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An Icon at Risk: Current & Emerging threats to the Victorian High Country


Snow_Gum_Graphic.pngSnow Gums (Eucalyptus pauciflora) are the classic alpine tree of the High Country, generally growing at heights between 1,300 and 1,800 metres asl. Anyone who has visited the Australian High Country will know – and probably love – these trees.

In recent decades, wildfire has been devastating huge areas of the Snow Gum forests, with significant fires in the Victorian High Country in 1998, 2002/3, 2006/7, 2013 and 2019/20. More than 90% of Snow Gum habitat has been burnt at least once in the last 20 years.

The species can survive fire. However, climate change driven fire seasons are leading to more frequent fire, which is causing more death of trees and changes to forest structure. In some instances, localised collapse of Snow Gum woodlands is now being observed. As climate scientist Michael Mann describes it, we are now seeing climate change play out in real time.

We must ask whether we are now seeing the start of the collapse of Snow Gum woodlands, one of Victoria’s iconic vegetation communities.

Another of our much loved mountain trees is the Alpine Ash. They are also facing potential ‘community collapse’. After the 2013 Harrietville-Alpine Bushfire, the Department of Sustainability and Environment, now DELWP) and Parks Victoria initiated a rapid response forest recovery program, which aimed to restore Alpine Ash forests that had been burnt and where only limited numbers of parent trees had survived. Since then, the program has been expanded considerably as more areas have been burnt multiple times.

A new report, An Icon at Risk, Current and Emerging threats to the Victorian High Country, produced by Friends of the Earth highlights the many risks faced by the Alps, including the potential loss of the Snow Gum forests. An additional threat to Snow Gum communities stems from the increase in dieback, which is caused by a native beetle but which appears to be supercharged by global heating. Climate change is driving more intense fire seasons and drying out the alpine and valley environments.

Drawing on a range of sources, the report highlights the threats, and makes a series of recommendations to state government and land managers.

As noted in the first report into the Inspector-General for Emergency Management (IGEM) investigation into the 2019/20 fires, ’the past is no longer a reliable guide to the influence of climate and weather upon bushfires into the future’. The world has changed profoundly in recent decades.

Report author Cam Walker said “Many people still think of climate change as something that will happen somewhere else, in another time. The Alps we know are changing before our eyes, in real time. Climate change impacts on almost every aspect of the natural environment in the Victorian High Country, from longer fire seasons and reduced stream flow to less snowpack”.

We are now seeing the beginning of ecosystem collapse in the Snow Gum forests. We need to intervene to keep these systems viable into the future. That means building our firefighting capacity to keep fire out of these systems as they recover.

The central message of this report is the fact that, like all other natural ecosystems on the continent, the Alps face an existential threat from human-induced global heating. Key vegetation communities, like Alpine Ash forests, Snow Gum woodland and alpine environments are already being transformed by climate change. Loss of reliable winter snows will transform the higher mountains. And fire seasons are becoming longer and more intense and potentially unable to be managed at the landscape level.

We are on the verge of losing the landscapes that we spent decades protecting.


Find Out More & Take Action

 

 


Introduction - Excerpt from the Report

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Since European colonisation, the area that we now know as the Victorian Alps has been transformed by waves of occupation, exploitation and, eventually, appreciation and protection. From the 1960s onwards, new movements of citizens campaigned to see iconic landscapes protected. In 1969, community efforts to stop land clearing in The Little Desert in the north west of the state resulted in the creation of the Land Conservation Council (LCC) in 1971, which started to assess public lands with a view to considering what areas required protection through the creation of national parks or other conservation reserves. Most of our parks were created in the decades that followed.

Back in 1974, the Victorian National Parks Association published a book called The Alps at the Crossroads. Written by Dick Johnson, this book inspired a generation of people to protect the high country in the north east of the state. Apart from detailing some of the history of the Alps and profiling why it was so significant and needed to be protected in national parks, the book outlined the key threats to the environment of the Alps. In the early 1970s, these included cattle grazing, logging, off roading by vehicles and trail bikes and continual expansion of the road and track network, and the spread of ski resorts and associated infrastructure.

It is good to acknowledge the wins. Since that time, a number of national parks were created as a result of community campaigns – Burrowa Pine in 1978, Baw Baw in 1979, Snowy River in 1979, and eventually the Alpine National Park was declared in 1989. Some specific destructive projects that were proposed at the time have since been defeated: in the early 1970s, there were plans to build a road across the Baw Baw Plateau, the ‘jewel’ of the southern Alps. There was still a proposal to develop Mt Feathertop, with a gondola from Harrietville and a commercial ski field on the mountain, proposals for four new ski villages in the Mt Hotham area, and a number of attempts to develop Mt Stirling as an alpine resort.

Cattle grazing has largely been stopped and much of the Alps, especially the higher zones, are now protected in the Alpine, Buffalo and Baw Baw national parks and other reserves. Mining has largely been halted in the high country and no further hydro developments will occur. Designated wilderness zones protect substantial parts of the Alps. These parks have become a significant part of the state’s conservation estate.

The Black Friday fires of 1939 had a huge impact on parts of the Alps, and fire has been a constant presence in the mountains since then. The Alps experienced huge fires in 2003, 2006/7, 2013, and the terrible fires of 2019/20 devasted an estimated 1.5 million hectares of the Alps and East Gippsland. ‘Salvage’ logging of burnt areas is compounding the impacts of fire, and significant sections of the precious ‘unburnt’ is also being logged. Invasive plant and animal species continue to damage the Alps, and the ski resorts continue to intensify their footprint in their allocated zones. A public narrative has emerged that seeks to identify feral horses as being of ‘cultural’ significance, and this has slowed efforts to reduce numbers of horses across the Australian Alps. New invasive plant species have emerged. Consecutive governments reduced funding to manage the parks while visitation has grown. Commercial development within the parks is a real threat, as the current state government pursues proposals like an ‘iconic’ walking track between the Falls Creek and Mt Hotham ski resorts that would see privately operated huts established within the Alpine National Park.

But since the 1970s, another – potentially existential – threat has emerged: climate change. Less snow and stream flow, higher temperatures and climate driven fire regimes threaten the very existence of the mountains as we know them now. Many thousands of Victorians spent millions of hours campaigning to gain protection of the Alps in national parks. Many more now enjoy the benefits of these protected lands. Yet this legacy is under direct threat.

Another major change since the 1970s has been the emergence of strong First Nations voices about the mountains and how they should be managed. In recent decades, a number of traditional owner groups have reasserted their connection to the High Country and several now have involvement in management of parks and other land. This has enormous social justice and ecological implications for the parks, the resorts, and, more broadly, society. The concept of Cultural Burning, co-management of parks, and traditional land management is emerging as part of the mainstream debate about how we should live here, and interact with the land.

This report focuses on the Victorian Alps and surrounding forests, yet this is in many ways an arbitrary distinction – the Alps are a continuous, interconnected section of the Great Dividing Range – and many of the same threats are faced by the mountains of New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory.

This report seeks to consider the emerging threats to the Alps, particularly climate driven fire regimes, and makes specific recommendations about how we should respond. It contains specific recommendations about management of particular vegetation communities which are under threat from ever more intense fire seasons. We hope it will influence government, land managers, alpine resorts, businesses and the people who love and visit the Alps, as we move into the climate change-driven 21st century.

 

Summary of Threats & Recommendations

As noted in the first report into the Inspector-General for Emergency Management (IGEM) investigation into the 2019/20 fires, ’the past is no longer a reliable guide to the influence of climate and weather upon bushfires into the future’. The world has changed profoundly in recent decades. Many people still think of climate change as something that will happen somewhere else, in another time. The Alps we know are changing before our eyes, in real time. Climate change impacts on almost every aspect of the natural environment in the Victorian High Country, from longer fire seasons and reduced stream flow to less snowpack.

Despite gaining considerable protection in recent decades through the creation of the Alpine and other national parks, the Victorian High Country still faces a series of grave direct land use threats. The legacy of a national park system, which protects much of the most ecologically significant parts of the Alps, is now at risk. Substantial areas of public land outside the Alpine national parks face a series of direct physical impacts such as logging. Impacts in these areas can damage ecological values which are protected within the parks, for instance through increasing the risk of fire to the ecosystems within the park. Key impacts, land management issues and threats are outlined below:

  • The state government has committed to a phase out of all native forest logging by 2030, but has not yet released details on how communities and industry adjacent to the Alps will be supported through this transition, or how interim protection will be applied to areas which were identified as needing ‘immediate protection’ in the November 2019 announcement, which includes areas which are modelled as containing Old Growth

  • The state government’s logging agency, VicForests, is logging forests that weren’t burnt in the massive fires of the 2019/20 season and areas that were only partially burnt. Unburnt forests are even more significant since the Black Summer fires and should be protected
  • At the same time, government is allowing VicForests to run another round of ‘salvage’ logging of burnt forests. This contains significant areas of Alpine Ash dominated forests at higher elevations. It is well documented that logging after fire compounds the ecological damage of the fire and is likely to slow the recovery of logged forests
  • Failure of Alpine Ash forests to regenerate after logging is well documented

  • Dieback of snow gums caused by native Phoracantha beetles is spreading across the Victorian Alps. Previously this has been a problem primarily in the Snowy Mountains, but it is becoming increasingly prevalent in the Victorian high country. Although the beetle is native, climate change appears to be playing a role in the spread of the dieback

  • After a series of fires in the early 21st century, the Victorian government had to intervene to ensure the survival of Alpine Ash communities through a ‘forest recovery program’. Since 2002, more than 85% of the Alps bioregion has been burnt by several very large fires. Alpine Ash require around 20 years between intense fires in order for regrowth to be able to produce seed (source), and more frequent blazes are threatening the viability of this vegetation community across the Alps. This restoration initiative has been an effective program which sources seed and then aerial sows areas which have been devasted by wildfire. The prospect of needing to intervene at a landscape scale to keep a vegetation community viable in the wild would have been considered fanciful in the 1970s

  • There are also growing impacts of fire on Snow Gum woodlands, with more than 90% of these woodlands burnt in the last 20 years, often multiple times. Research and observation indicates that some areas previously covered by Snow Gums have started to fail in terms of tree replenishment and may be transitioning into something different. The government needs to consider whether intervention is required to protect this vegetation community similar to the Alpine Ash program. Protection is likely to require exclusion of fire rather than reseeding

  • In a welcome move, the Labor government has ended the long practise of summer cattle grazing across the High Country. Despite the lease that still exists on public land near Mount No. 3, which is adjacent to Mt Stirling, this is a significant step in ensuring the viability of alpine and subalpine ecosystems, reducing erosion, and improving water quality. The Alps act as the headwaters of many of Victoria’s major rivers, and cattle grazing has been long identified as a destructive land practise in the mountains

  • The state government has enacted control programs to limit the number of large invasive species like deer. However, removal of feral horses has been slowed in recent years by court cases, and the issue has been caught in a ‘culture war’ argument, which has slowed down the ability of Parks Victoria to get on with removing horses, and hence has led to greater damage to the high country. The government needs to get on with reducing horse numbers

  • Over the last few decades, funding for management of national parks, including control of invasive species, has declined. The current Andrews government has invested in the parks system. This needs to be substantially increased and sustained in future state budgets. The Victorian National Parks Association calls for a minimum of 1% of state revenue to be allocated to Parks Victoria (PV), essentially a doubling of the current PV budget
  • A range of new invasive plant species threaten the high country, such as Hawkweed and Ox-eye Daisy, and older threats such as broom, blackberry, and willows remain
  • More frequent fire events can be expected to promote mass germination of weed species from the seedbank stored in soil and so as fires become more frequent, this must be matched with greater resourcing to tackle weed infestation

  • It is clear that there are still enormous gaps in our knowledge about climate change and other impacts on the environments of the high country, including Snow Gum dieback and snow grass dieback. It is essential we continue to fund public research efforts in the high country

  • Fuel reduction fires are only poorly monitored to track the ecological impacts or fire reduction benefits of burning; hence these activities continue as a largely uncontrolled experiment in land management. We need a full assessment of the value of existing fuel reduction management programs in terms of the economic benefits and costs of the program, whether fuel reduction is reducing fire risk or intensity, and what the long-term ecological impacts of broad acre fuel reduction might be. This must include regular independent scrutiny of DELWP’s fire management

  • With climate change driving more intense and longer fire seasons, it is clear that we need additional resources for fighting fire (both ground and air resources). This would include higher numbers of permanent and seasonal state government firefighters, including greater numbers of remote area firefighters. The government should fund the development of a volunteer remote area firefighting team within the Country Fire Authority (CFA), as NSW, the ACT and Tasmania have done

  • With difficult ground firefighting conditions likely to become more common, it is essential that we have sufficient air resources to ensure we can protect natural assets like the Alpine National Park during extreme summers like 2019/20. Victoria needs to consider whether the existing national air fleet, especially of Large and Very Large Airtankers (LATs and VLATs) is sufficient to our needs and whether Victoria should advocate for the creation of a publicly funded national air fleet of VLATs, as was recommended by the Royal Commission into Natural Disasters

  • With more intense fire seasons, and almost three decades of heightened ecological impact of fires on sensitive alpine communities, it is time to consider whether existing fire management plans are up to task. A core aspect of protecting the Alps through the climate-driven fires of the future is for the state government to commit the resources to ensure the protection of specific ecological priority areas, for instance the Baw Baw and Buffalo Plateaus. Some vegetation communities, such as alpine peatland, need specific plans for protection from fire. While Strategic Bushfire Management Plans already identify areas that need special protection from fire, recent fire seasons demonstrate that there are currently insufficient resources to ensure this happens

  • Climate-driven fires have economic and public health impacts on mountain communities (including resort towns and adjacent Valley communities) who rely on tourism to remain viable. Longer and more intense fire seasons threaten the economic survival of these communities. The human habitation patterns of the Alps could change profoundly in coming decades due to more intense fire seasons

  • Another obvious impact of climate change which is already being felt in the Alps has been the decline of snowpack. It appears that snow has been in decline at least since the 1950s, but this has become more apparent in recent decades, with impacts on lower elevation ski and snow resorts like Lake Mountain and Mt Buffalo. This will have obvious economic impacts on ski resorts and valley towns. The ski industry currently contributes more than 10,000 full time job equivalents and $1 billion per annum to the Victorian economy (source).

A key change in considering how we manage the High Country has been the fact that several First Nation groups have reasserted their connection to the mountains and their right to be profoundly involved in decision making about how the land will be managed. Two groups, the GunaiKurnai and the Taungurung, have agreements with the state government that acknowledges their native title and ongoing connection to Country and there are agreements that see recognised traditional owner groups as co-managers of national parks and other public lands. Other First Nation representatives, including the Dhudhuroa and Jaithmathang, are in the process of having their rights to Country recognised by government.

The central message of this report is the fact that, like all other natural ecosystems on the continent, the Alps face an existential threat from human-induced global heating. Key vegetation communities, like Alpine Ash forests, Snow Gum woodland and alpine environments are already being transformed by climate change. Loss of reliable winter snows will transform the higher mountains. And fire seasons are becoming longer and more intense and potentially unable to be managed at the landscape level.

We are on the verge of losing the landscapes that we spent decades protecting.

 

Key Recommendations

The Victorian government should:

  • continue to increase funding for national parks across the Alps to ensure adequate fire protection, control of invasive species and management of visitor impacts. Funding to Parks Victoria should be a minimum of 1 per cent of state revenue
  • increase the number of career remote area fire fighters to protect national parks and other public lands
  • create a volunteer remote area firefighting force within the CFA, as Tasmania, NSW and the ACT have done
  • lobby the federal government to establish a publicly owned air fleet of Large Air Tankers.
  • assess whether Snow Gum woodlands require the same level of direct intervention that Alpine Ash currently receives through reseeding and other recovery programs
  • rapidly develop a plan to assess and manage the scale of dieback of Snow Gum woodlands due to damage caused by beetles
  • ensure fire sensitive communities such as peatlands, Snow Gums and Alpine Ash can be protected from future fires through adequate resourcing of ground and air fire fighting capacity
  • rule out any further salvage logging in burnt Alpine Ash communities
  • carry out a full and independent review of the ecological costs and benefits of fuel reduction burning as a matter of urgency.


Take Action

Here are some practical things you can do to support the Alps:

Get active on climate

If you don’t already, join and support a climate action group. Without meaningful action on climate change, the impacts on the Alps will continue. Here’s a few ideas:

 

Build our fire fighting capacity

Remote area firefighting. It’s great that the Victorian government has invested in more career firefighters. We need to also establish a remote area firefighting team responsible for tackling fires in our national parks and state forests. NSW, Tasmania and the ACT already have volunteer units. Victoria should do the same.

Background information is available here.

 

A national, publicly owned air fleet. One of the recommendations of the recent Bushfire Royal Commission report recommends the creation of a national publicly-owned aerial firefighting fleet, which can then be allocated to the states "according to greatest national need". The federal government has refused to adopt this recommendation.

To add your voice to the call for a national air fleet, please check here.

For background information on fires and the need for a fleet, please check here.

 

Increase funding for national parks. Check the campaign information from the Victorian National Parks Association here.

 

Get active in a Friends Group

These groups to practical work in the Victorian High Country.

 

Report Snow Gum dieback

If you see dieback of Snow Gums, please report it here.

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