The Tragedy of Modern Australian Ecology Experts
by David Evans
1 June 2023
This article consists of excerpts from Vic Jurskis’s book, Firestick Ecology: Fairdinkum Science in Plain English. The excerpts are from various parts of the book, assembled here into a short narrative. All the words except the headings and those in italics or square brackets are Vic’s, sometimes with a little paraphrasing to join them up.
All Australian ecosystems either depend on mild fire or live on sites that are physically protected from it. All, bar rainforests and scrubs, are fire-dependent. Even rainforests or scrub benefit from the protection afforded by mild fire.
Frequent mild fire in the Australian landscape can’t penetrate into rainforests. It maintains an open, seasonally flammable matrix. Physically protected, or recently burnt, brown, black, or green patches, form a fine-grained mosaic supporting biodiversity.
Aborigines enhanced the fine and coarse grained mosaics by burning according to season and site. Brown, black, or green patches weren’t burnt because they couldn’t be. By the time sheltered areas were hot and dry enough to burn, they were surrounded by black or green areas so fire didn’t escape.
This wasn’t a complicated and highly skilled science developed over millennia. It was a basic science gained from participation. Aborigines burnt to make a living, they burnt to make war, and they burnt to have fun. By the time the children became adults they had a firm grasp of the firestick — they were masters of the physics and ecology of fire.
The problem is that most fire ecologists and conservation bureaucrats haven’t been brought up with the firestick and won’t listen to those that were. Traditional aboriginals burnt all year round. When foresters took up the firestick they found that the more you do it, the easier it gets. Practice makes perfect if you learn from your mistakes.
If managers of parks and reserves had the will and the skill they could reinstate perfectly safe and biodiverse natural ecosystems. Instead, they constrain themselves with ridiculous theories about fire-sensitive plants and animals. They create unsafe, unhealthy, unnaturally homogeneous landscape bombs. When they carry out prescribed burns at unnaturally long intervals, the heavy, three-dimensional continuous fuels — together with their lack of practice and consequent ignorance of fire behavior — ensure that ancient trees and shrubs are destroyed and thicker scrubs develop.
The many exposed tree trunks and branches are typical of sick trees in a declining fores. The decline is caused by a lack of burning and also a lack of grazing (which has similar benefits to traditional burning). The lack of fire allows growth of bushes, which change the soil and microclimate. Tree roots deteriorate; and as the trees get sick they lose their foliage and that lets more light in and the understory thrives, and pests that eat trees flourish. — Bill Brown.
Repeated hot fires don’t clean up country. They dirty it by stimulating germination of soil-stored sees of wattles and other hard-seeded plants, and causing many woody plants to resprout from branches, trunk, or base. Fuel accumulation is much more rapid after fierce fires than after mild fires that burn only litter and cured grasses.
Aboriginal burning killed most of the woody seedlings most of the time. Lack of frequent, low-intensity burning allows a mat of litter and woody seedlings develop, choking out herbs, grasses and bare ground, and affecting microclimate, nutrient cycling, soil conditions, and ultimately the health of established trees. Ironically, modern ecological assessments of ecosystem health typically identify absence of this developing problem (i.e., lack of eucalypt saplings, litter, fallen timber and shrubbery) as a sign of degradation.
All Australian plants are ready regenerators after fire, otherwise they would not be here.
Balance lost after 1788
The firestick created and maintained the biodiversity and the fire-safe environment that greeted European settlers. To conserve biodiversity and live safely, we need to apply it willingly, frequently, and, with practice, skillfully.
In my view, life and land were perfectly balanced before Europeans settled in Australia. The firestick had changed the game forty or fifty thousand years earlier. In 1788 it maintained a balance. After 1788, whitefellas disrupted the balance. It was revolutionary, but no more so than when occurred when aborigines changed the face of the continent and extinguished the megafauna.
The modern disaster
New South Wales now has that “belt of parkland, right down the coast.” But it’s not magnificent, because it is not managed properly. Like Koscuiszko National Park it is periodically scourged by raging fires. Access for people has been lost or deliberately destroyed. Twenty percent of the area is being choked out by scrub whilst eucalyptus are dying — ravaged by pests, parasite, and diseases.
The red gum to the left has been fenced off and is surrounded by saplings, and the one to the right is in a grazing paddock. The tree in the grazed paddock is obviously more healthy — because trees decline unless undergrowth is controlled and nutrient cycling is maintained by burning or grazing. — Bill Brown.
Common species such as grasstrees and smooth-barked apple are dying in waterfront parks that should be jewels in Sydney’s crown. Lives and houses are repeatedly lost in areas that should be healthy, open and safe environments.
Dead and dying eucalypts with booming scrub and a plague of flying foxes, in a council reserve in Sydney.
Nearly 20% of four million hectares of coastal woodlands and forests in NSW are switching to scrub. In the wet tropics of North Queensland, more than half the area of the major eucalypt types has already been lost to scrub.
Ongoing exclusion of fire across broad areas has recreated and maintained a landscape that explodes into megafires at an average interval of eleven years across much of southern Australia.
Over three decades I have seen extensive areas of healthy native vegetation turn to scrub with dying trees after grazing was excluded. I have also been distressed to witness a huge waste of taxpayers’ money on ecological restoration schemes where long corridors are fenced and planted to native trees and shrubs, creating imaginary native ecosystems that cannot function in the absence of grazing or its more natural ecological analog of mild fire.
Meanwhile, the green, left-wing journalists of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation are being funded by taxpayers to peddle junk science produced by anti-grazing, anti-burning, anti-logging advocates and global warming advocates. (A survey of ABC journalists in 2013 revealed that the great majority vote for the Greens or the ALP.)
Peak green organization the National Conservation Council (NCC), the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), and bureaucrats from the Rural Fire Service (RFS) worked to ensure that hazard reduction burning would be made more difficult by defining “acceptable” intervals between prescribed burns those that will ensure environmental degradation and dangerous fuel loads. This suits cost-squeezed public land managers, because everyday costs of management are reduced and firefighting is externally funded as disaster response.
RFS Commissioner Philip Koperberg would often say to Phil Cheney, one Australia’s leading fire experts who was head of CSIRO bushfire research, “You may know about fires but I know about politics.”
Rural Fire Service (RFS) Commissioner Philip Koperberg
During another bushfire emergency in Sydney he declared on national television that hazard reduction burning would have made no difference. Rather than embracing responsible land management, the RFS became a top-heavy bureaucracy running a paramilitary response organization around cities with an emphasis on visible buttons and braid, aircraft, fire engines, and computers. Koperberg was later endorsed as a Labor candidate, resigned from the RFS, and was elected to Parliament. He served as minister for a short time and was embroiled in a personal controversy before resigning.
Waterbomber near Albury, NSW. Their preferred solution. Someone is making a lot of money.
Each summer, television screens are filled with exciting images of firestorms, waterbombers, colorful trucks with flashing lights, and colorful uniforms. Global warming enthusiasts such as Tim Flannery also fill the screens to say “we told you so.”
Virtue signalers with no stake
As Walter Starck succinctly put it:
Environmentalism has redefined the fundamental concept of being a stakeholder. Despite having nothing invested and with no risk to themselves, environmental non-government organizations [NGOs] have manged to claim the status of stakeholders in remote matters and be accorded an equal voice to those whose entire lives, livelihood and assets are bin affected.
Actually, NGOs have been accorded a bigger voice than real stakeholders. Now genuine regional stakeholders are disenfranchised throughout Australia by the disproportionate influence of greens in city electorates.
The wilderness power base has shifted from upper middle class bushwalkers to “socialist” greens, and the Wilderness Society established in 1976. From small, elite groups of bushwalkers and naturalists has grown an army of feelgooders with hugely disproportionate political power compared to stakeholdings, and powerful representation within the bureaucracy and academia.