Doomed Planet

Another Unholy Marriage of Activism and Science

Those working in the native hardwood timber sector have long lived with the existential threat posed by incessant media barracking forthen eco-activists’ ‘no-logging’ agenda. However, the increasing role of conservation scientists in driving this agenda has added a disturbing new dimension that should be ringing alarm bells for those who value academic scholarship as the benchmark for accurate, honest, and agenda-free analysis.

There is nothing wrong with conservation scientists raising concerns about matters of which they have specialist knowledge. However, their increasingly alarmist allegations in relation to native forest timber production are largely rooted in a refusal to acknowledge its proportionally very minor extent and a related lack of understanding of its field-planning, protocols and practices. Together, this feeds into a grossly over-inflated perception of its environmental impact that is being promulgated under the guise of academic credibility.  

When it comes to forestry, too many conservation scientists are openly displaying an inability to separate their academic research from their personal opinions. Some are arrogant enough to assert that their published works represent the irrefutable final word in the conflict over native forests, despite often producing flawed papers founded on flimsy or wrong assumptions, with conclusions and resolutions that delve into industry and forest management matters that are beyond their expertise.

Arguably of greatest concern is that some conservation scientists have been promoting their research, or otherwise speaking out in the media, at strategically important times, the apparent intention being to add their academic weight to eco-activist claims. This leaves little doubt that they are active supporters of campaigns designed to influence community sentiment and shape political outcomes.

A case in point is the media pile-on precipitated by the recent appeal court victory of Victorian government forestry agency, VicForests. This decision overturned an eye-brow raising Federal Court ruling from May 2020 that had adjudged Victorian native timber production to be systemically breaching a ‘precautionary principle’ clause contained in the state’s Code of Practice, and thereby contravening national environmental laws enshrined in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act (1999).

The initial Federal Court ruling was surprising because Victorian forests have been harvested under the Code of Practice for many years with little to suggest that its ‘precautionary principle’ clause was being breached. In the 15 years since the clause was inserted into the Code, VicForests’ planning, protocols and practices have been accredited to the world’s largest forest certification scheme – a process which involves regular independent audits that have never seriously questioned VicForests’ adherence to that part of the Code. Also, over this period, Victoria’s Environment Department has conducted regular audits of VicForests’ compliance with the Code, with no concerns ever being raised.

Accordingly, it was no great surprise when VicForests’ appeal against this Federal Court ruling proved successful. Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, a call by the forest industry for ‘the umpire’s decision’ to be respected was ignored as media outlets mobilised to discredit the appeal win and reassert the activist narrative that VicForests logs illegally in contravention of national environmental laws.  

That career academics are playing a major role in this is exemplified by two recent episodes: (1) the ABC’s repeated reporting that VicForests is ‘illegally logging’ steep slopes and thereby damaging Melbourne’s water supply; and (2) an analysis on The Conversation website claiming that VicForests’ appeal court victory will be disastrous for wildlife. 

The allegation of systemic ‘illegal logging’ of steep slopes in Melbourne’s water supply was first raised by two ANU conservation scientists on the ABC in November 2019. Virtually the same claim was reported again on the ABC in April 2021[1] while the VicForests’ appeal was being considered by the court. Soon after VicForests had won its appeal, the allegation was raised yet again in another ABC radio report[2] featuring these same scientists claiming that steep slope logging in contravention of Victoria’s Code of Practice was threatening Melbourne’s water supplies, and berating Victoria’s Office of the Conservation Regulator for doing nothing about it.

The first two times this allegation was raised it was refuted by Victoria’s regulatory authority which had already thoroughly investigated it and found no evidence of systemic breaching of steep slope harvest limits, although a couple of minor breaches had been noted. It was also pointed out that the allegation was based on the ANU scientists’ use of less precise terrain modelling (compared to that used to plan and manage the timber harvesting) and insufficient ground truthing. Also, the allegation seemed to ignore that the Code of Practice, at the time of harvesting, allowed a 10% portion of a coupe to exceed specified steep slope limit in some situations.

Perhaps most importantly, the ANU allegation was largely based on harvesting that had not even occurred in Melbourne’s designated water catchments, despite sensationalist ABC coverage misrepresenting it as a dire threat to the city’s water supply.  

That, despite these explanations, the same allegation would be raised a third time by these scientists so soon after VicForests had won a legal argument reaffirming the validity of its timber harvesting, can only be construed as an attempt to help reinstate an activist narrative in need of a re-boot. Furthermore, their repeated use of the inflammatory term ‘illegal logging’ has been entirely unwarranted for harvesting operations that are approved by a government agency on land designated for that use, and subject to detailed pre-planning, in-field supervision, monitoring, and post-harvest regeneration. Surely, scientists acting as partisan initiators of misleading, over-hyped media sensationalism are contravening academic standards that demand truth, objectivity and impartiality.

Last week’s analysis by three Melbourne-based conservation scientists on The Conversation warned of dire consequences for forest wildlife due to VicForests’ recent appeal court victory.[3]It displayed a breath-taking ignorance of the history and intent of forestry regulation, and lacked any acknowledgement of the very limited scale and extent of timber harvesting which minimises the significance of its environmental impact.

According to these three scientists – two ecology professors and an environmental law fellow – the States have only regulated forestry since the 1980s and 1990s, despite all States having had forestry agencies undertaking that role for over a century. Apparently, the Regional Forest Agreements (RFAs) were struck between Federal and State Governments in the 1990s so that “forestry would be conducted under these state-led RFAs, avoiding federal scrutiny”! [my emphasis]. And, VicForests’ appeal win apparently means “that logging – even if it breaches state requirements – is exempt from the federal law that protects threatened species”! [my emphasis again].

In fact, native forest timber production has never been exempt, per se, from federal environmental laws. But, in recognition of it as a continuous activity occurring simultaneously on multiple sites, it has, quite sensibly, been treated differently to how federal environmental laws otherwise deal with single large development proposals, such as planned mines or housing estates. This has been achieved through Regional Forest Agreements which allowed the States to develop an agreed hierarchy of regional management plans, site-specific protocols, and enforceable Codes of Practices deemed to serve the same intent as federal environmental laws.

To best serve their anti-logging agenda, eco-activists have long labelled this different approach as an ‘exemption’ to falsely imply that forestry operates without environmental controls; and it is beyond disappointing that many conservation scientists unquestioningly accept this falsehood despite native forestry being one of the most highly regulated land uses in the country.

The three scientists also claimed that VicForests’ appeal victory “removes any certainty for environmental protection”. This is an astounding claim given that Victorian forests are overwhelmingly contained in national parks and other permanent conservation reserves, while VicForests’ timber production operations are restricted to within just a 6% portion of the state’s public forests. On the timber harvesting coupes themselves, operational prescriptions provide further environmental protections, for example through waterway buffers, habitat trees, and silvicultural modifications.

It is inconceivable that the two very senior ecology professors who co-authored the analysis would be unaware of such basic facts; however, to acknowledged it would have clearly undermined the central thrust of their message. We almost expect environmental activists to ‘deceive by omission’ when pushing their agendas, but it is surely not appropriate behaviour for scientists from whom we  expect agenda-free analysis.

Presumably due to a dawning appreciation of the major shortcomings of the analysis, The Conversation allowed just one inane supportive comment in the readers forum before closing it due to “a high risk of comments breaching our standards”. This effectively ‘cancelled’ far more informed voices which could have provided its readers with a more accurate and balanced account of what the VicForests’ appeal win actually means. The behavior of The Conversation’s editors in this instance is surely an appalling indictment for a media outlet that claims to “provide a fact-based and editorially-independent forum”.

These recent episodes are just the latest installments in at least a decade of academic activism over native forests that can be traced back to a small cohort of conservation scientists based at the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society, but which has since spread to other tertiary institutions. As well as the current denigration of VicForests’ successful legal appeal, much the same cohort of scientists is also behind an enduring media narrative alleging that logging is a primary driver of large bushfires[4] – a contentious notion that is disputed by more qualified scientists who specialise in forest fires and their management.

Central to the concern over all this is the abuse of academic credibility that is automatically conferred on scientists by the wider community. Demonstrating that some scientists are behaving as though they are activists to help push personal, ideological or political agendas, surely undermines the notion that all scientists should be automatically regarded as impartial and agenda-free brokers of scientific truth. Ultimately, this must dilute the public’s trust in science.






[4] ‘Compelling evidence’ logging native forests has worsened Australian bushfires, scientists warn | Logging and land-clearing | The Guardian

15 thoughts on “Another Unholy Marriage of Activism and Science

  • nfw says:

    Their ALPBC lying? Who would have thought? I wonder why the luvvies just don’t make us an offer we can’t refuse and buy Their ALPBC from us? Oh, that’s right, it would mean using their own money and socialists never do that.

  • Harry Lee says:

    Another useful article that points out the apparent weirdness that animates the leftist/greenist/anti-Westernist forces. To me, a critical decision now confronts we folk of non-leftist/non-greenist/pro-Western varieties, viz: Whatever we say in public, we must now act in deliberate ways to re-establish a workable, abundant, peaceful civil society. This is because, while the left-green/anti-Western people are certainly weird, more than that they are -consciously or unconsciously- highly destructive enemies of the essential/necessary social and economic conditions that provide for proper human flourishing.

  • Michael says:

    Patrick Moore is a former Greenpeace founding activist who grew up in a remote forestry and fishing village on Canada’s Vancouver Island in the years following the Second World War and took a degree in forestry and a PhD in ecology in the ’60s. He left Greenpeace in the mid 1980s: “The truth is Greenpeace and I underwent divergent evolutions. I became a sensible environmentalist; Greenpeace became increasingly senseless as it adopted an agenda that is antiscience, antibusiness, and downright antihuman.”

    Moore supports commercial use of forests, though not national parks, saying “wood is the most important renewable material substance in the world.” “Felling trees is a somewhat integral part of forestry and should not be confused with deforestation. So long as the wood … is used at a sustainable rate, and is comparable to the growth rate of forests, it doesn’t really matter what the wood is used for.”

  • Geoff Sherrington says:

    It is likely that I was the first scientist to be locked out of The Conversation. I have tried several times for unlocking, but ended up with ‘No further correspondence will be entered into’. One day I must find reliable legal advice whether The Con has power or authority to censor, with it receiving some taxpayer funding.
    Mark Poynter, thank you for an important essay. Have you ever understood the motivation of those activists with opposing views? Have you ever been able to get face to face to discuss these issues? Geoff S

  • DG says:

    As soon as claims of ‘dire consequences’ get blown about in the breeze, I know that I don’t even need my BS detector to be switched on. I can smell it a mile off.

  • John Nicol says:

    The idea that cutting trees is to the detriment of land, is a stupid misunderstanding by greens and others who have never actually studied treed areas over time as opposed to open grassed areas.

    Trees inhibit the growth of grass and their roots, underground from the trunk, do nothing to prevent runoff. The trees also retain their leaves sometimes for years and do little to sequester carbon dioxide as has been shown by research in some tropical rainforests. On the other hand, grass grows newly every year absorbing CO2, dies off in the dry period retaining carbon in its dead leaves, stalks and some roots which also die locking carbon in the soil.

    When it rains, new growth of grass collects a whole lot of CO2 in contrast to the behaviour of trees. John Nicol

  • John Nicol says:

    Geoff Sherrington – No, I think I was. John N

  • Harry Lee says:

    Science -proper scientific work- is too hard for most so-called scientists to do properly -in sheer technical/intellectual terms. Add in that the politics of careerism and opportunities to scoop up money further sullies scientific capabilities. Over a 50 year period, I’ve worked in the applied-mathematical end of engineering and in scientific research, in various places on Earth. I have seen good engineers and good scientists driven nuts when faced with the reality that politics and money can trump scientific probity, even in colleagues who have loudly proclaimed their (leftist) idealism and anti-money credentials.
    As Max Planck said quite often: “Science progresses, one funeral at a time”.

  • Peter Marriott says:

    Good piece Mark. People like this seem to come out of our educational system, mainly the public one, that somehow produces them. My thinking is that the more of it one gets, the greater the chance you’ll end up as some kind of radical activist, either passive or active. They seem desperate to believe in something, anything….but not God or their country. Unfortunately that’s what our educational Dons tend to pass on, and it seems to have began, in earnest anyway, back in the 19th century starting with loss of belief in God….the loss of patriotism only picked up speed in more recent times. I seem to remember reading somewhere a comment from a highly educated intellectual type about faith and God along the lines of “that’s good for ordinary people but of course not for us…we know too much”. You can’t get much more foolish advice than that I think, when you’re trying to give students, or anyone for that matter, some sort of a light to see them through the conduct of their life. Interestingly I read somewhere that Solzhenitsyn thought the same, in fact he sheeted home a whole lot of over the top extremist destruction down to that one simple loss.

  • Peter Dare says:

    Was the judgment in the flawed case subject to a successful appeal one of Justice Mordecai Blomberg’s?

  • Harry Lee says:

    Were the demands of the greenist people to implemented, the population would have to be reduced to about 10% of current levels -because greenist ideology must necessarily result in vast reduction in food and energy production. So, which 10% survives and who will decide? But: The Chinese power elites have other ideas. China is desperate to enslave Australia as its farm, quarry and supplier of coal and gas, in perpetuity. And the ALP is keen to comply with that requirement. So that’s that.

  • Peter Rutherford says:

    In 2015, the editor of the Lancet Richard Horton declared: “Much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue. Afflicted by studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn towards darkness.”

    There is increasing evidence to suggest fire and ecological research in Australia may be afflicted with similar issues.

    In March 2020, following the retraction of a paper that cited suspect data linking the controversial drug hydroxychloroquine to increased COVID-19 deaths. The Lancet announced it would alter its peer review process.

    “In the future, both peer reviewers and authors will need to provide statements giving assurances on the integrity of data and methods in the paper, the journal’s editor Richard Horton told POLITICO.”

    Such a change, including more transparency around the whole peer review process, is long overdue in Australia. Perhaps the Australian National University could take the lead in this process of change.

  • Peter Marriott says:

    Peter R.
    Sounds about right to me Peter, good comment.

  • Bernie Masters says:

    Thanks for another excellent article, Mark.
    Here in SW WA, our problem is the main media outlet – The West Australian newspaper – is both anti-logging and pro-climate emergency. It is almost impossible to get a letter to the editor published to reply to the green activists who use pseudo-science, half truths and distortions to give the impression the production forests in the SW are cleared and turned into farmland.
    The lack of political support for forestry – other than plantation forestry relying on exotic species – will see the end of a sustainable industry and the loss of firefighting capacity as timber mills and associated entities close down. This loss of people and machines to fight fires will do more to worsen bushfires in the SW than any minor impact of logging.

  • Rebekah Meredith says:

    Mr. Masters,
    I feel your pain. I do wish I knew what the requirements are for publishing in the West Australian. I had a few letters on the lockdown published in the first half of last year, but have had I think over a dozen (on several different subjects) ignored since. A few other Quadrant commenters have mentioned being unable to get letters published in the West. However, there IS still some conservative correspondence published, and regulars Kim Keogh and John Bandy are generally fairly conservative. Is it necessary to have a certain name to be accepted?
    I have been able to get a few letters into the local papers here in Mandurah. Of course, that’s reaching a significantly smaller number of people; but it’s better than nothing.

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