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Climate Change

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.

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 part of it’s asset protection works, the NPWS have been clearing around critical assets – road signs. While such work is expected, the methods employed seem to be inconsistent with the latest koala Priority Action Statement (PAS).

According to the PAS – ” . . . Intense prescribed burns or wildfires that scorch or burn the tree canopy : Liaise with relevant authorities or land managers to ensure that identified koala habitat areas are defined as assets for protection in fire planning tools when managing wildfires and prior to any hazard reduction burns. Promote best practice fire management protocols in areas of significant koala populations. Liaise with authorities or land managers to ensure that any unavoidable prescribed burns within koala habitat are conducted in a way that minimises impacts on koala habitat.”

As indicated in the picture below, the clearing involved cutting down two trees. If reducing fire hazard was the aim, cutting the tree trunks a metre off the ground, thereby creating standing dead wood, seems inconsistent with this aim. Similarly the heads of the trees, have been pushed under adjacent trees, creating fine fuels, also a metre above the ground. A simple solution would be to cut the trees down at ground level and remove the branches so the logging debris is all on the ground.

oak-cutting
Meanwhile the Nature Conservation Council is seeking donations to encourage more use of renewable energy, particularly wind and solar.

If local conservation groups were concerned about climate change and supported a different approach, the NCC could also push for the NPWS to move toward a carbon negative approach to management.

I expect the NPWS asset protection workers were driving a large diesel powered twin cab ute. An alternative vehicle could be a hybrid fossil fuel/ electric powered unit.

In that case the trunks of the aforementioned trees could be employed to generate electricity to power the vehicles. The charcoal from this process, about 90% carbon, could then be put in the ground. This approach would decrease CO2 emissions, increase soil water holding capacity, reduce soil acidity and perhaps aid in reducing die-back.

Of course, such an approach requires both support for and the implementation of best practice fire management protocols, in areas of significant koala populations.

The NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) has recently undertaken its second triennial stakeholder survey. In an email, EPA Chair and CEO Barry Buffier AM indicated those reporting an environmental incident in the past year, had been selected to participate in the survey. In my case, the incident involved concerns about inconsistent koala records in Glenbog State Forest, last December. The EPA responded in March.

According to Barry, the EPA ” . . . want to keep improving how we work with you to protect the environment and the community and ensure ecologically sustainable development.”
Regrettably, the EPA misinterpreted our data on soil dispersion, now 22 years ago. It then went on to provide Forestry with a methodology, guaranteeing dispersible soils would rarely be identified. Given its dependence on out-dated information and unscientific methods, my feedback on the EPA’s performance generally ranked poor to very poor.

If one was keen on ensuring ecologically sustainable development, an ability to measure sustainability would be a sensible approach. Under the former Environment Pollution Licence, estimates of soil loss were required for all logging and roading undertaken in State Forests. If the NPWS was required to measure its soil loss, the equation would be applied to roads and burning operations. However, when the EPA implemented its current Environment Protection Licence, the Universal Soil Loss Equation (USLE) was no longer required.

Rainfall intensity and its potential to increase due to climate change, should be a concern for forest managers and their regulators. For example, earlier this month 35mm of rain fell in a day. The issue was that 17mm of this rain fell in seven minutes. Irrespective of tenure but depending on steepness and up-slope catchment area, soil loss from unpaved roads at this rainfall intensity is likely to be very high, or extreme.

Generally worse are the outcomes on side-cut roads, like the small one on this property, being replaced with the concrete strips. Much longer side-cut roads that run through creeks, as in the Blind Creek catchment below, in Kooraban NP, can be subject to significant soil loss and associated water pollution. The Roads and Maritime Services has advised it will begin clearing, for the Princes Highway re-alignment in the lower section of Blind creek, early in the new year.

BCcross

 

 

 

The ABC recently reported on a claimed sighting of a koala near Tumut. NSW National Parks Area Manager Matt White indicated the closest koalas to the area were 150km away. While I expect koalas east of Canberra, 75km away, slipped Mr White’s mind, no evidence of a koala was found at the location. 

Clearly not deterred, SERCA member Prue Acton OBE, wrote the the Bega District News suggesting ” . . . our vast southern forests stretching from the Great Eastern Ranges to the east coast can provide hope for the long-term survival of the Koala in New South Wales.”

While on the one hand the statement seems to confirm the conservation movements’ ongoing objections to listing the last coastal koalas as endangered and likely to become extinct. Perhaps more important is apparent confirmation of the conservation movements ongoing support for management that contributes to climate change.

In particular –
” . . . Cultural burns and scientific evaluation are part of a government case study of the Murrah Flora Reserve, and critical to the Southern Koala Recovery Plan. ”
and
” . . . Forest restoration in all State Forests is critical for Koala survival and the safety of locals and the thousands of summer visitors. “

Both of these sound too much like business as usual and it’s unlikely koalas will have a positive future, while management is not required or encouraged to change. 

Following the recent ‘south coast low’, former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was reported saying ” . . . climate change is bringing about larger and more frequent storms.” However, he added that the ” . . . flooding across eastern Australia can’t be directly attributed to global warming.”

While I have some difficulty trying to separate any weather from climate change, if one were looking for evidence that the storm was larger than usual, the partial destruction of the Eden woodchip mill’s loading wharf is a good regional example. On this issue, the Eden Magnet reported a South East Region Conservation Alliance ‘twitter’ saying “ . . . Act of God wrecks the Eden chip mill jetty and loader. Nature is fighting back.”

Like Malcolm Turnbull, SERCA’s ‘act of God’ would also seem to exclude a direct connection with climate change.  Locally there were two moderate flood peaks in the Murrah river, some 15 hours apart. The photo below shows water receding from the front yard after the second peak. Even though most of the Murrah catchment is forested, the flood water is very dirty.

Indeed Bega Valley Shire Council has a ‘boil water before drinking’ alert for customers on the Brogo-Bermagui water supply. The dirty water in the Brogo dam comes almost exclusively from Wadbilliga National Park.flood

Historically, accepted sources of colloidal materials and suspended sediment have included stream bank erosion, gully incision, roads and logging, particularly when the latter is combined with fire.

What is yet to be considered or accounted for is die-back, in its various forms. Perhaps moving in that direction is a research report titled ‘Bell miner associated dieback: nutrient cycling and herbivore crown damage in Eucalyptus propinqua‘, published early this year.

In essence the research and apart from iron concentrations, couldn’t find a strong correlation between tree crown health and either, leaf nutrients, soils or under-storey, where lantana dominated. Interestingly, very few psyllids were found during the research, undertaken during a dry spell. Rather ” . . . caterpillars of the concealer moth appeared responsible for most defoliation observed during our study the question arises if there is an association between other defoliators and BMAD.”

As usual I have some uncertainties about the soil sampling and analysis. For example, the question of whether the soils are dispersible isn’t answered, although it would have provided a link to current forest management.

However, further research is proposed including ” . . .  BMAD-affected trees growing in a soil with significantly different water-holding capacity would be valuable for future analyses because of the possible association of topographic moisture with BMAD.”

This particular suggestion would seem to fit in with DPI research, using lidar and multi-spectral satellite imagery ‘to apply a modelling system that accurately maps the current, and potential, distribution of BMAD.’

For the south coast including the distribution of forests subject to extensive canopy die-back, associated with dry weather and drought, would be appropriate. Based on the possible association between topographic moisture, dead trees and dirty water.

The Western Woodlands Alliance has released a report identifying priority forests for koalas , west of the divide. Based on koala records from various sources, the report attempts to define areas occupied by both meta -populations and local populations, within bioregions.
For the South East Highlands Bioregion, extending from north west of Newcastle , south to and across the Victorian border, seven meta-populations, including 19 potential local populations were identified. However, only seven local populations, from three meta-populations, are considered to be stable.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the descendants of translocated Victorian koalas, located north east of Cooma, are considered to be a stable population. Quoting the report ” . . . In the South-east Highlands, animals occur in ‘low-density’ populations covering home ranges of over 80-100 ha (Jurskis and Potter, 1997), while animals in more favourable areas occupy ranges of 10-20 ha (Ward and Close, 2002).”
Regrettably, Jurskis and Potter (1997) report on radio-collared koalas in coastal forests and make no reference to tablelands koalas. However, 1997 was the year Forestry released its Koala recovery plan, containing the first reference to these koalas. The other citation, Ward and Close (2002), isn’t in the report’s references.
Die-back isn’t referred to, rather the report suggests ” . . . Less than 10% of local populations appear to be stable or increasing in numbers. The latter are found in the higher altitude tableland and highland regions and suggest modelled climate change impacts upon Koala distribution may already be occurring.”

 

Deep rip

 
Also this week the ABC reported on Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce announcing $520,000 funding ‘for a research and development project to look into growing trees for harvest on farmland’.
Forest and Wood Products Australia (FWPA will receive the funding to ” . . coordinate the research to investigate the tree varieties, soil types and planning needed to introduce timber plantations on farm.”
Quoting FWPA managing director Ric Sinclair, ” . . . the industry had “learnt a lot” from the mistakes made by the agribusiness companies behind failed managed investment schemes.”

The CSIRO is also involved in the research, as it is with the Monaro die-back project, in the photo above. In this case deep ripping, a practise that brings less productive soils to the top, is being employed. The ripping is also appears to be across the contour, an approach likely to have a detrimental impact on overland and sub-surface water flows, potentially  increasing  incision and gully erosion.

One can only trust some more enlightened and less environmentally damaging approaches will be trialled.

 

The Queensland government has recently released a report finding koala populations,  in the south east of the state, have declined by 80%.
According to the ABC ” . . . State Environment Minister Steven Miles has flagged a plan to establish an expert panel to point policy in the right direction.”
Minister Miles is quoted saying: ” . . . I think it’s time for an honest conversation with policy makers but also the public about what we think it will take to protect koalas. The alternative is doing what other governments have done, proclaim a solution then realise it’s not working. We need to determine some new action and it’s very much our intention to begin that in months not years.”
I couldn’t agree more about the need for an honest conversation about koalas. Along those lines, the notion of an expert panel has also been suggested, but is yet to eventuate. In part this may stem from the widely held belief that ‘protecting’ koalas can be achieved merely by stopping logging, even though the evidence proves otherwise.

carbon auction

Another impediment is the notion that re-vegetation will benefit koalas. The graphic above is a breakdown of the Clean Energy Regulator’s third Emissions Reduction Fund auction, held last month.

Locally,  the Bega District News ran a story about Far South Coast Landcare, moving into new premises. It referred to one of the organisations long-term projects, ‘the planting of 13,000 trees by children to re-vegetate a river corridor between Gulaga and Biamanga national parks’.
According to coordinator Dean Turner, “ . . . From all the survey work done over the last seven years we’ve got a lot of data about what is needed.” This statement would seem to be code for- ‘we planted the former primary koala feed trees but they didn’t grow’. As I understand it, secondary feed species trees are now being planted, although as soils limitations are not a consideration, there is no information to suggest these trees will either grow or be suitable for koalas.
A major difference between the various state and federal re-vegetation projects would seem to be the level of reporting. For projects that ‘Plant seeds or seedlings on cleared land to establish a permanent forest’, the Clean Energy Regulator requires actual measurements, in combination with computer based ‘Reforestation Modelling Tools’. However, there appears to be no such requirement for federal Bio-fund projects or state government funded projects, even though it is all public money.

It may be a rash and perhaps bold thought,  but a consistent approach could be a ‘new action’ that policy makers could try. Of course locally it would require considering whether Forestry’s 1997 koala recovery plan remains the best approach, given it is consistently wrong.

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