Little left to lose: deforestation history of Australia

6 10 2011

© donkeycart

I don’t usually do this, but I’m going to blog about a paper I’ve just had accepted in the Journal of Plant Ecology that isn’t yet out online. The reason for the early post is that the paper itself won’t appear until 2012 in a special issue of the journal, and I think the information needs to get out there.

First, a little history – In May this year I blogged about a workshop that I attended at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, China at the behest of Fangliang He. The workshop (International Symposium for Biodiversity and Theoretical Ecology) was attended by big-wig overseas ecologists and local talent, and was not only informative, but a lot of fun (apart from the slight headache on the way home from a little too much báijiǔ the night before). More importantly, we  lǎo wài (老外) were paired with various students to assist with publications in progress, and I’m happy to say that for me, two of those have already produced fruit (one paper in review, another about to be submitted).

But the real reason for this post was the special issue of papers written by the invitees – I haven’t published in the journal before, and understand that it is a Chinese journal that has gone mainstream internationally now. I’m only happy to contribute to lifting its profile.

Given that I’m not a plant ecologist per se (although I’ve dabbled), I decided to write a review-like paper that I’ve been meaning to put together for some time now examining the state of Australia’s forests and the history of her deforestation and forest degradation. The reason I thought this was needed is that there is no single peer-reviewed resource one can turn to for a concise synopsis of the history of our country’s forest destruction. The stats are out there, but they’re buried in books, government reports and local-scale scientific papers. My hope is that my paper will be used as a general reference point for people wishing to get up to speed with Australia’s deforestation history.

The paper is entitled Little left to lose: deforestation and forest degradation in Australia since European colonisation, and it describes the general trends in forest loss and degradation Australia-wide, followed by state- and territory-level assessments. I’ve also included sections on plantations, biodiversity loss from deforestation and fragmentation, the feedback loop between climate change and deforestation, the history of forest protection legislation, and finally, a discussion of the necessary general policy directions needed for the country’s forests.

I’ve given a few titbits of the stats in a previous post, but let me just summarise some of the salient features here:

  • Australian forests were by no means ‘pristine’ when Europeans arrived a little over 200 years ago – Aboriginal fire-stick farming had already changed the landscape substantially
  • We’ve lost about 40 % of our total forest cover over the last 200 years
  • Australia has only about 4 % of the world’s forests on about 5 % of the world’s total land area
  • Remaining forests are highly fragmented, with some forest ecosystems now almost completely destroyed
  • ~ 50 % of Australia’s forest have now been completely cleared or severely modified, with > 80 % of eucalypt forests in particular having been altered
  • Most deforestation occurred originally in the most fertile coastal areas of NSW, VIC and SA. Later, government policies urged landholders to destroy vast swathes of forest land in WA, and most recently, in QLD
  • QLD has the greatest area of native forest, but has had some of the highest deforestation rates in the world in the last 30 years
  • TAS has the highest proportion of its land area covered in native forest (ACT has nearly the same)
  • There have been hundreds of localised extinctions arising from deforestation and fragmentation around Australia
  • There are around 2,000,000 ha of plantations (most exotic species) in Australia today
  • Deforestation has increased droughts and temperatures, especially in WA
  • The proportion of forests in Australia now falling within nature  conservation reserves has increased from 11 to 16 % from 1998-2008, but much of this area has been previously cleared or severely modified

My main take-home policy recommendations are that existing tracts of native forest MUST be conserved first (given the irreplaceableness of primary forests), followed by a concerted effort to regenerate areas between existing native fragments to maximise the size of the latter.

If you’d like a pre-print copy, just let me know by sending a message through the feedback/comment form. I’ll probably have to check with Fangliang if he’s happy for this, but I reckon it shouldn’t be a problem.

CJA Bradshaw



24 responses

24 09 2014
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[…] posts on just how badly Australia is doing in the environmental stakes, with massive deforestation continuing since colonial times, feral predators and herbivores blanketing the continent, inadequate protected areas, piss-weak […]

22 07 2014
Another 589 scientists speak out against Abbott’s war on the environment |

[…] in protecting some of its remaining native forests, wildlife and wilderness are applauded, some 6 million hectares of forest have been lost since 2000. Existing forest protection will be undermined by weak climate change legislation, and poorly […]

19 05 2014
A convenient truth: global push for carbon-based conservation

[…] provides us free of charge. With only about 4 per cent of the world’s forests in Australia, the little we have is too precious to degrade any further than the already ~ 40 per cent total forest cover loss we’ve realised since European […]

19 05 2014
A convenient truth: global push for carbon-based conservation |

[…] it provides us free of charge. With only about 4 per cent of the world’s forests in Australia, the little we have is too precious to degrade any further than the already ~ 40 per cent total forest cover loss we’ve realised since European […]

24 04 2014
Look at the whale (while we wipe out everything else) |

[…] country mostly comprised of deserts), have the world’s highest mammal extinction rate, and an historical addiction to deforestation that rivals the devastation of the Amazon. We are systematically eroding our national protected […]

5 03 2014
Terrestrial biodiversity’s only chance is avoided deforestation | Gaia Gazette

[…] most know, after centuries of deforestation, Australia is back on the forest clearance bandwagon after we elected so many right-wing state and […]

3 03 2014
Australia’s (latest) war on the environment |

[…] isn’t the end of Australia’s long history of disrespect for its own home – I predict we’ll see, within the lifetime of this government’s current […]

24 01 2014
Terrestrial biodiversity’s only chance is avoided deforestation |

[…] most know, after centuries of deforestation, Australia is back on the forest clearance bandwagon after we elected so many right-wing state and […]

30 08 2013
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[…] designed to protect native vegetation on private land only came into force because Australia had among the world’s highest land-clearing rates, rivalling forest-destroying nations like Brazil and […]

12 04 2013
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[…] I’m involved in this one, and second, it’s very near to my home. As you might know, the Mount Lofty Ranges area has had about 90 % of its forests destroyed since European settlement, with a corresponding loss of ecosystem services. We need smart restoration on massive scale, and […]

12 03 2013
Brave new green world: biodiversity’s response to Australia’s carbon economy |

[…] discussed before how about 40 % of Australia’s forests have been destroyed since European colonisa…. As such, any investment that encourages tree planting is largely a good thing if it leads to […]

5 03 2013
Hot topics in ecology |

[…] our prosperity is based. As my readers will know, Australia has an awful environmental history of deforestation, mammal extinctions, invasive species and wretched water management. Too few of our major […]

12 12 2012

Awaiting the full text to go through. I hope there’s a big contribution from the annual wild fires in Australia for the total deforestation. And also as the driest continent on earth and with many deserts how is that going to effect to the results… Interesting to know.

12 12 2012

The PDF is available. Scroll down to the last comment.

In terms of wildfires, they have been part of the Australian landscape for millions of years (even though fire regimes are highly modified by humans now). I focussed mainly on the mechanical removal of forests.

12 12 2012

I should have missed it, now I have it. Thanks :)

12 12 2012

Go to my publications page to access the PDF.

21 09 2012
No-extinction targets are destined to fail «

[…] Australia has the highest current extinction rate of mammals in the world4, and we have lost nearly 40% of our forest cover since European colonisation5. South Australia in particular has seen extensive habitat loss, local […]

5 09 2012

Apparently I underestimated the deforestation in Tasmania. This from Rod Knight (CEO of Natural Resource Planning Pty Ltd., Hobart, Tasmania):

“I particularly liked your synopsis of what needs to happen into the future and the specific identification of loss of fertile lands. Very few people recognise the disproportionate impact the loss of forest on these lands has on biodiversity conservation.

I noticed that your data on Tasmania was particularly dated, and importantly missed identifying the significant increase in land clearing from 1996.

During this period some 150,000 ha of native forest was cleared, primarily for establishment of tree plantations with secondary loss through agricultural clearing.

This represents a rate of 10,000 ha/annum.

This has slowed with the introduction of restrictions on land clearing, dropping to 2,400 ha of clearing last financial year, and the collapse of Managed Investment Scheme companies. This has been accompanied by a shift in emphasis to clearing for agriculture. However, the changing economic climate for farming is seeing pressure to wind back the land clearing regulations, with one company wishing to clear 6,500 ha for dairy farm expansion in just one part of the State.

These data are contained in the annual reports of the Forest Practices Authority.”

24 04 2012
To corridor, or not to corridor: size is the question «

[…] for (mainly) forest-dwelling species which have copped the worst of deforestation trends around Australia and the world. The idea is that because of intense habitat fragmentation, isolated patches of […]

12 01 2012

It’s now out online – click the DOI above for access

5 09 2012

Or e-mail me for a copy.

30 12 2011

The paper now has full citation details (although the online version won’t be available until 12 Jan 2012):

Bradshaw, CJA. 2012. Little left to lose: deforestation and forest degradation in Australia since European colonisation. Journal of Plant Ecology 5(1): 109-120. doi:10.1093/jpe/RTR038

21 10 2011

The paper has a digital object identifier (DOI) now for citation purposes: 10.1093/jpe/RTR038

19 10 2011

It turns out that the editor (Fangliang) is happy for me to distribute PDF pre-prints. Many have asked and received already.

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