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Catchments

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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Hearing news of the alleged illegal interstate waste dumping, aired on Four Corners last Monday, was a bit of a blast from the past. As it transpired the EPA’s director of waste management, Steve Beaman, was one of the first EPA employees I encountered back in the early 1990’s.

At the time the issue was logging in the Murrah catchment and concerns about the adequacy of what was then Forestry’s Environment Pollution Licence. One of the concerns was soil erosion and how the volume (tonnes) of soil lost after logging was being calculated.

Forestry relied on the broad map of geology, reproduced below, but a bit blurry. However the geology in the ellipse, where four compartments were being logged, wasn’t consistent with the map. After visiting the site and taking samples, Steve Beaman agreed the geology was not consistent with the leucogranite and sandstone indicated on the map.

However, Mr Beaman couldn’t say what sort of rocks they were because he had never seen them before. In one of these compartments, after the first large rainfall event, the majority of soil disappeared, leaving behind a course grained white quartz.

It was a couple of years after this that the EPA dropped the geology thing and allowed forestry to determine if soils were dispersible, rather than use the published soils data.
While one trusts the Independent Commission Against Corruption puts an end to the waste rort, the land degradation and pollution from logging is arguably just as corrupt. Two of the compartments, including the white one, were later put into Biamanga National Park.

Arguably the greatest advance in feral animal control over recent times has been the feral cat grooming trap or ‘felixer’. According the the information brochure “. . . Feral cats are the greatest threat to native wildlife in Australia. They have been implicated in at least 27 mammal extinctions across Australia and currently threaten more than 100 native species, including mammals, lizards and ground nesting birds. ”

To address this situation ” . . . The Ecological Horizons grooming trap uses sensors to detect the presence of a feral cat and sprays a lethal dose of toxic gel onto its fur from up to 4 metres away as it is walking past. The feral cat instinctively grooms the gel and in doing so ingests the lethal dose of the poison and dies.”

While looking forward to the deployment of these units at a bio-regional scale, the technology may have other useful applications. In particular closing a gate when a cat or fox is detected.
Such a device would enable one or more entrances in a fence to be kept open, for much of the time. Hence other species like kangaroos and wallabies could get into and out of fenced areas. The same applies to reintroduced species, should they breed up.

Coinciding with the National koala conference this weekend, the ABC has unearthed documents indicating logging prescriptions will be relaxed in NSW. So “… For koalas in north-east NSW, Forestry Corporation proposes a “reduced survey effort” and the dropping of a longstanding rule applying 20 metre buffers to “high-use” areas.” In reality this translates to – if we see a koala up a tree, we may not cut the tree down.

Several other constraints will also be relaxed to ensure unsustainable native forest logging can continue, until the trees run out. This outcome would not be so bad, if native forests and catchments weren’t declining across the state, but they are.

While forest decline is seemingly not directly on the agenda at the koala conference, there is one speaker talking about climate change. However, as Eleanor Stalenberg pointed out in her thesis ‘Nutritional ecology of the Mumbulla koala‘ – ” . . . human-induced climate change could have long-term negative effects on the suitability of leaves for koalas.”

In the short term, an increase in the number of very hot days is likely, along with a reduced availability of leaves with sufficient water and nutrient content. So it was interesting to read about research at Gunnedah, finding koalas are regularly coming down from the trees to drink water from artificial water stations.

According to the article, ” . . . Researchers think the koalas’ newfound thirst is because the leaves that used to keep them hydrated are drying out as Gunnedah gets hotter and drier. The leaves used to provide enough water for the koalas that they didn’t need to drink in addition. In fact, prior research suggests that koalas reject leaves with water contents less than 55 to 65 percent.”

The only issue is that the research was undertaken during winter. To me this suggests, if leaf water content is the main factor, other factors, rather than the weather, may be influencing its availability, as in these forests.

Tragically, getting NSW government agencies to acknowledge these issues is difficult, to say the least. So I was a little surprised to receive the flyer below, from Bega Valley Shire Council. I’m pretty confident that groups like the OE&H’s koala recovery team wouldn’t invite Professor Tim Flannery to attend one of its meetings.

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.

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)

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.

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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