How conserving WA’s forests can protect both our livelihoods and the climate: Q&A with Jess Beckerling from Forests for Life

For many years Jess Beckerling has been a champion for WA’s forests, so we thought who better to discuss the socially sustainable ways we can conserve native forests and create employment opportunities for the South West.

Q&A with Jess Beckerling

Firstly, can you introduce yourself and tell us about Forests for Life?

I have been involved in forest conservation since I joined the old-growth blockades as a teenager. I’m one of those classic ‘I can’t believe I still have to protest this shit’ people you see at rallies. I live on the South Coast and I’m involved with a number of regional environmental issues, particularly related to climate, water and sustainable agriculture. I have a science degree in environmental management and I’m passionate about environmental activism and smart transitions that solve urgent problems in ways that are equitable and socially sustainable. 

90% of vegetation in WA’s south-west has been cleared in the last 200 years. Where are the forests and vegetation located that need protecting?  

The South West Global Biodiversity Hotspot is huge – it extends from Shark Bay in the North to Israelite Bay in the east and covers about 350 000 square kilometres. The vegetation here has developed over millennia in isolation from other similar eco-types by oceans and desert, on very old and infertile soils and as a result there’s an incredible diversity of species and an extraordinary degree of endemism. It’s mind-blowing and devastating to think that in just 180 years or so, and mostly between the 1930s and 1960s, 90 percent of the original vegetation in this biodiversity wonderland was cleared or severely degraded. The biggest culprit has been clearing for agriculture, and then also for towns, infrastructure, mining and timber production.

The tall forests only cover a tiny proportion of Western Australia and the majority of them have been cleared and logged.

About 2 million hectares of publicly owned native forests remain in the South West and they extend from south of Perth and down along the Scarp to between Denmark and Albany on the South Coast. About 850 000 hectares of these forests are still available for logging and clearing, primarily for timber and bauxite. 

Last month Minister Kelly announced that there will be no logging of two-tiered karri forests in the South West in 2020. This is a temporary protection but can you explain what led to this decision?

This is the best news we’ve had for the forests in nearly 20 years. Two-tiered karri forests include parts of Lewin, Channybearup and Nelson forests where we’ve had recent camps and actions. They look and function like old-growth karri forests but have missed out on protection until now because of the very narrow definition of old-growth in place in WA.

If you’re walking through an old-growth karri forest with all the ancient trees and nesting hollows in the canopy and come across a stump, even if it was cut down 100 years ago before chainsaws or bulldozers, that one stump disqualifies 2-hectares of the forest you’ve been walking through from old-growth status. This just doesn’t add up and thousands of people have made very strong appeals to the State Government to protect these areas from logging. 

We very much appreciate Minister Kelly listening to the community on this. There is still a long way to go before the forests in the South West are properly protected from logging and clearing, but this freeze on logging of two-tiered karri is a good start and we’re committed to seeing full and permanent protection for the karri, and importantly, for the jarrah forests as well. 

85% of wood sold becomes paper, firewood and charcoal which quickly release carbon into the atmosphere. Is this being accounted for in WA’s carbon pollution emissions?

After native forest logging operations, only about 50 percent of the forest’s biomass is removed and turned into wood products, the rest is burned on-site immediately releasing huge volumes of stored carbon. 

Then, about 85 percent of all the wood sold each year becomes firewood, charcoal and paper, which release their carbon into the atmosphere within about 2 years, on average, of production. 

The national accounting of forest management emissions does include emissions from wood products like firewood and charcoal but we have seen major discrepancies in the reporting of overall emissions from deforestation and logging and it is definitely an area that requires closer scrutiny and improvement. 

Bushfires are another threat to WA forests and this will be front of mind for many communities who witnessed and suffered through one of Australia’s worst bushfire seasons on record. What’s being done to protect WA communities and forests, and how does climate change exacerbate the fires?

Increasing temperatures and declining rainfall are resulting in a longer fire season and more intense fires. We seem to be getting more significant dry lightning events at the end of summer down here, and when lightning hits a hot, dry forest, fires can take hold very quickly. We need to be very careful to keep thinking clearly, and not let fear lead policy or planning on this.

It’s important that we are maintaining and promoting healthy, biodiverse forests for their own sake, and because that is how we maximise the role forests play in averting dangerous climate change.

We know that eucalypt forests have their own mechanisms for reducing flammability, and we should be promoting those mechanisms. Long-unburnt forests, after they have not been burned for 40 years or more, are less flammable than regularly burned forests, and old-growth systems are less flammable than regrowth. Also, native fauna like Woylies, which each turn over about 5 tonnes of soil per year, naturally reduce flammability in the forests. We are all better off when we promote and maintain the well-established natural systems.  

Our current approach of aerial burning thousands of hectares of forest at a time in often very intense conditions causing crown scorch, killing the very old and very young trees, opening the forest up, activating all the wattle and acacias seeds, and creating a homogenous forest environment with thick, dry understorey is just not working. It might be okay in some ecosystems that have developed with more frequent fire, but the wet tall forests that traditionally would only burn every 80-100 years or so are being biologically depleted. We’re stuck in a loop of trying to keep the time since last fire below 6 years or so and continually starting the cycle again rather than working to promote and maintain the wetter, less flammable long unburnt ecosystems. It has to change. The science is improving all the time, and I hope policy can follow suit. 

The latest IPCC report found that, “Reducing deforestation and forest degradation rates represents one of the most effective and robust options for climate change mitigation”. In a nutshell, how do forests draw carbon out of the atmosphere and act as natural carbon sinks?

Forests absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while they’re growing as a part of the photosynthesis process. Plants draw CO2 in through their leaves and then it is combined with water and energy from the sun to create glucose and oxygen. The glucose is transported around the plant as its energy source, and the oxygen is released back into the atmosphere. 

Carbon is stored in the plant’s above ground biomass and in its roots as well as in the soil as soil organic carbon. 

Some CO2 is released back into the atmosphere as a part of the plant’s cellular respiration process, but as the trees and the forest grow, more is stored than is released.

Mature, intact forests capture and store the most carbon from the atmosphere, and the more biodiverse and healthy a forest is, the longer and more reliably they are able to store that carbon. Even when accounting for the wood stored in timber products after logging, unlogged forests store the most carbon. So, the best way to maximise the forests’ role in averting dangerous climate change is to let it grow. 

The 2018 Australia’s State of the Forest report found that 22,000 million tonnes of carbon are stored in Australia’s native forests, with 3,433 Mt of that being stored in WA’s forests. 

Australia’s 10 biggest carbon polluters (all in coal, oil and gas) produce a combined 670 Mt of carbon per year, so Australia’s forests are storing about 33 times the amount of carbon released by the 10 worst polluters in Australia each year. 

Can permanently protecting WA forests from logging be part of the economic recovery for regional communities? What jobs and economic opportunity is to be gained from protecting WA’s forests? 

The social and economic opportunities from protecting native forests far outweigh those from continued logging. The native forest logging sector has been in structural decline for many years and no amount of government money can change that. It is the ultimate lesson in what happens when an industry is fundamentally unsustainable: the good quality timber simply runs out if you log the forests too fast. 

On the other hand, the plantation sector continues to grow and now produces more than 80% of WA’s locally grown timber. The Forests For Life plan is for 40,000 hectares of high value timber trees to be strategically grown in association with farming and would create 860 – 940 jobs and deliver a number of co-benefits for climate, water quality, farm productivity and income diversification among other things. 

Once we’re on the other side of the peak of the coronavirus pandemic and governments are looking to stimulate the economy and create employment in the regions, adopting a proforestation model where forests are protected and managed for conservation would create employment, education and community development opportunities and climate resilience in the South West. Landcare played a big role in a meaningful economic stimulus that had lasting, important results, during the Great Depression, and it can do so again now.

What does growing the forest farming and plantation sector entail? 

There are a few essential criteria for getting farm forestry and plantations right. We have had a range of experiences in WA and around Australia, and we’ve learned a lot. Plantations are fence to fence trees, often grown as a monoculture, while farm forestry is integrated into existing farming practice. The trees are strategically planted and spaced so that cropping and grazing can continue. 

Both should only ever be developed on previously cleared land and then used to improve the ecological function of that landscape.

When done well, plantations and farm forestry improve water quality and soil management while protecting remnant vegetation and endemic species and of course, drawing down and storing carbon. 

It’s critical that the trees are grown in the right rainfall zones and within 100 kilometres of future processing centres to make the transport economically viable. Soil types, grouping of lots, choosing the right tree with the right provenance, and using the appropriate silvicultural program are all critical to success. 

In the Great Southern and South West we would only need to integrate farm forestry into 3 percent of the suitable cropping and grazing country to get 40 000 hectares of trees in place. That would create 860-940 new jobs in the regions and deliver multiple co-benefits. It is something that needs long-term investment and structural support from the Government and it will then stand on its own feet. 

Lastly, what’s next for the campaign to protect forests for our climate?

We are just about to launch our Forests For Climate, Forests For Life campaign. We still have some components to finalise, but very soon we will publish an excellent, very short video explaining the issues and calling on people to contact the State Government and to join a team of forest champions working together, all online at this stage, to amplify our voices and ensure forests are getting the attention they need from decision-makers. 

Our goal is for key high conservation value forests to be protected as a part of the next State election policy commitments, and then for the next 10-year Forest Management Plan (2024-2033) to implement a pro-forestation model where mature forests are protected from threatening processes and managed for conservation and degraded forests are allowed to recover their full biological potential for climate and biodiversity.


Jess Beckerling has lived in the forests on the south coast for the past 13 years. She first became involved in forest conservation in 1997 when she joined the Giblett forest blockade near Pemberton. Jess lived in forest blockade camps for 3 years, winning the State Government’s Youth Leadership Award in recognition of her commitment to the maintenance of nonviolence in the camps. As well as forest conservation Jess has played an important role in local conservation issues around Denmark and Walpole. She has been the convener of WAFA since 2011 and was awarded the Conservation Council’s Bessie Rischbieth award in 2015 for her commitment over many years to the protection of the environment.

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