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The OE&H has released its koala recovery proposals for the period 21017-2021. Topping the 12 issues proposed to be addressed is ” Loss, modification and fragmentation of habitat In areas of known koala significance”. Actions proposed include – Existing degraded koala habitat restored and better connected – New koala habitat established and maintained and Permanent landholder agreements established for private land containing occupied koala habitat.

Regrettably, only the first of these is relevant to this area, because attempts to establish new habitat failed miserably and this failure confirmed why there aren’t many koalas on private land. So the disagreement is about how one restores modified and fragmented habitat, including whether there is any benefit dropping and monitoring Woollybut seed-balls.

Another threat the OE&H have cottoned onto is ” Intense prescribed burns or wildfires that scorch or burn the tree canopy”. Given this admission, with luck future NPWS intense prescribed burns may not be in areas with koalas.

Thankfully the threat of a brown forest and associated increased wildfire potential has temporarily passed given recent soaking rainfall. Although far less rainfall was recorded south of Bega, seemingly consistent with the findings in Lunney etal. – ‘Extinction in Eden identifying the role of climate change in the decline of the koala in south-eastern NSW’.

While addressing climate change is a low OE&H priority, I understand the current NSW Environment Minister would like to see a whole of government approach to the koala issue. The problem being that business as usual is still perceived as being consistent with helping koalas. For example and as indicated in the photo above, Bega Valley Shire Council has recently shredded a large number of trees along Benny-Gowings road, where it passes through the Murrah Flora reserve.

This is the first time Council has shredded vegetation along this road and it seems unfortunate that preferred koala feed trees, like the Woollybut, reduced to the large stump in the middle of the shot, were not retained. Of course the same goes for all the other feed trees council shredded, in this area of known koala significance.

While it is difficult to see how this loss of habitat sits with the state government’s proposals, it highlights – again – the difficulty achieving any sort of change to forest management in south-eastern NSW.

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Four years after SE Forest Rescue raised concerns about logging of rocky outcrops in Glenbog state forest, the Land and Environment court has found the Forestry Corporation guilty of the charge.

According to the Harvesting Plan, the Supervising Forestry Officer was supposed to be looking for rocky outcrops, but this didn’t occur. Rather, the Forestry Corporation developed and relied on an ” . . . operator select methodology whereby Wiltons Logging was briefed about the difficulty in marking-up the area and was told to use their discretion when harvesting. ” The Harvesting plan alludes to this situation indicating ” . . . # SFO/Contract coordinators will continue to conduct onground mark-up & searches and report back to foresters/ecologists any features requiring further investigation.”

In addition to rocky outcrops and cliffs, contract coordinators were also to be on the look out for rainforest, wetlands, heath and scrub, as well as the endangered ecological community, Montane peatlands and swamps. The Harvesting plan also indicates a koala record in one of the compartments. However, Forestry decided the record was invalid and didn’t implement the required searches.

On sentencing, one of the aggravating factors is ‘whether the offence was committed for commercial gain.’  Strangely, the judge indicated ” . . . I find that, although there may have been an element of ‘cost-saving’ in Forestry Corporation adopting the operator select method, there is no evidence that Forestry Corporation gained a commercial advantage by the commission of the offence.”

The notion that trees are cut down and Forestry gets no monetary reward seems to be logically inconsistent.

The judgement also indicates ” . . . The EPA submits that Forestry Corporation’s failure to search, record and mark-up the areas subject to the licence as required, is contrary to the aims of the licence, and has undermined the protective regulatory scheme contained in the Parks Act and impeded the achievement of ecologically sustainable development . . ”

It would be reassuring to know that native forest logging is consistent with ecologically sustainable development. Unfortunately,  there is no evidence the regulatory scheme works and evidence to prove the ecologically sustainable management of any public forest is sorely lacking. 

In that regard the judgement states ” . . . In relation to the harm caused, Forestry Corporation submits that while it is accepted that it will take hundreds of years for the area to recover, this is a product of the time it takes for trees to re-grow and ought not be overstated.”

The acknowledgement of ‘hundreds of years to recover’ relates to all forests, including those in National Parks, but proving it requires data on tree growth rates. Perhaps these matters will be the subject of future legal arguments.

Forestry was fined $10,000, with a 20% reduction because it pleaded guilty, ordered to pay the EPA’s costs ($65K) and required to put a notice in the Bega District News.

On a lighter note, the photo shows one out of two of this years local baby possums, they both look a bit like boys, but it’s hard to tell. We can be certain the mothers don’t get on very well.

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.

As part of it’s asset protection works, the NPWS have been clearing around critical assets – road signs. While such work is expected, the methods employed seem to be inconsistent with the latest koala Priority Action Statement (PAS).

According to the PAS – ” . . . Intense prescribed burns or wildfires that scorch or burn the tree canopy : Liaise with relevant authorities or land managers to ensure that identified koala habitat areas are defined as assets for protection in fire planning tools when managing wildfires and prior to any hazard reduction burns. Promote best practice fire management protocols in areas of significant koala populations. Liaise with authorities or land managers to ensure that any unavoidable prescribed burns within koala habitat are conducted in a way that minimises impacts on koala habitat.”

As indicated in the picture below, the clearing involved cutting down two trees. If reducing fire hazard was the aim, cutting the tree trunks a metre off the ground, thereby creating standing dead wood, seems inconsistent with this aim. Similarly the heads of the trees, have been pushed under adjacent trees, creating fine fuels, also a metre above the ground. A simple solution would be to cut the trees down at ground level and remove the branches so the logging debris is all on the ground.

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Meanwhile the Nature Conservation Council is seeking donations to encourage more use of renewable energy, particularly wind and solar.

If local conservation groups were concerned about climate change and supported a different approach, the NCC could also push for the NPWS to move toward a carbon negative approach to management.

I expect the NPWS asset protection workers were driving a large diesel powered twin cab ute. An alternative vehicle could be a hybrid fossil fuel/ electric powered unit.

In that case the trunks of the aforementioned trees could be employed to generate electricity to power the vehicles. The charcoal from this process, about 90% carbon, could then be put in the ground. This approach would decrease CO2 emissions, increase soil water holding capacity, reduce soil acidity and perhaps aid in reducing die-back.

Of course, such an approach requires both support for and the implementation of best practice fire management protocols, in areas of significant koala populations.

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.

 

The Bega District news recently reported on the first hurdles faced by the recently appointed Murrah flora reserve management committee. According to committee member and former NPWS employee, Jamie Shaw , “ . . . The poor regrowth and logging has happened, so now, as a priority for ongoing management we need to get the money, know-how to protect the koalas and include the Aboriginal community at all times, that’s key for us. ”

Jamie lamented that “ . . . the  NSW government and Forestry Corporation had given NPWS only $110,000 a year to manage the reserve which would go to funding one Indigenous Australian field officer, one vehicle “and that’s it”.

He went on to suggest “ . . .  2000ha in the reserves were a “powder keg” for bushfires and extremely poor habitat for koalas due to dense regrowth of casuarinas and acacias in the under and mid storys after logging in the ’80s and ’90s.”

While the 2,000 hectare figure for the ‘powder keg’ seems a lot short, the know-how issue could depend on acknowledging the bleeding obvious.

As indicated on the new reserve sign firewood collection is not permitted. Forestry Corporation had a similar sign. However, every winter dozens of tonnes of firewood are removed from just around here. Across the whole reserve the figure is likely to be hundreds of tonnes.

So perhaps the committee may consider some community engagement, to get an estimate of firewood use. Rather than the annual loss of dead eucalyptus, the strategic use oaks and wattles could be considered,  given they are both good fuel woods. If the local community can be accommodated, with some organisation, actually policing the firewood prohibition may also be a consideration.

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Relevant to the committee’s deliberations, the BDN also reported on some recently published long term fire research titled, Biophysical Mechanistic Modelling Quantifies the Effects of Plant Traits on Fire Severity.

Undertaken through Wollongong University, leader of the research Dr Philip Zylstra said “ . . . controlled burning could be helpful under certain conditions though at other times it was counterproductive”.

He went on to say “ . . . Instead of assuming that burning will make the forest less fire prone, we can now look at that and say ‘if we burn this forest it kills these plants, but it germinates these other ones here’ and how will that then change the fire risk over the coming years and even decades,”

This is the situation in most of the reserves, where logging and burning have combined with ‘natural’ forest decline to produce a very thick mid-storey layer.

Perhaps not surprisingly, a spokesperson for the RFS said “. . . We are currently looking at this topic however given that his research is some way from operational application and due to the complexity of the models, it is not something we can readily adopt.” Does make me wonder what the majority of reserve committee members will readily adopt.

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