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Dieback

The passage of the Kosciusko wild horse heritage bill early this week, is another nail in the coffin for the environment in NSW. While it is not an unprecedented act, the feral trout in the park have been protected for decades. It casts further doubt on the NSW government’s environmental bona-fides and again raises the question of what the government is really trying to achieve.

The approach to the horses seems similar to the government’s approach to koalas in the flora reserves. That is, set up a committee, with little or no scientific qualifications, no apparent interest in addressing the threats to the species and the aim of ensuring those with unsustainable commercial interests ultimately win out.

This week has also seen the EPA undertake invitation only meetings with conservation groups, re the draft Coastal Integrated Forestry Operations Approvals. While SERCA didn’t attend, rather had letters in various local newspapers and a radio interview. It seem most likely that other conservation groups, particularly those that receive regular government funding, would have attended.

The EPA’s aim, as alluded to in the Natural Resources Commission advice on the Coastal IFOA remake, is to achieve a level of confidence for its claim there will be no erosion of environmental values.

Regrettably, ignoring the ongoing erosion of environmental values and the causes, like the feral cat above, recently captured on camera in the flora reserve, is a higher priority.

On a positive note there has been a little over 50mm of rain in the past week, perhaps enough to push out another extensive canopy die-back event for a month or so.

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It is now just over three months since comments were closed on draft flora reserve management plan. While it’s disappointing that the public are yet to be informed about any outcome, perhaps more disappointing is the lack of any sign of forest management that isn’t locked into the unsustainable past.

Looking north from the Murrah the sky is grey with smoke, from the thousands of hectares of forest that have been deliberately burned. One of these fires, lit by the NPWS, has apparently spread to adjacent forest in National Park and on private land, so far degrading another 300 ha.

To the south the NPWS lit up 120 ha in Bournda NP, within the black circle on FCNSW’s predisposition to dieback map below. The particular area is referred to as the ‘Sandy Creek Strategic Fire Advantage Zone’ and was last burned in 2005-06. On this occasion the very lame justification for the burn is to ‘reduce the spread of wildfire’. There appears to be no consideration of the animals, the ongoing dry weather or the fact that without substantive rainfall, most forests will again turn brown, within a few weeks.

Meanwhile down in Victoria, Friends of the Leadbeaters Possum (FOTLP), have successfully applied for an interlocutory application, to stop Vicforests logging several coupes in the central highlands.
FOTLPs application was based on the failure to undertake the required reviews of the relevant Regional Forest Agreement. A trial on the matter will commence on 25 February 2019, for a period of three weeks.

Things are a little different up here, where the flora reserve management plan has to be consistent with the Forestry Act (2012). In particular part 25 clause 2 that requires ” . . .The object of any such scheme is to be the preservation of native flora on the flora reserve.”

It seems an appropriate time to investigate the potential to challenge the plan/scheme, given the different views on the management required to preserve native flora.

Following up on the condition of trees adjacent to the southern side of Cuttagee lake, it now appears that most if not all of the remaining Melaleucas have died. While a closer inspection is required, on this occasion some eucalyptus trees have also been affected.

As the factors leading to the death of these trees aren’t consistant with the known threat, overabundant and prolonged surface water. Another possibility is polluted groundwater.
Residents in the adjacent Murrah river catchment have known for many years that the groundwater is polluted. However, pollution that kills trees four years apart, in the same location is difficult to explain. Groundwater travels at a much slower rate that surface water. The Murray- Darling basin is a good example, where it takes some 2 million years for the groundwater to move from Queensland to South Australia.

Of course Cuttagee is quite different and a lot smaller than inland catchments. As indicated in the graphic from Council’s Rapid Catchment Assessment below, it is generally quite steep and short. The arrow is about 10 kilometers long and groundwater in these soils may travel only a ‘few centimeters a day, or even slower‘.

So rather than millions of years, a time frame of around 20 years is plausible, in the absence of other information.

As it turns out the first Melaleuca dieback, in May 2014, was exactly 16 years after rainfall that ended the first extensive dieback event in the Bio-region. The current tree deaths are 15 years after rainfall in February 2003, that punctuated the second extensive dieback event.

It is quite possible that groundwater was polluted with aluminium during these rainfall events, with subsequent negative impacts at the bottom of the catchment, in the longer term. It is also possible that the difference of one year reflects an increased ground water flow rate, due to ongoing soil dispersion and the associated reduction in soil Water Holding Capacity.

While it would be reassuring to know polluted groundwater isn’t and won’t be the cause of further environmental degradation. I expect the NSW government has no intention of restoring catchment management authorities.

Earlier this week, on ABC radio, Eurobodalla conservationist Mike Thompson spoke about the flora reserves and koalas. It seems Mike was responding to my most recent letter to the editor titled ‘Koala extinction plan on track’. Like most of the conservation movement on the south coast, Mike didn’t refer to dying forests.

Rather and among other things, he mentioned our local state parliament member, Andrew Constance. In particular Andrew’s statement that the flora reserves could be logged, in the future.

Mike suggested the best option for koalas is turning the reserves into National Park. If this happened, the management boards for Gulaga and Biamanga NPs may have an influence. Unfortunately, the boards don’t appear to have much influence over management in current National Parks.

What’s arguably more important, in the short term, are the details of the final working plan for the reserves. These may provide the leverage to modify the Regional Forest Agreements, given the federal koala listing. Naturally, there is no certainty and it will require going where the majority of the conservation prefer not to go. Particularly the dieback issue in National Parks and the associated inadequacy of state government forest regulations and management.

 

As reported in the Bega District News, on Thursday a workshop was held in an effort to re-introduce Aboriginal cultural burning. It brought together tablelands and coastal Aboriginals and there was a strong turnout of NSW government agencies. These included Local Land Services, Rural Fire Service, NSW Parks and Wildlife and the Forestry corporation.

Three sites have been selected at Wallagoot, Bermagui and Narooma, with the burns planned over four days in autumn.

While supportive of burning in grassy ecosystems, because there is evidence it increases the diversity of native grasses and herbaceous species. The article refers to observations indicating the ‘ bush is dense with native invasive species’ and burning will be undertaken in ‘different vegetation types’.

My concern is that the most influential of the agencies, Forestry Corp, believes burning is the cure for all forest health issues in all forest types. So it would be a shame if true cultural burning was somehow co-opted, to fit forestry’s single aim, further degrading all forests.

Similarly it would be a shame if such an outcome led to another falling out between Aboriginals. Apparently depicted in the painting above, is a battle back in 1825 at Barrabaroo (Yuin Aboriginal for ‘Fighting Ground’) Creek near Cobargo. Early settlers counted 70 bodies left on the grassy flood plains, after the battle between tablelands and coastal Aborigines.

Following up on the koala taken into care, it wasn’t fitted with a radio collar when released, several kilometers from where it was found. This omission isn’t the result of a constraint on the OE&H. Indeed, last year the OE&H radio-collared and tracked 20 koalas on the southern highlands. Rather, it reflects the conservation movement’s low interest in koalas, which the OE&H is happy to go along with.

Hence in an article on About Regional, OE&H threatened species officer Chris Allen talks of ‘Small, fragile, and very precious communities of koalas ‘, rather than an endangered population.
Allen also repeats his claim that climate change and fire are the biggest threats to koalas, extensive canopy die-back doesn’t get a mention. This too is mostly a result of of the conservation movement’s desire to ignore the real issues.

After the predictable failure to grow primary tree species on private land, Allen is now suggesting the secondary feed species Woollybutt (E. longifolia), ‘ is really struggling to regenerate’.  So ” . . . Thirty small research plots have been established throughout koala country where a range of bush regeneration techniques are being trialled – one of them is the use of seed balls. “Seed balls are made up of the seed of the target species, clay is mixed with peat mulch and Cayenne pepper,” Chris smiles. “The Cayenne pepper is the magic ingredient that stops ants and other critters eating the seed.”

At this point it seems necessary to believe insects that eat seed are also a threat to koalas, rather than the notion that soils are no longer conducive to tree germination and growth.
The following chart shows the percentage of Woollybutt trees from the first survey data, stratified by size classes. Although the data is poor, it doesn’t reflect trees struggling to regenerate, rather what would be expected from heavily logged forests. What Allen neglects to mention is the increase in non-eucalyptus species and the fact that they can grow where eucalyptus trees no longer can.

Also in the news was the Forestry Corporation, regarding data on firewood NSW Minister for Primary Industries Niall Blair provided to the NSW parliament. The data indicates firewood production rose from nothing in 2002, to 2,365 tonnes in Eden and 38,926 tonnes in Southern during 2016.

The article was followed by a letter to the editor, from forestry manager Danial Tuan, suggesting the information had been misrepresented because forestry have always sold firewood and ” . . .  the timber was previously sold and reported in a different residue category.”

However, according to Forests NSW 2005 ESFM plan, 4,500 tonnes of commercial firewood and 1,579 tonnes of domestic firewood were sourced from the South Soast region in 2002-2003. This volume, signed off by then Minister Ian Macdonald, is 48 times greater than the recent information.

It does seem prudent to take the information, stemming from public forest managers, with several grains of salt.

As reported in the Bega District News, Wapengo lake oyster farmers Brian and Carol Orr were surprised to find a koala last week, hanging on to a oyster bag, in the lake. It seems likely that the young koala is the same animal sighted on the Bermagui- Tathra road back in September.

On this occasion Brian was going to let the koala loose, after it was brought back to shore. However, he rang WIRES and they suggested taking it to a vet for a check up. The vet found the animal was dehydrated and underweight and it was then taken to Potoroo Palace to recuperate.

The article quotes NPWS’s Chris Allen saying ” . . . It is probable that he had been pushed out by older males while trying to find his own territory.” Hence the animal is ” . . . to be released back to an area where he is less likely to be confronted with aggressive males. ”

Of course there is no evidence that the koala was confronted by any other koalas and a female koala is just as unlikely to welcome another koala in its home-range as male is.
The issue is whether the habitat in area proposed for the release is any better than the forest in Mimosa Rocks NP, where the koala has seemingly been for the past month.

The photo shows one of the views looking east from the Bermagui-Tathra road, into Mimosa Rocks NP, where the koala was first sighted. Along with a microwave oven, plastic bags etc, there are also broken bits asbestos cement sheeting and just next to this toxic rubbish a couple of dozen old truck tires. While these features may not reduce the quality of the habitat, it does say something about park management.

According to the results from the 2012-14 koala surveys, ” . . . it will be essential to ensure that the population does not experience any further loss and that provision is made for its expansion into apparently unoccupied but suitable habitat.”  The question is whether the NPWS, or anyone else, can tell what is suitable koala habitat, just by looking at it. This would seem to be an important consideration, because if all of the suitable habitat is occupied, releasing the koala could well be a death sentence.

While it isn’t ideal for the koala to remain at Potoroo Palace, a precautionary approach would be to radio track the animal, so it can be rescued again, should perceptions of suitable koala habitat prove incorrect.

Coupled with this uncertainty is the fact that local forests are starting to die due to a lack of rain. While 20mm has fallen this month, another 50-100mm is required to fully re hydrate the soils and avoid another extensive canopy die-back event.

As reported on the ABC, the Victorian government has finally bought the Heyfield timber mill for $40 million. If one were looking for a true sign of the state government’s commitment to an unsustainable industry, this action ranks highly.

The previous owners were faced with a significant reduction in resource, from 150,000 cm down to 80,000 cm and decided the business was no longer financially viable.The reduction has been put down to fire damage to much of the Mountain Ash forests and the Leadbeater’s Possum protection zones

Coincidentally, the Regional Forest Agreement for the area, the central highlands, was signed in the same year as the Eden RFA. Both regions have similar timber supply issues.

Of course in NSW the state and federal governments are keen to simply roll-over all of the RFAs, Eden, Northeast and Southern, but the timeline is stretching. According to the scoping agreement, a joint working group was to prepare a report and an independent reviewer was supposed to be appointed by the end of last year. This was to be followed by an eight week public consultation phase, starting in March 2017.


Perhaps slowing the process, in addition to the limited timber supply and threatened species, is the forest health issue. In that regard the Forestry Corporation’s views are well known and summed below, from its website.

” . . .  In striving to achieve positive outcomes for forest health and biodiversity, Forestry Corporation is cognisant of the practical limits of what can be achieved. In particular with regard to invasive weeds and bell-miner associated dieback, the scale of the problem in some areas is significant. Further research and a co-ordinated approach with other land management agencies is required.
Research has shown that intentional, frequent, low-intensity fire regimes result in a spatial and temporal mosaic of burnt and unburnt areas and that many fire sensitive plants are protected by their position in the landscape. In some situations, frequent, low-intensity fires can be used to mitigate dieback and Forestry Corporation will use low intensity prescribed burning to protect forest health, economic assets and people.”

Regrettably, Forestry make  no reference to extensive canopy die-back associated with dry weather and drought, as experienced broadly in coastal forests of the Eden and Southern RFA regions. With the weather remaining dry, the Brushtail possum in the photo may signal a start the negative impacts on native species, due to the lack of water.

While historically tree leaves have provided much of the water both koalas and possums need, many, if not all of the small ponds in the upper catchment have filled with sediment. So when the leaves start to dry out, animals have to travel several kilometres for water, rather than several hundred metres. After an absence of several weeks, what appears to be the same possum returned to same location twice in four days, after finding the water.

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