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The Queensland government has recently released two reports titled ‘South East Queensland Koala Population Modelling Study‘ and a ‘Koala Expert Panel Interim Report’.
The former is a comprehensive work that required collating koala survey data from 1996 up to 2014.  The outcome confirms a rapid and increasing rate of decline in koala numbers, particularly on the Koala coast and the Pine rivers area. Insufficient data was available to determine whether the decline is consistent across south east Qld.

If koalas haven’t declined in other areas, the report recommends ” Identifying these areas with a carefully designed monitoring program would appear to be a priority.”

The latter report is, to put it mildly, a generally scathing indictment of koala management through out the state. In essence it found none of the planning instruments worked for the benefit of koalas, indeed the reverse is usually the case. The report indicates the failures are around a lack of a strategic regional vision, an over-reliance on the planning legislation and inadequate resourcing.

So called ‘environmental offsets’ were also criticised on the basis of ” . . .the ability of local governments to offset matters of state significance, a lack of resources for monitoring and enforcement, the inability to offset outside local government areas where the impact occurs, lack of additionality deriving from offset actions, and potential perverse outcomes.”

Back in NSW, there is the ‘Saving Our Species’ program and its various streams, including the Iconic species program, where koalas have been lumped. However if one were looking for recent official and credible information on koalas, the chances of finding it are quite low.

In that regard, the map above provides koala records, available on the Atlas of NSW Wildlife, from 1 January 2013 to now.

Curiously, the single record is suggested to be a koala sighting, attributed to the Forestry Corporation, after the Flora reserves were announced. Clearly any conclusion from this information represents a poor outcome.

Regrettably, Long-nosed Potoroos could be in a similar position, as indicated by records since 1 January 2011, in the map below. A few years before there are records of Long-nosed potoroos in this area.  Under the NSW government’s approach, LNPs are a ‘land-scape managed’ species. The land-scape in this case begins south of Merimbula and extends to the Victorian border.

It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the ‘streams’ approach may not be ideal, but on the positive side, there is considerable scope for improvement.

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.

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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 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.

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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 NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) has recently undertaken its second triennial stakeholder survey. In an email, EPA Chair and CEO Barry Buffier AM indicated those reporting an environmental incident in the past year, had been selected to participate in the survey. In my case, the incident involved concerns about inconsistent koala records in Glenbog State Forest, last December. The EPA responded in March.

According to Barry, the EPA ” . . . want to keep improving how we work with you to protect the environment and the community and ensure ecologically sustainable development.”
Regrettably, the EPA misinterpreted our data on soil dispersion, now 22 years ago. It then went on to provide Forestry with a methodology, guaranteeing dispersible soils would rarely be identified. Given its dependence on out-dated information and unscientific methods, my feedback on the EPA’s performance generally ranked poor to very poor.

If one was keen on ensuring ecologically sustainable development, an ability to measure sustainability would be a sensible approach. Under the former Environment Pollution Licence, estimates of soil loss were required for all logging and roading undertaken in State Forests. If the NPWS was required to measure its soil loss, the equation would be applied to roads and burning operations. However, when the EPA implemented its current Environment Protection Licence, the Universal Soil Loss Equation (USLE) was no longer required.

Rainfall intensity and its potential to increase due to climate change, should be a concern for forest managers and their regulators. For example, earlier this month 35mm of rain fell in a day. The issue was that 17mm of this rain fell in seven minutes. Irrespective of tenure but depending on steepness and up-slope catchment area, soil loss from unpaved roads at this rainfall intensity is likely to be very high, or extreme.

Generally worse are the outcomes on side-cut roads, like the small one on this property, being replaced with the concrete strips. Much longer side-cut roads that run through creeks, as in the Blind Creek catchment below, in Kooraban NP, can be subject to significant soil loss and associated water pollution. The Roads and Maritime Services has advised it will begin clearing, for the Princes Highway re-alignment in the lower section of Blind creek, early in the new year.

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The ABC recently reported on a claimed sighting of a koala near Tumut. NSW National Parks Area Manager Matt White indicated the closest koalas to the area were 150km away. While I expect koalas east of Canberra, 75km away, slipped Mr White’s mind, no evidence of a koala was found at the location. 

Clearly not deterred, SERCA member Prue Acton OBE, wrote the the Bega District News suggesting ” . . . our vast southern forests stretching from the Great Eastern Ranges to the east coast can provide hope for the long-term survival of the Koala in New South Wales.”

While on the one hand the statement seems to confirm the conservation movements’ ongoing objections to listing the last coastal koalas as endangered and likely to become extinct. Perhaps more important is apparent confirmation of the conservation movements ongoing support for management that contributes to climate change.

In particular –
” . . . Cultural burns and scientific evaluation are part of a government case study of the Murrah Flora Reserve, and critical to the Southern Koala Recovery Plan. ”
and
” . . . Forest restoration in all State Forests is critical for Koala survival and the safety of locals and the thousands of summer visitors. “

Both of these sound too much like business as usual and it’s unlikely koalas will have a positive future, while management is not required or encouraged to change. 

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.

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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.

As expected, the recent passing of the NSW government’s Biodiversity conservation bill and the Local Land Services amendment bill, has been both welcomed and spurned.

According to NSW Farmers president Derek Schoen, the previous laws ‘have not only failed farmers and the productivity of many farms, they’ve failed the environment.’ He went on to say previous legislation ‘has seen biodiversity go backwards in NSW because of its lock up-and-leave approach’. However Derek did acknowledge that “. . . Without biodiversity, we don’t have farms.”

On the other hand, the World Wildlife Fund commissioned a report finding the changes could see over 2 million hectares of koala habitat cleared in NSW. The National Parks Association adds the proposed roll over of the RFA’s and EPA studies finding there are more koalas in forests with larger trees. It calls on the EPA ‘to force the government to protect koalas’.

For its part the NSW government claims local government laws will protect koalas and the OE&H suggests the new laws are fairer.

What’s missing is the notion that one can have koala habitat, in locations that historically supported koalas, without the biodiversity that makes trees grow.

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According to the WWF report, there are significant variations in areas of woody vegetation that could be cleared and koala habitat, at a local government scale. For the LGAs pictured above, Shoalhaven, Eurobodalla and Bega, out of a total 1,196,019 hectares of woody veg, only 1.07% (12,812 ha.) is considered to be known or potential koala habitat on private land. While this figure is somewhat greater than I expect, it is an improvement on suggestions that anywhere with trees is OK for koalas. The area available for clearing in the three shires is 17,264 ha, being 1.44% of woody vegetation, or 135% of known or potential koala habitat.

Although a bit blurry, the map shows the areas in which the original primary or ‘core’ koala habitat was located, the white bits. The other extreme are areas that probably didn’t historically support koalas, the wilderness areas, red hatch. This inability to support koalas can be due to several factors. For example, in the far south corner there is the Nadgee Wilderness, known for its lack of trees and extensive areas of low growing heath.  Along the western side, are the escarpment forests, that are generally very steep, frequently very rocky with shallow soils and trees that are often quite small.

Then there are the State Forests and National Parks, the brown and green bits respectively, most of which have been logged and all of which have lost the critical weight range vertebrates required to maintain soil fertility and tree growth. The one species exception is the Long-nosed potoroo. The blue circle at the bottom of the map is where the Long-nosed Potoroo has increased in numbers, on State Forest. However, the Forestry Corporation isn’t required to consider the role animals play in maintaining forests. So, the over-abundant potoroos  have been translocated to forests on Commonwealth land, indicated with the blue circle at the top of the map.

If one were looking for common ground on land management issues, the need to at least attempt to reestablish the original biodiversity should be the major priority. I for one, look forward to groups like the NPA demonstrating their support for such attempts, across tenures.

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.

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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.

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