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Soils

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.

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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. 

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.

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.

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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.

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