Widely reported over the past week has been the fire, thought to be deliberately lit, in and around the Holsworthy army base, south west of Sydney. Some 3,450 hectares has been burnt and koalas escaping the fire have found found wandering in the adjacent suburbs and one was apparently rescued in the base.

Interestingly, back in 2012 a summary of environmental assessments was undertaken for the Department of Defence, when it proposed moving infrastructure at Moorebank to Holsworthy. According to this summary evidence of koalas was not found and if there were koalas they would be ‘ . . . unlikely to be an important koala population”.

More recently on the north coast, the NSW Department of Primary Industries has been employing digital recorders to find koalas. According to an ABC report spokesperson Dr Brad Law said ” . . . We’ve got two main aims. One is to look at the status of koalas across the northeast forests, [The other] is how is their level of occupancy responds to different levels of timber harvest and time since harvest — so we want to look at the effects of logging on koalas.”

Brad went on to say “They’ve been surprised by what the sound recordings have revealed. In the 1990s, there had been a spotlighting survey for koalas over roughly the same study area in northeast NSW. Close to 200 sites were surveyed and koalas were only detected on about 5 per cent of sites using spotlighting. But [using the song meters] we’re finding about 80 per cent of the sites we’ve got koalas.”
So it would appear that logging has proceeded over the past 20 years in areas with koalas and the intention is to continue this management.

Meanwhile on the far south coast, around the area of the red circle on the map, Forests NSW has been undertaking extensive ‘fuel reduction burns’ over some 6,000 hectares. While forestry believe this will make the forests healthy, it also gets rid of koalas.

Whatever the reasons for this management, if one were looking for other koalas on the south coast this would be the place to start. So the notion that forestry found evidence of koalas cannot be excluded.

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Having had a bit of a look at the areas burnt in the flora reserve and toward Tathra, a surprising outcome is the relatively small areas where tree canopies burned. As indicated in the satellite image below, leaves in the tree canopies have been scorched, but not consumed by the fire. In essence the outcome is much like a hot fuel reduction burn. 

The big difference between this fire and a canopy fire is the flame height and the temperature it creates both within and in front of the fire. Typically, a crown fire can heat the air at the front of the flames to 800 °C (1,470 °F). Attempting to fight a fire under these conditions is impossible, so it seems fire fighters and local residents saved most of the town because it wasn’t too hot or too windy.

Had the weather conditions been more extreme, as with the Black Saturday fires, back in 2009, it seems likely that more houses would have been destroyed and lives lost. The houses that were destroyed were all built prior to the bush fires codes introduced in 2009. None of the houses built after the new codes were destroyed.

There is still no talk about the fate of koalas in the area, although it seems unlikely any animals survived in the burned areas. A bulldozer and chainsaws have been used to push over or cut down dozens of trees deemed ‘dangerous’, in the flora reserve. Not surprisingly most of these were large mature trees.

 

As reported in the Eden Magnet last week, Forestry Corporation and the Eden Aboriginal Land Council  planned  a ” . . . contemporary cultural burn using traditional fire practices at East Boyd State Forest near Eden . . . The cultural burn will begin on Wednesday, April 4 with a traditional ceremony and continue for several days, with the aim of improving forest health and access to country for cultural purposes.”

The arrangement is clearly a big deal for Forestry, with a member of its Aboriginal Partnerships team, the Strategic Projects and Programs Leader and Forestry Corporation’s south coast Protection Supervisor, Julian Armstrong, all having a say.

According to Julian “For safe hazard reduction burns, we need to act when it’s not too hot and dry or too cool and damp and when the wind isn’t too strong.” While the issue of dryness appears to be a lower priority, the article suggests updates on the 750 hectare burn would be available on the RFS – ‘Fires near me’ website’.

The fire was on the website for two days and then disappeared, so either it burned the area very quickly or was postponed.

The cause of the fire that destroyed 65 homes in and around Tathra is being put down to a tree falling on power lines, along Reedy creek road. To date there has been no mention of the Flora reserve, although the fire started near the south west corner of the Tanja section.

As indicted on blurry map below, showing recent koala records and the Forestry Corporation’s incomplete logging history, the fire traveled straight down the Bega River. Aided by 38 degree heat and strong north westerly winds, it jumped the river and took off toward Tathra.

Under these conditions there is nothing fire fighters can do to stop a fire so the town was mostly evacuated. I say mostly because many stayed behind, successfully defending their homes and no-one was killed or seriously injured.

Unfortunately roads into Tanja forest remain closed, while more trees are cut down for safety reasons. However, it is clear that locations where koalas were active, back in 2012, were burnt. While trusting there will be some effort to ascertain their fate, the fire has led to the inevitable concerns about the ‘bush’ and the threat it poses.

A coronal inquiry will be examining aspects of the fire, although whether its scope will be adequate remains unclear. For example, when Europeans invaded this country, there was tall open forest, not bush. This new bush generally has a contiguous fuel load from the ground to the tree tops. Consequently, it seems likely that convection currents and the capacity to both produce and more rapidly spread burning embers is increased.

Clearly the major reason for this threatening bush is decades of mismanagement. However, there will be the inevitable calls for more broad acre burning, even though it won’t help.
Similarly, I’m anticipating, should no evidence of koalas be found, that post fire salvage logging will be proposed, so the timber isn’t wasted.

On a positive note the ABC reported on the Federal government concerns that renewing the RFAs may lead to a legal challenge, because the information is old. From another perspective the information was old when the RFAs were agreed and nothing has changed since then.

Congratulations go to the Nature Conservation Council, on its successful legal challenge, earlier this month, to the NSW government’s land clearing laws. Although it does seems likely the government will come back with something similarly appalling.

In that regard, pro-logging Rob de Fegely, currently Chair of Sustainable Timber Tasmania, Co-chair of the Commonwealth Government’s Forest Industry Advisory Council and a member of the Far South Coast Regional Advisory Committee for NSW National Parks, recently spoke about his preferred approach to south east forests.

According to Rob ‘it’s time people step up, be brave, put politics aside, and re-engage in what has been a divisive and emotionally charged issue’. He went on to ask “ . . . As a private landholder I am likely to improve habitat for lyrebirds, koalas, bandicoots, and potoroos, but where is the direction to do that? . . . And how do we build that across the landscape to link in with National Parks, the Forestry Corporation, Crown Lands and others to develop a system across the South East where we would end up with a landscape we are all proud of?”

Co-coinciding with Robs questions has been the release of twenty spotted quolls into federal land, Booderee National Park at Jervis Bay. This follows the previous apparently successful release of bettongs, bandicoots and potoroos, the latter from forests around Eden.

Having stepped up and submitted some brief comments on the RFA rollover, largely a rehash of the flora reserve comments. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the greatest impediment to any positive change is the Forestry Corporation.  This seems particularly the case given its general disregard for forests and threatened species.  On the other hand my recent meeting with the NPWS, in the Flora reserve, was at least amicable, although who knows what will come of it.

I was advised that some sort of report will be produced on the 30 odd submissions received about the reserve draft plan, prior to the release of final plan. The final plan for the Flora reserves is similar to the clearing laws, because it too requires the agreement of the NSW environment Minister and the primary industries Minister. While hoping for a positive outcome, It seems likely the latter Minister will have a significant influence.

Forestry Corporation has released its proposed logging schedule for the financial year. Included in the list are two compartments, 2069 and 2003, in Bermagui State Forest. Of particular interest is 2069 that was last logged back in 2011/12.

At the time and as indicated in the Harvesting Plan map below, I though it was generous that logging was constrained to the east and west of the compartment. This left an intact strip in the center, connecting north to south.

Now not many years on, the intention is to trash all of it and the last intact connection between koalas in the Flora reserve and Kooraban National Park.As reported in the Narooma News, neighbours around Compartment 3058 of Corunna State Forest are concerned about it also being scheduled for logging. Corunna State Forest is about 20km north of the Bermagui compartments and there are koala records in and around both locations.

While forestry has acknowledged the potential presence of koalas, any notion that its arguably unAustalian approach translates to caring about any native species is unrealistic.

Assuming it happens, tomorrow I’m to meet with Kane, the Director – South Coast Branch NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service and Alan, the NPWS Manager Eurobodalla Area.

The purpose of the meeting is so Kane and Alan can inspect the fence.I’m not exactly sure what this involves, although I guess many fences don’t have wombat gates and overhead access points. So this fence is a little different to others.

Of course it’s possible that like Forestry, the NPWS may prefer to get rid of the fence. Should that be the case, I probably won’t be much help.

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.

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