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Biodiversity

Next Wednesday, 30 August, the Great Southern Forest steering group will present, to Bega Shire Council, its proposal to ending native forest logging. Coinciding with the end of the Regional Forest Agreements, ‘… The plan is to change management of public State Forests from timber extraction to climate stabilisation and carbon sequestration.”

The new management of State Forests is proposed to be based on adaptive management, in particular the approach outlined in ‘CLIMATE CHANGE AND FORESTS OF THE FUTURE: MANAGING IN THE FACE OF UNCERTAINTY’ (Millar et al, 2007)  

Of course public forest management under the RFA’s was intended to take an adaptive approach, ‘with an aim to reducing uncertainty over time via system monitoring.’ We can be fairly certain that such an approach is not consistent with the State government’s preferences.

Regrettably and like the proposed great koala national park on the north coast, there is no mention of die-back in the Great Southern Forest media brief. Nor is their reference to die-back in the groups document about carbon, perhaps due to a lack of system data.

On koalas the brief suggests ” . . . The unique Southern Koalas once roamed the region yet now only highly endangered small isolated colonies remain on the far south coast.19 The EPBC Act does not protect them in State Forests.20 Koalas prefer deep-rooted, tall specific eucalypts and logging compromises their ability to disperse and breed with other populations in the southern highlands, north-eastern Monaro and the far south coast.

Depending on one’s interpretation, the possibility that koalas have been translocated from Victoria to the Bega Shire, despite the expert advice, remains open.

Apart from the koala and a swamp wallaby passing by, an antechinus and the crimson rosellas in photo above, are the only creatures snapped drinking from the frying pan to date. The area, located at a higher elevation in the catchment, is arguably mostly devoid of life, apart from the trees.

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Bega Valley Shire Council has recently released its ‘Understanding Our Place’ report, said to be “Phase 1 of Council’s adopted Community Engagement Strategy for the upcoming Bega Valley Community Strategic Plan 2040.” The report is based on a survey where 40.5% percent of respondents indicated the natural environment sets ‘our place’, apart from other places.

Closely following the report, Council called for the community’s feedback because ” . . New Coastal Management Programs (CMPs) are currently being developed for Wallaga Lake, Bermagui River, Merimbula and Back Lake, and Eden’s Lake Curalo.”

Although Council has previously requested feedback on the Bermagui catchment. On that occasion Council, its consultants and the OE&H were involved in the process  This time, consistent with previous recommendations, the UNSW Water Research Laboratory, part of the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is also involved and appears to be taking the lead role.

Among the project objectives is idea to “Identify all issues and pressures currently impacting, or with the potential to impact, Bermagui River and its catchment.” While there seems little doubt the major pressure in this and other catchments is eucalyptus die-back. Another objective is to “Describe all legislative instruments relevant to management of the Bermagui River study area.”

This is where things become uncertain as indicated in the OE&H map of the local area above. While the map purports to show ‘sensitive lands’, being predominantly endangered ecosystems, rainforests, river banks, lakes and wetlands.

Apart from the river banks, these areas are only identified on private land, rather than across tenures. Then there is the issue of the rainforest layer, given it remarkable similarity to the one employed for the Regional Forests Agreements, 20 years ago.

As I understand it, the latest round of federally funded koala surveys have been recording the presence of Bellminer colonies near plots.
Given current legislative instruments tend to exclude consideration of key threatening processes. I wonder whether the OE&H will be voluntarily passing on information about BMAD in the catchment/s.

It would be reassuring to know that all of the issues have been adequately identified.

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.   

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.

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