Following up on the condition of trees adjacent to the southern side of Cuttagee lake, it now appears that most if not all of the remaining Melaleucas have died. While a closer inspection is required, on this occasion some eucalyptus trees have also been affected.

As the factors leading to the death of these trees aren’t consistant with the known threat, overabundant and prolonged surface water. Another possibility is polluted groundwater.
Residents in the adjacent Murrah river catchment have known for many years that the groundwater is polluted. However, pollution that kills trees four years apart, in the same location is difficult to explain. Groundwater travels at a much slower rate that surface water. The Murray- Darling basin is a good example, where it takes some 2 million years for the groundwater to move from Queensland to South Australia.

Of course Cuttagee is quite different and a lot smaller than inland catchments. As indicated in the graphic from Council’s Rapid Catchment Assessment below, it is generally quite steep and short. The arrow is about 10 kilometers long and groundwater in these soils may travel only a ‘few centimeters a day, or even slower‘.

So rather than millions of years, a time frame of around 20 years is plausible, in the absence of other information.

As it turns out the first Melaleuca dieback, in May 2014, was exactly 16 years after rainfall that ended the first extensive dieback event in the Bio-region. The current tree deaths are 15 years after rainfall in February 2003, that punctuated the second extensive dieback event.

It is quite possible that groundwater was polluted with aluminium during these rainfall events, with subsequent negative impacts at the bottom of the catchment, in the longer term. It is also possible that the difference of one year reflects an increased ground water flow rate, due to ongoing soil dispersion and the associated reduction in soil Water Holding Capacity.

While it would be reassuring to know polluted groundwater isn’t and won’t be the cause of further environmental degradation. I expect the NSW government has no intention of restoring catchment management authorities.


The Regional Forest Agreement drop in sessions featured on radio and in print this week. What hadn’t been previously revealed was ” two invitation-only meetings for industry and environmental stakeholders”.  While several conservation groups had suggested they would be boycotting the sessions. It seems some did attend the invitation only meetings, although none have to up their hands to confirm attendance, so far.

Local ABC radio interviewed a few people at the Eden meeting including former BVSC Greens councilor Keith Hughes. Keith suggested the RFA renewal is largely based on supporting the large financial investment, associated with logging. This suggestion was confirmed in a Narooma News story quoting NSW Department of Primary Industry representative Nick Milham – “We’ve heard from industry that the long-term security that the RFAs provide for them is absolutely critical because it provides them with that longer-term security to enable them to invest in what are significantly capital-intensive industries,”.

Of course if one is going to invest in cutting down trees, it’s a good idea to have the trees to cut down.

In that regard, it seems the Koala surveys did not return to the original plots, so a plot to plot comparison is not possible. However, as reducing soil fertility is a general trend, broader comparisons should identify associated changes to species composition. The following chart, featuring Silvertop Ash and Black forest oak ranked by diameter classes, is based on data from trees (n = 17,670), recorded during the 2006-2008 surveys.

At the time Silvertop ash accounted for 9.9% of all trees above 150mm DBH. Black she- oak accounted for 11.1% of the trees.

The next chart also features Silvertop Ash and Black forest oak ranked by diameter classes, is based on data from trees (n = 9,360), recorded during the 2016-2017 surveys.
Silvertop ash now account for 14.1 % of all trees above 150mm DBH. Black she-oak accounts for 18.2% of the trees.

After spending too much time on them, my comments on the  Murrah flora reserves final draft working plan, have been dutifully submitted. Based on experience, there is no certainty that anyone in the OE&H will read them. Should they be read, there is somewhat less certainty anyone in the OE&H will understand them and some what less certainty they will be acted on.

While it would be reassuring to think the proposal for adaptive management in the working plan actually meant something. The impediment to adaptive management, as pointed out in ‘Options forestry-acting on uncertainty’ (Bormann & Kiester 2004) is clearly associated with ‘spurious certitude’.

That is, the NSW government agencies all believe they know what ecologically sustainable forest management is and that’s what they do, so there is no need to learn from experience or change anything. Then there is the native forest logging industry, that, from the governments perspective, has to be supported at any societal or environmental cost.
For those who feel this approach is reckless, at best. The ultimate outcome could be disastrous.

Recently published in the journal Nature is paper titled “Europe’s lost forests: a pollen-based synthesis for the last 11,000 years“. According to the paper Europe’s forests reached their maximum extent between 8000 and 6000 years ago and then began to reduce. However, sometime after 4000 years ago the rate at which the area of forest reduced, greatly increased.

The reduction was greatest in southern Europe and an example given is Lake Dojran, between Macedonia and Greece. Here, pollen retrieved from the lake pointed to a large erosion event some 3200 years ago. At the time people had been clearing the temperate forests for agriculture and there was an increasing demand for timber, to build boats. Soils had been depleting for some time, but the large erosion event topped it off.

In a Sydney Morning Herald article one of the paper’s authors, Mr Rothacker indicated  ” . . . the link between soil health and agricultural output would have shown up rapidly.”
He went on to add – “Without soil, you basically lack the key component in the eco-system to grow food,” he said. “If you don’t have mature soils any more, you can’t grow that food and you can’t supply a large population.”

As reported in the Bega District News, ” . . . The National Parks and Wildlife Service is hosting two sessions of what they describe as “open houses”, in January for locals and visitors to learn more about the recently created Murrah Flora Reserves.” The first of these sessions was held last Saturday at the Tanja Hall.

Unlike the previous koala information session held at the hall and funded by the Federal Government, there weren’t may cars outside. Upon entering the hall and also unlike the previous session, there wasn’t much information available either. At the time there four people attending the session, two OE&H employees and the most recent NPWS South Coast Director Kane Weeks.

There were three maps on the wall, a couple of A4 print outs on koala monitoring and attempts to grow trees, along with one research paper about fire.

One of the maps showed the vast area planned for regular burning. Another the most recent modeled koala use areas and another indicating areas with a larger volume of vertical fuel load.
Kane Weeks asked me what I thought about the burning proposal. I suggested that all of it has been logged and burned and in the process lost hundreds of tonnes of soil per hectare. The vertical fuel load comes from trees that, among other things, drop large amounts of litter that aids in restoring the soils.

Burning these areas eliminates the litter, so the process of soil restoration has to start again.

According to the final draft for the flora reserves, these matters are too complex. So I wasn’t surprised when Mr Weeks indicated the Forestry Corporation will have the final say on the reserve management plan.


Last year I wrote to the OE&H and Forestry Corporation requesting information relevant to management plan.

From Forestry I requested a document, referenced in the plan and titled ” FCNSW 2016, ‘Logging records for Mumbulla, Tanja, Murrah and Bermagui State Forests, Reserve numbers 187, 188, 189 and 190’, unpublished records compiled by the Forestry Commission of NSW, Eden”

This is the response Forestry sent on January 6.

Hi Robert
It would be best to check this information with the Office of Environment and Heritage who have prepared the draft plan. They would be best placed to advise exactly which documents or records this reference refers to.

I did ask about the document at the information session, but they didn’t know either. The OE&H has partly responded to my request, although the logging records document has been added to the list.

As reported by Sue Arnold in the Independent, the NSW Scientific Committee has rejected a nomination to list koalas around Port Stephens as an endangered population.
According to Sue ” . . . The Turnbull Government is overseeing a thoughtless extinction plan, dressed up as conservation, in which the koala will not survive.

While the Scientific committee’s determination acknowledges the population fits the criteria for listing as an endangered population. Under a previously unpublicised intergovernmental MOU this is now not possible, as per the following quote from the determination.

” . . . 18.Under clause 2.2 of the Intergovernmental memorandum of understanding relating to the agreement on a common assessment method for listing of threatened species and threatened ecological communities (CAM MOU 2015), a population of a species is not eligible to be listed as threatened if the species is separately listed as a threatened species under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.”

Probably not co-incidentally, the NSW and Federal governments are now seeking ” feedback on five-yearly implementation reviews of RFAs and how to extend them for an additional 20-year term.”
The website goes on to suggest ” . . . Consultation will enable a full appraisal of the current RFAs covering the Eden, North East and Southern regions of NSW. It will also drive optimal implementation of new agreements, including what we can learn from our experience over the past 20 years.”

Regrettably, personal experience suggests forests managers have learned very little at a regional scale and this appears to be the situation throughout NSW.

For koalas in the Murrah Flora Reserves, the major issue should be trying to keep trees alive. Unfortunately , along with the rest of the NSW government the OE&H and FCNSW have a blockage when it comes to what trees grow in – soils.

What they rely on is the less than current information, some of which is in the table above, from a paper, Forestry’s holy grail,  titled Nutrient inputs from rainfall in NSW (Turner, Lambert and Knott, 1986). The fundamental argument in this paper is that virtually all the nutrients eucalyptus forests require fall with rain from the sky. So the loss of soil from erosion and dispersion won’t be an issue for hundreds of years.

Regrettably, this argument doesn’t really hold water, pardon the pun. The Calcium inputs from Mogo (4.2 kg haˉ¹ yrˉ¹), the closest station to the Murrah flora reserves, suggests 168 kgs of the nutrient would be deposited over a 40 year logging rotation. However a simple calculation for compartments logged in 1994, to be included in the reserve management plan comments, found around 1.4 tonnes of Calcium per hectare were likely to be removed or burned.

The replacement time for this volume Calcium from rainfall is 333.33 years. Of course this is before accounting for Sodium inputs, that counter the positive influence of calcium.

As reported in the Bega District News, this week the Forestry corporation and the OE&H released their long awaited final draft working plan, for the Murrah flora reserves.
According to the plan ” . . . The aim is that with the cessation of forestry and some specific management actions, koala recovery in the Murrah Flora Reserves and adjacent forest can be realised over time. This will be tested in the long term by monitoring and evaluation within an adaptive management framework.”

Regrettably, the OE&H’s adaptive management framework has some significant limitations. In particular the need to maintain the illusion, when prescriptions are followed, it regulates a sustainable logging industry. Hence the only referenced sentence on soils is ” . . . The steeper slopes are susceptible to erosion if disturbed (Tulau 1997).”

On forest condition the plan indicates ” . . . Mid storey structure and composition varies across the reserves, with a key management issue being the extent of black she-oak regrowth and other disturbance-generated tree and shrub species. These contribute to increased vertical fuel loads and prevent germination and regeneration of preferred koala species, particularly woollybutt.”

Another issue that could prevent the germination and regeneration of preferred koala species is soil loss and the associated reduction in soil fertility. For example, the harvesting plan for compartments 2080 and 2081, in Mumbulla SF and dated 11-8-1994, estimated an average of about 9.5 c/m of sawlogs and 85 tonnes of pulplogs per hectare would be removed in the operation. However, the estimated soil loss from the operation, only provided for cpt 2180, was 132.8 tonnes per hectare.

I recently revisited the vast area burned in the Cuttagee catchment, to get some shots of brown and dry vertical fuel loads, now some months after the fire. Coincidentally, I came across two of the recently established research plots. As indicated in the photo above, this one is on relatively flat ground. Some silvertop-ash and all the black she-oak have been cut down and placed into piles. Retained trees are mostly silertop-ash, a couple of spindly stringy-barks and a hickory wattle.Walking around the plot it was clear that all of the silver-top ash have coppiced, with multiple stems growing from the stumps. In addition there are dozens of hickory wattle seedlings in the plot. Both of these outcomes will increase vertical fuel loads, although unlike forest around the plot, these fuel loads won’t be brown and dry.

In the second plot below, on a steep slope, three large woollybuts have been retained  during logging and it appears all of the regrowth trees were black-oak. These have been cut down and placed as one would make a bonfire. It appears attempts were made to burn the bonfire, although the timber was clearly too wet to burn. Hickory wattle seedling were also evident in this plot, although there were fewer than the first plot, perhaps due to erosion of the exposed soils. 

Forestry and the OE&H are accepting comments on the plan until January 31, 2018.

Following up on his book ‘Firestick Ecology’, former forester Vic Jurskis has written a paper, accepted for publication in Wildlife Research, titled ‘Ecological history of the koala and implications for management.’

According to Mr Jurskis, the decline in koala populations is not a crisis, rather koala numbers are returning to a pre-European state. The ‘eruptions’ in koala numbers, here 120 years ago and those of translocated island koalas in Victoria, is put down to poor management, particularly a lack of frequent burning.

In one press report he describes the creation of the Murrah Flora reserve as a perverse outcome for a species that was not recorded in the area at the time of European settlement. Exactly how he knows this and how this theory fits with his previous estimate of 800 to 1600 koalas in the Eden region isn’t clear.

I do recall the first time I met Vic, back in the 1990’s, not long after the 8 radio collared koalas had died. I informed him of koala pellets I located in Nullica State Forest, where two of the aforementioned koalas were tracked. His response was to say the two koalas, Robert and Roberta, were the only koalas in Nullica SF.

Vic’s simple theories have many holes, not least of these is the knowledge that the primary feed trees behind the ‘koala eruption’ in the Eden region are now endangered, because they don’t grow back. The evidence indicates secondary koala feed species are in the same boat.

So while I do agree with Vic, that forests need better management, that’s where the agreement ends. It is simply not possible to undertake low intensity burns in these forests, due to the previous and ongoing poor management.

However, I believe management aimed at reducing fuel loads would create employment, while providing some protection from wildfires and aid in funding real attempts to restore biodiversity. The photo shows the first of nine 10×10 metre plots, logged and burned in 1982, where the majority of forest oak have been removed. Apart from two retained trees, a Yellow stringy-bark and a Rough barked apple at the rear of the plot, only one very small and sick apple has regenerated in the plot.

The small dead trees in the plots, oak and silver-top ash, have mostly been converted to biochar, producing just over 500 litres or enough to spread half a litre per square metre. When the green wood dries, I’ll add another 50 litres to each plot.  In the bare areas I’ve begun planting Woollybutt seedlings and Yellow stringy- bark seed.

Unlike the OE&H’s approach, in the square metre around these plantings, I’m incorporating 350 grams of either dolomite or crushed sea-shells, with another litre of char and in some instances 250 grams of gypsum, into the first couple of inches of soil.

While there is uncertainty about whether they will grow, if they do it will be interesting to compare outcomes with the OE&H’s soils haven’t changed approach.

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