Protecting Wilderness and National Parks

National Parks and fire recovery

Nearly everyone I know is grieving after the fires, some in ways I can hardly imagine. Loved ones lost, and livestock, businesses, homes and wildlife destroyed. These are hard blows. We grieve, but we must also move on and adjust. So, I offer you this message of hope.

Our large national parks, those big wilderness areas, did their job well. Like battleships of old, wilderness is designed to take a hammering from fire. There were losses, but nearly all will recover with nearly a full complement of wildlife, provided we assist that recovery right now.

Due to their size and diversity of the landscapes they contain, the old growth ecosystems in wilderness are more likely to survive than in smaller, more fragmented reserves. Wilderness provides more opportunities for ecosystems to adjust to large fires.

Wilderness provides larger and better-connected wildlife populations, reducing extinction risk from impacts. Fire fragments habitats. It reduces, subdivides and isolates wildlife populations, but with effective pest control and appropriate fire management these habitats can consolidate and reconnect. It is neglect after fires that causes extinctions, and Environment Minister Matt Kean ain’t going to let that happen!

We got through this fire chaos with leadership from the unflappable Fire Chief, Shane Fitzsimmons and Premier, Gladys Berejiklian performed well. In the Blue Mountains, Mark Greenhill calmly created the unity necessary for fire and emergency teamwork, mainly by teams of volunteers, supported by RFS and NPWS staff. I believe that this significantly reduced fire impacts in the Mountains. Australia’s fire volunteers and the behaviour of NSW’s leadership under pressure have been an inspiration to the next generation.

We will learn to improve our game, to prepare for fires better, improve damage control and recovery for communities and for nature. Wildlife carers, all volunteers, literally jumped into the fray, so where wildlife were down, carers were there with them in the regions, and by taking food and first aid to them Greens MLC Cate Faehrmann set an example.

A billion animals may have been lost, but we can minimise further losses and accelerate recovery. Matt Kean has heard the call for pest control and promised “the best ever post-fire control campaign ever”. Three cheers for Matt!

Threatened animals at risk from wildfire need special attention, such as upland swamps home to range of highly threatened flora and fauna that must be protected from feral horses. We must ensure resources flow to where fire threatened species need it most.

As always, fires in Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area burnt patchily. But now, for the first time, scientists have fire intensity data (see figure above) to compare against wildlife habitat maps. These fire intensity data are right now being checked against on-ground impacts. Some will be wrong, but NPWS scientists improve its application to management and it will make a big difference to effective recovery.

Some parks need more help than others. Gondwana rainforests were hit like never before, but its not all badly hit. From what I saw in October of the rainforest damage at World Heritage listed Mt Hyland Nature Reserve near Dorrigo wasn’t extensive, but limited and patchy, due to work by volunteers. Unfortunately, where heathlands were touched by fire they burnt through. It’s what fire does to them, such as at Bundjalung National Park, north of Iluka and in the Budawangs west of Ulladulla.

This new fire intensity mapping provides some assurance that the Blue Mountains ain't "dead". There can be argument about the detail, but by in large that is what these data say. The extent and integrity of the Blue Mountains wilderness has afforded wildlife refugia from all the Gospers, Grose, Erskine and Green Wattle Creek fires. There are patches of bush everywhere from which wildlife populations will expand, provided there’s not another large wildfire for a few years and effective pest control is applied.

There’s no doubt that this is most extensive fire event that NSW has had, but whether the intensity of these fires were greater than previously remains to be determined. There is lots of work to do to understand this huge fire event, to improve management of fires for nature, as well as for assets and people.

At the moment fire politics is highly charged. Knee-jerk calls for more hazard reduction are generally at odds with reality. The places that need hazard reduction now are the unburnt bushlands surrounding settlements. Obviously the wilderness has had enough “treatment” for a few years. Fire management in wilderness must continue to be for the maintenance of its various environments within scientifically-determined desirable limits. (see Colong Foundation's bushfire policy)

While the national parks are so impacted, they certainly can’t take being logged or grazed as Deputy Premier Barilaro and friends all demand. Today there are rumours of moves to sack Matt Kean, and that reveals just how far out of sync with public opinion the National Party has become.

It is great that there’s a high level of awareness and concern for nature, more than ever before. It needs to be guided, and the NPWS and Matt Kean are working hard on a plan. Wildlife and wildplant rescue must be in proportion to where need is greatest. We will get better at nature defence and recovery. The NPWS saved the Wollemi Pine, and with new knowledge and skills gained we will save wilderness and threatened species again and again till climate change is rapidly pushed back towards climate normality.

Keep being a part of the changes that we need to see, and support those in politics who work to greatly reduce carbon pollution, whether they be coloured red, blue, green or brown, as we need them all.


Keith Muir
The Colong Foundation for Wilderness Ltd