What if a critically endangered bird could be given a chance at survival by protecting just 7% of Tasmanian native forests earmarked for logging?
And what if the Tasmanian forestry administrators had – for different reasons – already argued that logging should be reduced by roughly that amount?
That’s the case made in a proposal that ecologists and environmentalists believe could halt the steep decline of the swift parrot, a migratory species that experts say could be extinct in 10 years if no action is taken.
Monitoring the world’s fastest parrot is challenging. It spends the winter in Victoria and New South Wales before nesting in different parts of Tasmania each summer, depending on where its main food source, the blue gum, is flowering.
But no one disputes that swift parrot numbers have slumped. A CSIRO-published birds guide released in December puts the population at about 750, down from 2,000 roughly a decade ago.
A new report released by BirdLife Australia, the Wilderness Society and the Tasmanian group the Tree Projects says the primary cause is the loss of large, hollow-bearing trees used for breeding.
It cites a peer-reviewed study that found nearly a quarter of Tasmania’s southern old-growth forests were logged between 1997 and 2016 – evidence, it says, of a systemic failure by the state government to act on repeated scientific advice that protecting parrot habitat was crucial for the species to survive.
Dr Jennifer Sanger, a forest ecologist with Tree Projects, says while the parrot faces other threats, including predation from sugar gliders and worsening bushfire risk due to the climate crisis, habitat loss from logging remains the “number one” issue.
“Unfortunately what we’ve seen from the government is inadequate policies over the past decade that have been exacerbating the decline,” she says. “The habitat is still being logged.”
The Tasmanian Liberal government says it has an answer. In late 2020 it released a policy, known as the public authority management agreement, under which it has promised to set aside 9,300 hectares of southern forests from logging.
The report, On the Edge of Extinction, argues 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 being in reserves.
In reality, it says, the new policy would stop logging in only 2,900ha, and leave other areas with the mature trees the swift parrot relies on available to the forestry industry. Scientific advice to the government says all swift parrot foresting and nesting habitat on Tasmanian public land should be protected to give the species a chance.
This is not a new argument but the report includes what the groups say is a new calculation of what this would mean. It says a swift 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 40,000ha more mature forest and 20,000ha of regrowing forest that could provide future habitat.
It says this could be achieved by listening to the board of the state-owned forestry business, Sustainable Timber Tasmania, which in 2016 told the state government logging was not profitable if it had to meet a legislated quota of providing 137,000 cubic metres of sawlogs a year. It called for this to be cut to 96,000 cubic metres – a 30% cut in timber supply.
The call by the industry body was rejected by the state resources minister, Guy Barnett. The Liberal state government was elected in 2014 on a platform of ending a Labor-Greens “peace deal” brokered between the industry and environmentalists after decades of conflict and expanding native forestry to support jobs in regional communities. Barnett says the existing sawlog quota could be met by selling timber for higher prices while looking for lower cost areas of forest to log.
The groups behind the report say the quota should be dropped entirely, but that reducing it to the level nominated by Sustainable Timber Tasmania could be enough to stabilise parrot numbers. Sanger says it would also help other species, and retain a significant amount of carbon stored in the state’s mature wet eucalyptus forests.
“In a perfect world there would be no native forest logging, but to protect the parrot they really don’t have to do much,” she says. “At the moment they are doing nothing, really.”
Asked about the report last week, the Tasmanian environment minister, Roger Jaensch, said cutting the legislated sawlog quota was “not part of our thinking”. He said the government had committed $1m to implement priorities from a swift parrot recovery plan and he was getting advice from officials on how that money should be spent. “We’ve already made significant changes to harvesting arrangements in areas where there is swift parrot habitat,” Jaensch said.
Suzette Weeding, a general manager with Sustainable Timber Tasmania, says the current policy is a “significant step forward” in swift parrot protection, the agency “recognises its responsibility as a land manager” and a management plan including additional measures is being developed. She suggests the industry’s economic circumstances have changed since it called for the sawlog quota to be reduced in 2016.
Sustainable Timber Tasmania’s annual reports show it has posted an operating profit for the past four years. The economist John Lawrence says it would have recorded losses if not for accounting measures and government grants.
Dr Eric Woehler, an ecologist and the convenor of BirdLife Tasmania, says the government and agency’s plans do not go far enough to halt the “catastrophic decrease” in parrot numbers, and the strength of the report is that it “basically aligns with what the industry has asked for”.
“What it shows is that, with some strategic thinking and planning, we are in a position to ease the pressure on a critically endangered species,” he says. “It’s not rocket science.”
The only thing standing in the way, according to Woehler, is “political unwillingness”.
“The problem is well-known, has been for decades, and we’ve 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.”