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Forest restoration

Following up on his book ‘Firestick Ecology’, former forester Vic Jurskis has written a paper, accepted for publication in Wildlife Research, titled ‘Ecological history of the koala and implications for management.’

According to Mr Jurskis, the decline in koala populations is not a crisis, rather koala numbers are returning to a pre-European state. The ‘eruptions’ in koala numbers, here 120 years ago and those of translocated island koalas in Victoria, is put down to poor management, particularly a lack of frequent burning.

In one press report he describes the creation of the Murrah Flora reserve as a perverse outcome for a species that was not recorded in the area at the time of European settlement. Exactly how he knows this and how this theory fits with his previous estimate of 800 to 1600 koalas in the Eden region isn’t clear.

I do recall the first time I met Vic, back in the 1990’s, not long after the 8 radio collared koalas had died. I informed him of koala pellets I located in Nullica State Forest, where two of the aforementioned koalas were tracked. His response was to say the two koalas, Robert and Roberta, were the only koalas in Nullica SF.

Vic’s simple theories have many holes, not least of these is the knowledge that the primary feed trees behind the ‘koala eruption’ in the Eden region are now endangered, because they don’t grow back. The evidence indicates secondary koala feed species are in the same boat.

So while I do agree with Vic, that forests need better management, that’s where the agreement ends. It is simply not possible to undertake low intensity burns in these forests, due to the previous and ongoing poor management.


However, I believe management aimed at reducing fuel loads would create employment, while providing some protection from wildfires and aid in funding real attempts to restore biodiversity. The photo shows the first of nine 10×10 metre plots, logged and burned in 1982, where the majority of forest oak have been removed. Apart from two retained trees, a Yellow stringy-bark and a Rough barked apple at the rear of the plot, only one very small and sick apple has regenerated in the plot.

The small dead trees in the plots, oak and silver-top ash, have mostly been converted to biochar, producing just over 500 litres or enough to spread half a litre per square metre. When the green wood dries, I’ll add another 50 litres to each plot.  In the bare areas I’ve begun planting Woollybutt seedlings and Yellow stringy- bark seed.

Unlike the OE&H’s approach, in the square metre around these plantings, I’m incorporating 350 grams of either dolomite or crushed sea-shells, with another litre of char and in some instances 250 grams of gypsum, into the first couple of inches of soil.

While there is uncertainty about whether they will grow, if they do it will be interesting to compare outcomes with the OE&H’s soils haven’t changed approach.

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Now some months after the National Koala Conference, I happened to come across the OE&H’s power point presentation titled “Koalas, Fire Management & Habitat Rehabilitation in SE NSW”.  Not surprisingly for coastal koalas the two issues referred to are fire and getting preferred feed trees to germinate and grow.

The issue with fire was the Strategic Fire Advantage Zones (SFAZ) because they overlapped with areas occupied by koalas. The solution is to burn around known koalas and greatly increase the areas to be burned. Despite this approach the OE&H suggest there is room for the population to expand.

On the feed tree issue, some 28 locations have been chosen to trial regeneration techniques, as indicated in the table below.The treatment referred to as pruning appears to involve cutting down all the forest oaks and laying them across the slope. The approach would seem to confirm the OE&H is repeating the mistakes made trying to grow primary feed trees. In particular, a belief that the reduction of soil pH and associated decline in soil fertility, plays no part in tree germination, growth or koala survival.

The story is quite different in the northern hemisphere, where forest managers are concerned acid rain, in addition to logging has had similar negative impacts on forests. The USDA Forest Service for example, supports the Hubbard Brook Ecosystem Study in New Hampshire. One of the experiments involved a helicopter dropping 40 tons of wollastonite, a naturally occurring calcium silicate, onto a small ‘watershed’.

The outcomes have been very positive and arguably well worth a try in Australia, when forest managers are required to consider and act on science.

 

The NSW Department of Primary Industries has recently released a report titled  ‘North Coast Residues -A project undertaken as part of the 2023 North Coast Forestry Project ‘. The executive summary indicates ” The main purpose of this project was to determine the potential availability of forestry residues for bioenergy generation and other applications on the North Coast of NSW . . ”

With regard to residues from public native forests the authors suggest ” . . .The values assume that a substantial proportion of the biomass (typically at least 20% of the total biomass) is left in the forest after harvest. ” The DPI then provide estimated volumes of residue that are, in all cases, greater than 200% of the biomass removed during harvest.

There is also a section titled ‘Extraction of biomass for bioenergy from NSW North Coast regrowth native forests: impacts on nutrient availability’. Regrettably the authors indicate ” . . . However, this study does not constitute a full nutrient budget that would also take into account temporal and below-ground conversion dynamics, and natural nutrient inputs (e.g. via rainfall). ”

Such a short fall essentially renders the generally repetitious information useless. This is particularly the case given the proportions of nutrients found in leaves, bark, branches and wood are not considered in terms of the actual volumes exported from forests during logging. In addition four of the references are not to be found and the only reference to calcium (Marschner, H. 1986. Mineral nutrition in higher plants. Academic Press London), is unlikely to apply to the north coast or Australian forests generally. On a positive note the authors suggest a move away from post logging burns, so some of the nutrients can be retained.

Also on a positive note is the news that Friends of Leadbeaters possums have stopped logging 34 forests in the Victorian central highlands. The Federal court’s decision, on whether the EPBC act should apply to logging nationally endangered species habitat, may have implications for all Regional Forest Agreement areas.

Earlier this week I set up an open container, with 5 litres of water in it, at a location where previously, the home ranges of a female and male koala overlapped. There were some possum scats at the base of the tree, but when setting up the camera, I came across some recent koala pellets.

The following day I went to check the camera and found a fresh koala pellet beside the tripod. Putting one and one together, I looked up the tree and there was a koala. It seems the beast had seen me first and was moving slowly toward the top of the tree. So I departed and came back a few hours later. Just visible in the photo below, the koala had moved back down the tree and appeared to be asleep, with one large and very furry ear pointing skywards.

 

It was gone the next day, with no indication it had an interest in the water. However, what I came across on the way was a pair of foxes, copulating on the road. The car appearing lead to a rapid decoupling and they both dashed into the bush.

The location of this sighting is about 50 metres from one of the NPWS’s 1080 bait stations. In this case, there was no sign that the bait had been dug up. The NPWS made a small change to Forestry’s baiting, moving the bait locations some metres back from the road. While there is no information to suggest this minor change may have reduced the number of foxes finding the baits. It does raise again, the issue of how effective the baiting program is and how it could be improved.

On the shotgun issue, Bega Shire Council has advised that the Bermagui Shotgun club are attempting to double the number of days they shoot at the Murrah range. Currently they are constrained to 12 days a years and a previous Council rejected an attempt to increase the number of shooting days.

While there has never been much support for the club in the local community, there is no certainty about which way the new Council will go. Rather it may be a question of how many councilors agree with the suggestion’s, particularly the one about koalas, on the shotgun clubs website, pasted below.

” . . . Protesters continued with personal attacks; claims of damage to habitat of non existent koalas and sooty owls; ingestion of lead by wildlife and stock; claims that 11.5 tonnes of lead would be washed into the Murrah River 1km away. “

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)

 

Forestry Corporation has announced it plans to burn up to 20,000 hectares on the south coast this year, claiming it is ‘critical to our capacity to manage wildfires over summer.’ The burns will also include areas that have recently been logged to ‘create a rich seed bed that promotes forest regrowth’.

Of course there is no evidence to support these claims, rather there is much evidence to disprove them. The problem is that many are prepared to believe it, apparently assuming Forestry Corporation know and can rationally explain, what they are doing.

For its part, it is now eight months since the OE&H announced the composition, twelve men and one woman, of its gender unequal flora reserve working group. Despite the passage of time, there has not been one announcement from this group. Similarly, the OE&H are yet to respond to my relatively straight forward request for contact details.

In the hope, neurotic though it may be, of getting some movement. I’ve sent the request, along with some background information, to the NSW Environment Minister, the Hon. Gabrielle Upton, inviting her to respond.

According to the Ministers website, the response time can be up to 20 working days, depending on the complexity of the request.

Last month a new Korean strain of the rabbit calicivirus was released at 1000 sites across the nation. The impact on rabbits is not expected to be as great as the original release of the virus, or the first release of Myxomatosis, back in 1950.

At that time, the national population of rabbits was reduced from an estimated 600 million, down to 100 million. Not surprisingly this reduction would have had a significant negative impact on rabbit predators, particularly foxes.

One probable outcome is increased fox predation on native species and as experienced in most coastal forests, a reduction or extinction of native species necessary to maintain soil fertility and forest health.

Moving forward to the 1960’s, the Forestry Commission observes a general reduction in forest growth. Consequently, Forestry forms the belief that the downturn is due to many years of selective logging. So it moves toward integrated logging, opening up the canopy to ‘create a rich seed bed that promotes forest regrowth’.

Luckily Forestry doesn’t need everyone to believe its claims, just its regulators, the OE&H and the EPA.

As part of its incredibly slow development of a koala strategy, the OE&H has released the latest proposed amendments to the NSW koala Priority Action Statement. Unfortunately, like previous statements, they are based on the notion that the OE&H knows what koala habitat is and how to restore it.

With regard to habitat restoration, the website for the $5.6 million ‘Foundations for River Recovery and Return of Koalas to the Bega Valley’ project, indicates it has been operative since 2011. However, there are no reports on its progress.

Similarly the $3.9 million ‘Corridors and core habitat for koalas on the NSW Far South Coast’ project, has only one report, that doesn’t actually mention the main focus. That being the translocation of koalas from the Strzelecki’s to the South East National Park.

However, an article about an information session on this failed exercise can be found in the Korumburra Times, published back in December 2014, under the heading ‘Koalas may save NSW friends‘. In the article, senior threatened species officer Chris Allen ” . . . spoke about a population study undertaken in the central and eastern Strzelecki Ranges that supports a case for translocation.”

Allen goes on to suggest “There is evidence of sub-adults being pushed to the edges of the available habitat which is normal behaviour for young adult koalas trying to establish a home range.” While this may be the case, whether Allen can tell where the ‘edges of available habitat’ are, is debatable. This seems particularly the case given Allen’s suggestion that the aim is ‘ to establish another koala population within a national park with similar habitat to the Strzelecki Ranges.’  Surely if there is similar habitat,  the original genetically similar koalas would not be extinct.

In addition and in the absence of further information, it is possible that the island/bottleneck koalas are extending into the available Strzelecki habitat. Inter-breeding may explain an increased incidence of disease and why the translocations didn’t proceed.

Most recently, the Office of Environment and Heritage has indicated it will be holding some community information sessions ‘where members of the public can find out more about the Chief Scientist & Engineer’s report and the process to develop a NSW Koala Strategy.’  Bega’s session is slated for Tuesday, 14 February, 4:30pm at the Bega Valley Commemorative Civic Centre.

newroad

Closer to home and as indicated in photo, the new concrete strip road is now completed and in operation. The gap between the strips and along the edges required just over  3m³ of fill. The fill is mostly, eucalyptus leaves and forest oak needles, road scrapings (silt, sand and stones), all mixed up with with 500 litres of bio-char. Somewhat more difficult is finding a contractor to remove the old road and restore the original hill-slope.

Co-incidentally, late last year and further up this private access road human activity was observed, in the flora reserve, seemingly consistent with a koala survey team. While it’s too much to expect notification of such activities, it was lucky the survey didn’t coincide with the concrete truck’s visit.

Another thing the survey didn’t appear to coincide with was the map of survey locations, as of November last year. There are several issues around changing surveys methods or locations. Regrettably, experience suggests trying to teach an old dog new tricks, is probably easier than expecting the OE&H to adequately consider these issues, or implement methods that may be more appropriate.

 

The Bega District news recently reported on the first hurdles faced by the recently appointed Murrah flora reserve management committee. According to committee member and former NPWS employee, Jamie Shaw , “ . . . The poor regrowth and logging has happened, so now, as a priority for ongoing management we need to get the money, know-how to protect the koalas and include the Aboriginal community at all times, that’s key for us. ”

Jamie lamented that “ . . . the  NSW government and Forestry Corporation had given NPWS only $110,000 a year to manage the reserve which would go to funding one Indigenous Australian field officer, one vehicle “and that’s it”.

He went on to suggest “ . . .  2000ha in the reserves were a “powder keg” for bushfires and extremely poor habitat for koalas due to dense regrowth of casuarinas and acacias in the under and mid storys after logging in the ’80s and ’90s.”

While the 2,000 hectare figure for the ‘powder keg’ seems a lot short, the know-how issue could depend on acknowledging the bleeding obvious.

As indicated on the new reserve sign firewood collection is not permitted. Forestry Corporation had a similar sign. However, every winter dozens of tonnes of firewood are removed from just around here. Across the whole reserve the figure is likely to be hundreds of tonnes.

So perhaps the committee may consider some community engagement, to get an estimate of firewood use. Rather than the annual loss of dead eucalyptus, the strategic use oaks and wattles could be considered,  given they are both good fuel woods. If the local community can be accommodated, with some organisation, actually policing the firewood prohibition may also be a consideration.

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Relevant to the committee’s deliberations, the BDN also reported on some recently published long term fire research titled, Biophysical Mechanistic Modelling Quantifies the Effects of Plant Traits on Fire Severity.

Undertaken through Wollongong University, leader of the research Dr Philip Zylstra said “ . . . controlled burning could be helpful under certain conditions though at other times it was counterproductive”.

He went on to say “ . . . Instead of assuming that burning will make the forest less fire prone, we can now look at that and say ‘if we burn this forest it kills these plants, but it germinates these other ones here’ and how will that then change the fire risk over the coming years and even decades,”

This is the situation in most of the reserves, where logging and burning have combined with ‘natural’ forest decline to produce a very thick mid-storey layer.

Perhaps not surprisingly, a spokesperson for the RFS said “. . . We are currently looking at this topic however given that his research is some way from operational application and due to the complexity of the models, it is not something we can readily adopt.” Does make me wonder what the majority of reserve committee members will readily adopt.

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