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Letting giants be – rethinking active fire management of old-growth eucalypt forest in the Australian tropics

journal contribution
posted on 2023-05-18, 07:34 authored by Tng, YP, Goosem, S, Gregory JordanGregory Jordan, David BowmanDavid Bowman

Tall old-growth forests are of global social-economic, political and ecological significance. These forests contribute significantly to the global carbon budget and are of high conservation value given sustained logging and clearing over the past two centuries (Tng et al. 2012a). In Australia, these old-growth forests extend from tropical to temperate regions of Australia in areas where rainfall exceeds 1000 mm per year, being characterized by emergent eucalypt trees attaining statures of 30 m to more than 80 m, with canopy and understorey layers consisting of mesophytic broad-leaved trees and treelets, sclerophyllous shrubs and graminoids (Fig. 1). These forests support some of the tallest flowering plants in the world, are important habitats for a unique suite of flora and fauna, and are important forest cover for metropolitan water catchments – values that make giant eucalypt forests a focal point of scientific study and ecotourism (Tng et al. 2012a).

Until recently, these eucalypt forests were extensively exploited as a timber resource, but now, most remaining old-growth stands have been set aside for conservation. In some regions containing giant eucalypt forest, native forestry activities either have ceased or are based on shortrotation harvests of regrowth forests, meaning that the trees can never achieve their potential size. Regeneration typically occurs after landscape fires, and fire is also used to initiate regeneration of temperate eucalypts after logging and to reduce fuel loads (Attiwill et al., in press). In temperate regions, fire management of the remaining stands of old-growth giant eucalypt forest is largely based upon fire suppression and fuel reduction burning in surrounding open forests, as fires in giant eucalypt forests are extremely difficult to control because these forests are only flammable under dangerous fire weather conditions (Bowman et al. 2013). In subtropical and tropical forests, fuel reduction burning is used to reduce fire hazard within the giant forests as well as in adjacent open forests and savannas.

What constitutes the most appropriate and ecologically sustainable fire management practices of these giant forests remains a controversial issue among scientists, land managers and conservationists. Here, we outline recent advances in landscape ecology theory, palaeoecology and functional biology research on a giant eucalypt forest type in the Wet Tropics region of northeast Australia to explore options to achieve sustainable management of these systems. Given the ecological similarity between Australia’s giant eucalypt forests and other old-growth forests in the Northern Hemisphere (Tng et al. 2012a), the insights gleaned herein have implications for a wide range of old-growth forests. Further, the expansion of rain forest into surrounding savannas has implications for the management of savannas and grasslands, where there remains debate as to whether increased woody biomass should be managed using fire or allowed to accumulate (Bond & Parr 2010).


Publication title

Journal of Applied Ecology








School of Natural Sciences


Wiley-Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Place of publication

United Kingdom

Rights statement

Copyright 2014 The Authors and the British Ecological Society

Repository Status

  • Restricted

Socio-economic Objectives

Expanding knowledge in the environmental sciences