A number of threatening processes directly or indirectly jeopardise the health and vitality of forest ecosystems. These include: clearing for cropping and grazing; mining; timber harvesting; the impact of invasive species; altered fire regimes; and climate change. Impacts vary enormously in their spatial extent and the time taken for their consequences to become apparent. The processes presenting the greatest immediate threats are clearing and fragmentation of habitats, although the impacts of harvesting are particularly pertinent in forests from which timber is produced.
In recognition of the potentially adverse impacts of these threatening processes on Australia's forests, the Commonwealth Government and the state and territory governments have endeavoured to protect Australia's forest ecosystems through forest conservation. The general aim of forest conservation is to ensure that forest ecosystems and the natural processes that sustain them remain intact for their own sake and for the benefit and enjoyment of future generations (NFI 1998). This implies preservation of the suite of economic, ecological, social and cultural values of forest ecosystems. Forest conservation is an important component of ecologically sustainable forest management (see the article Sustainable forest management).
Across Australia, approximately 26.8 million ha of native forest are protected and conserved in reserves, representing 16% of our remaining native forest estate (table 17.3). This compares favourably with a global average of 8% reserved (AFFA 2001). Australia's protected forest estate is subject to a number of types of tenure and intentions regarding management. About 12% of the native forest estate is in Nature Conservation Reserves (20.5 million ha - see table 17.1), formally gazetted under state or territory and/or Commonwealth legislation (i.e. National Parks and Flora Reserves). The remaining conserved area occurs under tenures which are not principally managed for conservation but may afford some protection to many conservation values.
Australia's National Forest Policy Statement advocated the development of a comprehensive, adequate and representative (CAR) system of reserves for Australia's forests. The national CAR reserve system aims to safeguard biodiversity, old-growth, wilderness and other natural and cultural values of the forests. The 'comprehensive' dimension of the system aims to secure diversity across forest communities; the 'adequate' requirement ensures that the reserved areas are of sufficient size to maintain the viability and integrity of native forest populations, species and communities; and the 'representative' principle seeks to ensure that the diversity within a native forest community is preserved across its range (AFFA 2001).
Establishing a CAR reserve system is one of the key objectives of the Regional Forest Agreement (RFA) process. The RFA process adopted the nationally agreed 'JANIS criteria' to identify the areas of the forest that needed protection under the CAR reserve system. These criteria specify: the reservation of a proportion of the past extent of forest ecosystems and current rare or depleted ecosystems; the protection of old-growth and forested wilderness; and the protection of adequate high-quality habitat for forest species, particularly those considered endangered. Development of these CAR reserves is confined largely to RFA regions with forests intensively managed for timber production. The CAR reserve system is not applicable to the entire forest estate.
The RFA process added 2.9 million ha to the existing forest reserves estate, giving RFA regions a total of 10.4 million ha of forest in conservation reserves (table 17.4). This increased the reserved forest area in RFA regions by about 39%. More than 8.5 million ha are within formal dedicated conservation reserves. The RFAs increased old-growth forest protection across the 10 RFA regions by approximately 42%, from 2.4 million ha to 3.4 million ha. As a consequence, about 68% of existing old-growth forests in RFA regions have been reserved.
17.3 PROTECTED NATIVE FOREST(a) - 2001
Area of protected forest
Proportion of total native forest
|(a) Includes areas under conservation management that have not been formally gazetted under state or territory and/or Commonwealth legislation. Private forests informally managed for conservation are not included in the protected forest areas.|
Source: Bureau of Rural Sciences 2001.
AFFA (Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry - Australia) 2001, Australia's Forests - The Path for Sustainability.
AFFA 2002a, Regional Forest Management Summary.
AFFA 2002b, Sustainable Forest Management: Criteria and indicators for sustainable management of Australia's forests, Montreal Process Implementation Group.
Bureau of Rural Sciences 2001, National Forest Inventory 2001.
NFI (National Forest Inventory) 1998, Australia's State of the Forests Report 1998, Bureau of Rural Sciences.
17.4 TOTAL RFA(a) REGIONS IN RESERVES(b) - March 2001
Increase in reserves
|Upper North East/NSW|
|Lower North East/NSW|
|(a) Regional Forest Agreement.|
(b) These figures have been agreed between Commonwealth agencies only. Some figures have not been agreed to by states and territories.
Source: AFFA 2002a.