Environment Analysis

Pillaged forests like the Pilliga must be protected for future generations

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian's governments have failed to adequately protect the environment (image by Dan Jensen)

The Pilliga Forest is a significant water, biodiversity and carbon sink resource, yet governments want to turn it into a gas field.

Now is the time to rethink how we value and manage irreplaceable natural resources.

Following the ecological catastrophe of the fire season of 2019-2020, when it is estimated that 12.6 million hectares of our eastern Australian eucalypt forests burnt, there has been growing public attention on conserving what is left of our vulnerable ecosystems.

Australia has one of the worst records in biodiversity decline in the world. These fires pushed many ecosystems to the limit and the species reliant on them. Many were pushed into the threatened with extinction category.

What is doubly concerning is the ongoing loss of vegetation through land clearing and the logging of burnt and unburnt forest remnants in Victoria and New South Wales. These actions have compounded the biodiversity crisis by hindering the recovery of burnt forests and further limiting the ability of many species to disperse across the landscape, necessary to maintain populations and genetic diversity.

A Boorman's greenhood orchid in the Pilliga (image self-supplied).

Clearly, state and Commonwealth laws designed to protect our natural heritage are failing. This isn't a surprise when it seems many politicians today have the view that the only good animals are ones inside a fence, where they can’t cause any trouble to development.

With signs of climate tipping points being reached, we need to take stock of what natural assets we have. 

These assets provide refuge not only for declining wildlife but are important carbon sinks, helping us reduce the impacts of runaway climate change. Governments have failed to incorporate these assets into their cost-benefit analysis. Unless we do so urgently, we may selfishly deprive future generations of a chance to enjoy and benefit those assets. This is more poignant when you consider that this continent has one of the most unique biodiversity in the world.

One large area of forest largely left unburnt by the 2019-2020 season, with only a relatively small burn are the forests that comprise what is known as the Pilliga. Given the context of massive biodiversity loss, the importance of these 500,000 hectares of forest on both public and private lands is now self-evident.

The largest continuous remnants of temperate forest west of the Great Dividing Range, the Pilliga Forests have not benefitted from a high level of public attention in the past. This needs to change because its natural assets and services are much more important than generally recognised.

Following above-average rains over the last 16 months, the forest is recovering from drought conditions at an exceptional rate of growth. This is particularly noticeable in previously burnt areas (the Pilliga Forests are well-known for their large wildfires), where a previous fire had reduced large areas of forest to a black and grey moonscape.

Now, living trees are flourishing, new ones germinating and the undergrowth is as diverse and thick as it has been for a long time. Usually, dry creeks and drainage lines are running with water and water holes and depressions are filling up and the native fauna is responding to these conditions.

What is frequently misunderstood is the true nature of these forests. Often characterised as being mono-typically barren or over-exploited for its timber and rendered biodiversity poor, this is not the case as scientific studies have shown.

It is true that massive amounts of trees have been harvested from many parts of the forest over the last 100 years, particularly ironbark, valued hardwood for structural timber, and cypress pine, valued as a naturally termite-resistant softwood for building.

Along with past fires, this has resulted in a forest depauperate of hollows over large areas, but the species diversity is still there as studies have shown. Parts of the forest containing non-commercial eucalypt species such as boxes, largely retain their natural density of large trees.

I first became acquainted with the biodiversity of these forests in 1993 as a contracted ecologist for the then State Forests of NSW. The forest of the North-West Cypress/Ironbark Belt as it was known, had never before been subject to a detailed and comprehensive fauna survey.

What I found was a wildlife wonderland, which prompted me to devote many years of work and professional research into the fauna and flora of this forest.

The facts speak for themselves. Rather than being species-poor, it is very diverse, with 240 recorded bird species, 50 reptile species, 17 frog species and over 30 native mammal species. It has about 1,500 plant species according to NSW database records and about 50 distinct vegetation communities.

It became obvious that these communities and species diversity had not just appeared in the last 100 years, and beyond that, has been present in its current complexity over a millennium. Levels of diversity, particularly in the mammal fauna, were much higher in pre-European times, as owl pellet studies and searches of historical records have shown.

Much of this loss can be attributed largely to habitat modification, stock grazing, inappropriate fire regimes and of course the penetration of feral carnivores and herbivores. This is partly being addressed through a mammal re-introduction program administered by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy.

Nevertheless, the Pilliga Forests remains a jewel in Australia’s natural assets. It contains species such as the Pilliga mouse and the Pilliga wattle. 

Its value as a biodiversity refuge, carbon sink and recharge zone for the artesian basin is almost unequalled.

A koala sleeps in the Pilliga (image self-supplied).

But the threat of coal seam gas development in the forest presents a significant risk to the biodiversity and ecological function of the forest.

Coal seam gas activities commenced in 1998, with the first "fracturing stimulation" well site undertaken by a U.S. exploration company, assisted by Halliburton. The license over the forest was quickly bought up by Eastern Star Gas, which stepped up exploration activities, including further "fracking" at about 10 sites in the forest.

Santos, a part-owner, bought up the exploration license in 2011 and has continued to expand operations in the forest such that approximately 50 wells have now been drilled, looking for that "gas gold".

Coal seam gas fever has set in the minds of many entrepreneurs and politicians, such as former Deputy PM John Anderson, and to this day, we hear how necessary the "Narrabri gas field" is to our future energy needs. However, the evidence of its energy value remains elusive and rising gas prices have made it an expensive alternative.

Still, the myopic view prevails, not the least from Canberra.

At least two prime ministers have intervened to herald the necessity of the project for development.

Now the NSW Government has staked a last stand in its recent 'future of gas’ statement.

While extinguishing many exploration licenses, it is attempting to shore up the development of this precious natural asset.

As with most major project developments today, the impacts of the Narrabri gas project upon the air, water and biodiversity will not be dealt with adequately, due in equal measure to the failure of the environmental assessment and offset system and to the insufficiency of reliable data from Santos.

It is estimated that the project will produce five million tonnes of greenhouse emissions per year, though no carbon offset has been proposed. Direct impacts upon terrestrial ecosystems include the direct loss of 300 hectares of Pilliga mouse habitat and up to 100 hectares of koala habitat.

Indirect impacts from a diffuse and extensive network of tracks and well sites have not been dealt with adequately. Internal forest fragmentation is one of the key threats to biodiversity today.

Importantly, they threaten the quality of ground and surface water. The track record of the industry with leaks and groundwater contamination is poor.

It is time to rethink how we use and value irreplaceable natural assets in this country. The benefit of retaining and allowing complex biodiverse ecosystems such as the Pilliga Forests to recover and thrive into the future outways the short-term benefit of gas.

Let’s allow these ecosystems to carry on the essential services they provide for us and future generations. That would be a worthwhile legacy for the future.

David Paull is an Australian ecologist and blogger on politics and the environment. You can follow David on Twitter @davesgas.

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