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Biodiversity

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.   

The Queensland government has recently released two reports titled ‘South East Queensland Koala Population Modelling Study‘ and a ‘Koala Expert Panel Interim Report’.
The former is a comprehensive work that required collating koala survey data from 1996 up to 2014.  The outcome confirms a rapid and increasing rate of decline in koala numbers, particularly on the Koala coast and the Pine rivers area. Insufficient data was available to determine whether the decline is consistent across south east Qld.

If koalas haven’t declined in other areas, the report recommends ” Identifying these areas with a carefully designed monitoring program would appear to be a priority.”

The latter report is, to put it mildly, a generally scathing indictment of koala management through out the state. In essence it found none of the planning instruments worked for the benefit of koalas, indeed the reverse is usually the case. The report indicates the failures are around a lack of a strategic regional vision, an over-reliance on the planning legislation and inadequate resourcing.

So called ‘environmental offsets’ were also criticised on the basis of ” . . .the ability of local governments to offset matters of state significance, a lack of resources for monitoring and enforcement, the inability to offset outside local government areas where the impact occurs, lack of additionality deriving from offset actions, and potential perverse outcomes.”

Back in NSW, there is the ‘Saving Our Species’ program and its various streams, including the Iconic species program, where koalas have been lumped. However if one were looking for recent official and credible information on koalas, the chances of finding it are quite low.

In that regard, the map above provides koala records, available on the Atlas of NSW Wildlife, from 1 January 2013 to now.

Curiously, the single record is suggested to be a koala sighting, attributed to the Forestry Corporation, after the Flora reserves were announced. Clearly any conclusion from this information represents a poor outcome.

Regrettably, Long-nosed Potoroos could be in a similar position, as indicated by records since 1 January 2011, in the map below. A few years before there are records of Long-nosed potoroos in this area.  Under the NSW government’s approach, LNPs are a ‘land-scape managed’ species. The land-scape in this case begins south of Merimbula and extends to the Victorian border.

It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the ‘streams’ approach may not be ideal, but on the positive side, there is considerable scope for improvement.

As the Forestry Corporation now takes second place with regard to koala management. My comments on the OE&H’s koala strategy focused mostly on its ideas about koalas. In particular the paper titled “Extinction in Eden, identifying the role of climate change in the decline of the koala in south-eastern NSW” (Lunney et al, 2014).

While not doubting climate change has recently had a major negative impact on koala habitat. I do doubt the notion that climate change has played the major role in koala decline, particularly in this bio-region.

The research Lunney et al quote in support of the climate change theory, Lawler et al ( 1996), found either increased CO2 levels or reduced nutrient availability led to ” . . . lower leaf nitrogen concentrations, higher leaf specific weights and higher levels of both total phenolics and condensed tannins” in Forest red gum leaves

Hence, changes to soils that lead to a permanent decrease in nutrient and/or water availability, will have a negative impact on koalas. The problem within the OE&H is a belief that soils have not changed and are fairly consistent throughout NSW. So Lunney et al infer, because trees grow well in paddocks around Gunnadah, there’s no reason why they won’t do the same in the Bega Valley.

So it was interesting to read, in the Bega District news, that koalas around Gunnadah, where the population has dropped 50% since 2008, have taken to ” . . . drinking extensively from custom-made watering stations, even in autumn and winter.” According to Valentina Mella, from Sydney University’s school of life and environmental sciences. “My thought is that the leaves they’re eating are not providing enough moisture … because with climate change the chemical composition of the leaf changes. The leaves become tougher, they become drier, they have less nutrients and they even have more toxins. In the past decade there have been a lot of heatwaves and prolonged droughts, which have killed a lot of koalas. They literally drop out of trees.”

What Lunney et al neglect to mention is that fact that all the koalas on former primary habitat in this bio-region dropped dead over 110 years ago. Linking this decline with climate change seems to be drawing a long bow.

cuttagee-pe

Bega Shire Council has released the final Rapid Catchment Assessment reports for the Cuttagee, Middle and Nelson lake catchments. They are comprehensive documents that make many sensible and practical recommendations to address degraded areas, mostly on private land.

On public land, as indicated in the map a Cuttagee catchment above, many locations, in this case around 200, where found to be potential sources of water pollution. In addition, significant areas of ‘head-cut’ and gully erosion were identified. The sediment yield from ‘head-cut’ erosion areas alone is estimated to be more than 1000 cubic metres in all three catchments. Many of these locations have never been subject to integrated logging, but were trashed before woodchipping began.

The consultants Elgin Associates Pty Ltd, provide the following description and recommended action for the Nelson catchment :

” Multiple examples of active head-cut that have formed deep incised gullies. Natural erosion process that shows examples of undercutting, lateral bank erosion and slumping due to highly erodible, sodic soils. These may have been exacerbated by historical logging operations and past fire events in the forest. Difficult to treat due to scale of problem and site access. Majority of the sediment fractions eroded from the head-cut and gullies have been re-deposited downstream and may not reach the estuary. However, a proportion of dispersible fraction of sediment fines has and will continue to be delivered to the estuary back lagoon under high flow events. Recommend a collaborative research project with a university to further investigate the significance of the process – spatially and temporally, and identify factors that may be exacerbating the process, and what potential actions could be undertaken to halt or slow down process.”

While I did some include some management suggestions with my comments on the koala strategy. The starting point requires the NPWS/OE&H to firstly acknowledge the issues and learn more about the land they manage, so they can do something positive, for a change.

The federal government has decided to extend the east Gippsland Regional Forestry Agreement for a year. An ABC report quotes federal Agriculture Minister Anne Ruston, indicating the extension had been granted to give the Victorian Government time to review the mess.

Included in the review is VicForests ” . . . new assessments of its remaining logging coupes.” Consequently, as reported in the Gippsland Times, the largest hardwood timber mill in the region, Heyfield’s Australian Sustainable Hardwoods (ASH), has had its quota slashed from 150,000 cubic metres, down to 80,000 cubic metres next year and 60,000 cubic metres for the following two years.

This reduction is proposed despite ASH signing a contract with Vic Forests in 2014, to supply logs until 2034. The owners are now proposing to close the mill, when they run out of logs in September.

vic-koalasPart of the documentation for the east Gippsland Regional Forestry Agreement states –

” . . . Ecologically Sustainable Forest Management (ESFM) is the management of forest on all land tenures to maintain the overall capacity of forests to provide goods, protect
biodiversity and protect the full suite of forest values at the regional level. One of the key objectives of each Regional Forest Agreement is to ensure that forests
on and off reserves are sustainably managed.”

Clearly the overall capacity of forests to provide sawlogs is on the wane. On biodiversity, the map above, from Victoria’s Koala Management Strategy (2004), shows koala records since 1970, as well as koala translocation areas and source populations. It is possible that in 1970 there was still a connection between koalas on the NSW south coast and their genetically similar cousins in the Strezlecki Ranges.

it seems unlikely this connection could ever be re-established, particularly given koalas aren’t considered vulnerable in Victoria. What isn’t clear is how many of the translocated koalas actually survived at the release sites. Currently the only known survivors are those at Mallacoota, in the far east of the state. There is little information about the fate of koalas released at the other twenty or so locations in east Gippsland.

Perhaps there will be more information stemming from the RFA  review. In the meantime the OE&H will be holding its koala information session in Bega on Tuesday. So I’m thinking of going along, in the hope (neurotic though it may be), that someone may be able to provide answers to some questions.

As expected, the recent passing of the NSW government’s Biodiversity conservation bill and the Local Land Services amendment bill, has been both welcomed and spurned.

According to NSW Farmers president Derek Schoen, the previous laws ‘have not only failed farmers and the productivity of many farms, they’ve failed the environment.’ He went on to say previous legislation ‘has seen biodiversity go backwards in NSW because of its lock up-and-leave approach’. However Derek did acknowledge that “. . . Without biodiversity, we don’t have farms.”

On the other hand, the World Wildlife Fund commissioned a report finding the changes could see over 2 million hectares of koala habitat cleared in NSW. The National Parks Association adds the proposed roll over of the RFA’s and EPA studies finding there are more koalas in forests with larger trees. It calls on the EPA ‘to force the government to protect koalas’.

For its part the NSW government claims local government laws will protect koalas and the OE&H suggests the new laws are fairer.

What’s missing is the notion that one can have koala habitat, in locations that historically supported koalas, without the biodiversity that makes trees grow.

scwildp

According to the WWF report, there are significant variations in areas of woody vegetation that could be cleared and koala habitat, at a local government scale. For the LGAs pictured above, Shoalhaven, Eurobodalla and Bega, out of a total 1,196,019 hectares of woody veg, only 1.07% (12,812 ha.) is considered to be known or potential koala habitat on private land. While this figure is somewhat greater than I expect, it is an improvement on suggestions that anywhere with trees is OK for koalas. The area available for clearing in the three shires is 17,264 ha, being 1.44% of woody vegetation, or 135% of known or potential koala habitat.

Although a bit blurry, the map shows the areas in which the original primary or ‘core’ koala habitat was located, the white bits. The other extreme are areas that probably didn’t historically support koalas, the wilderness areas, red hatch. This inability to support koalas can be due to several factors. For example, in the far south corner there is the Nadgee Wilderness, known for its lack of trees and extensive areas of low growing heath.  Along the western side, are the escarpment forests, that are generally very steep, frequently very rocky with shallow soils and trees that are often quite small.

Then there are the State Forests and National Parks, the brown and green bits respectively, most of which have been logged and all of which have lost the critical weight range vertebrates required to maintain soil fertility and tree growth. The one species exception is the Long-nosed potoroo. The blue circle at the bottom of the map is where the Long-nosed Potoroo has increased in numbers, on State Forest. However, the Forestry Corporation isn’t required to consider the role animals play in maintaining forests. So, the over-abundant potoroos  have been translocated to forests on Commonwealth land, indicated with the blue circle at the top of the map.

If one were looking for common ground on land management issues, the need to at least attempt to reestablish the original biodiversity should be the major priority. I for one, look forward to groups like the NPA demonstrating their support for such attempts, across tenures.

Life is littered with ironies, so while Forestry Corporation received a South Coast tourism award last week, for general tourism services. In the same week a fire started at Blue Ridge hardwoods sawmill at Eden, putting the operation out of action for an unspecified period.

The tourism award was apparently for providing things like the Bodalla rest area, last logged in 2014. Of course this was not your standard selective logging operation, because they had to clean the place up afterwards.

The costs associated with the clean up, chipping heads and branches of trees on site, grinding tree stumps, repairing other damage and the like, would have been quite substantial. Of course this was prior to forestry realising it had additional 40,000 cm³ around Batemans Bay to keep Blue Ridge going, given the temporary loss of resource in the flora reserves.

 

new-road

 

 

Also last week, ABC radio had an interview with Dr George Wilson, based at the ANU, about the need for more private input into species conservation. In an ANU press release Dr Wilson says ” . . . Business as usual for threatened species is not working – lists are getting longer and threats from predators and habitat loss are getting worse.The private sector can help but it is shut out by government legislation that maintains control over both operations and ownership.”

He proposes incentives for landholders to lease animals, so they can “ . . .  acquire and breed threatened species in extensive predator-free facilities,”

I couldn’t agree more, but to finish this predator free facility, the new concrete strip access road, form work for which is pictured above, has to be completed. This road will replace the environmentally undesirable side cut road, within the fenced area. Just need the workers, the concrete truck and the weather to come together, at the same time.

On broader management issues, I hear the NPWS/OE&H will be releasing their management proposals for the flora reserves in the next week or so. One can only trust that it at least considers issues beyond business as usual.

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