Across the mountains of south eastern Australia, climate change is already driving profound change. In many places in the high country of NSW and Victoria, the Alpine Ash are in freefall as more frequent fires as leading to local collapse of Ash communities. More regular and intense fires has led to loss of seedlings I many burnt areas before they can produce seed. The situation is so dire that the Victorian government has an aerial seeding program to try and keep Ash populations viable.
Meanwhile, at higher elevations in the snow gum country, a double sided threat is charging through the forests: dieback, caused by a native beetle is killing individual trees, while climate change driven fire regimes were devastating vast areas of the high country. Climate change, drought, insects and soil microbes are all thought to contribute to dieback. The spread and impacts of the beetle appear to be super charged by climate change (more beetles surviving because of milder winters and more mortality of water stressed trees in summer). At this point we have no landscape wide solution to the beetle infestations.
Once you see these changes, you can’t unsee them. The endless stands of grey dead trunks. The loss of the old trees. The thickets of flammable regrowth. Every trip to the mountains reminds you that we are seeing ecological collapse in real time.
There are many things we must do to respond to these existential threats, especially to radically reduce greenhouse gas pollution. We must also manage the impacts of climate change on these ecosystems.
Humanity has the ability to respond to the global threat of climate change through concerted, strategic and co-ordinated action. We can increase our capacity to protect recovering forests from destructive fires. However, without a plan, we will continue to see Snow Gum forests decline towards a landscape scale of collapse.
There are good people doing excellent work to find the answers. Check the Save our Snowgums campaign website for further information. The High Country Dieback Network is working to bring together the various organisations concerned about dieback. It aims to develop a management action plan that will ‘enable a cost-effective solution to maintain trees in the high country’.
As was noted in The Guardian in 2021, what researchers are ‘yet to fully grasp is why those insects have been able to take hold in such numbers and do so much damage, and what underlying stressors have left eucalyptus trees vulnerable to attack’. At this point we have no way of stopping the mass dieback of snow gums.
More frequent and intense wild fire also poses an existential threat to the survival of Snow Gum woodlands and forests. There are changes underway but no clear response from government. We need a plan to ensure the survival of this species and the animals and other plants that depend on these trees.
Developing a plan
I have found myself reading and re-reading a report by Kylie Mohr in High Country News. It details the scale of the threat posed to a particular pine (the Whitebark) in the west of the USA. In a similar way that the snow gum faces multiple threats, the Whitebark pine is being hammered by an invasive blister rust fungus, mountain pine beetle infestations, changing wildfire patterns and climate change.
The story describes efforts and approaches aimed at protecting the Whitebark that seem relevant to us as we consider how to act to ensure the survival of snow gum communities.
Faced with a massive threat to the Whitebark populations, a national restoration plan, has been created by nonprofits, working with the federal government and tribal nations. It spells out a series of integrated measures that are designed to halt the decline of this iconic species.
An important development is that it was officially listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in December 2022. Once a species is listed that gives a greater focus on the need to develop strategies that will slow loss and assist recovery of populations.
As Kylie notes in the article,
‘Listing means new money and formalized safeguards. Fish and Wildlife Service funding for listed species can be used to boost new and ongoing research into things like blister rust resilience. The listing allows management and restoration activities in places where they might otherwise be prohibited, such as wilderness areas, and makes it illegal to remove or damage the tree on federal lands.’
The restoration plan proposes a range of measures to make an impact at a landscape level (Whitebark pines span a range of more than 32 million hectares in seven Western states of the USA, as well as sections of Canada).
Kylie describes some of the measures designed to protect Whitebark populations:
- Growing disease-resistant trees – Identifying trees that appear resistant to White pine blister rust, then growing their offspring in nurseries and replanting them in the wild, is one way to create tougher forests.
- Collecting seeds and genetic material – the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have identified areas with resistant trees, planted seedlings and caged ripening cones to safeguard them from hungry animals
- Building seed orchards – these are meant to speed up and simplify the seed sourcing process
- Protecting trees from mountain pine beetle. An interesting project here is the use of Beetle pheromones, which ‘can trick the bugs at their own game, according to the Forest Service: An early 2000s study in north Idaho found that an artificially made mountain pine beetle attractant pheromone, verbenone, protected individual whitebark pines from mass beetle attacks. Beetles produce verbenone when they’ve attacked a tree and there are too many beetles, signaling to their colleagues: This tree is occupied. Go somewhere else. Humans want to mimic this signal to keep beetles away altogether’.
- Designating priority restoration areas
- Keeping surrounding forests healthy. Kylie notes that ‘Forestry techniques like prescribed fire and thinning can help whitebark pines, too. Clearing out brush and limiting excess fuel reduces the likelihood of high-severity fires. Fires can benefit the pines, but they can also harm them’.
Protecting the snow gums
I think there is a lot we can learn from the North American experience with the Whitebark pine. While there is good research being done to understand the threats posed by beetles, we need to develop a plan for across the Australian high country, covering Victoria, NSW and the ACT.
We will clearly need additional funding for the research work being carried out by people like Dr Matthew Brookhouse at the Australian National University.
Following the release of the Icon at Risk report in 2021, Friends of the Earth lobbied the Victorian government to do an assessment of the state of snow gum communities and whether specific intervention is needed, as has happened with Alpine Ash. The Ash need aerial seeding to keep fire affected communities viable. The solution for snow gums will be exclusion of wild fire as communities recover.
This will require:
- A rapid ecological assessment of the threats posed by fire and dieback to Snow Gum communities.
- Ongoing funding for Forest Fire Management Victoria, including additional funding for remote area firefighting teams.
- Continued support for air capacity to fight fires, including establishing a publicly owned air fleet, as was recommended by the Bushfire Royal Commission. This is the responsibility of the federal government.
- Creation of volunteer remote area firefighting teams, as NSW, the ACT and Tasmania have done.
- A commitment to ensure we have sufficient fire fighting resources to protect fire sensitive communities like Alpine Ash, Snow Gums, Alpine Peatlands and Rainforest even during summers like 2019/20.