Gary Dunnett, Executive Officer, National Parks Association of NSW
Fire has played a central role in human history, an essential part of the tool kit that enabled a naked ape to spread across the globe. We are all linked by our individual experiences of fire, from an infant’s wonder to the shared pleasure of sitting around a campfire. Fire has influenced human history far beyond our individual experiences. In Australia, more so than anywhere else in the world, fire has shaped the landscape, vegetation communities and species. The arrival of humanity on this continent coincided with a sharp increase in fire frequency and a broad trend towards more fire tolerant vegetation types.
This deep relationship with fire in no way guarantees that it is a force that remains under human control. The enormity and devastation of the 2019/20 fire season stretches our powers of comprehension, inflicting genuinely unprecedented impacts on individuals, communities, natural landscapes and entire species.
This fire season will inevitably exert a profound influence on how governments and communities regard natural landscapes, native vegetation and the protection of biodiversity. The fires offer compelling evidence that our climate is changing and that the consequences of that change are becoming apparent. People have been deeply impacted and communities are demanding a review of land management practices across the state.
The metrics of the current fire season are truly astonishing. Over 5.4 million hectares of NSW was affected by wildfires between July 2019 and January 2020. A graph published in The Guardian shows the total area burnt by the end of December 2019 is much larger than any wildfire over the last 50 years.
Approximately 2.5 million hectares, half of the total impacted area, has been in reserves gazetted under the National Parks and Wildlife Act. This equates to just over a third of the entire NSW reserve network of 7.6 million hectares. Approximately two thirds of the native forests between the Great Dividing Range and coast were impacted. The fires have affected 55 parks in their entirety, with 70 parks between 75% and 99% burnt and another 29 from 50-74% impacted. The fires have impacted far beyond individual reserves, with 80% of the landscapes included in the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area affected and 54% of the Gondwana Rainforests in northern NSW.
Even the most intense fires generally leave pockets of unburnt vegetation, often around rocky barriers or areas with high natural water retention such as wet gullies and rainforest. A disturbing feature of this fire season is that, due to the exceptional dryness of soils and vegetation, unburnt refugia within the firegrounds appear to be unusually rare.
The extent and intensity of these fire events has catastrophic consequences for many species of native plants and animals, especially those threatened species with limited habitats and ranges. At least six species of threatened animals have had more than 70% of their recorded habitat impacted, and some may now be functionally extinct. A quarter of all koala habitat in eastern NSW has been impacted.
I have no doubt that NPA’s role in the coming debates about fire and land management, including participation in inquiries announced by the NSW and Commonwealth governments, will be some of the most important in the organisation’s history of advocacy for nature. This piece doesn’t try to cover everything we might say, but instead focuses on just one aspect of the upcoming debate, how we think about the bits that didn’t burn. It argues that NSW’s unburnt parks must be protected as the arks of our state’s biodiversity.
Conservation under fire
Maintaining a reserve network that includes examples of the full diversity of habitats and age classes has just become incredibly challenging in NSW. Most of the vegetation along the coast and Great Dividing Range of NSW has been transformed into a vast, Year 0 age class. This includes highly fire sensitive communities such as rainforest, wetlands and alpine communities that may take centuries or even millennia to recover.
The simple fact is that NSW has never been reduced to such a tiny proportion of intact native vegetation over a single bushfire season (for the purpose of this piece, ‘unburnt’). This impact comes on top of the loss of vegetation cover to historic clearing, the sharp increase in agricultural clearing under current government policy, urban expansion and intensified logging regimes. The remaining unburnt bushland, which for the moment includes urban parks such as Ku-ring-gai Chase and Royal National Parks, has become a critical element of the state’s ecosystems, vegetation communities and flora and fauna species.
There is little doubt that extinctions will occur amongst fire impacted species with limited distributions. The question is how much of our biological heritage will join them over the coming years. How we manage the restoration of the areas that have been directly impacted by fire will be important, however the focus in this piece is how we treat the unburnt habitats that are now the repository of much of what remains of our biological heritage.
By the time most of the fire impacted lands have recovered to the point where hazard reduction measures are feasible, the environmental trajectory, and hopefully the political landscape, will have changed to the point where there will be broad community recognition of the value of retaining natural vegetation for carbon capture and biodiversity conservation, otherwise known as ‘natural climate solutions’. There is time for this aspect of the debate to mature. The more immediate issue isn’t the recovery of the impacted landscape, but how we treat the remaining unburnt bushland.
Parks as biodiversity ark
The way in which we value the unburnt parks will have profound consequences for the survival of wildlife, flora and the recovery of all of the bushland impacted over this fire season. Certain commentators, politicians and media outlets, supported by a forestry industry whose future depended on now-burnt state forests, are seeking to direct all the fear and resentment generated by the fires into support for fundamental changes to the management of national parks and other bushland. They characterise national parks as posing an unacceptable risk to regional communities, calling upon government to degazette them and approve large scale clearance, forestry and agricultural grazing.
The proposed alternative perspective is that unburnt bushland, and most especially long unburnt bushland, should be recognised as our most precious national resource. Rather than becoming the focus of our efforts to subdue nature, they must be treated as precious arks offering our natural heritage the chance to persist, and ultimately, to recolonise the once burnt landscape.
The adoption of the ‘park ark’ concept would involve a management approach that aims to maximise the retention of unburnt vegetation and protection remnant fauna and flora populations through intensive pest and weed control, fencing, habitat manipulation and fire management.
We are about to enter an intense, and almost certainly acrimonious, national debate about the management of fire and natural landscapes. Many commentators, politicians, academics, researchers, land managers, industry groups and conservation advocates have already entered into public discussion on these issues.
NPA needs to consider where our resources can be most effective in steering the outcome towards one that supports the protection of biodiversity and ecological sustainability in parks and natural landscapes. This paper suggests that one area where our advocacy will be required is on the protection of the parks which were not directly affected by this season’s fires, under the broad banner of ‘parks as biodiversity arks’.