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Dieback

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.

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.

After briefly attending the OE&H’s koala information session last Tuesday, it was a clear changing management to help koalas is not on the agenda. Rather, the intention is to continue current approaches, based on Forestry’s koala management plan (1997), even though they don’t help koalas.

One of the non-regional OE&H representatives did explain that there is no connection between the ‘Iconic Koala Project’ (IKP) and other aspects of the Saving our Species program. However, he hadn’t heard of extensive canopy die-back and was not aware that the NSW Scientific Committee has acknowledged it as a major threat to local koalas.

This lack of information stems directly from regional OE&H staff, attempting to cover up the fact that a reduction in forest cover has compromised regional conservation objectives.
Naturally there were representatives of several conservation groups at the session.

As I understand it, their objective is to end logging or woodchipping or both. Regrettably, because the OE&H are seen as friends, mentioning extensive canopy die-back, or criticizing its management, doesn’t happen. So while every thing is claimed to be OK in National Parks, unsustainable logging continues elsewhere.

BMAD2
Also attending the session was former forester Vic Jurskis. Vic has been instrumental in providing the Forestry Corporation with its all encompassing theory about die-back. Indeed if it wasn’t for Vic’s theory, we wouldn’t know koalas are always associated with unhealthy forests.

According to the theory, regular burning of forests will make them healthy again. The only downside is, according to the theory, this will get rid of koalas.

There is only one mention of local koalas in the IKP pamphlet, namely –
” . . . Fire management planning and monitoring for southern NSW koala populations to maximise protection of human assets and koala habitat.”

This appears to be the only management strategy and because it doesn’t address the major known threat, is unlikely to help koalas.

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 government has released its Chief Scientist and Engineers report on koalas.  Apparently forming the basis of a revised approach, the report makes 11 recommendations ‘to inform the development of a NSW koala strategy’.

The first recommendation is “That Government adopt a whole-of-government koala strategy for NSW with the objective of stabilising and then starting to increase koala numbers.” Unfortunately,  some significant issues around notions of ‘whole-of-government’ approach, given the differing opinions about how the environment and forest actually work. However, number six is “That Government investigate models for guiding and incentivising collaborative best practice for development and ongoing land use occurring in areas of known koala populations across tenures, industries and land users.”

Theoretically, such an approach could have some significant positive outcomes. Regrettably the major hurdle would seem to be the notion that the OE&H’s past and current do nothing approach will stabilize and increase koala numbers. Nothing could be further from the truth and it seems unlikely there will be much change, while a scientific understanding about forest decline continues to be minimised or ignored.

3065k

Over the past couple of weeks South East Forest Rescue has halted illegal logging in compartment 2433 of Tantawangalo State Forest on two occasions. The major issue was the protection, or lack of it, for rocky outcrops. The Harvesting Plan indicates Cpt 2433 is one of nine contiguous compartments, approved for logging late last year. The location of the compartments is immediately above the area of National Park where the government had intended to translocate koalas from Victoria.

There are two koala records in the compartments, although perhaps not surprisingly, there is no indication FCNSW followed the prescriptions required for koalas. However, the map above is from a complaint SEFE lodged with the OE&H back in 2011. In this case koalas were located and the four blue circles are alleged to be the areas where logging didn’t proceed during the operation.

Number seven of the Chief Scientists recommendations indicates ” That Government agencies identify priority areas of land across tenures to target for koala conservation management and threat mitigation.”  So it seems worthwhile, early in the new year, to take a trip to the area, just to see whether the prescriptions were implements, effective and koalas still exist.

Arguably one of most positive developments this year, on forestry issues, is the High Court challenge against Tasmania’s ‘draconian anti-protest laws’. The challenge, from former Greens leader Bob Brown and Jessica Hoyt, stems from their arrests earlier this year, at a forestry protest. While the charges were eventually dropped, the need for such laws at a state level, tends to confirm how unsustainable native forest logging is.

 

True to form, the NSW and Victorian governments have joined Tasmania, in the High Court, to protect their right to destroy forests.

For many years, forest management in Tasmania (clear-felling) has been based on the model developed for forests around Eden. It was in Eden that former Forestry Commission head, Dr Hans Drielsma began clear-felling, with the aim of improving forest productivity.

Drieslma, affectionately known as Dr Death, went on to head up forestry in Tasmania. While some constraints have been placed on NSW forestry since then, there has been little change in Tassie. However, they don’t always get their way, as the Tasmanian Ombudsman found, when dealing with then Forestry Tasmania’s truculence about a Freedom of Information dispute, back in 2007.

So best wishes to Bob and Jessica, for a positive High Court outcome. Given the Regional Forest Agreements are not legally enforceable, notions that state governments can legally enforce their unsustainable management, should be unexceptable.

 

reduced-koalas

 

I’ve recently been informed that the OE&H may be releasing details of the most recent RGB-SAT koala surveys, in the near future. While I have been privileged to view a map showing a part of the survey area, I decided not to put it with this blog post.

Rather the map above shows the outcomes from the first surveys. As indicated the koala activity areas, identified with arrows, appear to be missing from the latest survey map. So it must be assumed that recent OE&H claims of an increasing koala population, are in areas outside the map. The  ellipses, upper centre, broadly indicate areas where evidence of a known female (grey) and probable male (red) has also been sighted or found during this time.

While looking forward to a full account of the increasing koala numbers claim, it seems unlikely that the RGB-SAT surveys cannot readily account for areas of irregular use. For example, the last time I found koala faecal pellets, in northern areas of the grey ellipse, was about 2 years ago. Not that this is particularly unusual, because evidence of koalas in this area, somewhat lower topographically than southern areas of the ellipse,  generally only appears every couple of years. During the drought last decade, there was a four year gap. However, the RGB-SAT surveys have never found koala evidence in this area.

This particular aspect of habitat use may be associated with the general uncertainties around habitat availability, in forests subject to extensive canopy die-back. We can be pretty certain this is something both the federal and state government’s prefer to ignore.

 

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