What if a critically endangered bird could have a chance of survival by protecting just 7% of Tasmania’s native forests from logging?
And what if Tasmania’s forestry administrators had – for different reasons – already argued that logging should be reduced by around that amount?
That’s the case in a proposal that conservationists and conservationists say could halt the steep decline of the swift parrot, a migratory species that experts say could go extinct in 10 years if no action is taken.
Keeping track of the fastest parrot in the world is a challenge. It overwinters in Victoria and New South Wales before nesting in different parts of Tasmania each summer, depending on where its main food source, blue gum, blooms.
But no one disputes that the number of fast parrots has dropped. A bird guide published by CSIRO and released in December puts the population at around 750, up from 2,000 about a decade ago.
A new report published by BirdLife Australia, the Wilderness Society and Tasmanian group The Tree Projects claims the main cause is the loss of large hollow trees used for breeding.
He cites a peer-reviewed study which found nearly a quarter of southern Tasmania’s ancient forests were logged between 1997 and 2016 – evidence, he says, of systemic failure by state government to act on repeated scientific advice that the protection of parrot habitat was crucial for the survival of the species.
Dr Jennifer Sanger, forest ecologist at Tree Projects, says that while the parrot faces other threats, including predation by sugar gliders and increased risk of bushfires due to the climate crisis, the habitat loss due to logging remains the “number one” problem.
“Unfortunately, what we have seen from the government are inadequate policies over the past decade that have exacerbated the decline,” she says. “The habitat is still being exploited.”
Tasmania’s Liberal government says it has an answer. In late 2020, it released a policy, known as the Government Management Covenant, under which it pledged to remove 9,300 hectares of southern forests from logging.
The report, On the Edge of Extinction, argues that this is misleading as 69% of the newly set aside area was already excluded from logging, either due to operational constraints or parts of it. already on reserve.
In effect, he says, the new policy would stop logging on just 2,900 ha and leave other areas with the mature trees on which the swift parrot depends available to the logging industry. Scientific advice to the government says all swift parrot forest and nesting habitat on public land in Tasmania should be protected to give the species a chance.
It’s not a new argument, but the report includes what the groups say is a recalculation of what that would mean. It says a rapid parrot protection plan would require the industry to give up just 7% of the forest area on state land available for logging. It would protect 40,000 ha of more mature forest and 20,000 ha of regenerating forest that could provide future habitat.
He says this could be achieved by listening to the board of state forestry company, Sustainable Timber Tasmania, who in 2016 said state government logging was unprofitable if it had to meet a legal quota of supplying 137,000 cubic meters of sawlogs per year. He asked for this to be reduced to 96,000 cubic meters – a 30% reduction in timber supply.
The industry body’s appeal was rejected by state resources minister Guy Barnett. The Liberal state government was elected in 2014 on a platform of ending a Labour-Greens “Peace Agreement” brokered between industry and environmentalists after decades of conflict and the expansion of indigenous forestry to support jobs in regional communities. Barnett says the existing sawlog quota could be met by selling timber at higher prices while looking for lower-cost forest areas to fell.
The groups behind the report say the quota should be scrapped entirely, but reducing it to the level proposed by Sustainable Timber Tasmania could be enough to stabilize parrot numbers. Sanger says it would also help other species and retain a significant amount of carbon stored in the state’s mature, moist eucalyptus forests.
“In a perfect world there would be no native logging, but to protect the parrot they really don’t have much to do,” she says. “At the moment, they’re not doing anything, really.”
Asked about the report last week, Tasmanian Environment Minister Roger Jaensch said reducing the legal sawmill quota was “not part of our thinking”. He said the government had committed $1 million to implement priorities for a rapid parrot recovery plan and was receiving advice from officials on how the money should be spent. “We have already made significant changes to harvesting arrangements in areas where there is rapid parrot habitat,” Jaensch said.
Suzette Weeding, chief executive of Sustainable Timber Tasmania, says the current policy is a “significant step forward” in protecting swift parrots, that the agency “recognizes its responsibility as stewards of the land” and that a plan management including additional measures is being developed. She suggests that the economic situation of the industry has changed since she asked for the reduction of the sawmill quota in 2016.
Sustainable Timber Tasmania’s annual reports show that it has recorded an operating profit for the past four years. Economist John Lawrence says he would have made losses if not for accounting measures and government subsidies.
Conservationist and BirdLife Tasmania organizer Dr Eric Woehler says government and agency plans don’t go far enough to halt the ‘catastrophic decline’ in parrot numbers, and the strength of the report is that it ” fundamentally aligns with what the industry has asked for”.
“What this shows is that with strategic thinking and planning, we are able to ease the pressure on a critically endangered species,” he says. “It’s not rocket science.”
The only thing that stands in the way, according to Woehler, is “political reluctance”.
“The problem has been well known, for decades, and we have seen a weakening of protection and a business as usual approach to land management in the state,” he says. “It’s a recipe for the extinction of a species.”