The perimeter of the Boddington bauxite mine, showing native forest clearing [Credit Jess Beckerling]

By Robert Davies, Public Relations Manager, Conservation Council of Western Australia

Australia’s forests are home to a unique collection of native flora and fauna, including a number of threatened species. Voices advocating for tracking deforestation and regulating logging companies in an attempt to preserve and save Australia’s native forests are progressively growing louder. However, a recent report co-authored by the Conservation Council of Western Australia, the West Australian Forest Alliance, and the Wilderness Society has shone a light on another key source of deforestation – bauxite mining – and offered solutions and recommendations for the State Government to employ to mitigate the potentially devastating effects of the industry on the forests of Western Australia.

The Northern Jarrah Forest in Western Australia is an integral part of the Southwest Australia Ecoregion. A global biodiversity hotspot, it is one of only 36 such areas worldwide, and is recognised as one of the world’s most extraordinary places, harbouring vast numbers of plant and animal species.¹

Stretching over 250km on the Darling Plateau, it boasts more than 780 native plant species, making it a botanical marvel. Furthermore, the forest harbours at least 235 vertebrate species and a staggering number of invertebrates, estimated to be in the tens of thousands, many of which are yet to be scientifically classified or named.

In short, the Northern Jarrah Forest is a natural treasure that merits global recognition. This forest faces significant threats from climate change and is at risk of ecosystem collapse. However, the immediate danger comes from a different source.

A Thousand Cuts

In May 2022, a joint report by the Conservation Council of Western Australia, the West Australian Forest Alliance, and the Wilderness Society sounded the alarm that the Northern Jarrah Forest is under enormous and increasing pressure from a range of sources, including native forest logging, urban development, dieback, agriculture, prescribed burning, and climate change.

However, the report, A Thousand Cuts, emphasised that the most significant threat to the forest was continued devastation caused by bauxite mining. The report stressed that the Northern Jarrah Forest, despite being under significant anthropogenic pressure, retains significant ecological value in terms of species diversity and ecosystem functionality, and has called for immediate action to safeguard its future.

Citing data from the Western Australian Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA), A Thousand Cuts shows that mining activity has already cleared at least 32,130ha of publicly-owned forest, while another 120,000ha have been heavily fragmented. These figures  exclude the impact of mining on private land.

The situation is worsening as the rate of clearing accelerates. In the 1960s, bauxite mining cleared 440ha of publicly-owned land in the Northern Jarrah Forest, but between 2010 and 2019, the figure had surged to 10,420ha – a nearly 25-fold increase. The report warns that if the current trend of bauxite mining continues, it could eventually clear up to 83,000ha of forest and fragment another 337,000ha.

By 2060, most of the forest between Collie and Armadale, spanning about 135km, could be fragmented, triggering an ecological collapse of the Northern Jarrah Forest.

Wildlife in danger of localised extinction

The impact of clearing and fragmentation on the Northern Jarrah Forest poses a significant threat to the survival of many vulnerable or endangered species that inhabit the area. Among them are the southern brown bandicoot, western quoll, dibbler, two phascogale species, mainland quokka, numbat, woylie, tammar wallaby, and western ringtail possum.

The forest is also a habitat for all three species of southwestern black cockatoo – namely Baudin’s, Carnaby’s, and the forest red-tailed cockatoo – all of which are classified as threatened under state and federal legislation.

Serpentine Dam with bauxite mining activity and clearing visible. Image credit: Jeremy Perey

For each of the vulnerable species mentioned, the loss of habitat resulting from clearing and fragmentation caused by bauxite mining is a major contributor to their decline. The three threatened species of black cockatoo are a prime example of this.

Current bauxite mining activity is the primary cause of deforestation in their Northern Jarrah Forest habitat, which, in turn, makes bauxite mining the primary cause of habitat loss in that area.

The recovery plans for all three species, which are developed under the Federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, specifically acknowledge the impact of bauxite mining on their conservation prospects for the future.

Rehabilitation but not replication

Reducing the ecological and environmental footprint of mines through mine rehabilitation is a key aspect of many mine proposals and approvals. However, A Thousand Cuts explores the ways in which mine rehabilitation is different from the intact, pre-mined forest, and highlights the opportunity to redefine future mine rehabilitation strategies.

Rehabilitating ex-mine sites is critical and currently underperforming. The goal for rehabilitation is to re-establish a forest habitat identical to that which was there before – a task which the report states is impossible. A new form of ecosystem will eventually emerge on the rehabilitated site, but it will never be the same as the original forest.

There is a complex relationship between mineral deposits such as bauxite in the soil and the composition of species that will succeed in a forested landscape. Removing the bauxite prevents the ecosystem from re-establishing as it was. Before 1988, rehabilitation could include the use of nonendemic pine trees and exotic eucalypts which were resistant to dieback – a pathogen-caused rot which deprives the plant of water.

Many species endemic to the Northern Jarrah Forest are susceptible to dieback, which is most easily spread by human activity, such as that which might occur around mine sites. As a result of the use of non-endemic trees and other past practice, as of the end of 2006, 31 per cent of rehabilitated areas were non-endemic vegetation.

Native fauna species displaced by bauxite mining are unlikely to return to a rehabilitated area, especially for sites planted with non-endemic species. Even if rehabilitation is carried out to the highest standards, it may take centuries for some species to recolonise those areas. Some species may never return, and others may only return infrequently or not stay for long.

The dependence of black cockatoos on mature native trees for food and nesting makes them particularly vulnerable to habitat loss. Once breeding trees are lost, rehabilitation efforts are unlikely to be successful as it takes at least 100-200 years for eucalypts, like jarrah, to develop nesting hollows large enough for use by black cockatoos.

This situation is exacerbated by the prior practice of using non-native trees for mine site rehabilitation until as recently as 1988, creating unsuitable rehabilitated habitat for black cockatoos to breed.

Native Jarrah Forest in WA’s South West. Image credit: Jess Beckerling

Forests on the front line fighting climate change

The resilience of rehabilitated mine sites is also a concern, as the Northern Jarrah Forest in its natural state includes resprouting species of vegetation that are able to regrow after disturbances such as fire or drought.

However, rehabilitated sites historically have had fewer resprouters present, and reintroducing these species to rehabilitated sites is a significant challenge. This is due in part to the fact that the conditions in which these species initially grew have been irreversibly altered.

Equally concerning is the fact that rehabilitated mine sites in the Northern Jarrah Forest have historically had a lower standard of soil quality with lower water holding capacity. Additionally, larger, older, and old growth jarrah trees have been found to take less water from the ground compared to smaller, younger, regrowth jarrah trees (17 per cent compared to 35 per cent).

This results in much drier and fire-prone conditions than would have been present before mining and this issue will be worsened by climate change as it creates a drier overall environment. If left intact, the Northern Jarrah Forest serves as a vital natural carbon store and a crucial barrier against rising emissions. Over the last 100 years, Australia has warmed by an average of approximately 1°C, with an increase in the frequency of hot days and nights coinciding with a decrease in the frequency of cold days and nights.

Research has shown that trees in Australia can cool the land surface by 2-3°C but clearing of vegetation adds to temperature increases. For its part, the bauxite mining process releases organic carbon from the ground and emits CO2 through the decay of logs and stumps and the use of heavy machinery, contributing to warming effects.

Healthy forests are essential in mitigating climate change impacts which was recognised when more than 100 countries, including Australia, agreed to end deforestation by 2030 at UNFCCC COP26 in Glasgow.

In short, the potential climate benefits of the Western Australian Government’s landmark decision to end native forest logging in Western Australia will be diminished if bauxite miners are still allowed to continue to clear and fragment the forest as they have been to date.

A path for the future

Bauxite mining in the Northern Jarrah Forest has attracted even greater public scrutiny in 2023. Investigative reports in the media have led to serious questions about the activity of bauxite miners in the region and the negative environmental and social impacts of clearing and fragmenting the forest.

Parliamentary and public scrutiny of the State Agreements between the State Government and the bauxite mining companies is restricted because the agreements are not available in an up-to-date integrated form except upon request to the Department of Jobs, Tourism, Science and Innovation.

In June 2021, following repeated questions and prompting in Parliament, the Western Australian Government pledged to make up to date consolidated versions of State Agreements publicly available, but has so far failed to do so.

The Conservation Council of Western Australia, the West Australian Forest Alliance, and the Wilderness Society together have made five recommendations which, if employed, could mitigate the effects of bauxite mining on the Northern Jarrah Forest.

It’s clear the Northern Jarrah Forest is of national significance and must be protected. As such, the report recommends a clear halt of fragmentation or clearing of the nation forest in order to mine bauxite.

Five black cockatoos roost in native forest in WA's South West. Image credit Philippa Beckerling

Five black cockatoos roost in native forest in WA’s South West. Image credit Philippa Beckerling

Further recommendations include:

♦ The Environmental Protection Agency should undertake a strategic assessment of the accumulating impacts of past, current and proposed developments and projects in the Northern Jarrah Forest, including logging, prescribed burning and bauxite mining

♦ A Western Australian Government enquiry should be launched into the following: » The effectiveness of current processes – such as Habitat Protection Plans and Recovery Plans – in halting the decline of threatened native forest species including mainland quokkas, forest red-tailed black cockatoos, Baudin’s cockatoo and Carnaby’s cockatoo

» The barriers to executing recovery actions recommended by the aforementioned processes
» Determining whether there is a need for an emergency action plan to arrest the decline of the above threatened native forest species

♦ The Western Australian Government should create and maintain a publicly-accessible, up-to-date record of biodiversity and native vegetation data, documenting its condition and extent across the state including the amount cleared by each sector in each bioregion.

♦ The Western Australian Government should immediately create consolidated, updated versions of all State Agreements available to the public

The battle to preserve the Northern Jarrah Forest

In February 2023, Western Australia’s independent watchdog, the Western Australian Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), was asked to review plans by Alcoa to mine new areas of native forest for bauxite. This followed widespread shock over mining practices by the Pittsburgh-based company which threatened to contaminate a major public water source to Perth.

In March 2023, photographs of sites which Alcoa had claimed to have rehabilitated were widely shared amid claims that the miner was “treating the WA public with callous disregard” and that its rehabilitation was woefully inadequate, resulting in large expanses of barren open space.

Western Australians have come to the same central conclusion as A Thousand Cuts – namely, that immediate measures should be taken to prevent further deforestation in the Northern Jarrah Forest and that bauxite mining companies cannot continue to mine as they have if the unique forest is to be saved and conserved.

Featured image: The perimeter of the Boddington bauxite mine, showing native forest clearing. Image credit: Jess Beckerling





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