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Dieback

The Greens held a forum at Bellingen recently, to talk about the proposed Great Koala National Park on the Mid North Coast. Not surprisingly, the main focus is eliminating logging.
In addition and according to the Maclay Argus ‘more importantly‘, the National Parks Association CEO Kevin Evans and Senior Scientific Officer, Oisin Sweeney talked to Bellingen Shire Council about the proposal.

Responding to the publicity was the Nationals member for state seat of Oxley, Melinda Pavey MP, saying ” . . . the answer to concerns about mid north coast koalas does not involve converting more State Forest to National Park.” Rather ” . . . Mrs Pavey said that landholders know the National Park Estate is under-managed for key threatening processes of wild dogs, wildfire, scrub invasion and eucalypt decline – all causing koala habitat degradation.” And ‘ . . . Mrs Pavey said the community must look at the actual performance of the conservation estate in achieving real outcomes – just enlarging it does not automatically deliver good conservation outcomes.”

Mrs Pavey finished her PR with “ . . . I really do think it’s time for a mature, factual, science-based and constructive discussion about forestry, our forest estate and koalas – not just more land tenure changes.”

The NPA rejected Mrs Pavey’s suggestion that more national parks will not help koalas and called on the NSW Government to honor her call for  ‘a mature, factual, science-based discussion about forestry our forest estate and koalas’.

For those that do not support the state government’s management of public forests, irrespective of whom is managing it, any talk about facts and science is welcome, being better late than never.

Regrettably, It seems that both the conservation movement and the government still have some way to go.

 

Following up on the koala I spotted, it has now visited the same tree three times in as many weeks. Based on the pellet size it seems to be a youngish male, that appears to have taken over the home-range of an older male.Consequently, it seems likely that a female still occupies the area, broadly delineated within the black ellipse on the map above and she is the focus of the boy’s attention.

If one were to assume that each of the modeled koala activity areas on the map represented a koala, the number of koalas could be over estimated. So it is possible that most of the activity areas reflect just one male koala and 3 or 4 resident females.

 

Among those speaking at the recent forest forum in Tathra was NPWS’s Chris Allen, giving his ideas about koalas and their management.

In addition to his unsubstantiated belief that burning will protect koalas from wildfire, even though he apparently hasn’t seen the outcome of the fires. Allen claimed that the areas burnt were determined by the Bega Valley fire plan and the Biamanga management plan.

What he didn’t mention was the NPWS’s Enhanced Bushfire Management Program and its zoning and works map below. The map delineates areas (pink lines) the NPWS has somehow determined to be ‘preferred koala habitat’.

A clearer version of the map, indicating a large proportion of the flora reserve is not considered to be preferred koala habitat, is available at the NSW environment.gov website. It says pre-burning koala surveys may be undertaken within ‘preferred koala habitat’ or activity cells. Hence, areas with koala records or potentially koalas can be burned without undertaking any surveys.

Allen also re-iterated his logically inconsistent belief that koalas on the tablelands are an endemic population, despite the genetic differences. In order to believe this claim it is necessary to believe there was no historic interaction between coastal and tablelands koalas.

 

Thankfully, most of the speakers did provide realistic information and I agree ending the RFA’s and getting rid of forestry are sensible ideas.

Unfortunately, the basic assumption, that forests will keep growing into the future, is what forestry and the NPWS assume too. So its difficult to escape the conclusion that the conservation movements’ goal may be more difficult to achieve.  While the threats to forests aren’t fully acknowledged or understood, it seems likely governments will do what they want.

In that regard it was a little ironic that the trees around the Tathra hall are subject to Bell-miner associated die-back, an issue that along with extensive canopy die-back, should be on the conversation movement’s agenda.

Chris Allen also suggested that the management plan for the flora reserves will be made available for public comment. I’m assuming, given the predicable response from the NPWS pasted below, some explanation will be provided to justify its change from supporting biodiversity reconstruction, to opposing it

Dear Mr Bertram,

Thank you for your email. The NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) is now responsible for the management of Murrah Flora Reserve.

Forestry Corporation has provided NPWS the following information about the fence;

  • The fence was erected without consent of Forestry Corporation commencing in 2002.
  • Forestry Corporation has never provided an occupation permit to construct or maintain the fence.
  • Forestry Corporation has requested you to remove the structure in 2013 (see attachment).

Illegal encroachments will be part of the Murrah Flora Reserves Working Plan.  The current version on the Forestry Corporation website is an interim plan.

It is NPWS intention to remove illegal encroachments and infrastructure from the Murrah Flora Reserve.

Your sincerely,

Kane Weeks

 

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.

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 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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