From Cania Gorge to the highlands of Tasmania and lots of places in between – the mismanagement of Australia’s forests

While on a bushwalk through Cania Gorge National Park near Monto last June, I tended to do what I always do. I studied the forest around me as I walked up a particular gully off the main gorge and looked for clues about the history of the forest and its condition. Since the mid-1990s, governments have converted millions of hectares of State forest to National parks across Australia keen to appease inner-city voters and claim the ‘green’ vote. The central premise for locking up these forests was to preserve their environmental values and ‘save them from destructive practices’ such as sustainable harvesting of trees. This premise ignored the reality that many of the former State forests had been harvested many times over a century and still contained high conservation values worthy of preserving. 

Where once open forests with a grassy understorey existed, today, we bear witness to a dense layer of eucalypt regeneration and mesic shrubs. The regenerating eucalypts are of a similar size and age. In the last 20-25 years, they have exploded across the landscape. The main reason is CO2 fertilisation, but also a lack of widespread burning. West of the Great Dividing Range, forests support an overcrowded understorey of eucalypts and shrub species. They are not in a natural state and are an artefact of European occupation – or more precisely a relic of European neglect. These forests are now a severe hazard that provides a three-dimensional fuel load that allows a fire to reach the canopy easily and spread ferociously over millions of hectares in a single event during extreme weather conditions. We saw this during the ‘Black Summer’ wildfires of 2019-20.

An example of dense, unnatural understorey, near Tamworth

As I drive around the country, I see numerous examples of what I describe as poor forest management. No active management is in place, despite what glossy brochures or management plans say. A thick understorey layer of shrubs and regenerating eucalypts are chocking the forests. Based on my ecological knowledge of forests and woodlands in eastern Australia, I am confident that national parks are in a worse environmental condition than when first dedicated. I am not aware of any baseline studies carried out in National parks at the time of conversion from State forest to determine whether the saved environmental values have either improved or been maintained. We don’t know if preservation management (benign neglect) is more beneficial to the biodiversity that depends on the forests and is a better way of management. 

Serious questions need to be asked of politicians, senior bureaucrats and the green activist groups about the efficacy of locking up so many hectares of Australia’s forests and woodlands in the name of protecting species, only to find that they are grossly mismanaged.

The problem of increased biomass in our forests was first observed in 1890 by Alfred Howitt. He addressed the Royal Society of Victoria about the changes to the forests in the Gippsland region over 30 years, and his published paper provided a first-hand account of what happened when indigenous fire management was removed from the 1860s and replaced with European sheep grazing. There was an explosion in eucalypt regeneration and insect populations. When he first settled the area, he could once see herds on distant ridges while riding his horse in the open forest, but 30 years later his view was blocked by the understorey vegetation.[1] Later that decade the 1898 ‘Red Tuesday’ fires burnt 260,000 hectares in that region.

I am not the only one who laments this tragic outcome. Fellow forester, Vic Jurskis, has written about this problem. He highlighted the increasing problem of eucalypt dieback in various forest communities around Australia as evidence of the unhealthy state of our forests.[2] In my book ‘Fires, Farms and Forests’ I discuss the reasons why dieback is occurring in the Eucalyptus delegatensis forests, including those on the Central Highlands through the removal of human management, in particular the use of fire. Dr Neil Davidson, from the University of Tasmania, led a national study of tree decline caused by reduced frequency or absence of fire. The study found that a lack of fire led to the increased development of a woody mid-storey that outcompeted the eucalypts for soil water and altered tree nutrient availability.[3]  A PhD by Bryony Horton explored ecosystem health via the links between symbiotic fungi, fire and eucalypt dieback in forests with different understorey vegetation.[4] 

American ecologist Stephen Thomforde wrote that the current state of forests in North America is ‘symptomatic of a catastrophic shift from a highly functional ecosystem to a highly dysfunctional ecosystem’. Before the twentieth century, the dominant vegetation on earth was the savanna or open woodlands which operated in a productive and functional state. It was dependent on grazing[5] that had evolved over millennia. When humans arrived, they introduced fire to the savannas, and together with the grazers, became the biotic controls that maximised a sustained and functioning ecosystem. The urbanised population removed humans from the management of the savannas during the late twentieth century. The change from an open, grassy understorey with a rich suite of herbs and forbs is now replaced with a thick mesic understorey of non-edible plants supported by a high nitrogen condition. This favours a faster, weedier more competitive assemblage that is symptomatic of the loss of an efficient nutrient cycling system. Vegetation that was once consumed is now replaced by non-edible plants left to rot, and this leads to the collapse of highly a complex food web. It is occurring in a relatively low rainfall environment.

Studies have shown that eucalypts are dependent on frequent fires. Juvenile eucalypts can grow rapidly between fires by utilising soil nutrients that are available post-fire. This is why eucalypts principally dominate a fire-prone environment such as Australia.[6] Woody perennial plant diversity is not affected by regular prescribed burns. A study in Victoria has shown that not only resprouters but obligate seeders were just as abundant in a burnt forest as an unburnt one.[7] 

Sixty per cent of Kosciuszko National Park burnt during the 2002-03 alpine fires. In 2020 the park burnt again killing 17-year-old alpine ash or woolybutt (E. delegatensis) regeneration, which most likely wasn’t mature enough to carry enough seed to sustain the stands. An increase in the frequency of high-intensity fires under national park management is threatening the iconic mountain eucalypt – snow gum (E. pauciflora). Australia’s largest wildfire, Gospers Mountain fire, started from a single point of ignition within a reserve during mild conditions in October 2019 and ripped through permanently protected parks and reserves and took over four months to bring under control. It blazed through hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest containing fuel loads allowed to accumulate through years of benign neglect.

Main Range, Kosciuszko National Park. Burnt in 2002-03 Alpine fires. Photo sourced from South East Timber Association Facebook post, 15 July 2018

Part of the problem has also been a lack of funding and resources. State forests earned significant royalties for the government that went straight into consolidated revenues to fund schools and hospitals. On the other hand, National parks generate a meagre revenue stream from visitor and camping fees. The public doesn’t like being taxed to pay for their upkeep, and consequently, there is a lack of staff. Large areas of State forest that were actively managed and maintained are now left idle as National parks. The only active management is focussed on small camping areas, walking tracks and visitor sites. Roads and firebreaks have been closed or simply no longer maintained and trafficable. Meanwhile, biodiversity is declining.

Another problem is what I experienced when I worked for the NPWS in NSW. There is an emphatic ‘green’ culture within the government environmental agencies responsible for managing National parks. The tendency is not to do anything if there is any doubt about any impacts, and this means invariably National parks are managed via benign neglect. In my stint working as a Fire Management Officer in NSW, I faced this insidious (over) precautionary approach when I tried to plan some hazard reduction burns. Young university graduates, who had never seen a prescribed burn let alone planned one, questioned the ecological justification of burning. Any need to consider the environmental impact of not burning was overlooked.

As I continued my walk In Cania Gorge, it was good to see kangaroo grass (Themeda triandra) on the floor of the gorge. It is a native of lowland grasslands and woodlands in south-east Australia. Previous cattle graziers promoted the grass in the area. It was abundant at the time of European settlement but has been replaced by introduced pasture species more palatable to cows and sheep. As I walked up a side valley of the gorge, I saw scattered large eucalypts with a broad spreading crown. The forest had a more open woodland appearance in the past. Kangaroo grass was still present, but it was struggling to dominate as thick clumps of regenerating eucalypts were invading the side slopes. These young eucalypt saplings are the same size and age and are relatively young, and I guess less than 20 years old. I believe this valley has a forest structure that has never existed before, and it is unnatural. It has benefitted from carbon fertilisation and grows unchecked through a lack of systematic cool burning.

Queensland Park Service recognise fire management on their web site. There was evidence of a recent prescribed burn in a small area adjoining the caravan park. However, the local owner of the park told me about some history. Cania Gorge National Park was dedicated in 1977. The Francis family subsequently gifted the main central area as an addition to the park in 1989, conditional on them continuing to graze their cattle in the area. The last of the cattle were removed recently, and the legality of this removal was tested in Court. A private, confidential settlement finalised the matter. 

Based on my walk up the valley, there is little evidence that cattle grazed the area. There is not much evidence in the past 30-40 years of any fire on the slopes of the valley. The gully rainforest is expanding up the side of the valley. There is an explosion of eucalypt regeneration on the upper slopes. If these young eucalypts survive and dominate when the older, larger trees die, the open woodland will change and affect the animals that have been dependent on the grassy woodland for millennia. Koalas will struggle to move from tree to tree. Over 33% of Australia’s land bird species are associated with woodland areas. Two high profile species, the swift parrot (Lathamus discolor) and regent honeyeater (Anthochaera phrygia) are just two of these species that depend on woodland areas. Where open woodland forests decline, so do the foraging resources that birds rely on such as nectar, pollen and insects. Tree species that dominate open forests and woodlands show a decline in condition and the birds dependent on them prefer trees with full canopies in a healthy state. 

20-year-old even-aged eucalypt regeneration at Cania Gorge. Notice the two large remnant trees to the left and right signifying the original structure of the forest.

I worry that unless managed burns are introduced to Cania Gorge, hot fires will roar through the area under bad fire weather conditions. It will have devastating consequences for the beautiful Cania Gorge.

[1] Howitt, A. W. (1890) The eucalypts of Gippsland. Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria 2(1): 81-130

[2] Jurskis, V. (2004). Observations of eucalypt decline in temperate Australian forests and woodlands, JW Gottstein Memorial Trust Fund; Jurskis, V. (2005) Eucalypt decline in Australia, and a general concept of tree decline and dieback. Forest Ecology and Management 215: 1-20

[3] Close, D.C. et al (2009) Premature decline of Eucalyptus and altered ecosystem processes in the absence of fire in some Australian forests. The Botanical Review 75(2):191-202

[4] Horton, B. (2011) Eucalypt decline and ectomycorrhizal community ecology of Eucalyptus delegatensis forest, Tasmania, Australia. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Tasmania

[5] I use the term grazing in a broad sense to include all herbivorous forms such as grazers, browsers, frugivores, nectarivores and granivores. 

[6] Paramyjyothi, H. et al (2020) Does rapid utilisation of elevated nutrient availability allow eucalypts to dominate in the tropical Savannah of Australia? Ecology and Evolution 10(9):4021-30; Russell-Smith, J. et al (2003) Response of Eucalyptus-dominated savanna to frequent fires: lessons from Mumarlary, 1973-1996. Ecological Monographs 73(3):349-75

[7] Collins, L. et al (2014) Impacts of frequent burning on live tree carbon biomass and demography post-harvest regrowth forest. Forests 5(4):802-21

Featured Image – Turner, J., & Osboldstone & Co. printer. (1908). The Homestead Saved – An Incident of the Great Gippsland Fire of 1898 [picture]. Sourced from State Library of Victoria online collection

2 thoughts on “From Cania Gorge to the highlands of Tasmania and lots of places in between – the mismanagement of Australia’s forests”

  1. Very good Robert. You are up there with Vic Jurski in my estimation now. I met Vic at a forestry conference in Canberra 2004 post fire. Only thing you have not listed reference No. 7. I wonder is it an Ian lunt work?

    Regards
    Dixie Nott

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