Friday, April 19, 2024

Bushfires and logging debate: Vic Jurskis

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This response is part of the Ongoing Debate:Bushfires and Logging

Having the wrong debate

Dear Editor,

You are absolutely correct. The whole debate about bushfires and logging is a furphy. Thank you for drawing attention to a very serious problem with so-called scientific debate. The peer review system is not working. Both sides of this debate in the ‘scientific’ literature are wrong about the fundamental question of what causes megafires. Publication of their articles in apparently reputable scientific journals is a stark illustration of lack of critical review, and confirmation bias stemming from academic groupthink.

The professors on both sides of the logging debate failed to employ the scientific method. They did not construct and test hypotheses about the impacts of logging on fire intensities. They bypassed the first and second steps in science, observation and thinking. Anyone having any familiarity with fire knows that it should be a great friend rather than a dangerous enemy.

The professors all agree that drought and extreme weather caused the Black Summer megafires, without so much as observation and critical thinking, let alone testing of this demonstrably false hypothesis. We had worse droughts and weather for several years in succession 230 years ago. Fires were burning across the landscape all the time, but there were no disasters and no megafires.

Empirical data from the last 60 years of real-world experience, not models, in Western Australia, confirm about 40,000 years of traditional knowledge across our country. You have to treat at least 8% of the landscape each year to keep it safe. Unnatural fuels accumulate within 6 years without maintenance. Unless half the landscape has had recent maintenance, you’ll have uncontrollable megafires in severe seasons.

Contrary to what the professors on both sides tell us, the real scientific data show that the beneficial effects of ecological maintenance by mild burning are most apparent in severe seasons. Hundreds of people have died, thousands have lost their homes and countless millions of animals have perished since the 2004 COAG report by two academics and a fire chief. The Black Summer Royal Commission endorsed that report which gave us emergency response and evacuation instead of sustainable land management.

Forests across all tenures are declining and/or exploding from lack of sustainable management. A miniscule proportion is available for logging. Logging can have a beneficial effect on local fire behaviour, but no effect on a regional scale. This debate is a dangerous distraction from our real major environmental issue – sustainable fire management. Proper ecological maintenance by frequent mild burning is actually illegal in New South Wales!

Vic Jurskis

Landscapes must be managed

Presentation by Vic Jurskis representing the Howitt Society

Victoria’s ecosystems started to decline from 1789, before Europeans arrived. A smallpox epidemic swept down from Torres Strait to Bass Strait, decimating Aboriginal populations and reducing their capacity to manage the land. The Kurnai people of the Gippsland Plains weren’t affected. So there’s a stark contrast between the history of the Plains, compared to the Strzelecki Ranges where the Yowenjerre people were virtually wiped out by the epidemic.

Strzelecki’s party were the only explorers who ever saw koalas. They lived on them when they struggled for 26 days through 50 miles of dense young scrub. That’s 2 miles a day. There were no kangaroos, emus or bettongs to eat because the grassy ground layer had been choked out by scrub. The thick forest was generated by our first megafire around 1820. Without the firestick, scrubby understoreys escaped from deep dark gullies and took over the landscape.

Droughts with searing heat and scorching winds have been a regular occurrence for many thousands of years. During one such episode, a lightning strike ignited the explosive 3D fuels. Droughts end in floods, so eucalypts germinated as thick as hairs on a cat. After Aboriginal management was disrupted across the state, the same thing happened on a huge scale. Five million hectares were incinerated by the Black Thursday fires of 1851. Young even-aged forests replaced the natural ecosystems.

Europeans started clearing the Strzeleckis in the 1870s and found grindstones, clay ovens, stone axes and spearpoints in the dense young forests. They realized it had been open grassy country. There were plagues of dingoes feeding on plagues of koalas. Despite what you’ve heard from others, dingoes never controlled them. Koalas were naturally rare because of the scarcity of their food in healthy mature forests. They eat soft young shoots.

Our obsession with forests is extraordinary. No forest-dependent species have disappeared since Europeans arrived. Many, like koalas, psyllids, bellbirds and lyrebirds have irrupted. But we’ve lost 21 little mammals from Victoria. They were ground-dwelling species that fed on herbs, grasses and seeds or preyed on other animals that relied on herbage. Fifteen of them lived only in a small area of mallee in the northwest.

It had nothing to do with logging or clearing. The Great Central Scrub choked out their habitat. Henry Lawson told us how things changed: “No sign that green grass ever grew in scrubs that blazed beneath the sun. It wasn’t down to foxes and cats either. The little native mammals disappeared before feral predators exploded. But they survived alongside feral cats in the western deserts, until traditional Aborigines walked off their land. Then dense vegetation and megafires destroyed their habitat.

A hundred and fifty years ago, Howitt recognised that disruption of Aboriginal burning caused eucalypt declines that were blamed on insect plagues. He described the death of large tracts of red gum on the Gippsland plains and manna gum at Omeo. Today we call it ‘Rural Tree Dieback’ in Gippsland, ‘Monaro Dieback’ just over the border and ‘Koala Overbrowsing’ at Cape Otway.

Studies across Australia and around the world have shown that forests decline and pests irrupt with accumulation of nitrogen as a result of reduced burning or additions from fertilizers or pollution. Grazing of native pastures can perform a similar ecological function as mild burning. Burning and/or grazing maintains sunny, airy, warm and dry topsoils and natural nutrient cycling processes which support healthy mature trees, herbs and grasses.

Without ecological maintenance, soil physics and chemistry change and vegetation responds, reinforcing the changes. Topsoils become cooler, damper, softer and deeper. Eucalypt roots deteriorate and trees get sick. Nitrogen accumulates in the soil and developing shrubbery. This produces the 3D fuels that explode into firestorms and megafires in bad seasons. Pests and understoreys proliferate. Sick trees constantly reshoot soft young leaves until they run out of water and nutrients.

Meanwhile animals that live on the ground in what should be sunny, airy, grassy country disappear. Three mammals are critically endangered in Victoria. None of them are arboreal or forest dependent.

The mountain pygmy possum is rare because it lives in alpine boulder fields and scree slopes where it can survive under snow. This habitat was protected by mild burning when Aborigines feasted on bogong moths which are a critical food for the tiny possums. Seasonal alpine graziers continued the tradition. Since the alpine habitats were ‘protected’, they’ve been incinerated by a succession of megafires.

There’s also been a lot less moths turning up in the mountains. They breed in dry areas of the Murray-Darling where their larvae feed on weeds, crops and pastures. They used to feed on drought-adapted vegetation that disappeared along with Aboriginal burning. Now the weeds and crops disappear when irrigation water is diverted to so-called environmental flows which top up an artificial freshwater lake at the mouth of the Murray. So both the moths and the pygmy possums are in strife.

The brush-tailed rock wallaby shelters in steep broken country with rock overhangs. It’s endangered because it relies on grass and herbage that’s been choked out by woody thickening in unmanaged landscapes. The scrub also favours feral browsers and their feral predators which also eat rock wallabies.

The southern bent-winged bat shelters in caves and culverts. It’s declining because its food insects are declining. They obviously don’t breed in thick forests.

But traditional burning expert Victor Steffensen tells us we shouldn’t manage for individual species. We need to see the big picture and maintain whole landscapes with “the right fire”. Fairdinkum science agrees. Forests depend on mild fire at intervals of 3 to 6 years to maintain their ecological function. Woodlands and grasslands need more frequent fire. That’s how Aboriginal people maintained biodiversity and survived extreme climate change without boots or overalls, let alone fire engines, waterbombers and computer models.

Vic Jurskis, Roger Underwood, Neil Burrows. How Australian Aborigines Shaped and Maintained Fire Regimes and the Biota.
Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Vol 5, No 4, 2020, pp 164-172. doi: 10.11648/j.eeb.20200504.17

Vic Jurskis has written two books published by Connor Court.

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