60 Years of Mining in WA: 28,000 ha Forest Cleared, No Rehabilitation

WA Government supports strip mining over Sustainable Forest Management of Jarrah forests

Thu 18 May 23


US aluminum production giant Alcoa has failed to fully rehabilitate any of the almost 28,000 ha of Western Australia’s forest it has cleared during 60 years of mining, despite repeatedly stating it has rehabilitated more than 75%.

None of the 28,000 ha of native vegetation cleared by Alcoa up to 2021 has been found to meet the government’s rehabilitation completion criteria, according to an article in WAtoday.

Even 1355 ha of its original mining area in Jarrahdale that Alcoa handed back to the state in 2005 and 2007 did not meet the criteria.

Jess Beckerling, director of non-profit conservation group WA Forest Alliance, said the department’s finding that there was a lack of any completed rehabilitation was a shocking indictment of Alcoa’s attitude to the forest.

Table: WAtoday  Source: WA Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions  Get the data  Created with Datawrapper

“The community is getting wise to this sort of cynical greenwashing and Alcoa’s reputation and social licence to operate have taken a serious hit,” Ms Beckerling said.

Conflicting definitions of rehabilitation

The discrepancy between Alcoa’s claims and what it has achieved is muddied by conflicting definitions of rehabilitation by Alcoa and the government.

“The rehabilitation results have been woeful,” says Gavin Butcher, industry analyst and for more than 20 years a director at the WA Forest Products Commission.

The article draws attention to a long-term concern around the rehabitiation of the Jarrah forests. Footage courtesy of @alcoaminingjarrahforest3725

“The species diversity is very weak, and as such, the understorey is made up of only a couple of species when the previous forest had been enormously rich,” Mr Butcher said.

Gavin Butcher is a regular contributor to the publication and recently covered the WA Logging Ban for Wood Central.

“It is true that Alcoa has achieved the inputs to affect rehabilitation, but alas none of the outcomes are satisfactory.

“It is quite clear from science published that maintaining the industry at its current level is not a threat, and in fact could be beneficial in thinning the forests.

“The current approach where the only timber provided will be sourced from mine clearing demonstrates the perversity of the government’s approach,” he said.

“One industry destroys forests and is allowed to dig up increasing areas of forest while the other industry which has achieved international certification for sustainability can only pick up the waste from mining.”

Gavin Butcher, former director of the WA Forest Products Commission
The current Forest Plan is not ‘fit for purpose’

Mr Butcher said for there to be full use of the timber that can be made available there needed to be a commitment to supply a quantity.

“But based on the current Forest Plan, the government is not willing to specify a quantity. So, one wonders how it expects industry to plan and invest without any supply commitment.

The WA Government has attracted criticism for banning sustainable harvest of native forests and granting mining licences to companies who ‘strip’ from the same forests. Footage courtesy of @jackbradshaw7242.

“Imagine the mining industry investing if it didn’t obtain a clear right of access to land.

“What the state government must consider is whether more timber could be made available from private forests. Currently, the level of green regulation around harvesting timber on private land impedes commercial timber management by landowners. Now that all state forests are to be ‘protected’ perhaps restrictions on the use on private forests could be eased.”

We need to promote long-term hardwood timber plantations

Mr Butcher said the third area for consideration was the promotion of long-term hardwood timber plantations. The government tried to establish a new hardwood plantation industry in the 2000s but got cold feet and withdrew financial support. The advent of a revenue stream from the carbon value could make this option more viable.

In November 2022 Wood Central contributor Gavin Butcher covered the WA Government’s review of the Native Forestry Bill.

“For the unloved timber industry, it will be of keen interest to see whether the Upper House committee is willing to take the scab of the forestry wound and try to provide some real policy for the government,” he said.

Forestry Australia is currently discussing Alcoa’s environmental performance with the company.

Rehabilitation definition does not meet societal expectations

Curtin University professor and eminent botanist Professor Kingsley Dixon, director of the ARC Centre for Mine Site Restoration, told the WAtoday that Alcoa’s definition of “rehabilitated” was correct among experts in the field but inconsistent with the understanding of the term by the general public.

“The community believes rehabilitation equals a forest ecosystem, but the reality is, that is not what is achieved at this stage.”

Professor Kingsley Dixon, director of the ARC Centre for Mine Site Restoration

Alcoa reported the area it calls ‘rehabilitated’ to the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions without accompanying definition.

The miner in its annual sustainability report provides the description “returned to natural conditions”.

An Alcoa spokeswoman said rehabilitation had been slowed by major moves of large mining infrastructure and the need to leave some areas fallow for some years to contain the plant disease dieback.

She said the company had used scientific research to refine its rehabilitation program since it began in 1968 and its ability to restore a healthy forest was evidenced by the return of fauna over time.

Concerns over the state of the jarrah forest ecosystem

Professor Dixon said the growing backlog of rehabilitation was a concern, especially when it was not yet known whether the jarrah forest ecosystem could be reinstated satisfactorily.

Alcoa’s operations in WA are part of a joint venture 40% owned by ASX-listed Alumina Ltd. The 31.4 million tonnes of bauxite mined in the state in 2022 accounted for 75% of global production for the two companies.

In January, Alcoa CEO executive Roy Harvey told the Australian Financial Review that WA was critical to the company. “The company’s mining operations stretch over an area the size of Perth’s sprawling suburbs and wants to expand into two new areas where for the first time its mining will be subject to the independent scrutiny of the WA Environmental Protection Authority,” Mr Harvey said.

This area near Nanga Brook, as seen in August 2021, has been rehabilitated, according to Alcoa. (Photo credit: WAtoday).

Professor Dixon said the growing backlog of rehabilitation was a concern, especially when it was not yet known whether the jarrah forest ecosystem could be reinstated satisfactorily.

  • With commentary by Peter Milne who covers WA energy and mining issues for WAtoday, The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald as well as Brad Thompson of the Australian Financial Review.
Additional Notes

An observation by respected Queensland-based forester Paul Ryan, BSc Forestry, ANU, who has accumulated more than 40 years of professional forestry experience, mostly in the Asia-Pacific and African regions:

“The need for trees or ‘forests’ is becoming more critical as urban expansion creates heat sinks, while trees, on the other hand, provide up to 4 deg. lower temps and help remove some of the air pollution, and provide several other benefits. 

“At the same time, there is a rising demand for wood for building and other uses, but a lot of arm-chair urban dwellers rile at plantations, which they call ‘ecological deserts’, and want to lock up already harvested and sustainably managed forests because of some vague conservation ideas they have been fed. 

“I feel part of the problem continues to be a lack of education about forestry, although some may not wish to listen.”


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