Friday 26 February 2016

Rufus Part 1: Repeat Offenders

 “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.” – John Muir

Jim and I are on top of Mt Rufus, at the southern end of the Cradle Mt-Lake St Clair National Park. It’s one of those blissful, blue-skied, summer days where you feel you can see the whole of Tasmania; the kind of day that might have you asking “How often does it get this good?” Except that, had I asked that question, Jim would have replied “Well, there was yesterday.”

[Tim on Mt Rufus, with Mt Gell behind] 
So how is it that we’re summiting Rufus two days in a row, and in such amazing conditions? In part the answer is bushfires; and in part it’s drought, El Nino, and even climate change. All of those elements have combined to bring us twice to Mt Rufus.

I’ve already characterised this summer’s bushfires as catastrophic, at least for our rare highland species (see here) In that context it’s just a minor inconvenience that our group finds itself at Mt Rufus because fires have closed the track to our intended destination. As the days of our planned walk in the Central Plateau drew nearer, the weather remained hot, and Tasmania remained ablaze. Even our Plan B – a walk in the south-west – was scuttled by closed tracks.

It shows the riches of bushwalking in Tasmania when a place as beautiful as the 1416m Mt Rufus can be part of Plan C. Still, why summit twice? Heat comes into it again. Hot February weather isn’t conducive to steep and steamy adventuring, at least not for me. Instead we’ve chosen to base ourselves on the side of Mt Rufus, at the Joe Slatter Hut (more on that here), and do some tamer explorations of the nearby wilderness.

Yet it isn’t just about heat. The fires ravaging parts of our wilderness have taken my soul to a dark place. Good company and good conversation will help that, but so too will being slow and quiet in the presence of grand vistas and tall trees. But with wilderness it’s not just about size. I’m also here to seek out some of the smaller wonders, from delicate wildflowers to intricately eroded rock formations. And I especially want to see pencil pines, to pay my respects, to hear their tidings after this most dreadful of summers.

[Tim photographing Fairy's Apron flowers on the Gingerbread Track]
So Jim, Tim, Georgianna and I trundle up the Gingerbread Track and settle in to Joe Slatter Hut. The next day is fine and very warm, and we depart slowly, not keen to hurry into the heat. But we’re already hot and sweaty as we reach Gingerbread Hut, a bit more than half way up Mt Rufus. There Georgianna offers us themed refreshments: some gingernut snaps to scoff while we cool off inside the quaint little hut.

[Ginger biscuits at Gingerbread Hut [photo by Jim, courtesy of Georgianna]) 
Before long – although not without more sweat – we’re on top of Rufus. We’ve come up the route-less-travelled, but meet “traffic” as we join the main track near the summit. And why wouldn’t people have made the effort to climb up here from Cynthia Bay – the usual route – given the extraordinary scenes that the mountain-top affords on a day like this? To the west are Mt Gell and the Cheyne Range, and in the distance beyond that the distinctive dome of Frenchmans Cap. To the north, and closer, the crooked domes of Byron, Cuvier and Gould are the warm-up act for the craggy bulk of the Du Cane Range. And that in turn resolves into Mt Ossa and the Pelions, the roof of Tasmania.

Over lunch we share information and enthusiasm with the other walkers, some from as far away as France, Italy and Spain. They’ve all seen grander mountains at home, for sure, but nothing has prepared them for the palpable sense of wilderness here. From this summit we are not seeing the likes of roads, buildings, towns, powerlines and cable-cars, which seem to be the staple of European high places. The walkers’ faces show their appreciation of the wonder of this place.

[Looking towards the King William Range from the side of Mt Rufus] 
Meanwhile Tim and his cousin Georgianna are eyeing off our neighbouring mountain, Mt Hugel. It sits on the other side of an ancient cirque that once fed glacial ice down to leeawuleena/Lake St Clair, gouging out Forgotten Lake and Shadow Lake in the process. We’re too late for explorations in the Hugel direction today, but when Tim starts saying things like “How hard could it be?”, we know an idea has lodged firmly in his mind.

[Paper daisies on Mt Rufus] 
For now we’re all content descending in a slow, erratic and mainly off-track fashion. Below the Gingerbread Hut we find a well-watered clearing that would make a great camping spot, in fair weather at least. A small, sometimes underground creek meanders through the low bush, finding the occasional pool or mini-tarn to slow its way down the mountain.

The day has reached its hottest, and we pause to taste the creek water. If there is any beverage that can beat the pure cold water of a mountain creek, I’ve yet to taste it. From there were fan out to explore the scrub, and to wander slowly downwards. There are patches of scoparia, and a few marshy spots, but we avoid those, and head instead towards a small and lonely-looking stand of pencil pines. 

[A small stand of pencil pines near Mt Rufus] 
I push through the scented foliage into the thick shade of what I assume to be a young stand of trees. But in the centre I find a gnarled old tree, stooped, forked, but thick with growth. It must be several hundred years old. I breathe deeply, take in its good air, and grieve a while for its sibling pines that have gone forever in this summer’s fires.

And then we slowly make our way back to the hut, stopping for photographs, water and anything else that takes our fancy. Sometimes it’s good just to amble.

Thursday 4 February 2016

A Tasmanian Catastrophe

Have you ever stepped into one of those pubs? I mean the dingy, seedy, noisy type of establishment, where most of the patrons love nothing better than a loud, aggressive argument, and a fist fight is just a misplaced word away? I feel as though I’ve been in one of those pubs for much of the last week.

It’s not been an actual pub of course, but the internet. And these days the web joins the pub and the media as one of the major courts of public opinion. The arguments and potential fisticuffs have been about the bushfires that are still burning in the wilder parts of Tasmania. I’ve been arguing that these fires are catastrophic, and require urgent action. But I've been met with a dismaying array of counter arguments and even indifference.

[Burned scene with cushion plants, near Lake Mackenzie, 2016. (Photo courtesy Rob Blakers)] 
Let’s start with some bare facts that should be beyond argument.
  • 2015 was one of the driest and warmest years on record in Tasmania
  • Spring 2015 was the driest ever recorded in Tasmania
  • On January 13, 2016, and again on January 27, thunderstorms crossed our island state
  • Lightning strikes not accompanied by significant rain (commonly known as dry lightning) ignited more than 70 fires
  • Most fires started in remote, uninhabited areas, including the Central Plateau, part of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (TWWHA), and the Tarkine region in the state’s far north-west
  • As of the time of writing, many thousands of hectares - some 2% of the Wilderness World Heritage Area - have been burned
  • As of the time of writing, no human lives have been lost, and no houses have burned down

[Recently burned pine, Central Plateau (Photo courtesy Rob Blakers)]
For what follows, I want to concentrate on the fires in the Central Plateau, and most particularly those burning in its rare high-altitude plant communities. I will start by looking at, and responding to, some of the dismaying, misleading or just plain wrong ideas about the fires in those alpine areas.

“Fire is a natural part of the Australian environment: always has been, always will be.”

It’s true that in many places across much of Australia, fire shapes our vegetation. But there are some very notable exceptions. Plant communities which have developed in the absence of fire include rainforests and the relict Gondwanan vegetation of Tasmania. That includes pencil pines, King Billy pines and deciduous beech, and the complex, waterlogged peat soil communities in which they thrive.

These plant communities, some of which date back 65 million years, are so special and so rare anywhere in the world, that they were one of the main reasons the Tasmanian wilderness was declared to be of World Heritage significance by UNESCO. But these plant communities are not at all fire-adapted. Pencil pines, for instance, regenerate via the shedding of cones, which occurs only every five or six years. They can also spread vegetatively via suckering. Neither method allows them to spread far from the parent tree, which is one reason we see them growing in stands. One hot, local fire will kill both the trees and their seeds, leading to local extinction.

Fire is NOT a natural part of the highest and wettest parts of the Tasmanian highlands. Fire ecologists tells us that natural fires have been either totally absent, or extremely rare, over much of this country for millions of years.

[No regrowth for this dead giant (Photo courtesy Rob Blakers)]
“These fires were caused by lightning, so they were totally natural. Surely this is what has always happened.”

While these fires were caused by lightning, this has not always happened in Tasmania. Dry lightning was once very rare, but is now happening with greater frequency. This was predicted to be one of the results of climate change, as warmer, longer dry periods, and more frequent extreme events (including thunderstorms in Tasmania) occur. Dry lightning fires have now been regularly recorded most years since 2003, and some consider this to be the “new normal”.

 “Surely Aboriginal people burned all of Tasmania over many thousands of years.”

Yes they did, but with two big provisos. Firstly their use of fire was usually small scale rather than landscape wide. And it occurred during the cooler months. Their so called “mosaic burns” promoted patches of regrowth, but left adjacent areas as unburned refuges for the mammals they were hunting. Secondly, waterlogged and peat areas, including pine stands, would have mostly been untouched by such fires, as they contained little grazing grass and didn’t burn well in the cooler seasons.

[A stand of healthy pencil pine, Central Plateau]
“It’s an El Nino year. We always get hot, dry weather in Tasmania during an El Nino pattern. This is no different.”

Actually it is different. While this is an El Nino summer, the extreme conditions in such years – including the occurrence of dry lightning – are becoming accentuated as a result of climate change. As Professor David Bowman of the University of Tasmania says, “We are in a new place. We just have to accept that we’ve crossed a threshold, I suspect. This is what climate change looks like.”

“Fire regenerates the bush. There have been big fires in the highlands before, and the bush recovers.”

Fire does not regenerate all species. As we saw above, pencil pines are killed outright by hot fires. Other species, and the peat soils on which they depend, are also killed by fire.

[Recovery? 50 years after a fire at Great Pine Tier: click to enlarge] 
As for the fires that previously ravaged the plateau, such as the deliberately lit fires of 1960-61, it’s very clear that the bush did not recover (see photo above). Thousands of dead pencil pines, and peat soils burned down to bedrock, stand as witness to their local extinction. Other species slowly take over, but the unique Gondwanan coniferous heathland is gone forever.

* * *

As I step out of “pub”, I realise that we’re never going to resolve this dispute through argument alone. If I had my way I would far prefer taking some of the “pub’s patrons” with me into these pine-dotted landscapes to experience them for themselves.

I’d want them to share the unique light, to breathe that strangely ancient air, to feel the timelessness of these ancient stands. I try to imagine them joining me just a month ago when, as a tired bushwalker looking for a safe place to put my tent, I took refuge in a stand of pencil pines close by a lake. Putting my tent up beside their stout trunks, I lay back on a bed of pine needles and watched as stars wheeled overhead, filtered through the foliage. If they’d been there they too might have known the comfort, shade and shelter, and the indefinable, muted peacefulness that these pines give.

[The comfort of pines: Central Plateau] 
And what if we’d been there together on the night of those storms, as vast clouds loomed and darkened, and lightning slashed from the sky, but rain refused to fall? Then in the growing dark, as flames from the lightning-lit fires became visible, would they have remained indifferent then? Or if they’d joined my friends Dan Broun and Rob Blakers, who walked through the charred landscapes to record this catastrophe just days after the fires started, what would their argument have been then? Having experienced these unique places, wouldn’t they have wanted to do anything to prevent this sort of catastrophe ever happening?

Any parent who loves a child, any person who loves another, will know how fiercely you want to protect what you love. It’s time more of us loved these ancient treasures before it’s too late. They’re in need of our protection now.

* * *

I would like to acknowledge the fire crews from many Tasmanian and interstate agencies, plus remote area fire fighters from as far away as New Zealand, who have been working incredibly hard to quell these fires. It is a very complex task in rugged terrain, with difficult access in sometimes extreme weather conditions. Low cloud and rain have sometimes made it difficult to get to the fires and to assess their condition, as this is mostly done via helicopter. It still remains to be seen whether they were given sufficient resources, at an early enough stage, to adequately deal with this catastrophe.