Land conservation and the victorian alpine national park


LOGGING IN THE ALPINE REGION



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LOGGING IN THE ALPINE REGION
There appears to be a substantial philosophical difference between approaches to wildlife conservation advocated in the Code of Forest practices and those advocated in the government’s Conservation Strategy for Victoria (CSV). The Code of Forest Practice permits the “tending” in native timber production stands, by procedures such as thinning, culling, fertilising, application of pesticides and herbicides and exclusion of wildfire - with relatively little knowledge of the environmental effects of such practices. Such “tending” practices may lead to the conversion of natural forests to more uniform forests with a possible loss of fauna diversity and natural values. This could be contrary to the CSV which advocates “ensuring that the type and intensity of use (development) is properly matched to the characteristics (capability) of the ecosystem.....ensuring protection of the ecological condition of native forests 1
Forests, or communities of trees and associated organisms currently occupy only about 5% of Australian land2 Furthermore, during the previous 150 years of European settlement, forest cover has been dramatically reduced. Even though forests and woodlands have covered almost 90% of Victoria, by 1989 only 35% remained.3 This is not simply a remnant of distant pioneering colonialism, as, for example, deforestation during the period 1972-1987 far out stripped reforestation on freehold land, proceeding at an average clearing rate of 15,392 ha/year, representing an average loss of 10,438 ha/year.4
Whilst no logging occurs within the Alpine National Park, damage from logging has been considerable in the Alpine region, with the large road network and clear felling techniques used in the past having contributed significantly to that impact. Also, decisions to allow ‘once only’ logging in some regions have meant that these regions will be incorporated into the Park once timber is extracted from them, thus in a frail manner, protecting the integrity of a policy of no logging in National Parks.
The Victorian Timber Industry Strategy is a document which allows the Department of Conservation, Forests and Lands to commit itself to maintaining resource security for 15 year periods. The first such leases, known as licence commitments, were signed in 1987. The licence commitments deem DFCL liable for facilitation of a supply of agreed volumes of sawlogs, with DFCL potentially being liable to provide compensation for an inability to fulfil licence commitments they are unable to comply with.
Forestry policy in Victoria is executed under the Timber Industry Strategy and administered under a public document known as the Code of Forest Practices. The Codes’ purpose is to “ensure that timber growing and harvesting operations to promote an internationally competitive forestry industry are conducted … in a manner that is compatible with the conservation of the wide range of environmental values associated with those forests.”5 Unfortunately, the Code of Forest practices was not implemented without controversy amidst problems with clear felling, plastic prescriptions enabling discretionary implementation and widespread breaches of prescriptions being inadequately addressed.6
It is my belief that the optimistic aims of the CFP are inadequate. Loss of mature old growth forests, which many plant and animal populations may need for their survival, may only be reversible over a period of 150-400 years, yet old growth forests, rare both locally and globally, may be gone in 10-20 years.7 Whilst forestry industry proponents often claim that the system of National Parks, Wilderness areas, State Parks and Flora and Fauna Reserves provide an adequate sanctuary for non-human organisms, this is a fragile claim that generally fails to be supported by scientific evidence. As an example, the Alpine National Park which covers over 364,000 ha., as the result of the political processes described above, relies heavily on narrow wildlife corridors that are meant to optimistically allow animals a migration path between larger areas of reserve. Faith placed in the Code of Forests Practices to protect areas within the Park, if Government policy should change, would need to be strong to counter the likely challenge to National Park integrity.
Forest Industry advocates have claimed that conversion of older forest ecosystems to areas facilitating juvenile tree growth will assist in reducing the amount of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere, though this is a claim of doubtful benefit, as a study by Harmon et al, appears to indicate that “timber harvesting results in a net flux of carbon to the atmosphere”1
Although sawmilling and associated transport activities represent about 52% of the economic employment base in Gippsland in 19892, the number of jobs in the timber industry has been reducing for decades. A variety of factors may be influencing this, though the increased costs of wages and workers compensation contributions, the increased replacement of human labour by mechanisation, and the over-cutting of forests in the 1960’s and 1970’s appear to have contributed. According to the NIEIR report, for any economic and employment impact upon East Gippsland by proposed changes to land use practices, a 40-50 year period is needed before substantial timber regrowth resources will become available, though it may be possible to estimate sustainable yields from mature forests in the intervening period.3
The growth of other industries to replace forestry appears to be developing, with the NIEIR report noting that, “Employment opportunities in the sawmilling industry in the East Gippsland Management area will decrease in the near future, adding to the (1989) high unemployment rate of 13%4, whilst at the same time tourism in East Gippsland is increasing by approximately 5% per annum.5

ROADS WITHIN THE ALPINE NATIONAL PARK
The Victorian Alpine region accommodates such an extensive road system that it is no longer possible to be more than one day’s walk from a two wheel drive road. In the whole of the Alps, there is not one major alpine snow region that is not bisected by a two wheel drive road; the Falls Creek Tourist Road runs across the Bogong High Plains, the Black Mountain-Benambra a Road cuts through Native Dog Flat and the high country near the Cobberas, and the Howitt Road, which only ten years ago was only lightly used, now has a reasonably high traffic load as it carves a swathe through the magnificent Snowy Plains. Furthermore, it is not unknown for groups of 10 or more 4WD’s to travel in convoy.1
Despite the perception that four wheel drive clubs and other vehicle users tend to portray in recommending opening up of more areas to vehicles, Table 1 demonstrates that the size of the existing road network in the various management regions within the Alpine National Park is quite extensive.

TABLE 1: ROAD LENGTHS IN KMS. WITHIN THE MANAGEMENT UNITS2





2WD

4WD

MANAGEMENT VEHICLES ONLY

TOTAL

BOGONG

77

111

186

374

WONNANGATTA-MOROKA

332

999

84

1415

COBBERAS-TINGARINGY

171

502

25

698

DARTMOUTH

94

235

3

332

TOTAL

674

1847

298

2819

Using the figures given above, and an estimation of an average width of eight metres for two wheel drive roads, the total area of the Alpine National Park covered by such roads is 5.25 km2. Estimating an average width of four metres for four wheel drive roads and tracks, including those designated for management vehicles only, would mean the total area within the Park devoted to such roads is 8.5 km2. Whilst these amounts appear quite small, they equate to an area approximately the same as that used for urban housing in the area in Canberra north of the Australian National University campus.



WHAT ARE THE CONSEQUENCES FOR LAND CONSERVATION OF ROADS?
Roads have a continuing significant deleterious impact on land conservation within ecosystems that are largely unmodified. Roads are detrimental in a number of ways, in increasing noise, facilitating weed invasion and impairing wilderness values far beyond their immediate environs. Many feral animals such as rabbits and foxes use road networks to a significant degree. The vehicle traffic that uses these roads is known to be vector’s for seeds that may be found embedded in mud attached to the vehicle, as is becoming an increasing problem in Arnhem Land with the rapid increase in the use of Toyota’s for transport.
The 4WD driving lobby has been seeking then incongruous facility for ‘dispersed vehicle-based camping’, as well as the opening of ‘through routes’, that allow circuits that link with two wheel drive tracks to provide a thoroughfare for traffic. Some groups have also proposed a scheme called ‘adopt a track’ in which some roads will become the particular responsibility of a group under departmental supervision. Whilst this idea appears on first sight to have some merit, it is difficult to distinguish what functions they will undertake which they should not already be carrying out in the journey’s and as Park users.3
Run-off from erosion has contributed to the turbidity of waterways and has had consequences in promoting stream silting, which, given that most of Victoria’s major rivers originate in the Alps, has the potential to effect a significant proportion of Victoria’s fresh water supply. Run off is capable of altering stream temperature and so adversely affect aquatic biota, and other animals relying on their survival as a source of nutrition. Construction and maintenance of roads require gravel pits to be dug within practicable distances, producing the dichotomous problem, that if within the Park that are destructive and unsightly, whilst if situated outside the Park, can promote the transmission of pathogens and weeds.
The LCC examined the effects roads can have on surrounding forest systems in their Special Investigation on Wilderness, concluding that;
Tracks and roads change vegetation, disrupt habitat and alter natural drainage patterns. Depending on the nature of the particular environment, the design, type and standard of the work and generally the level of usage, together with the maintenance commitment, can result in localised soil erosion and earth movement, apart from concentrating run-off. Water erosion is especially associated with gravel roads and earthen tracks constructed on steep grades, or where little provision has been made for run-off. Increased sediment input into streams can have, in a particular, a deleterious impact on invertebrates and fish breeding success and may also lead to the death of adult fish.
Roads also cause ecological changes when they bar the movement of ground species or, conversely, facilitate the dispersal of introduced species, for example, foxes and feral dogs. In some places, by increasing light penetration in areas otherwise shaded by a forest canopy, roads can alter the understorey vegetation. Construction or maintenance works involve soil disturbance, which facilitates the establishment of weeds. Sometimes exotic species are deliberately introduced to help stabilise disturbed areas. Road construction can also favour the dispersal of pathogens, notably Phytophthora cinnamoni which is responsible for forest dieback disease.1
Impacts from vehicle-based activities include those arising from the direct and indirect effects of providing and maintaining tracks and roads, as detailed previously under Access and Structures, as well as dust, emissions, and vidual impact, the increased probability of non-indigenous plants, and accidental and deliberate fire lighting. The noise associated with mechanised vehicles, especially those not conforming to legal standards, has a significant impact on experiential values. Vehicle-based camping is more likely to involve the use of generators and chainsaws with their associated noise impacts, than other forms of camping.2
In recognising the implications of such an extensive road network for land conservation, the Management Committee for the Alpine National Park has recommended the downgrading and closure of 15% of the roads within the existing park.

TABLE 2: MANAGEMENT ROAD CLOSURE PROPOSALS3





TO BECOME MVO

FOR PERMANENT CLOSURE

TOTAL

BOGONG

11

20

31

WONNANGATTA-MOROKA

57

126

183

COBBERAS-TINGARINGY

162

34

196

DARTMOUTH

12

3

15

TOTAL

242

183

425

Given the increased use that establishment of an area as a National Park can bring, it is probable that even these measures will be insufficient in the face of increased visitor pressure and potential individual impact of visitors increasingly visiting the park by motor vehicle. The recommendations do, however, flag a positive direction in recognition of the problems involved.



HORSE RIDING

Horse riding has been a booming recreational activity in the Alpine region over the last ten years. Current management guidelines limit the number of horses in a single group to 15 in more sensitive areas designated Conservation A, with groups of 25 in Conservation B zones, though on one visit whilst camping in a remote area of the park adjacent to the Avon Wilderness, I was privileged to be met by a group of nearly forty horses and a fairly belligerent tour operator, who appeared relatively unaware of the unpleasant nature of his terse intrusion, and the large amounts of shit left by the group.


Horse hoofs typically exert a pressure per square centimetre that is approximately 15 times that of a human foot, and as such, can be quite damaging to the alpine vegetation. The Land Conservation Council Special Investigation on Wilderness made the following comments concerning the presence of horses in sensitive area;
The impact of horses is similar to that of cattle grazing … although generally of lower intensity. Impacts arise from the trampling of vegetation, particularly ground cover in alpine areas, the establishment of tracks, the disturbance of soils especially in steep areas or areas subject to water logging by off-track riding, as well as nutrient input, exotic species introduction, and the reduction of water quality (from experiential viewpoints as well as from increased turbidity and nutrient.) The presence of horses may be intimidating to other users. Off-track riding may reduce some of these impacts in open areas such as snow grass plains, as may use of feed hygiene practices.1
I believe that horse numbers should be limited to a maximum party size of 10 in high use areas and 15 elsewhere, and that horses should be kept at a minimum distance of 100 metres from campsites, rather than the 30 metres suggested. With increased numbers of tourists entering the Park, it is important that the impact of horse trails is kept to a minimum, and that visitors wishing to experience an unspoilt environment, do not unwittingly partake in its eventual degradation.
FIRE CONTROL
Fires can be a considerable threat to both the ecology and the human visitors in the park. Considering that 23% of fires occurring in the Bogong region up to 1988 were caused by human activities, there is a clear need to consider the consequences of fire.2 Due to the emotive nature of fire, it is often unfashionable to question the actions of those wishing to prevent it. Nevertheless, experience indicates that policies designed to prevent wildfire can cause unwarranted damage to the environment, such as the examples of unnecessary road construction and instances of fuel reduction burns that have flared out of control causing widespread destruction. As an example, during one single day in 1978, a bulldozer cut a track through the Terrible Hollow from Mt. Despair to the Wonnangatta River, producing a link between Gippsland in Southern Victoria, and Northern Victoria, despite the fact that there were no bushfires near the region at the time.
Whilst there is evidence of human activity in the Australian Alpine region dating from 21,000 + 220 BP1, scientific evidence on the frequency of fire in pre-European times is unreliable2 It is likely that Aboriginal people inhabiting the area regularly used fires as a method for hunting and vegetation control, though the extent to which they did this is less well established, probably at intervals between 40 and 200 years.3 Palynological studies of aboriginal use of fire in alpine and montane forests of Australia’s south-eastern highlands4, and dendrochronological studies may also supply such information, though this information still remains to be gathered on fire regimes in the area bounded by the Alpine National Park. This notable absence of information has reflected the manner in which fire prevention policy has been developed. Burning practices carried out by the former Victorian Forests Commission were not primarily directed towards conservation of the natural environment, rather the protection of timber resources.5
Meredith suggests that as fuel reduction burning has a deleterious effect in Alpine Areas, if necessary for property protection, burning should be around population centres only.6 Also, in consideration of the increasing visitor numbers that will occur with promulgation of the Park, care will be needed in siting recreational facilities near alpine vegetation to ensure they do not become sources of ignition.7
Examining the issue of fire control, a 1984 House of Representatives Standing Commission on Environment and Conservation made the following observations;
Once the possible impacts are recognised it becomes necessary to decide whether it is appropriate to burn a particular area. The Committee believes that control burning for bush fire control purposes should only be carried out where it coincides with management plans which properly describe the areas to be burnt, the purpose of the burn and the prescriptions to be applied. This requires specific land use planning and the assessment of the strategic value of control burning. … 8

In discussing the role of fire and tracks, the Committee noted that;


Fire tracks and breaks can have severe localised impacts on the environment, especially if constructed poorly. The chief impacts are increased erosion and siltation of streams, access for weeds, pest animals and plant diseases. A secondary effect specifically related to fire trails is the greater human access to remote areas. This increases the fire hazard through the increased possibility of deliberate or accidental ignition.9



The New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service told the Committee that they consider that all bushfires have the potential to spread from areas under its control and threaten life and property. The Service therefore accepts that some fire control will have to be constructed but that the subsequent environmental impact must be carefully assessed.10


Further;
The committee also believes that there are areas such as natural parts of parks and reserves remote from other assets where trail construction is unnecessary and the advantages of access are outweighed by the disadvantages. The New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service cited a survey in one National Park which revealed that nine out of every ten fires started from the edge of trails. The Service stated that a lack of trails was not a disadvantage and that other methods could then be employed in National parks. These

included using helicopters to attack the fire, to start backburns and to provide access.1
The Committee concluded by saying;
The Committee considers that fire breaks should only be used in conservation areas where the environmental impacts have been assessed as acceptable.2
Given the limited information available concerning fire control in the region, management utilising the existing PREPLAN fire risk assessment methods and limited fuel reduction burning seem appropriate, though as fuel reduction burning brings risk of damage to conservation values, it would be best conducted with the aims of limiting fuel reduction burning to the vicinity of private property, whilst avoiding firing of alpine, sub-alpine, montane forest, rainshadow woodland areas; involve the minimum area and frequency possible and finally, by minimising the infrastructure required to maintain a fuel reduction burning program such as helipads and vehicle tracks.

FERAL ANIMALS WITHIN THE PARK
Feral animals pose a considerable threat to a number of animals and ecosystems within the Park, and whilst the problems these pose appear to be almost insurmountable, efforts to limit the extent of their damage is necessary to ensure that feral animals do not disrupt ecosystems to the point that they irreversibly disturb a sustainable chain of predation. Of the feral animals that inhabit the Park, the predators are typically opportune feeders that will generally eat or prey upon the most abundant form of food available at any one time3, and as such, they should not be considered as a justifiable mechanism for the maintaining a balance in native fauna populations
The eradication of all introduced species from the Alpine National Park is a desirable but likely unattainable goal, as some species are so well established that only biological control methods could hope to reduce their populations. Given this, high priority needs to be given to disallowing the introduction of further unwanted species, that may exacerbate feral animal problems further. The Australian Alps Co-operative Agreement, which is a memorandum of understanding between the Australian Capital Territory, New South Wales, and Victoria, should be called into effect for the joint control of introduced animals in the alpine region.
One way to limit the effect of introduced animals may be to have the public aware of the problems they pose. Providing information to visitors so that they become aware of the issues involved would help to show that undesirable animals be shown in picture form, and visitors be encouraged to report sightings of any of these. This could help develop a scenario for locating vermin and be a precursor to further investigation by Department of Conservation and Natural Resource officers.

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