A wicked conundrum

A colleague of mine came to a meeting visibly shaken. He had just received a phone call to say that one of the union members he represents had been killed. A dead tree had fallen onto him.

The deceased man was a forester who had been about to begin a harvesting operation. It was a tragic accident.

Although occupational health and safety (OH&S) regulations allow for the removal of dead trees from forests to reduce the likelihood of similar fatalities, it would seem impossible to eliminate all risk to operators felling trees. Trees are large, unwieldy and, in Australia, many species are prone to losing branches and bows without warning. Yet when a person dies there is renewed pressure to tighten regulations.

However, there is a counter pressure. Many mammal and bird species in Australia rely on the holes that form in standing dead and large trees as roost and nest sites. Some of these species are rare and some of these are endangered. The retention of at least some of the larger and standing dead trees is considered a conservation imperative. Separate to those on OH&S, other acts of parliament exist to protect rare and endangered species that inhabit dead trees. Regulations in these acts limit the removal of standing dead and large trees.

What do regulators do with this mixed message?

  • Allow all dead trees to be removed to ensure human life is preserved.
  • Keep the dead trees and force workers to accept the risks.
  • Go away from mixed land use and assign areas to either forestry or conservation and only have dead trees in designated conservation areas.
  • Retain the trees for conservation in all areas but minimise the risk to the foresters with better training, equipment and access constraints.

When the law overlaps and when different government departments administer the regulations, it is not easy to come to a compromise. In the end we lean toward risk management, preserving human life first. We regulate to remove dead trees wherever there is risk and limit retention to the conservation estate. And this is understandable.

We fix the conundrum, but we unwittingly perpetuate the misnomer that conservation happens only in reserves. It doesn’t. It happens everywhere. Soon we must learn to manage whole landscapes, to protect the forester and the tree hollows. Then we will see the old laws and regulations replaced by new ones that promote rather than restrict.


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