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Mountain forests miss out on protection

Alpine_forests.pngIn November 2019 over 96,000 hectares of Immediate Protection Areas (IPAs) were announced by the Victorian government alongside the Victorian Forestry Plan which will see an end to native forest logging by 2030.

IPA boundaries for four areas have now been finalised, in the Strathbogie Ranges, around Mirboo North, the Central Highlands and East Gippsland.

However, there has been no additional protection of forests threatened with logging in the Victorian high country.

Background - Immediate Protection Areas process

In November 2019 over 96,000 hectares of Immediate Protection Areas (IPAs) were announced by the Victorian government alongside the Victorian Forestry Plan which will see an end to native forest logging by 2030.

According to the Victorian government, the Immediate Protection Areas were intended to ‘help protect the future of the Greater Glider, alongside the Leadbeater’s Possum and more than 35 other threatened species’.

They are also important areas for water supply, connect areas of the parks and reserve networks and support community enjoyment including for recreation and nature conservation.

An independent panel was appointed by the Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change to provide advice and recommendations on the future uses of the Immediate Protection Areas and State Forest in eastern Victoria. Former Chief Executive of the Latrobe Valley Authority Karen Cain chaired the panel and worked alongside Traditional Owners of the land who were also panel members.

The panel worked alongside the Victorian Environmental Assessment Council (VEAC), who conducted an assessment of biodiversity and environmental values in the identified Immediate Protection Areas. VEAC also considered suitable land categories that ‘align with these values’.

The panel was tasked with providing recommendations and a timeline for the government to reclassify each of the current Immediate Protection Areas. They were asked to provide suggested long-term strategies for how State Forests are to be managed when native timber harvesting ceases in 2030. 

The work of the Panel has led to the government announcing IPAs across four areas of the state:

  • The Central Highlands
  • Strathbogie Ranges
  • The area around Mirboo North, and
  • East Gippsland

The final VEAC report has only been released for the Strathbogie Ranges and Mirboo North.

However, there is no process to identify protection across a significant part of the east – the high country between the Central Highlands and East Gippsland.

As we understand it, the decision to only focus on four areas was based on the confirmed presence of threatened species in these areas. They also contain the best identified forested area habitat in the eastern part of the state. It is worth noting that all of these areas have strong local movements advocating for the protection of these forests.

 

Areas excluded from protection

The areas that were excluded from receiving protection cover an enormous area of high conservation value forest. These values of species such as Snow Gums and Alpine Ash are considered in the FoE report An Icon at Risk (2021) which is available here. In general terms, the high country area extends from the Baw Baw plateau eastwards to the Snowy River and includes the forests and mountains on either side of the Great Dividing Range (often called the Victorian Alps). While significant areas of the Alps are protected in the Alpine National Park and other reserves, large areas are subjected to logging. The Alpine Ash (Eucalyptus delegatensis) found in higher elevation areas (mostly between 900 m and 1,450 m in Victoria and southern New South Wales) are especially attractive to the logging industry.

Alpine Ash faces an additional existential threat from fire driven by Climate Change. Since 2002, 84% of the alpine ash in the Alps bioregion has been burnt.

Since 2000, almost 90% of the Australian Alps bioregion has been burnt by large wildfires. These fires have burnt 84% of the bioregion’s 355,727 hectares of alpine ash forest, with 65% burnt in 2002/2003 in the north of the bioregion, 30% burnt in 2006/2007 in the south, and a smaller area (2%) burnt in 2009. The 2019/20 Black Summer fires had an enormous impact on Alpine Ash forests in the far east of the Alps. About half of the Alpine Ash Forest canopy was scorched indicating high fire severity.

Alpine Ash and their response to fire

Alpine Ash is identified as being particularly vulnerable to increased fire frequency. This tree species is an ‘obligate seeder’ meaning it is a fire-dependent plant that is easily killed by fire. It uses the newly scorched land to regenerate prolifically. The Alpine Ash then matures rapidly so that it can reproduce before the next fire. Trees that can reproduce after 20 years, are able to live for more than 200 years, and can reach 90 metres in height. Mature trees can tolerate low-intensity fires due to the thick bark on the lower third of their trunk. Plants are not adapted to fire, per se; rather, they are adapted to fire regimes, which are characterised by the frequency, intensity, seasonality and type (for example, surface or crown) of fire.

The life cycle of obligate seeders is coordinated around the fire-free intervals of the fire regime to which they are adapted. If their life cycle gets out of sync with the fire regime, they may not survive. More frequent and severe fires could prevent regenerating young plants from reaching maturity. This results in a landscape-wide loss of obligate-seeder forests around the world, including the alpine ash forests in the Australian Alps bioregion. This transformation in the landscape creates a positive feedback loop that is irreversible. As the mature trees die, the altered understory of the regenerating trees will be highly susceptible to burning. If this phenomenon persists, it will result in a world-wide loss of obligate-seeder forests, including the alpine ash forests in the Australian Alps bioregion. To strengthen this feedback loop,  when mature trees burn, the carbon stored in the trees is released into the atmosphere which contributes to the greenhouse effect (source).

The situation is so dire that after a series of fires in the high country, the Victorian government had to intervene to ensure the survival of Alpine Ash communities through a ‘forest recovery program’ (source).

Logging intensifies the impacts and further fragmentation of these forests. VicForests often fails to properly revegetate these forests once logging has been completed. Large areas of forest have been subjected to incredibly destructive ‘salvage’ logging practices after the 2019/20 fires. Salvage logging is when the few remaining trees left standing after a fire are clear cut. Remaining unburnt alpine ash needs to be protected in order to stop this species from ecological collapse.

 

Immediate protection needed for high conservation value forests in the Victorian high country

With a large number of coupes included in the current Timber Release Plan for the Alps, it is vital that the Victorian government provides protection to key high conservation areas via an IPA process.

Even without substantial surveying for threatened species, there is no doubt that many areas would meet the IPA criteria identified by government:

‘They are also important areas for water supply, connect areas of the parks and reserve network and support community enjoyment including for recreation and nature conservation’.

 

High conservation areas of the high-country facing threats from logging

We have identified the following areas because they represent significant areas of older or intact forest, are largely unroaded and are important in terms of their conservation value because they connect to existing national parks and other reserves.

 

Area: Mt Bogong to Mt Wills area

Known values:

  • Wild and remote area which connects two of the state’s highest mountains
  • Logging will cut across the world-famous Australian Alps Walking Track, impacting tourism in the area
  • Logging regrowth poses a significant fire threat to uphill old growth snow gum woodlands

Number of coupes: 4

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Figure 1: Alpine Ash forests on the northern slopes of Mt Wills

 

Victoria’s highest mountain, Bogong (Warkwoolowler in the Waywurru and Dhudhuroa languages), is protected inside the Alpine National Park. It is connected to Mt Wills by the appropriately named Long Spur. This area is all high elevation woodland and forest located along the famous Australian Alps Walking Track (AAWT) which leaves Bogong as it heads towards the Snowy Mountains. The 700 km long AAWT crosses the Alps from Walhalla to the outskirts of Canberra. It then follows the Long Spur from Bogong to Mt Wills before turning south and dropping into the valley of the Mitta Mitta River.

Mt Wills itself is an ‘island in the sky’ of isolated snow gum woodland, largely dominated by older trees. Unlike the Buffalo plateau, this isolated sub alpine ecosystem has not been devastated by wildfire.

Now logging threatens this area between Bogong and Mt Wills.

While logging has occurred around Mt Wills for many years, the coupes of immediate concern would push into new areas, including the headwaters of the Big (Mitta) River. Two coupes are planned near Big Saddle which would directly impact the AAWT and therefore the tourism economy in this area.

Additionally, there are three coupes planned on the northwest side of Mt Wills located below the old growth snow gum forests. If these trees were to be logged, the highly flammable regrowth would pose a threat to these vital forests for decades to come.

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Figure 2: Old snow gum forests that are uphill of the planned logging of Mt Wills, potentially at risk of wildfire from the regrowth forests that will grow after logging.

Further information on this area available here.

 

Area: Little Dargo headwaters

Known values and concerns:

  • This unroaded valley is the headwaters of the Little Dargo River, which eventually flows into the Mitchell River and connects to higher elevation woodlands of older snow gums
  • It contains older Mountain Gum forests and Alpine Ash
  • Is a likely stronghold of the Dargo Galaxias, a critically endangered freshwater fish
  • Significant unburnt area in a badly burnt landscape. Given the terrain (a deep V shaped valley with flat areas of high country plateau on either side), it is a natural refuge from hot fire
  • Contains mapped old growth forest
  • Is of considerable cultural significance
  • One coupe downstream has already been logged (part of the Jones Creek cluster). It generated mostly pulp and residual timber. We fear that, given the similar nature of the forest in the upper valley, a precious area will be destroyed for very little high-grade timber)

Number of coupes: 11

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Figure 3: In areas marked to be logged, Little Dargo River headwaters

 

Threats to the Little Dargo High Plains

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Figure 4: Fred's Flat, Little Dargo River. Logging will occur on the slopes above both sides of the river.

The Dargo High Plains lie between Licola and Mt. Hotham. They are the second largest expanse of alpine and sub alpine ‘high plains’ in the state behind the Bogong High Plains. The state government logging agency, VicForests, intends to log a total of 11 “coupes”, or sections, of mature forests. These coupes are largely dominated by Alpine Ash and are located in the headwaters of the Little Dargo River. They are classified as state forest but lie directly next to the Alpine National Park. These coupes are located in a series of clusters where each separate section of bush will be harvested, resulting in a large zone of cleared land over time. One coupe has already been logged. The remaining coupes have not been scheduled for harvesting and are yet to be surveyed.

VicForests is currently targeting coupes in the Dargo High Plain which are critically important due to their maturity and intactness from being largely unburnt. Investigations by community activists such as the Gippsland Environment Group have documented the enormous ecological value of these stands. These forests are home to a range of threatened plant and animal species and therefore warrant our protection.

 

Further information on the Little Dargo available here.

 

Area: Mt Stirling

Known values and concerns:

  • Important nature-based tourism area (planned coupes will have a direct impact on tourist experience). This area is very popular for nature-based tourism, bushwalking, mountain bike riding, 4-wheel driving and camping. Up to twenty log trucks per day will be using the Circuit Road to move logs, directly impacting the public. A number of planned coupes will be cut right to the Circuit Road. Some will be potentially visible from distance including from the Mt Buller resort.
  • Potential water quality impact on the highly visited tourist attraction Bindaree Falls (three coupes planned immediately upstream of the falls).
  • The mountain sits within a proposed link to join with the Alpine National Park
  • The upper mountain contains significant areas of older Alpine Ash and Snow Gum. A number of the planned logging coupes lie immediately below these older forests. Flammable regrowth forests pose a significant threat to these remnant old forests.

Number of coupes: 15

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Figure 5: Logging coupes scheduled around Mt Stirling

 

Threats to Mt. Stirling Forests

A considerable number of forested areas on and around Mt Stirling are due to be logged in the near future. This will have significant impacts on tourism (a number of the designated logging areas join onto the popular Circuit Road) and will fragment the important Alpine Ash forests on the mountain. Large sections of this species have already been logged. These forests – if they regrow – will be highly flammable for decades to come which threatens the older ash forests upslope within the Mt Stirling resort area.

Apart from logging along extensive sections of the Circuit Road, concerns have been expressed about the Bindaree coupe, which is upstream of exceedingly popular Bindaree Falls. It is not clear how VicForests could justify logging above this waterfall.

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Figure 6: Older alpine ash forest along the Bluff Spur trail on Mt Stirling. While these trees will not be harvested, the older forests on the mountain will be put at risk by logging on the lower slopes of Mt. Stirling.

The coupes were approved in the 2021 Timber Release Plan and logging will commence soon.

 

Further information on Mt Stirling available here.

 

Area: Mt Ewen

Known values:

  • Contains cultural heritage for Gunnai Kurnai people
  • Contains forests of Alpine ash, Mountain gum and cool temperate rainforest
  • Significant remnant in heavily logged area

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Figure 7: forests near Mt Ewen

Threats to Mt. Ewen

Mt Ewen (alt. 1,340 metres) is located north of Dargo along the Dargo High Plains Rd. This area is home to wet forests of Alpine ash, Mountain gum and cool temperate rainforests. Mt. Ewen has a rich cultural heritage for Gunnai Kurnai people and the European settlers who travelled along these ancient routes. The mountain springs and streams are known to hold some of the purest water. Additionally, this area is home historic cattle yards which are still used today.

Recent logging of a 130-hectare area on the east side of the mountain is within the watershed for the Dargo River, Mitchell River and the troubled Gippsland Lakes which currently suffer from massive algal blooms. This logging has resulted in significant fragmentation of the remaining forests. It is understood by local conservationists that no fauna or flora surveys have been conducted, even though the critically endangered Alpine Tree Frogs, (the only tree frog known to occur above the winter snowline on mainland Australia) have been recorded here in the past.

This is an area surrounded by successive wildfires that burned in 2003, ’06 and ’09 and 2019/20. To the south of the recent coupes is previously logged alpine ash forest that was burnt in bushfires, now the regrowth is completely dead. Regrowing logging coupes generally don’t survive bushfires, but old wet forest have evolved to survive fire.

Two new coupes on the proposed Timber Release Plan will join up with the current coupes to make one massive, logged area of around 300ha. This is a similar size to 12 Mile Hill ecological disaster, which is a large damaged wasteland that has failed to regenerate located just up the road. These coupes look east towards the Dargo River Valley and beyond to the Wentworth River.

Further information about the Mt Ewen area can be found in this report.

 

Recommendations

Given the ecological value of these forests, we urge the Victorian Minister for the Environment to intervene and ensure the areas identified in this report are protected immediately:

  • Mt Stirling
  • Mt Wills area
  • Little Dargo
  • Mt Ewen area

An IPA process across the Victorian high country would provide the opportunity for significant areas to gain some level of protection. Much of the high country and East of the state has experienced multiple, and often severe, wildfires in the past two decades. Logging has only intensified the immediate risk of burning for a number of highly significant areas. We need an Immediate Protection Area assessment for forested areas in the central and north eastern high country.

 

Please take action

Please sign this letter to the Victorian Environment Minister urging her to intervene and protect these areas.

 

Thanks

With thanks to Bailey Weinhold, Charles Street (Friends of Mt. Stirling), Chris Shuringa, Gerard McPhee, Kim Croxford and Lisa Roberts for information used in this report.

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