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19 Jan 2003 - Stromborg's airbrush of ecological mayhem with lies, damn lies and statistics

After reading the paper below return here for more recent interview with a science heavyweight with comparative viewpoint and new book

Lies, damn lies and Prof Stromborg's statistical fantasy - "don't worry be happy" about forest destruction.

A paper by Tom McLoughlin, Bsc(zoo), ecology action sydney 19 Jan 2003.

Most of us have seen Stromborg, Prof of Statistics in Denmark, with his parallel spruiking 'by coincidence' of the industry line on most things anti-green. As I researched the record of that other pseudo environmentalist Premier Bob Carr, NSW Australia, I came across some contradictory news stories on the pivotal issue of the state of our forests globally. Pivotal because forests are a proxy for many environmental indicators - healthy water catchment, wildlife conservation, clean air, salinity control etc.

Stromborg struts his stuff in the Sydney Morning Herald p13 21.6.01 'The earth is doing Ok, actually' where he argues re forests,

'The World Watch Institute claims that 'deforestation has been accelerating over the last 30 years'.

'But Lomborg says that is simply rubbish. Since the dawn of the agriculture the world has lost 20 per cent of its forest cover, but in recent decades depletion has come to a halt. According to UN figures, the area of forests has remained almost steady, at about 30 per cent of total land area since World War II. Temperate forests in developed countries such as the US, UK and Canada have actually been expanding over the past 40 years.'

However I know a bit about forests so if he is wrong on forests how credible are his other blusters and blather on environmental indicators?

Even if you accept the land coverage figures above, it becomes apparent if you are not ecologically qualified you can define a 'forest' to get 'forest' land cover numbers that you want. How very tricky of Stromborg, and it is a trick.

For example forest land cover in Australia has been described as either 35.5 million hectares

(in 'Snapshot of Earth's fragile forest riches' James Woodford, SMH p9 22.8.01, and 'UN steps up pressure over forests' The Australian p6 22.8.01)


164.4 million hectares

(same Woodford SMH article and see also ex-Minister for Forestry Wilson Tuckey letter in The Australian p10 13.6.01 quoting 1998 figure of 156 million for forest/woodland).

Only 130 million hectares discrepancy! How so?

The figures are all from reputable sources: The lower one of 35.5 million ha is from the UN Environment Program using NASA satellite imagery over 1990-95 (still significantly aged data given rapid mechanised clearing) taking forests to mean 40 per cent or above canopy closure as ecologically valid forest. Taking this definition from UNEP, apparently forest cover has dramatically declined globally since 1960 (in 'Land clearing hits at South Coast forests' p14 Ilawarra Mercury 23.8.01).

Again caution is needed as this '40 per cent or more closed canopy' definition is pretty generous to the loggers. My guess is micro climates in forests are probably seriously affected below less than 70 or 80 per cent canopy closure. Witness the horrendous fire storms in the dry fragmented forest of Canberra in the last 2 days (18, 19 Jan 2003) compared with say an intact wet old growth or rainforest. They don't burn near as bad. But that's another story.

According to Woodford of the SMH the higher figure of 164.4 million ha forest cover comes from the Australian Commonwealth govt National Forest Inventory presumably of comparable period as the UNEP figure but using a lower closed canopy definition of only 20 per cent or more. In other words apples and oranges.

It's not hard to see from these massively divergent numbers both measuring the 'forest in Australia' the statistics game Stromborg, Tuckey, the logging industry and their ilk are playing over genuine observations of the systematic destruction of our ecologically valid forests (note 1). Between definitions of 40 per cent, and 20 per cent, closed canopy forest is a whopping 130 million hectares, or 5 times, difference. Suffice to say Tucky is no longer Forestry Minister but Stromborg still gets a gig, eg 0z '60 Minutes' late 2002.

Recall too, regardless of level of closed canopy in your definition of forest, the rapid expansion of tree farms are NOT ecologically valid forests, they are agricultural crops but if one replaces one with the other the statistics probably won't reflect this. And it gets worse. Most forests still standing are damaged across a spectrum of conservation value though all have some conservation significance in this tired brown land.

To illustrate this last point, how well I remember moving to Canberra to study zoology in 1983. Andrew Cockburn our lecturer, later Australian Young Scientist of the Year, commented on the forest cover in the bush capital along these lines.

'I do my studies a long way from Canberra because the forests in Canberra are .... so fucked' or words to that effect.

As a naive student I was shocked to have the bush around me sneered at so bluntly but ever since I have been learning the reality of his observation. There are forests and then there are FORESTS. Most people barely know a good old growth forest, wet micro-climate, fast turnover of nutrients (including animal bodies), good understorey and topsoil. Most forest we see has been ecologically damaged and might only recover over 100, 200 years. It's a process we and our children should support if only for our own sakes and the ecological and economic prospects of this country.

It's from scientific observations like this, that my group Ecology Action Sydney advocates a complete ban on the native forest logging industry including in regrowth native forest so it can recover. Along the lines of consult the 7th generation and they would say no, that's enough, total ban now, and maybe consider some minor exemptions for craft, firewood etc. Again that's another story.

So the truth remains the loggers are trashing primary and recovering natural forests at an alarming pace. There is an ongoing depletion and or severe degradation of natural forests across Australia and the world. Even if there are as many or more (sparsely) tree covered landscapes as Stromborg would have us believe, but as it happens I doubt also with desertification and salinity a real issue in many places


1. these statistical games on native forest are also reminiscent of the kangaroo killing industry in this way: The shooters and farmer lobby note the huge populations of kangaroos which are to be sure impressive breeders. But they never mention that the average age of a Big Red is now only 2.6 years or similar. The old Big Red played a key role in Red Kangaroo behavioural ecology within their mob. The Big Red Kangaroos will have to be renamed Won't Ever Get the Chance Reds. This average age statistic of 2.6 years puts the lie to the no statistical impact claims of the kangaroo shooting industry and supporters like scientist Michael Archer, Director of the Australian Museum [at time of writing, now Dean of Science at UNSW).

2. Feel free to re-print, adapt, with acknowledgement of original author.

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