A Rainforest on the Brink

By John Edwards

I first inspected what I now refer to as the Rockview-Sheraton’s rainforest in July 2019. This was part of an assessment process to choose various dry rainforest remnants for inclusion in a Biodiversity Conservation Trust funded Dry Rainforest program which is still running.

I was surprised and impressed by the size and quality of the remnant, possibly exceeding 20ha, which was recovering well despite having been very heavily logged 10 years earlier. That was before the property was compulsorily acquired for the regional water supply.

At that time, I determined it represented a relatively rare dry rainforest forest community – #348: Small-leaved Tuckeroo – Red Kamala dry rainforest with emergent Hoop Pine and Steel Box on the northern hinterland ranges, South Eastern Queensland Bioregion and NSW North Coast Bioregion.

Given subsequent events, it is interesting to read my original weed and flora report on that site, beginning with an image (see right) with the caption “Dangerous work environment – steep and slippery”, with commentary explaining that: “The first survey of the northern slope began from the gully, moving directly up-slope in a northerly direction. To give an indication of the steepness, the straight-line horizontal distance travelled is only 180 metres, and in that distance the slope rose by 80m. How it was ever logged, or why it was allowed to happen, is difficult to imagine”.

It was mid-winter at the time, and the forest was already suffering from what was to turn out to be the worst drought conditions on record. It was in that same month that a bushfire erupted in the Lanitza-Halfway Creek area south of Grafton, burning for over a week across dozens of private properties with the Rural Fire Services powerless to stop it. This fact, combined with on-ground observations of the desperately dry conditions prevailing at the time, prompted the Clarence Environment Centre to write to the emergency services minister, begging for total fire bans to be imposed.

Those pleas were ignored, and in mid-August, with fire permits yet to be required, the entire north coast of NSW and eastern Queensland erupted in flames, a situation that continued for five months in the worst bushfire catastrophe ever recorded in Australia.

“Rockview” was impacted by two separate blazes, the Chambigne fire in August, when the emergency began, and that fire was allowed to burn for some 4 weeks with very little attempt made to extinguish it. That was because there were no homes threatened and there simply weren’t the resources available. Some successful efforts, using water bombers and fire retardant, did save most of Chambigne Nature Reserve, but that was all.

In some respects, that early fire was probably fortunate, because in late November, the unburned parts of “Rockview” to the south and east were decimated by the killer Liberation Trail fire, that destroyed over 100 homes Waitaliba and Nymboida.

It was that late winter blaze that burned through the subject rainforest remnant but, as that remnant was never included in the original project, I never returned to assess the extent of the damage until now, February – March 2023. However, the lack of canopy scorching at the time, observed from a distance, had led me to assume that it had escaped any serious damage.

Tree trunks littering the forest floor, having been felled by bushfire.

As a result, the current surveys, undertaken to map weeds and threatened species as part of a new Saving our Species funded project, have revealed some disturbing facts. Specifically, that many of the smaller trees had been burned alive, so to speak. That is to say, the moisture content in those drought-stressed trees, allowed the fire to slowly burn through the living tree trunks at their base, resulting in the tree eventually falling.

This is something I have observed happening elsewhere, downed trees, lying in the ashes with scorched leaves attached to branches, indicating they were living trees that had fallen at some stage after the main fire-front had passed. At the subject site I found the trunks, with their charred bases, still littering the forest floor everywhere (see right), and not all are small trees.

I also found that, as a result of the greatly thinned canopy, there has been a dense regrowth of mostly native species such as Native Rosella (Hibiscus heterophyllus), and a significant increase in Lantana (Lantana camara), and the occasional exotic vine.

The crumbling slopes are an indication of a serious problem that will be difficult to fix.

The worst thing that could possibly occur in the immediate aftermath of the fire, was flooding rain. But that is exactly what did occur, and those wet conditions prevailed until spring 2022, with more record flooding in the region. The subsequent erosion was horrific and initially, with no vegetation or leaf litter to slow the water, the fragile soils on the steep slopes of the Shannon Creek area began to give, and my observations are that the slopes are still on the move.

Land slippage in the vicinity, and across the broader landscape at “Rockview”, is nothing new. That is the direct result of land-management practices over the past 170 years, which saw large areas cleared for cattle grazing, a long history of logging, culminating in the stripping of every saleable stick of timber earlier this century, and too frequent burning.

Landslide areas such as that pictured below can be seen all across the landscape, once lush rainforest now replaced by Lantana monocultures.

This 2019 image of a relatively recent landslip area, likely exacerbated by heavy logging activity 15 to 20 years ago, shows the typically treeless landscape, choked with Lantana
Dead Lantana after spraying.

The situation is not altogether without hope of recovery. The image at left is part of that same landslip area after the Clarence Environment Centre’s team has sprayed it.

The biggest concern now is that another fire will impact the site before natural regeneration takes place, something that is already occurring (see right). Another fire now would remove the dead Lantana, kill the emerging plants and leave the site vulnerable to further land slippage.

Nevertheless, amidst all of this doom and gloom there is still beauty, a lot of it.

However, bushfire is the greatest threat currently facing the environment, and must be avoided if at all possible. In my opinion, we stand to lose it all if we don’t, so this is where our country wide focus needs to be.

Compiled by John Edwards
Honorary Secretary, Clarence Environment Centre