Bushfire Impacts in the South-East Forests

Kim Taysom, Far South Coast Branch

The South East Forests National Park (the Park) straddles the Bega Valley and Snowy Monaro Shires and comprises around 130,000 hectares of escarpment forests inland from Eden, Merimbula and Bega. 

In terms of area burnt, the recent fires are unprecedented.  The Bega Valley Shire had 58% of its area burnt, with the forested areas being the hardest hit.  To put this in historical context, past fires which have burnt 10% of a shire’s area have been deemed significant events. 

Although the recent drought may have been a catalyst for these fires, in reality the south east has been drying for decades.  Those of us who have lived on the land long term have witnessed the relentless drying of the landscape, the decline of soaks, swamps and rivers and the increasing stress of our forests.

As is the case with so many environmental issues, climate change is the elephant in the room.  It is likely we have reached a tipping point which will see bushfires increase in terms of frequency and intensity, as generally forecast by the 2008 Garnaut Climate Change Review.  The challenges facing effective landscape management and protection of biodiversity will be immense.

In the aftermath of these fires, a Royal Commission and various enquiries are sifting through the entrails.  There will be a raft of well meaning recommendations on organisational, management and procedural issues, but the political climate and limited terms of reference will see the core issue of climate change side stepped.  Once again, the apparatus of government will be seen sleepwalking over the precipice.

Post fire impact assessments are underway in the south east.  As the Park is closed to the public until September, it has been difficult for NPA members to assess the situation.  As with all bushfires, intensity levels have varied across the landscape with canopy scorch in some areas and ground fire only in others.  It is to be hoped that there are also unburnt areas acting as refugia within the fireground.

Impact assessments take time. While technological advances aid the process, there is often no substitute for on ground surveys.  Feral pest control, one of the immediate tasks, will need to target not only predatory species, such as feral cats and foxes, but also the exploding deer population whose browsing could set back the green shoots of recovery.

In the Autumn issue of Nature Gary Dunnett makes the point that the priority is how we manage the remaining unburnt bushland and that the unburnt areas of NSW’s parks must be protected as the arks of our State’s biodiversity.

A management brief addressing these wider aspects requires funding and with political focus and financial priorities diverted to COVID-19, and its aftermath, achieving adequate and sustained funding for Park management and biodiversity protection may prove problematic.  Furthermore, severe cuts to the NPWS over the past decade in terms of both staffing levels and operating budgets have reduced management capacity.

The fires have had some unforeseen consequences.  Large swathes of roadside trees in the Park were felled during the fires to widen containment lines.  Lengthy salvage operations involving heavy machinery and truck haulage to the Eden woodchip mill add to the disturbance within the Park.  The scale, appropriateness and effectiveness of such operations within the Park need to be examined as part of the post fire review.

Almost all of the protected public forests in the south east either join or are close to State Forests.  Industrial scale logging across the landscape has a significant impact on biodiversity.  We had hoped that the recent fires, which damaged around two thirds of production forests, would lead to a logging pause and an examination of logging impacts in the changed environment.  It is clear, however, that the intention is to resume logging without delay.

Australia’s biodiversity was in steep decline before the recent fires.  The Threatened Species Commission’s recently published Threatened Mammal Index concludes that there has been a 33% decline in Australia’s mammal populations since the mid 1990’s.  The south east has seen a significant decline in arboreal mammals such as the Greater Glider and the fires, for some species, may prove to have been catastrophic.

The 2019/20 bushfires are a harbinger of climatic disruption that constitutes an existential threat.  At stake is not only Australia’s flora and fauna but also the future viability of human tenure of this continent.

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