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In It Together

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The devastating summer bushfires have increased our collective awareness of forest management, making organisations like the more pivotal than ever.

The natural environment and how the human race lives in, manages, respects and destroys it has never come under greater scrutiny than right now. It’s a global issue, but each country and its governments have their own, unique responsibilities. Our vast land has greater challenges than most, and both Australia’s and the world’s eyes are on us, not least in light of the devastating forest fires of last summer. How our forested land – and at 134 million hectares there’s a lot of it – is managed sustainably to meet community and environmental needs is front and centre.

Knowledge and experience are key, meaning a chat with Bob Gordon, President of the Institute of Foresters of Australia (IFA), is both enlightening and one peppered with warnings about correct forest management. In short, there’s much to be done in terms of thinking and investment in the right areas, but encouragingly there’s a wealth of expertise to hand, as long as the right people listen and take note.

“People see forestry as a lifelong profession, so many of our (IFA) members have been involved either as researchers, academics or practitioners for a long, long time,” Mr Gordon says. “Everyone on our board, except for me, has a PhD. There’s a huge range of expertise.” Gordon is no rookie, either. The 64-year-old Tasmanian has spent four decades in the forestry and natural resources sector, was appointed a Forestry Commissioner in 1991 and was MD and CEO of Forestry Tasmania before becoming turnaround CEO for the IFA.

So what is the IFA? It was created in 1935 as the professional membership body for people trained in forest science – foresters, basically – aiming to advance and protect the cause of forestry. A volunteer-led organisation, its current strategic plan includes supporting best practice tree growing and forest management, promoting the value of forest science and forestry professionals, increasing awareness of forest management and sustainability, as well as creating a large and broad membership.

It boasts approximately 1000 members, including forest scientists, professionals, managers and growers throughout Australia. Their skills, knowledge and experience are integral. Not just anyone can “read the bush” in terms of looking at a forest to determine its history, health and needs, plus being able to engage with the community to collaborate on the correct management of our forests.

“Some of our members are involved with the urban forest, which I think is a huge growth area both in Australia and worldwide,”

“Some of our members are involved with the urban forest, which I think is a huge growth area both in Australia and worldwide,” says Gordon.says Gordon. “People are appreciating the benefit of trees in the urban environment for capturing carbon but also reducing temperature. There’s also lots of evidence people feel better when they can see and touch wood and trees.”

Certainly, from the arb and forestry industry employment point of view, an appreciation of greener urban spaces and their careful management looks a win-win.

Gordon was brought in as IFA’s turnaround CEO following the Global Financial Crisis. “Almost every listed company and managed investment scheme in forestry had gone into liquidation; governments were cutting funding in the public sector; funding was cut to our members and membership dropped substantially and suddenly,” he says. “There was a perfect storm in the forestry sector. We reduced our expenditure and got more pro-active in terms of engaging with people who had lost their jobs.”

Despite the challenges first of the summer’s bushfires, and now coronavirus, Gordon says the IFA’s now a nimbler and more proactive organisation than before, and membership has surged. The expertise is much needed. “We believe there’s a vacuum in the public debate, particularly in management of forests,” Gordon explains. “It’s obvious during the bushfires and recovery process that many people with no real practical experience with fire have been too prominent in the debate. The media picks that up and information can be misleading or taken out of context.”

Gordon uses examples of certain “experts” without fire management experience suggesting prescribed burning to reduce fuel loads doesn’t have any impact on fire behaviour. “This is demonstrably not true,” he says. “Common sense seems to have gone out the window because some people involved don’t have practical experience. Australia’s flora and fauna has evolved with fire. For over 60,000 years indigenous Australians managed the land very well with fire as a management tool. Foreigners came, excluded fire and it became a firestorm.

Clever use of traditional cultural burning or other means is really important to keep ecosystems healthy.”

With funds raised, IFA’s other work has included sending expert volunteers to raise forest management standards and prescribed burning procedures in Fiji, aiding rebuilding in Vanuatu following the devastating cyclone, and looking to countries such as Finland, Sweden and others in how wood can be better incorporated into the modern world. Multi-storey buildings are being constructed from wood (carbon neutral versus huge CO2-emitting concrete and steel), while Scandinavians make anything from adhesives to clothing from wood, while wood biomass has replaced coal power in some power stations.

Closer to home, being expert advisers and practical participants in managing our forests and reducing fire risk is paramount. “The best way to get better at managing fire so it doesn’t become wildfire is to have strategic reduction of fuel loads; have really good surveillance and monitoring to detect fires early, and have skilled and available first attack crews,” says Gordon. “If you can get to a fire early, you generally have a pretty good chance of containing it. Aerial equipment (expensive firebombers) is useful, but if a fraction of the money spent on them was instead spent on having skilled crews doing prescribed burning, it’d be a more efficient use of money.”

Bob Gordon looks to Australia’s forestry future positively, with more recognition and more jobs for those in the industry. He believes the IFA’s future is bright too. Expert members from many spheres are a strong collective force, and if the bushfires taught us anything, heeding advice from those with genuine expertise and experience is more important than ever.

For more information on The Institute of Foresters of Australia visit www.forestry.org.au

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