As reported in the Bega District News, this week the Forestry corporation and the OE&H released their long awaited final draft working plan, for the Murrah flora reserves.
According to the plan ” . . . The aim is that with the cessation of forestry and some specific management actions, koala recovery in the Murrah Flora Reserves and adjacent forest can be realised over time. This will be tested in the long term by monitoring and evaluation within an adaptive management framework.”

Regrettably, the OE&H’s adaptive management framework has some significant limitations. In particular the need to maintain the illusion, when prescriptions are followed, it regulates a sustainable logging industry. Hence the only referenced sentence on soils is ” . . . The steeper slopes are susceptible to erosion if disturbed (Tulau 1997).”

On forest condition the plan indicates ” . . . Mid storey structure and composition varies across the reserves, with a key management issue being the extent of black she-oak regrowth and other disturbance-generated tree and shrub species. These contribute to increased vertical fuel loads and prevent germination and regeneration of preferred koala species, particularly woollybutt.”

Another issue that could prevent the germination and regeneration of preferred koala species is soil loss and the associated reduction in soil fertility. For example, the harvesting plan for compartments 2080 and 2081, in Mumbulla SF and dated 11-8-1994, estimated an average of about 9.5 c/m of sawlogs and 85 tonnes of pulplogs per hectare would be removed in the operation. However, the estimated soil loss from the operation, only provided for cpt 2180, was 132.8 tonnes per hectare.


I recently revisited the vast area burned in the Cuttagee catchment, to get some shots of brown and dry vertical fuel loads, now some months after the fire. Coincidentally, I came across two of the recently established research plots. As indicated in the photo above, this one is on relatively flat ground. Some silvertop-ash and all the black she-oak have been cut down and placed into piles. Retained trees are mostly silertop-ash, a couple of spindly stringy-barks and a hickory wattle.Walking around the plot it was clear that all of the silver-top ash have coppiced, with multiple stems growing from the stumps. In addition there are dozens of hickory wattle seedlings in the plot. Both of these outcomes will increase vertical fuel loads, although unlike forest around the plot, these fuel loads won’t be brown and dry.

In the second plot below, on a steep slope, three large woollybuts have been retained  during logging and it appears all of the regrowth trees were black-oak. These have been cut down and placed as one would make a bonfire. It appears attempts were made to burn the bonfire, although the timber was clearly too wet to burn. Hickory wattle seedling were also evident in this plot, although there were fewer than the first plot, perhaps due to erosion of the exposed soils. 

Forestry and the OE&H are accepting comments on the plan until January 31, 2018.

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Last year the OE&H suggested they were going to release their management plan for the Murrah Flora Reserve, in the middle of this year. Now six months on and with the festive season looming, it seems unlikely the plan will appear this year. While there may be several reasons for the delay, it is possible one of these is connected to the restructure of the NPSW and the recommendations of a report titled ‘Management of public land in NSW.’

The report was produced by the General purpose standing committee No.5, for the NSW Legislative Council in 2013. It suggests ” . . . that reservation is not the only means to protect biodiversity and that conservation outcomes can be achieved alongside other land uses. The Committee therefore recommends that there be investigation into the wider application of the multiple land-use model in public land management in New South Wales (Recommendation 1.2) in recognition that public lands can be managed for a range of purposes while achieving the best conservation outcomes for that land.”

Of course apart from National Parks, logging is only other use for public forests.

The report also indicates ” . . . The Inquiry also heard evidence that effective conservation management and planning is best done with a tenure-blind approach, working to improve natural vegetation corridors and ecological health across the landscape.” It goes on to recommend starting a nil or blind tenure approach ” . . . beginning with fire, pests and weeds and conservation management, to ensure consistency and improved land management outcomes for both public and private land managers. ”

The only issue is whether the current approach, in a different and one assumes cheaper format, will lead to improved land management outcomes.

When it comes to koalas, all the evidence confirms past and present management is essentially aimed at deforestation and species extinction. So while I expect no change in the NSW government’s approach, the Regional Forest Agreements were supposed to usher in some accountability.

Forestry were supposed to have a forest inventory, but they haven’t. Similarly the NPWS should be required to demonstrate its broad acre burning leads to improved outcomes, as opposed to an increased threat of wildfire.

Apart from threatening humans, the cost associated with current fire management include the loss of many species, like the large stick insect (Ctenomorpha chronus) in the photo.

Thankfully this one survived physical thinning of forest oaks, although the outcome from burning would have been a barbecued stick insect, all other  insect and any koalas in the area.

Following up on his book ‘Firestick Ecology’, former forester Vic Jurskis has written a paper, accepted for publication in Wildlife Research, titled ‘Ecological history of the koala and implications for management.’

According to Mr Jurskis, the decline in koala populations is not a crisis, rather koala numbers are returning to a pre-European state. The ‘eruptions’ in koala numbers, here 120 years ago and those of translocated island koalas in Victoria, is put down to poor management, particularly a lack of frequent burning.

In one press report he describes the creation of the Murrah Flora reserve as a perverse outcome for a species that was not recorded in the area at the time of European settlement. Exactly how he knows this and how this theory fits with his previous estimate of 800 to 1600 koalas in the Eden region isn’t clear.

I do recall the first time I met Vic, back in the 1990’s, not long after the 8 radio collared koalas had died. I informed him of koala pellets I located in Nullica State Forest, where two of the aforementioned koalas were tracked. His response was to say the two koalas, Robert and Roberta, were the only koalas in Nullica SF.

Vic’s simple theories have many holes, not least of these is the knowledge that the primary feed trees behind the ‘koala eruption’ in the Eden region are now endangered, because they don’t grow back. The evidence indicates secondary koala feed species are in the same boat.

So while I do agree with Vic, that forests need better management, that’s where the agreement ends. It is simply not possible to undertake low intensity burns in these forests, due to the previous and ongoing poor management.


However, I believe management aimed at reducing fuel loads would create employment, while providing some protection from wildfires and aid in funding real attempts to restore biodiversity. The photo shows the first of nine 10×10 metre plots, logged and burned in 1982, where the majority of forest oak have been removed. Apart from two retained trees, a Yellow stringy-bark and a Rough barked apple at the rear of the plot, only one very small and sick apple has regenerated in the plot.

The small dead trees in the plots, oak and silver-top ash, have mostly been converted to biochar, producing just over 500 litres or enough to spread half a litre per square metre. When the green wood dries, I’ll add another 50 litres to each plot.  In the bare areas I’ve begun planting Woollybutt seedlings and Yellow stringy- bark seed.

Unlike the OE&H’s approach, in the square metre around these plantings, I’m incorporating 350 grams of either dolomite or crushed sea-shells, with another litre of char and in some instances 250 grams of gypsum, into the first couple of inches of soil.

While there is uncertainty about whether they will grow, if they do it will be interesting to compare outcomes with the OE&H’s soils haven’t changed approach.

Now some months after the National Koala Conference, I happened to come across the OE&H’s power point presentation titled “Koalas, Fire Management & Habitat Rehabilitation in SE NSW”.  Not surprisingly for coastal koalas the two issues referred to are fire and getting preferred feed trees to germinate and grow.

The issue with fire was the Strategic Fire Advantage Zones (SFAZ) because they overlapped with areas occupied by koalas. The solution is to burn around known koalas and greatly increase the areas to be burned. Despite this approach the OE&H suggest there is room for the population to expand.

On the feed tree issue, some 28 locations have been chosen to trial regeneration techniques, as indicated in the table below.The treatment referred to as pruning appears to involve cutting down all the forest oaks and laying them across the slope. The approach would seem to confirm the OE&H is repeating the mistakes made trying to grow primary feed trees. In particular, a belief that the reduction of soil pH and associated decline in soil fertility, plays no part in tree germination, growth or koala survival.

The story is quite different in the northern hemisphere, where forest managers are concerned acid rain, in addition to logging has had similar negative impacts on forests. The USDA Forest Service for example, supports the Hubbard Brook Ecosystem Study in New Hampshire. One of the experiments involved a helicopter dropping 40 tons of wollastonite, a naturally occurring calcium silicate, onto a small ‘watershed’.

The outcomes have been very positive and arguably well worth a try in Australia, when forest managers are required to consider and act on science.

 

The NSW Department of Primary Industries has recently released a report titled  ‘North Coast Residues -A project undertaken as part of the 2023 North Coast Forestry Project ‘. The executive summary indicates ” The main purpose of this project was to determine the potential availability of forestry residues for bioenergy generation and other applications on the North Coast of NSW . . ”

With regard to residues from public native forests the authors suggest ” . . .The values assume that a substantial proportion of the biomass (typically at least 20% of the total biomass) is left in the forest after harvest. ” The DPI then provide estimated volumes of residue that are, in all cases, greater than 200% of the biomass removed during harvest.

There is also a section titled ‘Extraction of biomass for bioenergy from NSW North Coast regrowth native forests: impacts on nutrient availability’. Regrettably the authors indicate ” . . . However, this study does not constitute a full nutrient budget that would also take into account temporal and below-ground conversion dynamics, and natural nutrient inputs (e.g. via rainfall). ”

Such a short fall essentially renders the generally repetitious information useless. This is particularly the case given the proportions of nutrients found in leaves, bark, branches and wood are not considered in terms of the actual volumes exported from forests during logging. In addition four of the references are not to be found and the only reference to calcium (Marschner, H. 1986. Mineral nutrition in higher plants. Academic Press London), is unlikely to apply to the north coast or Australian forests generally. On a positive note the authors suggest a move away from post logging burns, so some of the nutrients can be retained.

Also on a positive note is the news that Friends of Leadbeaters possums have stopped logging 34 forests in the Victorian central highlands. The Federal court’s decision, on whether the EPBC act should apply to logging nationally endangered species habitat, may have implications for all Regional Forest Agreement areas.

The OE&H has released its koala recovery proposals for the period 21017-2021. Topping the 12 issues proposed to be addressed is ” Loss, modification and fragmentation of habitat In areas of known koala significance”. Actions proposed include – Existing degraded koala habitat restored and better connected – New koala habitat established and maintained and Permanent landholder agreements established for private land containing occupied koala habitat.

Regrettably, only the first of these is relevant to this area, because attempts to establish new habitat failed miserably and this failure confirmed why there aren’t many koalas on private land. So the disagreement is about how one restores modified and fragmented habitat, including whether there is any benefit dropping and monitoring Woollybut seed-balls.

Another threat the OE&H have cottoned onto is ” Intense prescribed burns or wildfires that scorch or burn the tree canopy”. Given this admission, with luck future NPWS intense prescribed burns may not be in areas with koalas.

Thankfully the threat of a brown forest and associated increased wildfire potential has temporarily passed given recent soaking rainfall. Although far less rainfall was recorded south of Bega, seemingly consistent with the findings in Lunney etal. – ‘Extinction in Eden identifying the role of climate change in the decline of the koala in south-eastern NSW’.

While addressing climate change is a low OE&H priority, I understand the current NSW Environment Minister would like to see a whole of government approach to the koala issue. The problem being that business as usual is still perceived as being consistent with helping koalas. For example and as indicated in the photo above, Bega Valley Shire Council has recently shredded a large number of trees along Benny-Gowings road, where it passes through the Murrah Flora reserve.

This is the first time Council has shredded vegetation along this road and it seems unfortunate that preferred koala feed trees, like the Woollybut, reduced to the large stump in the middle of the shot, were not retained. Of course the same goes for all the other feed trees council shredded, in this area of known koala significance.

While it is difficult to see how this loss of habitat sits with the state government’s proposals, it highlights – again – the difficulty achieving any sort of change to forest management in south-eastern NSW.

Following up on the koala taken into care, it wasn’t fitted with a radio collar when released, several kilometers from where it was found. This omission isn’t the result of a constraint on the OE&H. Indeed, last year the OE&H radio-collared and tracked 20 koalas on the southern highlands. Rather, it reflects the conservation movement’s low interest in koalas, which the OE&H is happy to go along with.

Hence in an article on About Regional, OE&H threatened species officer Chris Allen talks of ‘Small, fragile, and very precious communities of koalas ‘, rather than an endangered population.
Allen also repeats his claim that climate change and fire are the biggest threats to koalas, extensive canopy die-back doesn’t get a mention. This too is mostly a result of of the conservation movement’s desire to ignore the real issues.

After the predictable failure to grow primary tree species on private land, Allen is now suggesting the secondary feed species Woollybutt (E. longifolia), ‘ is really struggling to regenerate’.  So ” . . . Thirty small research plots have been established throughout koala country where a range of bush regeneration techniques are being trialled – one of them is the use of seed balls. “Seed balls are made up of the seed of the target species, clay is mixed with peat mulch and Cayenne pepper,” Chris smiles. “The Cayenne pepper is the magic ingredient that stops ants and other critters eating the seed.”

At this point it seems necessary to believe insects that eat seed are also a threat to koalas, rather than the notion that soils are no longer conducive to tree germination and growth.
The following chart shows the percentage of Woollybutt trees from the first survey data, stratified by size classes. Although the data is poor, it doesn’t reflect trees struggling to regenerate, rather what would be expected from heavily logged forests. What Allen neglects to mention is the increase in non-eucalyptus species and the fact that they can grow where eucalyptus trees no longer can.

Also in the news was the Forestry Corporation, regarding data on firewood NSW Minister for Primary Industries Niall Blair provided to the NSW parliament. The data indicates firewood production rose from nothing in 2002, to 2,365 tonnes in Eden and 38,926 tonnes in Southern during 2016.

The article was followed by a letter to the editor, from forestry manager Danial Tuan, suggesting the information had been misrepresented because forestry have always sold firewood and ” . . .  the timber was previously sold and reported in a different residue category.”

However, according to Forests NSW 2005 ESFM plan, 4,500 tonnes of commercial firewood and 1,579 tonnes of domestic firewood were sourced from the South Soast region in 2002-2003. This volume, signed off by then Minister Ian Macdonald, is 48 times greater than the recent information.

It does seem prudent to take the information, stemming from public forest managers, with several grains of salt.

As reported in the Bega District News, Wapengo lake oyster farmers Brian and Carol Orr were surprised to find a koala last week, hanging on to a oyster bag, in the lake. It seems likely that the young koala is the same animal sighted on the Bermagui- Tathra road back in September.

On this occasion Brian was going to let the koala loose, after it was brought back to shore. However, he rang WIRES and they suggested taking it to a vet for a check up. The vet found the animal was dehydrated and underweight and it was then taken to Potoroo Palace to recuperate.

The article quotes NPWS’s Chris Allen saying ” . . . It is probable that he had been pushed out by older males while trying to find his own territory.” Hence the animal is ” . . . to be released back to an area where he is less likely to be confronted with aggressive males. ”

Of course there is no evidence that the koala was confronted by any other koalas and a female koala is just as unlikely to welcome another koala in its home-range as male is.
The issue is whether the habitat in area proposed for the release is any better than the forest in Mimosa Rocks NP, where the koala has seemingly been for the past month.

The photo shows one of the views looking east from the Bermagui-Tathra road, into Mimosa Rocks NP, where the koala was first sighted. Along with a microwave oven, plastic bags etc, there are also broken bits asbestos cement sheeting and just next to this toxic rubbish a couple of dozen old truck tires. While these features may not reduce the quality of the habitat, it does say something about park management.

According to the results from the 2012-14 koala surveys, ” . . . it will be essential to ensure that the population does not experience any further loss and that provision is made for its expansion into apparently unoccupied but suitable habitat.”  The question is whether the NPWS, or anyone else, can tell what is suitable koala habitat, just by looking at it. This would seem to be an important consideration, because if all of the suitable habitat is occupied, releasing the koala could well be a death sentence.

While it isn’t ideal for the koala to remain at Potoroo Palace, a precautionary approach would be to radio track the animal, so it can be rescued again, should perceptions of suitable koala habitat prove incorrect.

Coupled with this uncertainty is the fact that local forests are starting to die due to a lack of rain. While 20mm has fallen this month, another 50-100mm is required to fully re hydrate the soils and avoid another extensive canopy die-back event.

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