Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Pilliga Fires

I had decided not to make any posts while I was on holidays, but coming back to New England has generated so many story ideas.

One of my favourite books was Eric Rolls' A Million Wild Acres, the story of the area known as the Pilliga Scrub.

I wonder how many Australians realise that the Australia seen by the first Europeans was a man modified landscape? Our aboriginal ancestors did not just sit lightly on the landscape leaving it unchanged, they modified it to better suit their way of life.

Fire was a key tool. Fire could be used to help drive animals to waiting hunters. Fire was also used to encourage green pick (the fresh shoots that emerged after the blaze) to attract kangaroos.

In turn, the Europeans changed the landscape by reducing the incidence of fire. At the start of the twentieth century Mr Maiden, the NSW Government botanist, reported on the way that thick vegetation had appeared in the Snowy Mountains following the cessation of regular burning by the Aborigines.

In New England, botanists at the University of New England suggested that the open wooded appearance of the Western slopes had been created through fire because this created the optimum food collection environment. There was better grazing, while the grass provided seed for flour.

Roll's book recorded what happened in the Pilliga area once Aboriginal influence was removed. Absence of fire together with flooding rains in the 1880s triggered a major germination of native cypress and eucalypts, replacing the previous open wooded area with a thick forest/scrub. Forestry then became a major local industry based on the newly created forests.

Given that this was a new forest area, I was surprised at the progressive moves from 1967 to turn the Pilliga into national parks instead of the previous dual use. This culminated in the 200 decision by the NSW Carr Government to lock up 348,000 hectares of the Brigalow Belt South Bioregion in "community conservation areas." This included Tinkrameanah State Forest which became a national park.

The Government's move reflected pressures from environmental groups including the Western Conservation Alliance and was opposed by local grazing and timber interests. The timber industry in particular - a major local employer - was left in a much diminished position limited to a relatively small number of areas still open to logging.

The recent Pilliga fires that burnt out more than 120,000 hectares of land including the Tinkrameanah National Park as well as half the land remaining for logging and threatened local towns has reignited controversy.

Locals argue that the intensity of the fire was directly related to the decision to transfer land to National Parks. They also argued that in this case - a new forest - logging and forestry management was required to maintain biodiversity.

In response, John Dengate, the Public Relations Director for for the National Parks and Wildlife Service, argued that the Service had maintained fire management practices holding under the Forestry regime. He also argued that history showed that a major fire occurred every decade irrespective of how much hazard reduction burning was done or who was in charge.

Mr Dengate's statement about the regularity of fires appears to be correct. There have been major fires in 1966 (100,000 hectares). 1974 (40,000 hectares), 1979 (75,000 hectares), 1982 (120,000 hectares) and 1997 (140,000 hectares).

But while this is correct, it seems to me to miss the point. Of itself, the replacement of the previous open woodland country with thick bush would definitionally lead to more fires given the Australian environment. The key issue as I see it is the impact of reduced logging on fire intensity combined with the transformation to national parks. I would have thought that this must definitionally increase fires even if at the margin.

Mr Dengate's comment also does not address the claims made by locals that the creation of the Parks is reducing, not increasing, biodiversity.

I have no expertise in this area. But looking at local claims, there would appear to be at least two arguments that can be tested.

The first is that the change from a logging system to national parks of itself reduced biodiversity.

The second is that the build-up of fuel associated with reduced logging increased the intensity of the fire, thus degrading the environment.

I am left wondering whether we are dealing with another case of decisions imposed from outside in opposition to local interests and knowledge.


Anonymous said...

The second is that the build-up of fuel associated with reduced logging increased the intensity of the fire, thus degrading the environment.

Jim, it's a complex issue and I'm by no means anywhere near an expert in this field. However, having wandered around the Pilliga area a fair bit, as well as other areas of similar forest, my casual observations don't support this argument. It appears that in some of the areas where selective logging has occurred, it's only the straight tree trunks that have been taken out, with all the foliage and smaller branches left behind on the ground, resulting in a very thick layer of highly combustible fuel on the forest floor. I don't know if that's widespread logging practice these days, but I've seen it in the Pilliga and in other areas of New England, and it always scares the heck out of me.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thank you for this, Bronwyn. What you say makes intuitive sense. Nothing like on-ground observation to raise questions. That's one of my problems stuck here in Sydney! I will see if I can find a forester to ask.

Ross Pengilley said...

From my brief visit to the Pilliga in 1963 with an overseas Ph.D student looking for a study site ,I have no recollection of thick scrub .Nor do I have a memory of thick scrub in Cypress pine near St.George Queensland or for that matter in stands of Cypress Pine in the Northern Territory.
Ross Pengilley