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Logging

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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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.

 

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.

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.

The federal government has decided to extend the east Gippsland Regional Forestry Agreement for a year. An ABC report quotes federal Agriculture Minister Anne Ruston, indicating the extension had been granted to give the Victorian Government time to review the mess.

Included in the review is VicForests ” . . . new assessments of its remaining logging coupes.” Consequently, as reported in the Gippsland Times, the largest hardwood timber mill in the region, Heyfield’s Australian Sustainable Hardwoods (ASH), has had its quota slashed from 150,000 cubic metres, down to 80,000 cubic metres next year and 60,000 cubic metres for the following two years.

This reduction is proposed despite ASH signing a contract with Vic Forests in 2014, to supply logs until 2034. The owners are now proposing to close the mill, when they run out of logs in September.

vic-koalasPart of the documentation for the east Gippsland Regional Forestry Agreement states –

” . . . Ecologically Sustainable Forest Management (ESFM) is the management of forest on all land tenures to maintain the overall capacity of forests to provide goods, protect
biodiversity and protect the full suite of forest values at the regional level. One of the key objectives of each Regional Forest Agreement is to ensure that forests
on and off reserves are sustainably managed.”

Clearly the overall capacity of forests to provide sawlogs is on the wane. On biodiversity, the map above, from Victoria’s Koala Management Strategy (2004), shows koala records since 1970, as well as koala translocation areas and source populations. It is possible that in 1970 there was still a connection between koalas on the NSW south coast and their genetically similar cousins in the Strezlecki Ranges.

it seems unlikely this connection could ever be re-established, particularly given koalas aren’t considered vulnerable in Victoria. What isn’t clear is how many of the translocated koalas actually survived at the release sites. Currently the only known survivors are those at Mallacoota, in the far east of the state. There is little information about the fate of koalas released at the other twenty or so locations in east Gippsland.

Perhaps there will be more information stemming from the RFA  review. In the meantime the OE&H will be holding its koala information session in Bega on Tuesday. So I’m thinking of going along, in the hope (neurotic though it may be), that someone may be able to provide answers to some questions.

I’ve recently come across the project business plan for the Murrah Flora reserves. As it turns out the Forestry Corporation received just over $2.5m from the Environmental Trust. In addition, the DPI provided $385k to the OE&H. While the OE&H provides $70k per annum as an in kind contribution, over the four years of the project.

In theory this brings the annual management budget to just over $96k, essentially to do very little. Perhaps more interesting is the indicative (needs more work) communication strategy.  Under frequency, the only ongoing meetings/correspondence are with Blue Ridge Hardwoods and South East Fibre Exporters. Every other ‘stakeholder’ is a one off.

However, there are a range of conservation groups referred to, including the Nature Conservation Council, National Parks Association and the South East Region Conservation Alliance. So it must be assumed they are all on board.

One of the statements in the plan indicates ” . . . The relative health of this population is due to the higher productivity of the soils, their proximity to river flat red gum forests and the absence of disturbance to the area for a significant period.”  While the relevance of  ‘proximity to river flat red gum forests’, is unclear. The reference to soils could infer a role for the Environment Protection Authority, but it is not involved.

So it seems clear the aim is to maintain the status quo, with regard to reserve management. It also seems likely the NSW government will continue its attempts to translocate koalas, so logging can proceed in the future.

koala-sos

 

In that regard, it’s now a few years since the federal listing for koalas in NSW and Queensland. During that time, some flaws have come to light that appear not to be consistent with the initial reasoning behind the federal listing.

For example, the map above provides a broad indication of the main areas where koala records have been reported this decade. In total there are 1,000 records over this time frame, on the OE&H’s wildlife atlas.

However, as indicated on the map, the two blue ellipses are the only confirmed native populations. Those being the Blue Mountains population and the population down here. The red ellipses cover areas of either introduced or ‘bottle-neck’ populations, while the pink one remains a little uncertain.

This situation would seem to raise questions regarding the federal listing, given the majority of koalas south of Sydney, may have originally come from over-abundant Victorian koalas.

Given the many issues around the management of over-abundant koalas, particularly disease and over-browsing, it’s difficult to believe koalas aren’t threatened across their historic range.

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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