What are our ‘high value ecosystem areas’ [and how do we know?]

On Monday August 25 the Department of the Environment and Primary Industries hosted a meeting with representatives of enviro groups from the West Central Risk Management area.

The point of the meeting was to discuss current and future fire planning in this area, which extends from north east of Huntly to south west of Ballarat, and includes Werribee, the Macedon Ranges and Sunbury. Given that only about a dozen community representatives were able to attend [most of them from the Mount Alexander region] the meeting didn’t actually represent environmental groups of communities throughout this area.

Middleton Creek, declared a 'high value ecosystem area' in the government's risk management strategy. here's a question: is 'risk management' compatible with a blunt policy of burning five per cent of public land?

Middleton Creek, declared a ‘high value ecosystem area’ in the government’s risk management strategy. Here’s a question: is ‘risk management’ compatible with a blunt policy of burning five per cent of public land?

As we have reported previously, the Department is talking a lot about ‘risk management’, the approach which, it has been hinted, may take over in fire protection from the very crude and destructive ‘five per cent’ approach, which has involved trashing huge areas of Victoria to no good effect.

Risk management was the talking point at Monday’s meeting. It’s been hard to find out exactly what this means on the ground, so the big achievement on Monday was the unveiling of a map of the area identifying assets for which serious risk assessments are to be made for the purposes of strategic bushfire management.

These assets come in three categories: priority communities, priority infrastructure and high value ecosystems.

The first two of these categories are relatively uncontroversial. In our area, for example, priority communities are Maldon, Harcourt, Castlemaine, McKenzie Hill, Chewton, Elphinstone, Taradale and Fryerstown. Priority infrastructure includes transmission lines and water treatment plant.

From our point of view, the interesting part of the briefing was the nomination of four ‘high value ecosystem areas’ in our region: Mount Alexander, Muckleford forest, a section of Kalimna Park, and a section of bushland apparently encompassing parts of the Tarilta valley and the south end of the Diggings Park near Middleton Creek and Wewak Track.
While we don’t dispute the value of these places, FOBIF representatives at the meeting couldn’t figure out the criteria whereby they, and no other places, were so nominated. The decision making process was outlined, but without access to the supporting documents attendees found it hard to judge the actual decision making process.

The crude maps supplied by DEPI, for example, seemed to show that the nominated section of Kalimna does not correspond to Eltham Copper Butterfly colonies, which should be a major reason for the park’s special treatment.

The Muckleford Forest section includes areas severely burned in 2012, and others slated for future burns.

And the Tarilta-Middleton Creek area includes sections trashed by DSE in ‘control burns’ in recent years. It also includes the Amanda’s Track area, slated for burning in the current Fire Operations Plan.

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Where do the plantations fit in the Fire Operations Plan?

Residents living near the Hancock Moonlight Flat pine plantations have been informed by company foresters that the plantations are to be harvested and resown this coming season. This finally puts to rest the story that the plantations were slated to be cut and then allowed to revert to bushland under the care of Parks Victoria.

Harvested section of the Moonlight Flat plantation: it is not at all clear how the pines fit into fuel reduction strategies on the adjoining public land.

Harvested section of the Moonlight Flat plantation: it is not at all clear how the pines fit into fuel reduction strategies on the adjoining public land.

In its submission to the draft Fire Operations Plan, FOBIF has requested that the plantations be incorporated into the fire protection strategy for the adjoining public land. We’ve made this request before, without result. It has been consistently surprising to discover how relaxed authorities are about the fire risk from the pines, or how ready they are to say that safety issues are the responsibility of the management company. Our efforts to find out some detail about the fire protection plan for the pines have been completely without success.

Our submission to the draft Fire Operations Plan is as follows:

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the current FOP draft.

We acknowledge your response to the matters we raised in our 2012 and 2013 submissions. In spite of some modifications to the plan, however, our general concerns remain substantially the same:

• We believe that the five per cent target is skewing burning operations away from strictly safety concerns towards achievement of burn coverage which has little relevance to safety or ecological health, and may be damaging to both. We believe that it should be replaced by the kind of risk based approach recommended by the Royal Commission Implementation Monitor [and supported in theory by DEPI, we have been told].
• We remain disturbed by the unavailability of burn plans and post burn assessments, in spite of the requirements explicitly set out in the Code of Practice.
• We are particularly concerned about the relatively large area burns zoned LMZ [for example, in the Muckleford/Maldon and Amanda’s Track areas], and would like to see the risk management assessments and specific ecological intentions in these burns.

We would like to add the following points:

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7 & 28 September 2014 – Youth & Family Bushwalks


Click to enlarge.

The Spring Youth Bushwalk will be held on Sunday 7 September in Poverty Gully. Young FOBIF member, Nioka Mellick-Cooper, received a grant last year from the Mount Alexander Shire Council’s Youth Grants Program to run bush walks around Castlemaine for younger people.

The first youth bushwalk in March saw an eager group of people walk 5km through the Muckleford Forest and explore Dunn’s Reef and the Red White and Blue Mine.

The next walk will be a bit longer. It will start with the Eureka Reef interpretive trail and walkers will make our way up to the Monk for some wonderful views, and then back down to walk along the Poverty Gully water race, and through the Box and Ironbark forests of the Castlemaine Diggings National Heritage Park.

“It’s great exercise, and it’s a lot of fun to explore the bush,” say Nioka. “You never know what you might see when you’re in the forest.”

The walk is supervised by adults, and participants are taken to and from the walk site by buses.Walkers are meeting at Continuing Education in Templeton Street at 10am. Both adults and teenagers are welcome. Lunch is provided at the end of the walk, and interested people are encouraged to book on 5472 4609.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

Three weeks later (September 28) the spring walk for children up to the age of 12 with their families will take place at Kaweka Reserve between 10am and 12pm.  Walkers are meeting in Hargreaves Street between Turner St and Halford Street at 10 am. For more information on this walk click on the flyer at left or contact Naomi Raftery on 0422 585 585.

Cassia Read with children on the Autumn walk.

Cassia Read with children on the Autumn walk.

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The good, and the ugly

Twelve brave walkers braved unpromising forecasts to take on FOBIF’s August walk into the isolated upper reaches of the Columbine Creek catchment on Sunday. As it turned out, the weather was brisk but kind, with plenty of sunshine to take the edge of the breeze.

Walkers in the upper reaches of the Columbine Creek catchment. The wildflower season is getting under way, but illegal timber cutting is rampant.

Walkers in the upper reaches of the Columbine Creek catchment. The wildflower season is getting under way, but illegal timber cutting is rampant.

Walkers were able to observe the growing abundance of wildflowers in the area. Less inspiring is evidence of illegal timber cutting on an almost industrial scale. Although there have been recent prosecutions for illegal firewood collection in this district, we have no doubt that foresters are still battling to cope with the consequences of Coalition decisions to weaken the firewood permit system. This system, which had been introduced by the Bolte Liberal government, served as a means of regulating the effects of firewood collection in public forests.

One of the dozens of examples of illegal firewood cutting in the Columbine Creek valley. Illegal cutting is partly the consequence of government decisions to weaken 60 year old permit regulations.

One of the dozens of examples of illegal firewood cutting in the Columbine Creek valley. Illegal cutting is partly the consequence of government decisions to weaken 60 year old permit regulations.


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Draft Fire Operations Plan released

The draft fire operations plan for Murray Goldfields district has been released, and is open for public comment till August 31. The full plan can be found here, or can be seen at the Mount Alexander Shire offices in Lyttleton Street.

The Plan is similar to last year’s document, but contains some new proposed burns, mostly small in area, close to Castlemaine and Newstead.

Members are encouraged to have a look at the plan as a whole, and in particular the new proposed burns, and to express an interest in the areas they are most familiar with.

It should be noted that in spite of an increased interest in conducting small, strategic fuel reductions that might actually protect the public from bushfire, the government is charging ahead with its rolling target of burning five per cent of public land per year. The target for 2014-5 is 385,942 hectares; for each of the following two years it’s over 450,000 ha.

Submissions to the Plan should be sent to

Program Manager
Planned Burning and Roading
PO Box 905
Mildura VIC 3502
or to

FOBIF will be making a submission to the Plan in the next couple of weeks.


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Box Ironbark AGM

Thirty members and guests turned up to the FOBIF Annual General Meeting on Monday night to hear an entertaining and informative talk by George Milford on the chequered history of Mount Alexander, with an emphasis on its little known industrial side.
The meeting passed motions reaffirming the annual subscription fee of $10 for an individual and $15 for a family, and approving a committee size of four office bearers and three ordinary members.
The new committee is as follows: President: Marie Jones; Vice President: Neville Cooper; Secretary: Naomi Raftery; Treasurer: Lynette Amaterstein; Ordinary members: Frank Panter, Bronwyn Silver, and Bernard Slattery

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Safety last?

The Conversation website this weekend carries an important article by Deakin University researchers on the burning program currently supported by both major parties in Victoria.

Revealingly titled ‘Burnoff policies could be damaging habitats for 100 years’ the article patiently explains how inappropriate burning can cause long term damage to the environment.

But is the program making us safer? The following paragraph tells the story:

‘Scientists from the Department of Environment and Primary Industries have estimated that less than 3% of the statewide risk to life and property is located in the Murray Mallee region. Yet 16.9% of the planned burning by area in 2012-2013 occurred there. Conversely, although the more populated areas closer to Melbourne accounted for 31% of risk, only around 1.6% of planned burning took place in that region.’

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Royal Commission Monitor hits the target, again

The Royal Commission Implementation Monitor, Neil Comrie, has once again questioned the policy of burning five per cent of public land annually. The Monitor’s Annual report is released today. It can be found here.

The relevant section of the report is on pages 51-2. It runs as follows:

‘The [Monitor's] 2012 Final Report advocated that the State reconsider the planned burning rolling target of five per cent and replace it with a risk based approach focused on the protection of life and property. In 2013, the BRCIM went further stating concerns that the 390,000 ha target may not be achievable, affordable or sustainable. The BRCIM’s view in relation to this target is unchanged. Area based hectare targets alone will not necessarily reduce the bushfire risk to life and property in Victoria and may have adverse environmental outcomes…

‘With the benefit of five years dedicated work in this area, the BRCIM considers it may be timely for the State to reconsider [Royal Commission] Recommendation 56, having regard to the positive shift in focus from a numeric area based target to a risk based approach in order to deliver an effective long term program of planned burning.’

Will the State Government — or the Labor Party, which has the same policy–reconsider the target in the light of these continuing recommendations? We’re not hopeful. After Mr Comrie’s 2012 report Minister Ryan said ‘I see the logic of what he argues and we will give it due consideration.’ When we asked the minister what was the result of this ‘due consideraton’ all we got was a set of evasions.

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Eight questions to ask the candidates

With a State election due in November, candidates are starting to do a bit of spruiking about the place. We’ve drafted a number of questions it might be worth putting to them, should they appear on the horizon:

1. In 2012-13 the State Government embarked on a program of cutting 10% of Parks Victoria’s staff. This is on top of cuts in previous years by governments of both persuasions. We believe DEPI in Bendigo has lost a quarter of its staff in recent years. What’s your plan for the staffing of public land management, and what priorities do you see in this area?
2. Since coming to office the Coalition Government has cut more than a quarter of Government animal health and biosecurity jobs. Do you think a cut of 25% in the number of Parliamentarians would be good for Victoria? Would it improve MP’s efficiency?
3. The Royal Commission Implementation Monitor has criticised the Government’s policy of burning 5% of public land every year. He says the policy diverts DEPI resources to burning remote country when these should be deployed in dangerous areas close to settlements. A similar criticism of ‘targets’ has been levelled by Tasmania’s Chief Fire officer. Could you explain how burning 400 ha of bush in the remote Tarilta Valley is better at protecting human life than controlling dense gorse on the edge of Chewton, Castlemaine and Maldon townships?
4. The number of Phd and postgraduate students employed by DEPI has fallen by 22% since 2012-13, and the number of scientific and technical reports by DEPI officers supporting agriculture has fallen by 33% over the same period. In your opinion does this decline in research capacity affect DEPI’s ability to be an effective manager of our natural systems?
5. More than 500 jobs related to agriculture have been cut from DEPI since 2011. Is the Department as capable of managing agriculture now as it was 3 years ago? Or is the Farmers Federation right in expressing a lack of confidence in the Department’s ability to manage crises like disease outbreaks?
6. Past experience overseas shows that commercial development in National Parks benefits the private developer, but not the park or the public. Do you support commercial developments in National Parks? What effect do you think these might have on eco tourism businesses adjacent to Parks?
7. Whenever there are staff cutbacks in the Department of Environment and Primary Industry we are assured that no ‘front line’ staff are affected. Could you explain why research staff, who are usually the ones to be cut, are not important in enabling the Department to understand what it’s supposed to be doing? If you were running the Grand Prix, would you be in favour of cutting back on mechanics, as long as drivers were retained?
8.Victoria’s recent Waterways Strategy did not mention ‘climate change’, referring instead to ‘natural climate variation’. Environment commissioner Kate Auty claimed this year that Government employees have been instructed to avoid using the phrase ‘climate change’, and instead to refer to ‘natural climate variation.’ Scientists prefer the former term. Which one do you prefer? Do you think experts should be dictated to by politicians on this matter?

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Heave ho! Weightlifter goes for gold

You often see fungi thrusting up through soil crust, but mushrooms heaving rocks out of the way are less common. The photo below shows one such effort. We weighed the stone at 725 grams!

75 gram mushroom lifts ten times its weight: that's the equivalent of an 80 kg human lifting 800kgs...the world heavyweight record is

100 gram mushroom lifts seven times its weight:…we believe champion human weightlifters can manage to lift about twice their bodyweight at a time. Of course, the mushroom we see is only part of the story–it’s only the fruiting body of the fungus.  The main part of the fungus is the mycelium under the ground.

Fungi often perform remarkable weightlifting feats. Maybe the most impressive [and one of the most common] is the unromantic Horse Dung Fungus [Pisolithus tinctorius] which can often be seen pushing up through bitumen road surfaces. We’re not sure how much force is required for this feat. When we attempted a bit internet research on the subject by Googling ‘fungus lifting weight’ we got a lot of entries about fungus lifting toenails. That’s a lot less romantic than we could bear.

Horse Dung Fungus [Pisolithus tinctorius] pushing up through the surface of the Irishtown road: fungi are impressive weightlifters.

Horse Dung Fungus [Pisolithus tinctorius] pushing up through the bitumen surface of the Irishtown road: fungi are impressive weightlifters.

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