity
The EPA has provided site-specific conditions to Forestry Corporation to operate in fire-affected forests on a case by case basis where the environmental risk associated with harvesting operations in a post-fire landscape can be reasonably mitigated. These rules augment the existing IFOA requirements to reflect the post-fire environment.
On top of the already robust measures in place under the IFOA, increased protections will apply for:
- hollow-bearing trees
- important feed trees and
- habitat refuge areas like rainforest and rocky outcrops.
Additional requirements have been introduced to minimise water pollution in a fire-affected landscape including:
- the expansion of riparian exclusion zones for all streams
- stricter limits to reduce the distance water can flow on roads, tracks and log dumps
- requirements to reduce runoff by minimising the use of machines on unstable soils, and the spreading of bark, tree heads and tree offcuts across exposed soils.
The IFOA and the site-specific conditions for each location are published on the EPA website. The NSW EPA will be continuing regulatory oversight, monitoring forestry activities to ensure the site-specific conditions remain appropriate.
How fire-affected timber is used
State forests supply renewable timber, which will play an important part in rebuilding local communities.
Fire-affected trees may die, but if they are harvested within around 12 months, the structural properties of the timber are not affected. Fire-affected trees can produce high quality timber for products that will be in high demand for rebuilding such as power poles, structural timbers for bridges and girders, and flooring and decking for houses.
Retrieving timber from make-safe operations
Immediately following a fire, safety assessments to assess and remove fallen or dangerous trees take place along roads and in areas used by community members. This work is often carried out by the Rural Fire Service as a critical safety measure before allowing community members access to firegrounds. Some of the trees fallen from State forests during make-safe operations contain good quality timber and may be removed and sent to local processors.
The Ultimate Renewable
Renewable timber sourced from sustainably managed forests is a key part of the climate solution.
Taking into account the energy required to transform raw materials into building products and the fact that timber stores carbon for the whole of the product’s life, timber has a much smaller carbon footprint than other popular building materials like steel or concrete.
Carbon calculations must take into account the impact of sourcing timber and wood products from elsewhere or of using alternative, more carbon intensive, products such as concrete and steel.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change notes that in the long term, a sustainable forest management strategy aimed at maintaining or increasing forest carbon stocks, while producing an annual sustained yield of timber, fibre or energy from the forest, will generate the largest sustained mitigation benefit.
Every time a tree is harvested, a tree regenerates in its place, making timber a sustainable, renewable resource for future generations when carefully managed – the ultimate renewable.
Download the fact sheet on harvesting timber from fire-affected native forests