As we know, Snow Gums face a massive threat from the spread of dieback which is caused by a native beetle, but which is now being super charged by climate change.
There is another emerging issue: localised collapse of snow gum woodlands due to more frequent fires.
Friends of the Earth recently released a report called An Icon at Risk: current and emerging threats to the Victorian Alps (available here), which points out that climate driven fires are starting to lead to localised collapse of Snow Gum woodlands where regular fires have caused death of parent trees and seedlings.
These forests are fire adapted and can recover from fire. But the dilemma we face is that , since the turn of the 21st century, fires are becoming more frequent and pushing this vegetation community towards ecological collapse.
No one knows the scale of this problem.
That’s where you come in.
We are hoping that, while you’re having an adventure in the Alps, you will start to track where you spot localised loss of Snow Gums – where trees are being replaced by grass or shrubs, with no regrowth from parent trees or seedlings.
We are aware of locations on the Dargo High Plains, Bogong High Plains, near Mt Tabletop and elsewhere where there is localised collapse of Snow Gum communities.
We hope you can add to the knowledge base by sending in your observations:
- A simple description of where the site is (using map or GPS co-ordinates)
- Include an indicative photo of the site if possible
- Give an in indication of the size of the localised loss (eg 10 metres by 50 metres)
- Any other notes you think are relevant (eg notes on recent fire history in the area)
We will aim to map this and use it in our efforts to encourage the state government to carry out an assessment of the scale of threats to Snow Gum communities (please help us to get this on the government’s radar by signing this letter).
You can email the details: email@example.com
[IMAGE: this old Snow Gum, in a forest of younger trees, is a reminder that this species can cope with fire. The problem we are facing is the increased frequency of fire].
Find out more
- Read An Icon Under Threat (and the key recommendations here).
- Please sign our petition calling on the state government to take action to protect these forests.
- Make a donation to help us print and distribute the report to key decision makers.
- Read ABC News coverage of the report.
Note that Snow Gum dieback is a different (but equally concerning) issue. To find out more and report dieback, please check this website. This is best done while at the site of dieback as the app can find your location and automatically log it. You then upload an image.
Background – why do we need this research?
Snow gums are the classic alpine tree of the mainland, generally growing at heights between 1,300 and 1,800 metres asl. But wildfire has been devastating large swathes of snow gum habitat, with significant fires in the Victorian High Country in 1998, 2002/3, 2006/7, 2013 and 2019/20. Much of Kosciuszko National Park was burnt in 2003 and 2019/20. South Eastern Australia suffered from a drought that lasted more than a decade and this has increased the severity of the fires that have occurred since the turn of the 21st century. It is estimated that the 2019-2020 bushfires impacted 462 km2 (33%) of mapped snow gum forest that regularly has seasonal snowpack.
The species regenerates from seed, by epicormic shoots below the bark, and from lignotubers. A lignotuber is a woody swelling of the root crown possessed by some plants as a protection against destruction of the plant stem, such as by fire.
After fire, the parent tree is often killed back to ground level, with subsequent re-shooting of leaves from epicormic shoots or lignotuber. In this way, individual trees can exist through various ‘lives’, often surviving multiple fires. However, more frequent fires is causing more death of trees.
‘We found that the lignotuber continued to re-sprout very well after one fire, but after two and three fires, the number of new sprouts significantly declined. The level of whole-tree death (that is, the stems and lignotuber dying) was fairly low following one and even two, fires; however, after three successive fires, on average half of all trees in our plots were dead. In some plots, this figure was as high as 80 per cent of all trees’. (source).
It is possible that repeated fire will lead to the localised loss of snow gum forest and woodland. They could convert to shrubby wastelands, possibly dominated by wattles. There are already areas across the Alps where the forests are starting to transition from Snow Gums to something else.
Are snow gums going to be lost to climate change?
The Victorian government is now so concerned about the threat of fire on Alpine Ash – another mountain tree species – that it has launched a seeding program to help the species survive.
As yet the government does not see the need to intervene in the same way with Snow Gums.
Who is tracking this issue? Who would make the call to intervene?
Research shows that to protect these forests, we need to reduce the frequency and intensity of fires in these communities.
To keep fire out of these systems, we need additional resources for ground and air fire fighting:
- a volunteer remote area firefighting team, as Tasmania and NSW already have,
- additional air resources – including a publicly owned air fleet, and
- additional remote area career fire fighters (to their credit, the Victorian government has increased the number of fire fighters in the last state budget).
Having extra resources means we can protect these forests from fire rather than having to focus on towns and other human assets during bad fire seasons.
Sadly, Snow Gums are also at risk from dieback, which is caused by a native beetle, but which appears to be made worse by the warming being driven by climate change.
Some examples of local collapse
The forest above, located off the Dargo High Plains road, has been burnt several times and exhibits a profound loss of Snow Gum trees. It is now dominated by low shrubs and grasses.
This slope pictured above, just south of JB Plain in the Alpine National Park was burnt in 2019/20. The fire burnt hot up a hill and is now dominated by grass. Some understory species are returning, however there is no obvious seedling or lignotuber growth by Snow Gums.
Above: localised loss of Snow Gums near Raspberry Hill, southern side of Bogong High Plains, VIC (there is some patchy lignotuber regrowth, as shown by the tree on the left of the image).
Above: fire killed forest near JB Plain, VIC.
Above: a fire burnt hot up this slope in early 2020. While it was patchy (there are many areas where parent trees survived and there is epicormic regrowth) there are localised areas where no recovery is evident. Near Carmichaels Falls, VIC. Living trees in the background indicate where the fire slowed down as it reached flatter ground.
Above: this area is adjacent to the Boiler Plain Reference Area, just south of Paw Paw Plain, within the Alpine National Park. It was burnt in January 2020. Site visits in March 2021 identified significant areas with no seedlings or epicormic regrowth. Image: Stephen Curtain, winter 2021 .