We all remember the terrible fire season of 2019/20. Among the huge range of impacts on people and landscapes, one significant detail was that the tourism season basically didn’t happen across much of the south east that year. Mountain towns, ski resorts, even valley communities were evacuated. Lots of people missed out on summer holidays. And many workers and businesses suffered terrible economic losses (compounded soon after by covid lockdowns).

It makes you wonder what the future looks like for communities that rely on beautiful natural environments to attract visitors, who then underpin the local economy. With forecasts of longer and more intense fire seasons, and more erratic snowpack in winter, it is hard not to see a future where ecosystems and local economies don’t struggle to adapt to the changes that are coming.

This problem is likely to occur everywhere. For instance, recent research, published in Global Environmental Change, looked at how the use of state and federal public lands in the United States may change in the next 30 years under two different warming scenarios.

The biggest changes, they found, will come during the summer months. Their research showed that by 2050 it will ‘simply be too hot to have fun outdoors in many places’.

This probably resonates for many Australians.

The research suggests that for the winter months, when current temperatures tend to keep people away from forests and woodlands, that will change, too. Warmer temperatures will result in more people looking to access public lands.

Details on the report, published in Adventure Journal, also identify that land managers will also need to adapt to the changes, which will have implications for assets within parks and local communities.

How do we love burnt lands?

There is a deeper issue at play here.

In the Global Environmental Change study, researchers noted that in addition to increased heat, climate change could remove many of the qualities people currently admire about our public lands, for instance people may not want to visit areas that have been repeatedly burnt by bushfires.

‘Climate change has already triggered challenges to public lands’ access. In September high-wildlife risk forced California officials to temporarily close all the state’s national forests. And last year, during the height of the tourism season, Yosemite National Park closed because of dangerous air quality from the region’s wildfires. Climate change is increasing the severity of fire risk across the West, and shifting the annual fall foliage season in the northeast’.

The National Parks Conservation Association has warned that rising seas, longer droughts, less snow, and more severe storms from climate change also threaten these prized ecosystems.

“Nearly everything we know and love about the parks — their plants and animals, rivers and lakes, glaciers, beaches, historic structures, and more — is already under stress from these changes, which together amount to a state of crisis for our public lands,” the organisation reported.

You can see that here. Just drive into the mountains from Bright or Mt Beauty. Miles of grey, dead trees. The land is different to what it was.

You can find the research report here.

Living in the land

The other thing I worry about is our connection to the places we love, the places that feed us. As they are burnt and changed beyond recognition, will we still be drawn to them, and still love them? Climate grief is a natural reaction to what is happening around us.

Yes, Australia is a fire prone continent. But there are many places that ‘aren’t meant to burn’ – cool temperate and subtropical rainforests as obvious examples, which are now being consumed by fire. And the concept of the home or community nestled in a forested landscape becomes increasingly fraught. Can these type of communities survive, or will we need to change our relationship with vegetation and fire so profoundly that the physical makeup of our communities will be different? Will we become scared of the Bush?

Will we still feel at ease living among the tall trees? Think of all the townships that are dotted along the roads and the railway line that snake west from the Sydney Plains into the Blue Mountains. They are all tucked in among forests. Or Marysville, Noojee, Harrietville, the ski resorts, or any number of small towns nestled in forests throughout the hill and mountain country of south eastern Australia. And as fire becomes ever more common in Tasmania, what about cabin communities like Miena on the Central Plateau or tourist meccas like the Cradle Valley and Derwent Bridge areas?

We are in an era of fire. This will not change. But our relationships with our flammable landscapes can get stronger rather than be weakened by fear of fire.

We don’t want to turn away from the landscapes we love: they are part of who we are and help define us and our communities.

There is a Bit more thinking on what we need to do here.

The antidote for despair is always action

With fire impacting on mountain environments, we need to get a better understanding of how the high elevation forests are coping with this new ‘normal’. If you visit mountain areas out of winter please consider contributing your observations about localised loss of snow gums to this citizen science project run by Friends of the Earth.

And please sign this letter to the Victorian Minister for the Environment, urging her to act on the recommendations in the Icon at Risk report which outlines many threats to the Victorian high country.