The NSW government has released its Chief Scientist and Engineers report on koalas.  Apparently forming the basis of a revised approach, the report makes 11 recommendations ‘to inform the development of a NSW koala strategy’.

The first recommendation is “That Government adopt a whole-of-government koala strategy for NSW with the objective of stabilising and then starting to increase koala numbers.” Unfortunately,  some significant issues around notions of ‘whole-of-government’ approach, given the differing opinions about how the environment and forest actually work. However, number six is “That Government investigate models for guiding and incentivising collaborative best practice for development and ongoing land use occurring in areas of known koala populations across tenures, industries and land users.”

Theoretically, such an approach could have some significant positive outcomes. Regrettably the major hurdle would seem to be the notion that the OE&H’s past and current do nothing approach will stabilize and increase koala numbers. Nothing could be further from the truth and it seems unlikely there will be much change, while a scientific understanding about forest decline continues to be minimised or ignored.

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Over the past couple of weeks South East Forest Rescue has halted illegal logging in compartment 2433 of Tantawangalo State Forest on two occasions. The major issue was the protection, or lack of it, for rocky outcrops. The Harvesting Plan indicates Cpt 2433 is one of nine contiguous compartments, approved for logging late last year. The location of the compartments is immediately above the area of National Park where the government had intended to translocate koalas from Victoria.

There are two koala records in the compartments, although perhaps not surprisingly, there is no indication FCNSW followed the prescriptions required for koalas. However, the map above is from a complaint SEFE lodged with the OE&H back in 2011. In this case koalas were located and the four blue circles are alleged to be the areas where logging didn’t proceed during the operation.

Number seven of the Chief Scientists recommendations indicates ” That Government agencies identify priority areas of land across tenures to target for koala conservation management and threat mitigation.”  So it seems worthwhile, early in the new year, to take a trip to the area, just to see whether the prescriptions were implements, effective and koalas still exist.

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.

Arguably one of most positive developments this year, on forestry issues, is the High Court challenge against Tasmania’s ‘draconian anti-protest laws’. The challenge, from former Greens leader Bob Brown and Jessica Hoyt, stems from their arrests earlier this year, at a forestry protest. While the charges were eventually dropped, the need for such laws at a state level, tends to confirm how unsustainable native forest logging is.

 

True to form, the NSW and Victorian governments have joined Tasmania, in the High Court, to protect their right to destroy forests.

For many years, forest management in Tasmania (clear-felling) has been based on the model developed for forests around Eden. It was in Eden that former Forestry Commission head, Dr Hans Drielsma began clear-felling, with the aim of improving forest productivity.

Drieslma, affectionately known as Dr Death, went on to head up forestry in Tasmania. While some constraints have been placed on NSW forestry since then, there has been little change in Tassie. However, they don’t always get their way, as the Tasmanian Ombudsman found, when dealing with then Forestry Tasmania’s truculence about a Freedom of Information dispute, back in 2007.

So best wishes to Bob and Jessica, for a positive High Court outcome. Given the Regional Forest Agreements are not legally enforceable, notions that state governments can legally enforce their unsustainable management, should be unexceptable.

 

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I’ve recently been informed that the OE&H may be releasing details of the most recent RGB-SAT koala surveys, in the near future. While I have been privileged to view a map showing a part of the survey area, I decided not to put it with this blog post.

Rather the map above shows the outcomes from the first surveys. As indicated the koala activity areas, identified with arrows, appear to be missing from the latest survey map. So it must be assumed that recent OE&H claims of an increasing koala population, are in areas outside the map. The  ellipses, upper centre, broadly indicate areas where evidence of a known female (grey) and probable male (red) has also been sighted or found during this time.

While looking forward to a full account of the increasing koala numbers claim, it seems unlikely that the RGB-SAT surveys cannot readily account for areas of irregular use. For example, the last time I found koala faecal pellets, in northern areas of the grey ellipse, was about 2 years ago. Not that this is particularly unusual, because evidence of koalas in this area, somewhat lower topographically than southern areas of the ellipse,  generally only appears every couple of years. During the drought last decade, there was a four year gap. However, the RGB-SAT surveys have never found koala evidence in this area.

This particular aspect of habitat use may be associated with the general uncertainties around habitat availability, in forests subject to extensive canopy die-back. We can be pretty certain this is something both the federal and state government’s prefer to ignore.

 

Life is littered with ironies, so while Forestry Corporation received a South Coast tourism award last week, for general tourism services. In the same week a fire started at Blue Ridge hardwoods sawmill at Eden, putting the operation out of action for an unspecified period.

The tourism award was apparently for providing things like the Bodalla rest area, last logged in 2014. Of course this was not your standard selective logging operation, because they had to clean the place up afterwards.

The costs associated with the clean up, chipping heads and branches of trees on site, grinding tree stumps, repairing other damage and the like, would have been quite substantial. Of course this was prior to forestry realising it had additional 40,000 cm³ around Batemans Bay to keep Blue Ridge going, given the temporary loss of resource in the flora reserves.

 

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Also last week, ABC radio had an interview with Dr George Wilson, based at the ANU, about the need for more private input into species conservation. In an ANU press release Dr Wilson says ” . . . Business as usual for threatened species is not working – lists are getting longer and threats from predators and habitat loss are getting worse.The private sector can help but it is shut out by government legislation that maintains control over both operations and ownership.”

He proposes incentives for landholders to lease animals, so they can “ . . .  acquire and breed threatened species in extensive predator-free facilities,”

I couldn’t agree more, but to finish this predator free facility, the new concrete strip access road, form work for which is pictured above, has to be completed. This road will replace the environmentally undesirable side cut road, within the fenced area. Just need the workers, the concrete truck and the weather to come together, at the same time.

On broader management issues, I hear the NPWS/OE&H will be releasing their management proposals for the flora reserves in the next week or so. One can only trust that it at least considers issues beyond business as usual.

As reported in the Bega District News, a group of south coast oyster farmers recently met at Wapengo Lake. Clearly working to improve their Environmental Management System (EMS), the article referred to research, initiated by the farmers, into oyster growth rates in seven south coast catchments. The results found oysters in Wapengo Lake had the highest growth rates.

In addition, the research found different parts of the lake provided the best conditions for oyster growth, at different times of the year.

The EMS coordinator pointed out that oyster farms could be influenced by other land management practises, including cows in streams and unsealed roads and tracks. Graham Major, one of the Wapengo farmers said “ . . . We owe what we have here to the local landholders –  what happens on the land ends up working into the lake and that affects us greatly.”

I can attest to the work of the local land-care group, having joined them, now many years ago, to help plant trees and shrubs along Wapengo Creek. However, as indicated in the map below, much of Wapengo catchment was, until recently, State Forest. About 45% of the Wapengo is private land and most of the rest is now part of the Murrah Flora reserve.

Also indicated on the map is the most recent logging event in the catchment during 1994. Other larger areas in the south were logged in 1992 and 1993. Since that time and to the best of my knowledge, there has been no logging or deliberate burning in the forest. Although the last time the roads were graded was at least a decade ago.

 

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The BDN also reported on recommendations from the Independent Prices and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART). Among other things the IPART draft report suggests rating oyster growers, for using land (?) below the high water mark.

Naturally, oyster growers are less than enthusiastic about the proposal.

It would appear, that in Wapengo at least, growers face significant changes to forest management practices, given proposals to introduce broad acre burning, allegedly to protect koalas.

So it’s interesting that Bega Valley Shire Council, the ultimate recipient of any rates extorted from the oyster growers, is also represented on the cabal, for want of a better word, proposing the broad acre burning and posing a threat to water quality.

It may be one of those ‘catch 22’ situations, growers who can afford to pay rates to council, do so with the knowledge that council is working to reduce water quality and oyster growth rates.

Today, the NSW Rural Fire Service, in collaboration with the Nature Conservation Council, OE&H and others, are running a ‘Hotspots’ fire workshop at Four Winds, south of Bermagui.

According to the blurb, the workshop is about ‘Supporting sustainable fire management for healthy landscapes’. Of course the immediate issue is whether one goes along with the Forestry Corporation’s original idea that fire creates healthy landscapes,  in non-grassy forest ecosystems. As the workshop organisers clearly support this claim, I wonder if they also support forestry’s associated theory, that making forests healthy with fire gets rid of koalas?

As a collaborative effort, OE&H, RFS and FCNSW have “ . . . developed 11 options for where to locate Strategic Fire Advantage Zones where fuel loads will be managed. “ From these options the ‘most cost effective’ (read cheapest) options have been adopted.

While the workshop is largely directed toward individual fire management plans, credible evidence to support the fire and healthy landscape claim is difficult to find. The single study referred to, titled ‘The effects of a low-intensity fire on small mammals and lizards in a logged, burnt forest’, indicates –

“ . . .  Our results, however, suggest that the biodiversity impacts of burning are complex and multidirectional, posing a significant challenge to conservation managers.”

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Another significant challenge, yet to be acknowledged by the aforementioned agencies is die-back, as indicated in the photo above, taken in the small area of rain-forest  on this property. In this case and since it was illegally logged and  burned back in 1981, all of the remaining large emergent eucalyptus (background of photo on left) in the rain-forest have succumbed to BMAD and died.

What has done well is some Australian red cedar (Toona australis), (foreground of photo on left) I planted in the open spaces back in 1992, two years before the Bell-miners appeared. Although well south of its natural range, north of Ulladulla, this tree, its base showing development of buttress roots in photo on the right, has attained 48cm DBH.

Red cedar was virtually wiped out due to over-cutting and nowadays commands a high price, around $3,000 a cubic metre. It is possible that the growth of these trees is more consistent with the OE&H theory, that the loss of koalas is associated with climate change.

While looking forward to any NSW government movement toward forest restoration, this seems unlikely given the NCC and it local arm, SERCA, seem happy to work with the government. It is regrettable that this approach requires ignoring the issues and arguably, simply allows unsustainable forest management, including logging, to continue.

 

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