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It’s the forest, silly!

By David C Paull  

The Pilliga forests are a significant water, biodiversity and carbon sink resource, yet our governments want to turn it into a gas-field. Now is the time to rethink how we value and manage our irreplaceable natural resources.

Following the ecological catastrophe of the fire season of 2019/20, when it is estimated that 12.6 million hectares of our eastern Australian eucalypt forests burnt, a much larger proportion than any fire season previously in any one season, there has been growing public attention on conserving what is left of our vulnerable ecosystems. Australia has one of the worst records in biodiversity decline in the world, these fires pushed many ecosystems to the limit and the species reliant on them, many now pushed into the threatened with extinction category, if not across their range but certainly the loss of many populations is not disputed.

What is doubly concerning is the ongoing loss of remnant vegetation through land-clearing and the logging of burnt and unburnt forest remnants in Victoria and New South Wales. These actions have compounded our biodiversity crisis by hindering the recovery of burnt forests and further limiting the ability of many species to disperse across the landscape, necessary to maintain populations and genetic diversity. Clearly, state and Commonwealth laws designed to protect our natural heritage are failing. Not a surprise when it seems many politicians today have the view that the only good animals are ones inside a fence, where they can’t cause any trouble to development.

With signs of climate tipping points being reached, we need to take stock of what natural assets we have, the same assets provide refuge not only for declining wildlife but are important carbon sinks helping us reduce the impacts of runaway climate change. Governments have failed to incorporate these assets into their cost-benefit analysis, unless we do so urgently, we may selfishly forego future generations of a chance to enjoy and benefit those assets. More pertinent when you consider that this continent has one of the most unique biodiversity in the world.

One large area of forest largely left unburnt by the 2019/20 season, with only a relatively small burn (10,000) are the forests which comprise what is known as the Pilliga. Given the above context of massive biodiversity loss, the importance of these 500,000 ha of forest on both public and private lands is now self-evident.

The largest continuous remnant of temperate forest west of the Great Dividing Range, the Pilliga forests have not benefitted from a high level of public attention in the past and this needs to change because its natural assets and services are much more important than generally recognized.

Not only this but following above average rains over the last 16 months, the forest is recovering from drought conditions at an exceptional rate of growth. This is particularly noticeable in previously burnt areas (the Pilliga Forests are well-known for their large wildfires) – where previous fire had reduced large areas of forest to a black and grey moonscape, now living trees are flourishing, new one germinating and the undergrowth is as diverse and thick as it has been for a long time. Usually dry creeks and drainage lines are running with water and water holes and depressions are filling up, and the native fauna is responding to these conditions.

 

 

What is frequently misunderstood is the true nature of these forests. Often characterized as being mono-typically barren or over-exploited for its timber and rendered biodiversity poor, this is not the case as scientific studies have subsequently shown. It is true that massive amounts of trees have been harvested from many parts of the forest over the last 100 years, particularly ironbark, valued hardwood for structural timber, and cypress pine, Callitris, valued as a naturally softwood for building. This, along with past fires, has resulted in a forest depauperate of hollows over large areas, but the species diversity is still there as studies have shown. Parts of the forest containing non-commercial eucalypt species such as boxes, largely retain their natural density of large trees.

I first became acquainted with the biodiversity of these forests in 1993 as a contracted ecologist for the then State Forests of NSW. The forest of the ‘North-west Cypress/ironbark Belt as it was known, had never before been subject to a detailed and comprehensive fauna survey. What I found was a wildlife wonderland, which prompted me to devote many years of work and professional research into the fauna and flora of this forest.

The facts speak for themselves, rather than being species poor, it is very diverse, with 240 recorded bird species, 50 reptile, 17 frog and over 30 native mammal species. It has about 1,500 plant species according to (NSW database records) and about 50 distinct vegetation communities. It became obvious, these communities and species diversity had not just appeared in the last 100 years, as many subscribing to what can be described as the ‘Rollsian’(i)* view may believe, but more likely has been present in its current complexity over millennium.

This is not completely accurate of course, because levels of diversity, particularly in the mammal fauna, were much higher in pre-European times, as owl pellet studies and searches of historical records have shown. Much of this loss can be attributed largely to habitat modification, stock grazing, inappropriate fire regimes and of course the penetration of feral carnivores and herbivores. This is partly being addressed through a mammal re-introduction program administered by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy.

Nevertheless, the Pilliga Forests remains a jewel in Australia’s natural assets. Also containing endemic species such as the Pilliga Mouse and the Pilliga Wattle, its value as a biodiversity refuge, carbon sink and recharge zone for the artesian basin is almost unequalled.

 

A Pilliga Mouse

 

But the threat of coal seam gas development in the forest presents a significant risk to the biodiversity and ecological function of the forest.

Coal seam gas activities commenced in 1998, with the first ‘fracturing stimulation’ well site undertaken by an US exploration company, assisted by Halliburton. The license over the forest was quickly bought up by Eastern Star Gas, who stepped up exploration activities, including further ‘fracking’ at about 10 sites in the forest. Santos, a part-owner, bought up the exploration license in 2011 and has continued to expand operations in the forest such that approximately 50 wells have now been drilled, looking for that gas-gold.

Coal seam gas fever has set in the minds of many entrepreneurs and politicians, such as former deputy-PM John Anderson, and to this day we hear how necessary the ‘Narrabri Gas’ field is to our future energy needs. However, the evidence to its energy value remains elusive and rising gas prices have made it an expensive alternative.

Still the myopic view prevails, not the least from Canberra, at least two Prime Ministers have intervened to herald the necessity of the Project for development. Now the NSW Government has staked a last stand in its recent ‘Future of Gas’ Statement, while extinguishing many exploration licenses, is attempting to shore up development of this precious natural asset.

As with most major project developments today, the impacts of the Narrabri gas project upon the air, water and biodiversity will not be dealt with adequately, due in equal measure to the failure of the environmental assessment and offset system and to the insufficiency of reliable data from Santos.

It is estimated that the Project will produce 5 million tonnes of greenhouse emissions per year, though no carbon offset has been proposed. Direct impacts upon terrestrial ecosystems include the direct loss of 300 hectares of Pilliga Mouse habitat and up to 100 hectares of Koala habitat. Indirect impacts from a diffuse and extensive network of tracks and well sites has not dealt with adequately, internal forest fragmentation is one of the key threats to biodiversity today.

And importantly threats the quality of ground and surface water and to water table levels are real but poorly modelled. The track record of the industry with leaks and groundwater contamination is not good.

It is time to rethink how we use and value or irreplaceable natural assets in this country. The benefit of retaining and allowing complex biodiverse ecosystems such as the Pilliga forests to recover and thrive into the future out-ways the short-term benefit of gas by any measure of sustainability you care to consider. Let’s allow it to carry on the ecosystem services it provides for us and future generations. That would be worthwhile legacy for the future.

(i) “All the rest of the area, perhaps 600,000 hectares, was a pine forest, broken in places by Bimble Box or Yellow Box flats or stretches of Belah or oak … Over much of the area they (pine) were spaced even wider apart than the ironbarks”. ‘A Million Wild Acres’ p. 128.

All photos by David C Paull.

 

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11 comments

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  1. New England Cocky

    The Pilliga Scrub that SANTOS has been gifted licences to extract CSG is the head waters of the Great Artesian Basin.

    Drilling for CSG fractures the sedimentary layers as part of the gas extraction process. This means that CSG and the numerous toxic solvents will be able to penetrate into the Great Artesian Basin that supplies water to inland Australian agriculture.

    Water contaminated with CSG extraction products is made unusable and has been shown to be inflammable out of a household tap.

    CSG extraction uses hundreds of thousands of litres of water that necessarily will be taken from the dams built for agriculture enterprises, thus reducing the volume of water available for the production of food & fibre.

    There are proposed about 900 CSG well in the Pilliga Scrub so it is reasonable to expect the spot price for water to escalate above recent boom prices of $7,000 per market unit. This is far more than agricultural enterprises can afford for production of food & fibre.

    The NSW Gladbags COALition misgovernment continues with the feral Liarbral Nazional$ propaganda that gas is an intermediary step on the road to alternative energy sources.

    However, private enterprise has forsaken political party rhetoric and done the numbers that show alternative energy is only one investment away from production.

    It is time to sack Scummo and the Hell$inger$ Choru$ and elect a competent LABOR government capable of responding to the needs of Australian voters rather than giving foreign owned multinational corporations free and un fettered access to Australian natural resources.

  2. Dave G.

    In the early 1960’s there was what was known as a wine shanty on the road from Narrabri through the scrub,it was run by an old Afhgan called Nabob Allum.Am I the only one left to remember this oddity.Maybe Barnaby took over th licence.

  3. GL

    Money speaks louder…

  4. Harry Lime

    On the case as usual,Cocky,Plenty of us share your frustration,but with people like…
    The Liar,Prime Minister and minister for Public Disservice
    Barney Google,Minister for Regional Destruction
    SSSSSSSSusan Ley Minister for screwing the Environment,and
    Bucket mouth Taylor,Minister for energy and emission enhancement…not to mention all the other fuckwits and grifters,it will be a long haul to get us out of this shit.
    The average punter has been treated with utter contempt ever since Bat ears nayed his way into government,and the Liar is fucking worst of all.They all deserve jug time.

  5. guest

    David,

    You say:”state and Commonwealth laws designed to protect our natural heritage are failing”.

    Such a statement is applicable everywhere. It applies to the Great Barrier Reef, for example

    Just today, writing in The Australian, Peter Ridd refers to a report by The Australian Institute of Marine Science which tells us that the GBR is in fine shape. This after just recently the UN was suggesting the GBR could be rated “in danger”.

    Is that AIMS report just a coincidence?

    And is it also true that there is no trace of fertilisers leaking into the GBR?

    Shades if IPA’s “Climate Change: The Facts”, several publications over several years.

    If the heritage can be sold no matter what the damage, there are those who will exploit it.

  6. Canguro

    The second sentence of this article states that … [n]ow is the time to rethink how we value and manage our irreplaceable natural resources.

    With respect, I disagree, but also don’t, if I may be permitted to carry both positions.

    In the early 1900s, when Australians were being sent to the slaughter-fields of western Europe, Turkey and other places as proxies of the British Empire by our gutless leaders who were too sycophantic to disobey King & Crown, the question arose as how to show the colony’s gratitude to those returning diggers who were lucky enough to have not come back in a coffin or body-bag, or on a stretcher, maimed beyond repair, limbless or gassed or maddened or all of these and more, and an enquiry was commissioned to see whether the broad region of land in NSW now generally known as the MIA, the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area, would be suitable for assisted settlement fo returning soldiers. Similar schemes existed in other states

    The lands surveyed in NSW by the agricultural & soil scientists of the day were deemed unsuitable for such a scheme. Duplex soils, salt horizons at relatively shallow levels below the ground surface, the necessity to clear the lands of their treescapes, the difficulties of provision of sufficient water resources; the scientists said no, in their report, the MIA is not suitable for this project.

    The government shelved the report and went ahead with its proposition.

    It was a massive failure, within twenty years only around 40% of the thousands of soldier-settlers remained on their blocks; the predictions of the scientists were borne out – salinisation of surface soils as a function of rising water tables due to tree removals, erosion, scalding, degradation, impoverishment.

    In the early 1960s, as a young teenaged child, my family moved to the Upper Murray district in SA where my father took up a 20 acre block as part of a 2,000 acre development known as ‘Sunlands’, which he planted to citrus. Water was pumped from the adjacent Murray River; overhead sprinklers and high volume onto the nascent citrus orchards planted on what was formerly mallee scrubland. Within two to three years it was noticed that citrus trees were dying because of salt-scalding on their foliage, and the monitoring of salt levels in the river became an obsession of the SA Water Board, with irrigations carefully timed when levels of salt dipped below what was deemed a critical or dangerous concentration.

    Salt was never a problem in the Murray prior to the white man’s arrival. Settlement along the river in the interiors of NSW, Victoria and SA brought the construction of the system of locks & weirs to control and manage river flow. The results of those engineering decisions were disastrous and a century later thousands of landholders and rural inhabitants live with the environmental legacies of those poor and short-sighted decisions made by so-called experts who lacked insight as to the outcomes of their advice. A bit like the cane toad fiasco, amongst myriad poor decisions delivered soberly and acted upon within this country.

    During that early 60s period, I recall speaking to an old man in his nineties. He’d been living on the Murray all his life, and he spoke of wildfowl – ducks, geese and so on – that he’d seen as a child in the late 1800s. He said that the flocks were in the countless hundreds of thousands, that they’d darken the sky when in flight, that a flock would take an hour to fly past. By the sixties… all but gone. And now, another sixty years later, all but all but all but gone… species on the edge of extinction.

    Same period; between Xmas & New Year 1964, I walked down to the river – our house was only a few hundred metres away – and to my utter astonishment, the river was ‘dry’ … not dry dry, but no water in it, just a muddy base. I walked the ~100m across the mud floor of this country’s largest river, my young mind unable to comprehend why the river had lost its water. The locks & weirs had done their dirty work, and the flows had been stopped further upstream.

    So in regard to the perfectly appropriate observation made by the author above, yes, he’s correct, but the same could have, should have been been said long long ago. My observations are a microcosm of what’s happened to this country at large, within the space of a couple of hundred years, post-colonisation. Poor fellow my country, indeed.

  7. king1394

    Left unchecked, the destruction of forests won’t stop until the last tree has been cut down, and then there will be an outcry that there was no warning, how could the decision-makers have known, and a call for compensation

  8. B Sullivan

    How about asking the CFMMEU to impose Green Bans? Without the collaboration of these workers these environmental destructive industries just could not happen.

    Their services could be employed far more appropriately both in the constructing of solar and other renewable energy infrastructure and the deconstruction of the fossil fuel industry and the restoration of closed mines.

    Drought resistant solar farms could be very tempting to farmers with vast areas of unproductive over-cleared land who are facing ruin even without the dwindling market opportunities for non-environmentally friendly agricultural products from Australia. They might be disinclined to vote for governments that support fossil fuel energy production in competition against them.

    Just imagine the benefits to both society and the environment if the money currently being spent on fossil fuel energy by governments was diverted to fund the transition to a clean and much more cost effective renewable energy regime.

  9. guest

    More to my comment on the Great Barrier Reef – part of Australia’s natural heritage. There is a post about the GBR in The Conversation by three academics from the James Cook University. No surprise there: it contradicts the post by Peter Ridd speaking for the Australian Institute of Marine Science – and the IPA, of course.

    The 3 from JCU report: “After much anticipation, the World Heritage Committee decided against listing the GBR as in ‘danger’. “The decision ignored the recommendations of the International Union for Cnservation of nature (IUCN) and the UNESO World Heritage Centre – a recommendation based on analyses by Australian scientific experts of the reef’s declining conditions.”

    Instead, Australia must host a monitoring mission to the reef and provide an updated report by February 2022.

    “The government even hosted international ambassadors from 13 countries and the EU, taking them on a snorkelling trip. And it reported an increase in coral cover over the past two years as good news, ignoring the fact the assessment had cautioned the recovery was driven by weedy coral species most vulnerable to future climate impacts.”

    Is this the same coral Ridd boasts about in his report on the Australian Institute of Marine Science, an institute founded in 1972 by the McMahon government, speaking now on behalf of the Morrison government?

  10. guest

    The reality of global warming is at the centre of the failings of the Morrison government.

    Examination of the theme is widespread. Add the posts from independentaustralia.net the following especially about the Great Barrier Reef.:

    “Coalition’s fossil fuel obsession threatens the Great Barrier Reef”, 18/7/2021

    plus 5 linked posts, including one especially about Sky News and Peter Ridd

    and pertinent responses by readers.

  11. Pingback: After bushfires and development, the Pilliga is in trouble - The Big Smoke

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