Australia’s Burned Forests Pose Immense Economic Risk

The silhouette of a firefighter is seen in front of a large bushfire burning high into trees.

Image: Gena Dray

Australia’s wildfires have been devastating for wildlife and people alike but there’s another casualty that’s been largely overlooked in media coverage: its forests. Australia is home to 457 individual forest areas, which together cover a total area of approximately 123 million hectares and the ongoing fires have caused serious losses.

In fact, the Australian Forest Products Association (AFPA) says the wildfires burning large swaths of the country’s forests will cause significant job losses and long-term economic damage. It’s calling for a national consensus to replant and better protect Australia’s forest “infrastructure.”

What’s Going On: Inside Climate News explained that this is about more than forests burning, persistent wildfires are changing entire forest ecosystems in their wake:

“More than 17 million acres have burned in Australia over the last three months amid record heat that has dried vegetation and pulled moisture from the land. Hundreds of millions of animals, including a large number of koalas, are believed to have perished in the infernos. The survivors will face drastically changed habitats. Water flows and vegetation will change, and carbon emissions will rise as burning trees release carbon and fewer living trees are left to pull CO2 out of the air and store it.

In many ways, it’s the definition of a tipping point, as ecosystems transform from one type into another.”

It Gets Worse… As Nerilie Abram, a climate researcher at Australian National University, explained, increasing temperatures dry out fuel and lead to more days of extreme fire weather. The poleward shift of the Southern Hemisphere westerly winds is drawing winter rainfall away from southern Australia, causing a long-term drying trend that makes the landscape more vulnerable to burning.

What’s Next: Active brushfires raging across Australia are expected to burn for weeks, but the AFPA explained that a deeper disaster could extend years into the future if steps aren’t taken to replenish lost forest plantations and make protecting and managing them a national priority. They recommend the following steps to slow the economic and ecological losses resulting from the fires:

  1. As many plantation trees as possible must be saved by nationally supported fire-fighting assets supplementing those resources owned by the plantation companies and state forest agencies;
  2. A massive salvage operation must be supported to enable damaged, but still usable, trees to be stockpiled;
  3. Plantations must be considered an infrastructure asset and urgent replanting supported under the federal Government’s $2billion reconstruction fund or other mechanisms, and
  4. The one billion trees program must be fast-tracked – not delayed

Why This Matters: Before the fires sparked, Australia was in the midst of a full-blown land-clearing crisis with estimates suggesting that in the two decades to 2030, 3m hectares of untouched forest could be bulldozed in eastern Australia. Abating climate change while properly managing forests should be a major political priority for Australia’s government–though PM Morrison doesn’t seem to agree.

Go Deeper: In talking about reforestation, science is increasingly telling us that planting the right trees is critical to protecting forest biodiversity and maximizing carbon sequestration.

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