When is logging not logging? When it is ''ecological thinning'' in national parks, according to the governments of New South Wales and Victoria.
The two states are conducting trials in national parks on both sides of the Murray River. Under the project, trees will be cut down at 22 sites over about 400 hectares of the Barmah National Park in Victoria and the Murray Valley National Park in NSW. Most of the timber will be burnt as firewood.
The study will examine whether felling smaller trees gives more established trees a better chance of surviving in the parched environment.
But environment groups say the practice is an excuse to log in national parks, and will lead to them being opened up to more commercial activity.
The NSW government has advertised for commercial logging contractors and has held a meeting with contractors. The Victorian government will advertise soon.
A spokesman for Victorian Environment Minister Ryan Smith said the trial would determine if ''ecological thinning'' could be used to improve river red gum forest health by reducing competition between trees for nutrients and water. He said no trees over 40 centimetres diameter at chest height would be removed.
''The felled trees removed from the plots will be assessed for suitable byproducts, including domestic firewood, community projects and park furniture. Other felled trees will be left on the forest floor for potential wildlife habitat but managed in a way to minimise fire risks,'' he said.
NSW Environment Minister Robyn Parker said: ''It is estimated that about 3000 tonnes of residue will be created, which can be made available to local Riverina residents as part of the existing river red gum domestic firewood program.''
The state governments have not sought approval from Canberra, saying the project does not have sufficient impact to trigger national environment laws. But that is contested by conservationists, who say the project could harm internationally protected wetlands and endangered species. Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke said: ''My department is seeking clarity to determine what is being proposed.''
Nick Roberts, from the Victorian National Parks Association, said the project was ''logging by stealth'' and called on the federal government to step in.
''First the Baillieu government invented 'scientific grazing', now it's trying its hand at 'scientific logging'. The sanctity of Victoria's national parks is under serious threat,'' he said…