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Forest restoration

 

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.

noperm

 

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.

As reported on the Let Tanja Forest live facebook page, the OE&H survey team recently sighted a koala. This is the first sighting by the team/s since the flora reserve announcement.

Speaking later on ABC radio, observer Rob Summers indicated he’d been involved in tree species preference surveys since 1997. He now works as a contractor for the OE&H and is also one of the community representatives on the flora reserve committee.

While this level of involvement could, at least for some, raise some issues. It may not be as important as the bias that propels the surveys forward. As OE&H koala survey person, Chris Allen reaffirmed, in a recent video for a commercial tourist group, he believes koala numbers are increasing.

However, if that were the case and a lack of logging was the reason, surely koalas in the Southeast NP would not be extinct and there would be more local sightings.

He goes on to suggest management over the next ten years will be really important for koalas, seemingly confirming his general denial about threats that may prevent koalas lasting that long.

cuttagee deg

 

On management issues, one of the works program priorities in the interim working plan for the reserves (Apppendix 4, 2) is ‘Habitat Restoration’. The idea is to “. . . Assess areas dominated by thick allocasuarina regrowth to determine habitat restoration options. Implement habitat restoration trials over a number of the sites. If successful these may be applied more broadly within the affected areas.”

There is no doubt the occurrence of black forest oak (Allocasuarina littoralis) has greatly increased over the past twenty years. The question is what sort of trials are being proposed and whether these will account for long term changes to soils.

Ideally, information from the recently released catchment management reports, would help inform management in that regard. As indicated in the graphic above, highlighting land degradation and probable poor regeneration, within the reserve in Cuttagee catchment.

The only issue would seem to be that while soil landscape mapping can be found in the reference list in both the interim reserve working plan and the catchment report. There appears to be no reference to soil landscape mapping in the main body of either document.

On a positive note, these omissions may confirm the EPA has an ongoing role in the koala issue, if only to keep logging going elsewhere.

Coinciding with threatened species day next month, the Crossing Land Education Centre is holding a free workshop on windbreak plantation design. The advertising material indicates  presentations are planned in the morning, including one  “. . . about the local koala population by Office of Environment and Hertiage (sic) scientist and local koala expert Chris Allen.” Accordingly attendees will be provided with lists “featuring fire retardant species and key koala species.”

I’m not sure why Chris Allen has been given the title of ‘scientist’, given a science degree is usually required. Similarly, Allen’s koala expertise would seem to be constrained to data on tree species koalas prefer in adjacent forests, where Forestry Corporation claim to be the tree growers.

However, if we leave aside the notion of fire retardant plants, everything burns if it’s hot enough. The question remains whether there is much point planting trees for koalas, if the soils cannot support their growth. The afternoon is devoted to planting a windbreak, although whether soil preparation has been a consideration is not clear.

wallace

Unlike koala surveys, that can provide instant gratification, an  alternative approach takes somewhat longer. Generally three years or so, employing a Wallace plough, pictured above, is required to adequately prepare the degraded soils for planting. There are several benefits from this longer term approach, including reduced compaction, increased aeration and biological activity. This particular unit has a seed box that could also be used to add other beneficial soil materials. The outcome, as indicated in the Equine permaculture graphic below, is an environment that encourages biological activity and deeper root development.

While this approach is similar to the deep ripping being trialled on the tablelands, there are significant differences. For example the Wallace plough is designed to ensure minimal surface disturbance. One off  deep ripping, without coulters, the serrated cutting discs at the front of the plough, rips grasses apart and tends to bring sub-soils to the top.

Another difference are the hydrological impacts, deep ripping across the contour, as employed on the tablelands, tends to increase the speed of water moving downslope and associated gully erosion. ‘ However, when  ‘keyline’ principles are employed, water is diverted along the slope, via the subsurface channels created by the plough and water is directed away from gullies.

Interestingly, John Champagne, Permaculture Designer and President of SCPA-South East Producers will also be giving a presentation, so perhaps other approaches may get a mention.

 

deep-ripping

 

After a delay due to rain, the Bega District News recently reported on the rescheduled World Environment Day dinner. Speaking at the occasion was former labour politician, Bob Debus.

According to the report Bob reckons “ . . . We’ve taken too much from the earth and given back too little, it’s time to say enough is enough.” He also expressed concerns that “. . . the new brand of conservatism, neoconservatism or neoliberalism, was overtly hostile to nature conservation and that was the origin of a new strain of environmental politics.” 

Co-incidentally Bob Debus was NSW environment minister when we received funding for the Murrah-Bunga koala recovery project. So it’s difficult not to agree with his assessment and add some associated concerns.

One of these is the OE&H decision to abandon attempts to restore grassy Forest red gum ecosystems on private land. So it seems timely to report on the forest red gum I placed bio-char around back in late 2014.

Technical difficulties have precluded an updated photo, but since the snap below the tree has moved from immature to mature leaves, has maintained growth throughout the year, increased its diameter by 47mm and put on a couple of metres in height.

Significant public funds have been spent on koala projects over the past five years. The fact that very little information is available  on these projects and the OE&H has no interest in local experience, seems to confirm it represents this new strain of environmental politics.

redgum

A couple of weeks ago I closed the wombat gates (n=17) on the southern and most of the western and eastern sides of the exclosure area. The intention was to see if wombats required more access points.

To date, bless them, only one more gate has been required, although a few more will be needed for fuel reduction and other forest restoration activities.

So attention is now focused on the last bits. These require satisfying human requirements, along with swamp wallabies, although both seem easier nuts to crack, so to speak, than the OE&H.

Although the final result remains uncertain, it’s reassuring that the federal election has led to perhaps two positive outcomes. The first of these may be a change to the proposal to roll-over the Regional Forest Agreements, rather than reviewing them.

The second positive is the re-election of Labor’s Dr Mike Kelly, to the bellwether seat of Eden-Monaro. The seat has been held by various governments since 1972, although time will tell if the tradition continues. More important though are Dr Kelly’s well known concerns about our declining environment. Interestingly the vote for the Greens and independents in Eden-Monaro, with 86% of votes counted, were both down.

While this reduction may not be associated with the Greens at a state and local government level, it is from these levels that the strategy to ignore die-back emanates. As I understand it, the strategy is aimed at ensuring the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service doesn’t look bad.

Apart from misrepresenting the facts, it is arguable the the state government is happy to ignore die-back too, as indicated in the most recent  Draft South East and Tablelands Regional Plan, produced by the NSW Department of Planning.

setrp

 

With regard to the environment, there is no mention of die-back, conveniently ignoring the fact that trees are dropping dead across hundreds of thousands of hectares in the south east. Despite this and the fact that a large chunk of the south east supplies Sydney’s drinking water (blue hatched area) the plan suggests –  “It aims to protect and restore environmental values and connections to the landscape, to contribute to healthy, engaged communities.”

On koalas and as indicated in the map above, the so-called flora reserves remain as State forests. However, there is mention of the tablelands koalas and the NSW Government will:
• support Cooma-Monaro Shire Council to develop and implement a Koala Plan of Management; and
• support councils across the region to monitor the koala population, where relevant.

Regrettably, it appears the state government’s decision to eliminate Cooma-Monaro council, is yet to filter through to the NSW planning department. Similarly, the notion that Bega Shire Council needs support to monitor ‘the population’, seems a little odd, given the OE&H is running things.

So I expect the connection is with the Biamanga Board of management, where greens councillor Keith Hughes represents local government. This links in with the OE&H suggestion that a koala recovery plan should fit into the management plan for Biamanga National Park.

Tragically, the Biamanga management plan doesn’t refer to die-back either, I assume due to the involvement of the Greens and the National Parks Association.

The challenge for the conservation movement is to form a united front, by joining with the only group that does talk about die-back, South East Forest Rescue and supporting forest restoration.

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