By Stuart Blanch
Senior Manager, Towards Two Billion Trees, WWF-Australia
I work as a conservation scientist working to save and grow two billion trees across Australia by 2030, and double koala populations on the east coast by 2050.
My childhood was spent on the family farm on the NSW north coast, surrounded by our great Australian bush.
I played, explored, watched wildlife and camped in the forests of my youth.
I still do today with my kids.
There’s so much that our forests give us.
They’re high-rise apartments for wildlife, home to koalas, greater gliders, lyrebirds and more.
They’re climate allies and rainmakers, storing carbon in their branches, trunks and roots. A forest of leaves release bioparticles in the air to form clouds that provide rainwater for our crops.
They’re holiday getaways and healers. A quiet campground nestled below towering eucalypts can make for an ideal weekend break. Or the smell of eucalyptus and the chorus of cicadas on a bushwalk can bring peace of mind and comfort.
We need trees. And right now, trees need us.
The catastrophic bushfires on 2019-20 had a devastating impact on our forests in New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria.
The estimates by scientists are astounding. 12.6 million hectares of bushland was scorched, nearly 3 billion animals impacted, 3 to 7 billion trees burnt, 830 million tonnes of greenhouse gases released, and hundreds of rivers and creeks polluted by ash and sediments when the flooding rains came and doused the flames.
As a conservation scientist, I read lots of scientific journal articles and talk with many ecologists.
The news is always the same: trees are so important, our forest wildlife are becoming threatened, we must stop deforestation, and climate change will dry and burn forests with increasing severity and frequency.
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But reading and talking about forests and the impacts of deforestation and the bushfires is one thing. Walking through a forest that escaped the fires but not the bulldozers is another.
I feel crushed.
Giant eucalypt trees that are centuries-old lie fallen.
Tree hollows over a hundred years old that were once home to all different types of wildlife are now busted open and empty.
Rich soils are exposed to wind and soil erosion.
Dense shrubs and ferns that used to provide habitat for potoroos, scrub wrens and frogs lie flattened.
Sometimes, you can even find a squashed land mullet (big skink) or a flattened possum.
I might hear or see a few lonely birds trying to find their nest or mate.
Even the insects are quiet.
It can feel like a graveyard.
This is the way it is because our political leaders allow it to be so.
Our weak national nature laws and poor enforcement has allowed 7 million hectares of vital habitat to be bulldozed or logged across Australia between 2000 and 2017. These areas were known or likely to have been home to many of our most precious threatened species.
Under our state native vegetation laws, forests and woodlands covering hundreds of thousands of hectares and often supporting high conservation values are bulldozed every year - both legally and illegally.
Unsustainable logging of our native forests is a poor use of these biodiverse, carbon-rich assets.
Yet our federal government continues to ignore the advice of experts from the Independent Review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act to provide federal environmental oversight of Regional Forest Agreements.
In Victoria, the state government has failed to bring forward their promise to end native forest logging in 2030 despite the shocking damage to mountain ash forests by the fires.
The New South Wales Government’s Forestry Corporation is planning to commence logging of koala feed trees in unburnt forests despite a quarter of the species’ habitat just being burnt.
In southeast Queensland, the long-planned transfer of some state forests to national parks was delayed last year.
This must change.
I was shocked recently to see just how much of the forests in eastern Australia (a global biodiversity hotspot) overlaps with the eastern Australia global deforestation front.
We are destroying our treasure trove of tall eucalypt forests and putting the billions of native animals that call this place home in imminent danger.
That’s why I’m leading WWF-Australia’s work to help our country transition from a global deforestation hotspot to a world leader in reforestation and ecological restoration.
One of the best parts of my job is working with experts in other organisations who share our passion for ending deforestation and transitioning to large-scale reforestation.
WWF-Australia is proud to be working in collaboration with Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) to help defend the Unburnt Six.
I trained as an ecologist and in environmental law, so it’s a great fit for me to work together with the environmental law experts and scientists at EDO on this partnership.
Together, our two organisations are advocating for the protection of critical unburnt areas within six major landscapes that were scorched in the 2019-20 bushfires. The landscapes are Border Ranges, Nymboida, North Coast, Yengo-Wollemi, South Coast and Gippsland-Eden.
Our goal is to improve protections for 1.4 million hectares of critical unburnt forests across these six priority landscapes.
We’ve already started talking with the Minister's offices about opportunities to use under-utilised laws to give the wildlife that survived the flames a safe home in the remaining pockets of unburnt forests.
We’re also urging governments to upgrade the listing of wildlife species that really suffered from the bushfires as ‘threatened species’, increase funding to support farmers who agree to conservation agreements and carbon farming contracts over their lands, tighten environmental assessment processes, and place moratoria on logging state forests in the bushfire zone.
We’ve had some encouraging discussions so far, with more to come in the next few weeks.
But it’s also very disappointing to be confronted by the attitude that the forests will regrow, particularly after the recent heavy rains, and that deforestation and logging can continue as usual.
For animals like koalas, their future is being decided now as the ‘koala wars’ in New South Wales are waged within the NSW Government.
Scientists estimate 8,000 koalas were in the path of the flames during the bushfires in that state alone. Yet just one year later, what little legal protections exist for koala homes and food on rural lands is being removed.
Right now, our governments are making important decisions about whether to let our unburnt forests be bulldozed in these six landscapes.
Our political leaders need to hear that you and I want them to protect critical unburnt forests in these landscapes to provide wildlife safe refuges.
I need your help. Our forests need your help.
Will you be one of our 50,000 signatures? Your signature counts.
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Politicians listen when communities speak up. If we make enough noise and provide science-based advice, our leaders and industries can decide to follow us down a path to a better future. Will you join me in trying to invite them along on this journey?
I’m very humbled by WWF-Australia’s amazing supporters who enable our conservation team to try to make a difference for our landscapes and wildlife at scale.
I know that together, we can make a difference.