Early next month the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital will be hosting the second national koala conference. Among the 30 or so speakers at the conference is OE&H employee Chris Allen, giving a talk titled ‘Fire & habitat rehabilitation in the SE forests of NSW’.

While I expect the talk will focus on the OE&H’s claims it is protecting koalas from fire and planting trees on cleared land will help them. I also expect there will be no disagreement with these claims. On the fire issue, it is now a few weeks since the first burn was ignited in the Cuttagee catchment. During that time the scorched leaves on eucalyptus have turned brown as indicated below.


Also during this time the scorched needles on forest oaks have fully cured and also turned brown. Apart from some remaining large trees with black trunks, the whole area is now brown.

Prior to the fire, 30 years of litter, mostly from the oaks, provided soil cover that formed a thick mat, partially welded together through the actions of various fungi. Post the fire, the greatly reduced litter layer will be dry and loose. Coupled with the dead oaks, the outcome, come next summer, would seem to be ideal conditions for a rapidly moving wildfire.

Added to all this, yesterday and last night we received 100mm of rain, a large proportion of which was high intensity rainfall. While this issue could be taken up with local government, getting the OE&H to be a bit more accountable would help.

Sometime in the not too distant past, OE&H supporter the South East Region Conservation Alliance announced that its website will not be updated. No reasons are provided, but it’s safe to say that SERCA has not been an effective agent for change.

So it was interesting to receive the message below, recently posted on a local mailing list.

———————————————————————–
In 2019 the Regional Forest Agreement (RFA), which underpins the native forest industry in our region, expires. We understand that government preference is for an automatic rollover with no public consultation. We consider this to be unacceptable.
On Sunday June 11 at the Tathra hall, we will be holding a forest forum which is an initial step in promoting the message that there are better uses for our native forests than woodchipping. Local environmentalists have been developing alternative forest strategies and the time has come for wider community involvement.
You will receive a more detailed notice of June 11 proceedings closer to the day. In the meantime, we ask that you flag the date and mention it to friends.
David Gallan
Tim Taysom
President Vice-President
National Parks Association (Far South Coast Branch)

The NPWS is continuing its inane broad-acre burning, blotting out the sun and polluting the atmosphere for the past two weeks. Most recent is a 260 hectare burn in the Wapengo catchment, also in an area with recent koala records.

The subtle but perhaps important difference on this occasion, is that the records come from surveys funded by the federal government. According to the interim working plan for the flora reserves, the federally funded surveys found black she-oak (Allocasuarina littoralis), is one of the most abundant species. The reason for this outcome probably stems from the decision to increase the diameter of trees measured in the koala plots,from 100 mm to 150 mm. If 100 mm minimum had been retained, it seems likely the surveys would confirm black she-oak are the most abundant species in most of the reserve. 

While credible science tells us burning does not provide leverage over wildfire in this bio-region. The data employed is from eucalyptus forests, as opposed to the generally heavily logged and burned forests in the reserve. Accordingly the volume of fuel is reported as 16.4 tonnes per hectare, with fine fuels making up about 2 tonnes per hectare or 200 grams per square metre.

In the photo below is a black plastic bag filled with one square metre of fine fuel from under black she-oaks. Minus the bag it weighs 5660 grams, just over 28 times the weight of fine fuel in eucalyptus dominated forest. Not surprisingly this level of fuel greatly adds to the smoke and the CO2 produced from the fire. In this case, rather than the notional 32.8 tonnes of CO2 per hectare, the fire is likely to produce 142 tonnes of CO2 per hectare. NSW annual emissions per capita are around 19 tonnes CO2. So every 100 hectares burned equates to the annual CO2 output from 747.4 people.

Yesterday I received a response from Minister Upton, pasted below, regarding my request for NPWS contact details about the fence and catchments. While it’s expected that the NPWS would readily accept the Forestry Corporation’s version of events. I can’t find any reference to illegal encroachments, fences or investigations in the flora reserve working plan. So I wonder if there may be another non community version of the plan, circulating in state government departments

As for the Bega Valley Shire Council being the most appropriate contact about catchment issues. Mike Saxon is also the contact for a recently advertised OE&H position for a ‘Senior Team Leader – Water, flood plains and coast’, for the far south coast. So it possible that the NPWS and the OE&H are yet to employ someone that does catchments.

Only because I found the job description interesting, details for the position are at iworkfor.nsw.gov.au, job reference- 000057WJ, and applications close Monday 15 May 2017 11.59 pm.

 

Dear Mr Bertram

I refer to your email to the Minister for the Environment, the Hon Gabrielle Upton MP about your biodiversity reconstruction project on the NSW far south coast. Your email was referred to the Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) and I have been asked to reply.

Thank you for your interest in the biodiversity of the far south coast. Before your proposal to trial biodiversity reconstruction can be considered for endorsement, there is an issue with the location of the fence that needs to be resolved. The National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) have advised that the Forestry Corporation of NSW did not approve the construction of the portion of the fence on State Forest that is now part of the Murrah Flora Reserves. As part of the handover of the management of the flora reserves from Forestry Corporation to NPWS, the fence was identified as an illegal encroachment onto the Reserve. In the Murrah Flora Reserves Interim Working Plan the fence is identified for investigation. In the first instance, the Director South Coast Region (NPWS), Kane Weeks would be the most appropriate person to contact regarding the status of the fence and to consider your proposal to use the area for fauna reintroductions. The most appropriate contact about catchment issues is Bega Valley Shire Council.

The Murrah Flora Reserves Interim Working Plan can be found at http://www.forestrycorporation.com.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/669281/Interim-working-plan-for-Murrah-flora-reserves.pdf

If you have any further questions about this issue, please contact Kane Weeks, Director South Coast Region, Park Operations on 02 4423 2170 or at Kane.Weeks@environment.nsw.gov.au.

MICHAEL SAXON

Director

South East Branch

As reported in the Narooma News this week, the NPWS recently held a workshop near Bermagui on making seed balls. The report quotes “National Parks’ senior threatened species officer and local koala expert Chris Allen” suggesting “ . . . This workshop we are holding at The Crossing is looking at a few different approaches that we are taking to support the rehabilitation of preferred koala feed trees in the coastal forests here between Bermagui and the Bega River”.

Previous government funded approaches taken at the Crossing were based on the notion that primary koala browse species would readily grow, but they didn’t. Hence now the attempt is to try and grow some preferred secondary feed species.

According to the google god, rehabilitation is ‘the action of restoring something that has been damaged to its former condition.’ In the real world it’s a good idea to gather an understanding of the former conditions so, in this case, the environment can be restored. Regrettably, developing this understanding is not on the government’s agenda, so the seed ball trial will also fail.

Also in the real world and as indicated in map below, the NPWS’ hot burn in Cuttagee was in an area with recent koala records.

 

These particular records are dated 2010 and when located, they put a halt on the Forestry Corporation’s proposal to log part of the area now burned.

While logging is perceived to be a bigger threat to koalas than fuel reduction burning. I doubt whether anyone involved would have wanted to be up a tree on that day, with the fire coming in from all sides. Pity about any koalas in that position.

Clearly the burn is sending a strong signal about the NPWS’s ongoing bloody minded approach to koala habitat management on the coast. However, It does appear to contrast with Chris Allen’s recent statement, in his information piece ‘Dieback and potential implications for koalas“.

There is no reference to dieback on the coast, but he suggests “On behalf of the Koala Steering Committee we are keen to support an integrated approach to monitoring, research and management responses. ” for dieback on the tablelands.

Allen also comments on the bark eating habits of the tablelands koalas indicating -This feeding strategy by koalas not reported elsewhere. While this may be the case, translocated genetic ‘bottle-neck’ koalas have killed trees in many locations. Based on the extent of chewed bark in the photo below, also from Allen’s information piece, this tree may not have much time left.

No doubt making the most of over-time rates, this morning (Sunday) the NPWS lit up six hundred hectares in the Murrah Flora Reserve. According to the Rural Fire Service it is not a planned burn and the ‘Fires near me” map  suggests the fire is in the Mumbulla section of the reserve. However, the 50 kilometer smoke plume is actually emanating from an area some 15 kilometers north of the RFS location, in the Cuttagee catchment.

As indicated in the photo below, at a corner of Murrah River road, it is difficult to describe the burn ‘patchy’.  Rather, it appears to be quite a hot burn, consuming all ground cover in this location. While a visit in a few days will be required, I expect the fire will kill many of the forest oaks in the area and scorch the canopies of eucalyptus, particularly regrowth trees.

While some of us have become accustomed to forest mismanagement, the fact that this burn comes so soon after the report on Cuttagee catchment, is a little disturbing. Is this the NPWS’s management response to the dozens of erosion points identified in the catchment report? If so, where is the scientific evidence confirming burning will not exacerbate these erosion problems?

Then there is the so-called Murrah Reserve steering committee, allegedly established to facilitate community consultation and draw up another interim management plan. There has been no information from this committee, but if it agrees with the burn, it seems reasonable to assume ESFM is clearly not a consideration.

 

If one were looking for advice on forest management, the tablelands, where 2,000 square kilometers of eucalyptus woodland has died, may be a better option.  In particular a document titled  ‘Introducing some key management principles for restoring Box Gum Grassy Woodlands’ (Stol, J., 2016).

A quote from the paper indicates ” . . . Australia has largest truffle diversity of any continent with approx.1,500 – 2,000 species of an estimated 5000 spp
worldwide
 Eucalypts and many other members of the Myrtaceae are highly dependent on mycorrhiza formation for survival and growth.
 Mycorrhizal fungi assist plants to repel parasitic organisms, obtain limiting soil nutrients, and ameliorate adverse soil conditions and severe climatic conditions by improving water relations
 sites that have been cleared for grazing or degraded may be depleted of these important fungi.

The paper raises the question  – “Truffle presence was found by Stol and Trappe (2010) to be negligible in paddock trees. Are high nutrient levels, damage to the network of fine roots near surface and resulting lack of truffles one of the less recognised background issues contributing to dieback?

In addition ‘Truffles need good soil moisture and leaf litter (ie. ‘mulch’)’  and logically the native species to spread their spores. If we are to believe the NPWS forests don’t need truffles or animals.

Both of them can’t be right.

 

 

The Bega District News recently reported that forests from Ulladulla to Eden, are one of 18,000 areas worldwide recognised as a biodiversity hotspot. The report coincides with the start of the NSW government’s broad acre forest burning season. After all, if one has a biodiversity hot spot logging and burning it are a priority.

Currently there are thousands of hectares burning, mostly to ‘reduce fuel loads’. Regrettably the fact that there is no science confirming burning reduces the chances of, or the intensity of a wildfire is seemingly lost on forest managers and the Rural Fire Service.

One of the areas proposed for burning is Bournda National Park, about 20 km south of here. In this case the NPWS plan to burn 600 hectares, about one quarter of the park area. According to NPWS area manager Stephen Dovey, the burn, north of Wallagoot lake, aims to ‘reduce fuel loads and reinvigorate native plants dependant on fire in their life cycle’.

However, the Bournda NP Management Plan, indicates ” . . . Much of the forest of the park and reserve was logged and regularly burnt prior to reservation and there are few large trees. The most intensively affected area was north of Wallagoot Lake, where species such as tree ferns have been largely removed and in places dense stands of Allocasuarina have replaced eucalypts. Protection from frequent fire will be important in encouraging return of these areas to a more natural condition and improvement of their habitat value (see section 4.1.4).”

Burning Allocasuarina stands, or adding disturbance to disturbance, is unlikely to encourage the return of these areas to a more natural condition. A more likely outcome will be an increased potential for wildfire, crown burning in the few remaining large trees and a new crop of Allocasuarina.

 

Earlier this year former forester and burning advocate Vic Jurskis, wrote an opinion piece titled ‘Too Many Koalas, Too Little Science’. While in this case he suggests radio collaring and tracking koalas around here will provide more information than the long term surveys. Vic’s main argument is that koalas are every where and regular burning is required to keep forests healthy and koala numbers down.

Vic suggests “ . . . Ecological research, environmental legislation and land management should be based on an appreciation of ecological history.” While I tend to agree with this statement, missing from Vic’s koala argument is the fact that the history of translocating ‘island’ koalas to locations in South Australia, Victoria, NSW and the ACT, has led to very different outcomes in different locations. 

At this location Vic indicates ” . . . I searched the area with fellow conservationists and members of South East Timber Association, Peter and Kerry Rutherford. In a short space of time, Kerry spotted a female koala with a joey on its back, clinging to a coppice stem growing from a cut stump in 35-year-old regrowth forest. I found no sign of koalas in a stand of old growth forest on the other side of the road. However, the old trees and the regrowth trees were all very conspicuously declining in health and their roots were smothered by dangerously heavy fuel loads of litter, shrubbery and fallen timber. The local population of koalas is clearly in a phase of irruption and is destined either for decline or for sudden destruction by wildfire.”

As Peter Rutherford is a member of the OE&H’s flora reserve management team, I’m expecting to see plumes of smoke any day now.

Lastly the photo taken last night, is a young wombat that has taken to digging large holes under the orchard fence, even after I put a wombat gate in for it. Thankfully on this occasion it used the gate for its entry and exit.   

 

Forestry Corporation has announced it plans to burn up to 20,000 hectares on the south coast this year, claiming it is ‘critical to our capacity to manage wildfires over summer.’ The burns will also include areas that have recently been logged to ‘create a rich seed bed that promotes forest regrowth’.

Of course there is no evidence to support these claims, rather there is much evidence to disprove them. The problem is that many are prepared to believe it, apparently assuming Forestry Corporation know and can rationally explain, what they are doing.

For its part, it is now eight months since the OE&H announced the composition, twelve men and one woman, of its gender unequal flora reserve working group. Despite the passage of time, there has not been one announcement from this group. Similarly, the OE&H are yet to respond to my relatively straight forward request for contact details.

In the hope, neurotic though it may be, of getting some movement. I’ve sent the request, along with some background information, to the NSW Environment Minister, the Hon. Gabrielle Upton, inviting her to respond.

According to the Ministers website, the response time can be up to 20 working days, depending on the complexity of the request.

Last month a new Korean strain of the rabbit calicivirus was released at 1000 sites across the nation. The impact on rabbits is not expected to be as great as the original release of the virus, or the first release of Myxomatosis, back in 1950.

At that time, the national population of rabbits was reduced from an estimated 600 million, down to 100 million. Not surprisingly this reduction would have had a significant negative impact on rabbit predators, particularly foxes.

One probable outcome is increased fox predation on native species and as experienced in most coastal forests, a reduction or extinction of native species necessary to maintain soil fertility and forest health.

Moving forward to the 1960’s, the Forestry Commission observes a general reduction in forest growth. Consequently, Forestry forms the belief that the downturn is due to many years of selective logging. So it moves toward integrated logging, opening up the canopy to ‘create a rich seed bed that promotes forest regrowth’.

Luckily Forestry doesn’t need everyone to believe its claims, just its regulators, the OE&H and the EPA.

The NSW Environment Protection Authority has released some more information about its forestry compliance checks, on the far south coast. According to EPA director of forestry, Michael Hood, “Our aim is to target high risk operations where there are important values to be protected, such as rivers and streams, or threatened ecological communities or species, such as koalas.”

In the first instance the Bega District News reported on logging in Tantawangalo State forest, where koalas are extinct. However, the EPA is still attempting to improve Forestry’s ability to identify and protect rocky outcrops. 

The second compliance issue, reported in the Narooma News, was in Cpt 3027 of Bodalla State Forest, west of Narooma. In this case and among other issues, local residents were concerned about logging in a ‘visual amenity buffer zone’. Exactly why they have such zones is unclear, because logging is allowed in them. So the EPA have sent a letter to Forestry, encouraging it to ‘engage with the local community’.

Like Tantawangalo, koalas are likely to be extinct in this part of Bodalla State Forest. However, the EPA, like the rest of the NSW government, is yet is acknowledge the changes to vegetation associated with the decline and loss of koalas.

Bell-miner associated die-back and Viney scrub – Murrah Flora Reserve

 

In the case of Compartment 3027, vegetation mapping undertaken for the Regional Forest Agreement found there was no Viney scrub in the area. Eighteen years later, Forestry Corporation estimates indicate more than 50 hectares of the compartment is now Viney scrub. This rapid and arguably permanent change to native forests has many adverse repercussions, but, like the threat posed to native arboreal species including koalas, these changes are completely ignored. Then there are the negative impacts on water quality, recently identified in coastal catchments in the Bega Shire.

While some believe these matters are important, over the past few weeks I’ve been attempting get some relatively simple information from the die-back deniers in the Office of Environment and Heritage. To date these attempts have not been successful. So, rather than wasting time with those employed allegedly to help koalas, the next attempts will be through the relevant NSW government ministers, along with federal and state parliamentarians.

It does seem to me that public servants who will not respond to the community, should either be required to do their job, resign or be dismissed from their positions.

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