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Old snow gum forests are now 'exceedingly rare’.

SnowGumForests_Square.pngAcross the mountains of south eastern Australia, climate change is already driving profound change. In many places in the high country of NSW and Victoria, snow gum forests are facing a double sided threat: dieback, caused by a native beetle is killing individual trees, and climate change driven fire regimes are 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).

More frequent and intense wild fire also poses an existential threat to the survival of Snow Gum woodlands and forests. Now a new report reveals the scale of the fire impact in the Victorian high country.

In the paper ‘Long-unburnt stands of snow gum (Eucalyptus pauciflora Sieber ex Spreng) are exceedingly rare in the Victorian Alps: implications for their conservation and management’ (available here), John Morgan, Michael Shackleton and Zac Walker from the Research Centre for Applied Alpine Ecology at La Trobe University highlight that ‘Long-unburnt snow gum forests are now exceedingly rare, comprising less than 1% of snow gum forests in the Victorian Alps. We identify where long-unburnt snow gum stands persist in the Victorian Alps and outline why management intervention is necessary to protect unburnt refuges and, more broadly, to allow mature/adult stands (such as occur on the Baw Baw Plateau) to develop into future old forests’.

While there is no single definition of what constitutes an old-growth snow gum forest, what the term refers to is forests where trees exhibit an ‘old-growth’ structure, that is, trees with few, large stems and hollows, which take many decades to develop. The researchers quote Cheal (2010) who suggested that this stand stage occurs when snow gums remain unburnt for 85 or more years.

Yet most of the habitat of snow gum in the Victorian Alps has been burnt by one or multiple landscape fires over the past century. What this paper demonstrates is the fact that many areas of snow gum have now been burnt multiple times. The researchers focused on Victoria as fire mapping is well documented in that state. They found that only 0.5% of snow gum extent in the Victorian Alps has remained unburnt since 1938, with 91.8% of snow gum having been burnt at least once since 2000.

Since 2000, the repeated incidence of fires has meant that more than 30% of snow gum stands have now been burnt three, four or five (or more) times since 1938).

A summary of the situation

‘Very large (pre-1939) trees have all but disappeared from the landscape because of multiple large fires in the 21st century, many with overlapping fire boundaries. Many snow gum-dominated ecosystems have been burnt repeatedly since landscape-scale bushfires in 1939 (e.g. more than five times at Mount Buffalo), likely because of climatic factors and the development of an increasingly flammable landscape. Growth-stage diversity is skewed towards mallee-form stands in early stages of recovery’.

Finding the old growth strongholds

The research showed that there are only three areas with long-unburnt snow gum stands (e.g. not burnt in 1939 or since). These occur around the Chalet at Mount Buffalo (an area approximately 3 hectares in size), to the east and south of Mount Buller, and at Mount Nugong near Bentleys Plain in the eastern Alps. The largest extent of trees in the ‘adult’ growth-stage class (45–85 years since fire) occurs on the Baw Baw Plateau. Most long-unburnt growth-stage forests (85–125+ years since fire) are small in area, predominantly less than 5 hectares in size.

What must we do to allow old growth to return?

The report is clear:

‘Old-growth forest structure will be restored only in the prolonged absence of fires, although climate-driven increases in fire frequency and severity make this outcome increasingly difficult to conceptualise’.

They say:

‘We hope that by mapping the distribution of long-unburnt snow gum stands in the Victorian Alps, we can better prepare for future fire events by prioritising their protection via pre-fire preparation or by the operational decisions made during bushfires’.

This is essential – we fully support the recommendation to prioritise protection of unburnt and recovering forests in pre fire preparation and in making decisions about the allocation of fire fighting resources during fires (see below for more).  


Find out more and support the campaign to protect these forests

This research was referenced in an article in The Age published in late 2023.

Following the release of the Icon at Risk report in 2021, Friends of the Earth has 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.

You can find out more here.

Take action now

You can add your voice to the call for a rescue plan here.

If you think this work is important please consider making a tax deduction donation here.


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