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Soils

As reported in the Bega District News this week, a koala was sighted early in the morning and captured on video, as it ran down the Tathra-Bermagui road. The observer, Michael Clarke, stopped his truck and took the video as the critter scrambled up an embankment and climbed the nearest small tree, a black forest oak. While Mr Clarke’s sighting made his day, describing the experience as ‘awesome’, he also expressed concern about the threat posed by foxes and suggested corridors to ‘allow safe travel across roads’.

ABC radio interviewed the NPWS’s Chris Allen who thought the animal could be a male, but appeared to be young and healthy. Lucky for it, because the last koala found on this road was a bit groggy, taken to a vet and subsequently released kilometers from where it was found.

What Allen didn’t mention was the potential that this young koala has been kicked out of its mothers home-range and is looking for somewhere suitable to live. The issue being, unless an older animal has died, finding somewhere suitable may be difficult. Mr Allen did mention the koala surveys have been ongoing for ten years, but nothing about publicly releasing any results. This lack of accountability seems to contrast with his frequently repeated talk about how important these koalas are.

However, one of the reasons for the lack of information could relate to the proposed roll-over of the Regional Forest Agreements. One outcome from the flora reserve decision being the increased uncertainty about timber supplies and the data required to reduce this uncertainty.

The map below provides the locations of timber inventory plots (red dots) undertaken on a regularised  grid for the Southern RFA  and locations of the first koala plots (light green dots), in the Eden RFA region. Those of greatest interest are on the Murrah Soil landscape (orange). Clearly re-measuring the plots in the Southern region would provide more certainty about timber supplies. Similarly, the release of data from the second round of federally funded koala surveys in the Eden region, would be desirable.


While the chances of either the state or federal governments releasing these data may be low. It would seem sensible for the conservation movement to demand both the release of the second koala survey data and data from the re-measurement of the Southern timber inventory plots.

While the major issue is what grows back after logging and the RFAs are supposed to be based on the National Forest Policy Statement. Among several interesting research articles, recently published in Functional Ecology, is one titled ‘Rewilded mammal assemblages reveal the missing ecological functions of granivores’. Previous arid land research, undertaken where most of the mammals were functionally extinct, had concluded ants were the major predator of plant seeds.

However, this recent research was undertaken in fenced areas, at Scotia wildlife sanctuary and the Arid recovery reserve, where native animals have been re-introduced. In brief the researchers found animals are the major seed predators and “. . . hypothesize that the loss of omnivorous mammals may be a factor that has facilitated shrub encroachment in arid Australia.”

Coastal forests are facing a similar situation and the increasing proportion of non-eucalyptus trees, like black forest oak, may reflect the loss of species critical for forest health. While these matters may not rate highly in the NSW government, it would be unfair to accuse organisations like the NPWS of doing nothing. Regrettably, the new road signs in the photo below suggest an odd set of priorities and doing nothing would have been cheaper.

 

 

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Spring has definitely sprung, although 30 degrees with a strong north-westerly wind does seem more consistent with an early summer. Perhaps more important is that this month, the eleventh day to be precise, is supposed to end to the six year regional federal and state funded koala projects.

Regrettably, there are still no reports for the ‘Foundations for River Recovery and Return of Koalas to the Bega Valley‘ project. Similarly there is still only one ,arguably irrelevant report for ‘Corridors and core habitat for koalas on the NSW Far South Coast’ project.

Of course time moves on and now, with the conservation movement calling for adaptive management, a reasonable question could ask about the degree to which our understanding of koalas and their habitat, has improved during this time. In addition, whether a similar sum ($13 million)could provide for more positive outcomes, given what has been learned.

 

The map above comes from the original for ‘Corridors and core habitat for koalas on the NSW Far South Coast’ project application.  It shows the areas defined as ‘core koala habitat’, aka logging exclusion areas. Areas proposed for revegetation with primary koala feed trees and theoretical corridors. Added to the map is the orange ellipse, indicating core habitat, recently burned.

One of the NSW government’s concerns was that a previously federally funded koala project, in an area it proposed for revegetation, had planted the trees incorrectly. Hence it had to be done again.
This suggestion forms the basis for the the NSW government’s general understanding of the environment. In essence that soil fertility never reduces, irrespective of how the land is managed. Of course this position may have changed since 2011, but to date, there is no evidence to prove it.

Hearing news of the alleged illegal interstate waste dumping, aired on Four Corners last Monday, was a bit of a blast from the past. As it transpired the EPA’s director of waste management, Steve Beaman, was one of the first EPA employees I encountered back in the early 1990’s.

At the time the issue was logging in the Murrah catchment and concerns about the adequacy of what was then Forestry’s Environment Pollution Licence. One of the concerns was soil erosion and how the volume (tonnes) of soil lost after logging was being calculated.

Forestry relied on the broad map of geology, reproduced below, but a bit blurry. However the geology in the ellipse, where four compartments were being logged, wasn’t consistent with the map. After visiting the site and taking samples, Steve Beaman agreed the geology was not consistent with the leucogranite and sandstone indicated on the map.

However, Mr Beaman couldn’t say what sort of rocks they were because he had never seen them before. In one of these compartments, after the first large rainfall event, the majority of soil disappeared, leaving behind a course grained white quartz.

It was a couple of years after this that the EPA dropped the geology thing and allowed forestry to determine if soils were dispersible, rather than use the published soils data.
While one trusts the Independent Commission Against Corruption puts an end to the waste rort, the land degradation and pollution from logging is arguably just as corrupt. Two of the compartments, including the white one, were later put into Biamanga National Park.

Arguably the greatest advance in feral animal control over recent times has been the feral cat grooming trap or ‘felixer’. According the the information brochure “. . . Feral cats are the greatest threat to native wildlife in Australia. They have been implicated in at least 27 mammal extinctions across Australia and currently threaten more than 100 native species, including mammals, lizards and ground nesting birds. ”

To address this situation ” . . . The Ecological Horizons grooming trap uses sensors to detect the presence of a feral cat and sprays a lethal dose of toxic gel onto its fur from up to 4 metres away as it is walking past. The feral cat instinctively grooms the gel and in doing so ingests the lethal dose of the poison and dies.”

While looking forward to the deployment of these units at a bio-regional scale, the technology may have other useful applications. In particular closing a gate when a cat or fox is detected.
Such a device would enable one or more entrances in a fence to be kept open, for much of the time. Hence other species like kangaroos and wallabies could get into and out of fenced areas. The same applies to reintroduced species, should they breed up.

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)

As the Forestry Corporation now takes second place with regard to koala management. My comments on the OE&H’s koala strategy focused mostly on its ideas about koalas. In particular the paper titled “Extinction in Eden, identifying the role of climate change in the decline of the koala in south-eastern NSW” (Lunney et al, 2014).

While not doubting climate change has recently had a major negative impact on koala habitat. I do doubt the notion that climate change has played the major role in koala decline, particularly in this bio-region.

The research Lunney et al quote in support of the climate change theory, Lawler et al ( 1996), found either increased CO2 levels or reduced nutrient availability led to ” . . . lower leaf nitrogen concentrations, higher leaf specific weights and higher levels of both total phenolics and condensed tannins” in Forest red gum leaves

Hence, changes to soils that lead to a permanent decrease in nutrient and/or water availability, will have a negative impact on koalas. The problem within the OE&H is a belief that soils have not changed and are fairly consistent throughout NSW. So Lunney et al infer, because trees grow well in paddocks around Gunnadah, there’s no reason why they won’t do the same in the Bega Valley.

So it was interesting to read, in the Bega District news, that koalas around Gunnadah, where the population has dropped 50% since 2008, have taken to ” . . . drinking extensively from custom-made watering stations, even in autumn and winter.” According to Valentina Mella, from Sydney University’s school of life and environmental sciences. “My thought is that the leaves they’re eating are not providing enough moisture … because with climate change the chemical composition of the leaf changes. The leaves become tougher, they become drier, they have less nutrients and they even have more toxins. In the past decade there have been a lot of heatwaves and prolonged droughts, which have killed a lot of koalas. They literally drop out of trees.”

What Lunney et al neglect to mention is that fact that all the koalas on former primary habitat in this bio-region dropped dead over 110 years ago. Linking this decline with climate change seems to be drawing a long bow.

cuttagee-pe

Bega Shire Council has released the final Rapid Catchment Assessment reports for the Cuttagee, Middle and Nelson lake catchments. They are comprehensive documents that make many sensible and practical recommendations to address degraded areas, mostly on private land.

On public land, as indicated in the map a Cuttagee catchment above, many locations, in this case around 200, where found to be potential sources of water pollution. In addition, significant areas of ‘head-cut’ and gully erosion were identified. The sediment yield from ‘head-cut’ erosion areas alone is estimated to be more than 1000 cubic metres in all three catchments. Many of these locations have never been subject to integrated logging, but were trashed before woodchipping began.

The consultants Elgin Associates Pty Ltd, provide the following description and recommended action for the Nelson catchment :

” Multiple examples of active head-cut that have formed deep incised gullies. Natural erosion process that shows examples of undercutting, lateral bank erosion and slumping due to highly erodible, sodic soils. These may have been exacerbated by historical logging operations and past fire events in the forest. Difficult to treat due to scale of problem and site access. Majority of the sediment fractions eroded from the head-cut and gullies have been re-deposited downstream and may not reach the estuary. However, a proportion of dispersible fraction of sediment fines has and will continue to be delivered to the estuary back lagoon under high flow events. Recommend a collaborative research project with a university to further investigate the significance of the process – spatially and temporally, and identify factors that may be exacerbating the process, and what potential actions could be undertaken to halt or slow down process.”

While I did some include some management suggestions with my comments on the koala strategy. The starting point requires the NPWS/OE&H to firstly acknowledge the issues and learn more about the land they manage, so they can do something positive, for a change.

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 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.

BCcross

 

 

 

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. 

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