Steve Read

Dr Steve Read, Consultant Biologist and previously Chief Scientist, Forest Research and Development, Forestry Tasmania, Tasmania, Australia is the for the 67th Forest Industry Lecture on 8 March 2012. The lecture will take place at 3:00 pm in the Horowitz Theatre, University of Alberta.

"Variable retention in the southern hemisphere: is managing fire-driven forests an ecological or a social issue?"

Variable retention in the southern hemisphere: is managing fire-driven forests an ecological or a social issue? from Faculty of ALES on Vimeo.

Abstract: Australian forests are dominated by trees of the genus Eucalyptus, which have a close relationship with fire. The major disturbance in the wetter and more productive eucalypt forests of south-eastern Australia is intense wildfire every 100-300 years. The paradigm of forest management guided by natural disturbance, and the tradition of silviculture as applied ecology, thus require understanding of the particular dynamism of these forests, as well as the technical ability to harness fire.

The standard harvest system in Tasmanian wet eucalypt forests for 50 years, clear-felling followed by regeneration with intense controlled fire, changes a complex and sometimes multi-aged forest stand into a large cleared and burnt area. An apparently simpler young forest containing vigorous eucalypts regenerates, before the stand redevelops structural complexity over many decades to centuries. Social pressure to modify such an apparently destructive system, aligned with increasing ecological awareness that natural wildfire differs from clear-felling in being spatially variable and retaining structural legacies and unburnt legacies, led to governmental requirements to develop alternatives to clearfelling on public land. Biodiversity monitoring, economics, safety and silvicultural studies at the Warra Silvicultural Systems Trial, southern Tasmania, showed that aggregated retention (a form of variable retention) is the best alternative for wet eucalypt forests, and Forestry Tasmania has now used aggregated retention in over 30 operational coupes around Tasmania.

Development of aggregated retention was guided by the ecological concepts of retention, influence and connectivity drawn from post-wildfire studies. Ecological metrics were explicitly incorporated into harvest planning as predictors of ecological outcomes on each site, and a novel adaptive management process was introduced. Scientifically, the program was a success, with areas of harvested forest retaining significant old-growth elements and an enhanced ability to develop complexity during regrowth. The research received positive review from international experts, and Federal and State government funding agencies saw that change had occurred. Forest management thus underwent transformative change informed by scientific input, a combination of applied and basic research that falls into “Pasteur’s quadrant”.

However, the environmental movement did not accept the new system , even though the debate advanced from a call to “stop old-growth clear-felling” to a need to “protect high-conservation-value forests”. The management agency had used science to deliver change, but the social pressure for change remained. Several factors make it difficult to bridge this disjunct between the science solution and its social acceptance. Most people view forests in the moment rather than as a dynamic ecosystem, and the community has an understandably negative view of fire, even though wildfire is a natural event required for creating and maintaining healthy eucalypt forests. Further, people’s views of public forest managers are nested within the currency of government-social relations. How societies view environmental resources is complex, filtered and changing, only somewhat amenable to education, and entwined with relationships to business and government. Transformation to ecologically based systems of forest management can therefore satisfy the goals of some in the community but not necessarily others, and both government policy and the resources sector need to be aware of these complexities.


Steve Read grew up at the foot of the North Downs in Kent, England, and gained a PhD in plant biochemistry from the University of Cambridge before working in the biotechnology industry in California. Steve was a researcher, educator and Associate Dean at the University of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia from 1987 to 2004, first in botany then in forest science. From 2004 until 2011, he was Chief Scientist, Forest Research and Development at Forestry Tasmania, a Government Business Enterprise managing 1.5 million hectares of State forest for multiple values. Forestry Tasmania led the introduction in Australia of variable retention harvesting, has been a major player in the Warra Long-Term Ecological Research site and the Cooperative Research Centre for Forestry, and publishes the peer-reviewed journal Tasforests. Steve’s interests are now in forest landscape dynamics and paradigms for science-based forest management, and he is also an Honorary Associate Professor at the University of Melbourne.

The work of Forestry Tasmania's Division of Forest Research & Development can be viewed here, research at Warra, and FT publications including Tasforests can be viewed at