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Trees

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.

oak-cutting
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.

scwildp

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.

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.

 

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.

noperm

 

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.

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.

Although the final result remains uncertain, it’s reassuring that the federal election has led to perhaps two positive outcomes. The first of these may be a change to the proposal to roll-over the Regional Forest Agreements, rather than reviewing them.

The second positive is the re-election of Labor’s Dr Mike Kelly, to the bellwether seat of Eden-Monaro. The seat has been held by various governments since 1972, although time will tell if the tradition continues. More important though are Dr Kelly’s well known concerns about our declining environment. Interestingly the vote for the Greens and independents in Eden-Monaro, with 86% of votes counted, were both down.

While this reduction may not be associated with the Greens at a state and local government level, it is from these levels that the strategy to ignore die-back emanates. As I understand it, the strategy is aimed at ensuring the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service doesn’t look bad.

Apart from misrepresenting the facts, it is arguable the the state government is happy to ignore die-back too, as indicated in the most recent  Draft South East and Tablelands Regional Plan, produced by the NSW Department of Planning.

setrp

 

With regard to the environment, there is no mention of die-back, conveniently ignoring the fact that trees are dropping dead across hundreds of thousands of hectares in the south east. Despite this and the fact that a large chunk of the south east supplies Sydney’s drinking water (blue hatched area) the plan suggests –  “It aims to protect and restore environmental values and connections to the landscape, to contribute to healthy, engaged communities.”

On koalas and as indicated in the map above, the so-called flora reserves remain as State forests. However, there is mention of the tablelands koalas and the NSW Government will:
• support Cooma-Monaro Shire Council to develop and implement a Koala Plan of Management; and
• support councils across the region to monitor the koala population, where relevant.

Regrettably, it appears the state government’s decision to eliminate Cooma-Monaro council, is yet to filter through to the NSW planning department. Similarly, the notion that Bega Shire Council needs support to monitor ‘the population’, seems a little odd, given the OE&H is running things.

So I expect the connection is with the Biamanga Board of management, where greens councillor Keith Hughes represents local government. This links in with the OE&H suggestion that a koala recovery plan should fit into the management plan for Biamanga National Park.

Tragically, the Biamanga management plan doesn’t refer to die-back either, I assume due to the involvement of the Greens and the National Parks Association.

The challenge for the conservation movement is to form a united front, by joining with the only group that does talk about die-back, South East Forest Rescue and supporting forest restoration.

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