In March this year, I sat on the summit of one of my favourite hills, Mt Blowhard, and watched the fires just to the south, which were in the Dargo River valley and burning up onto the Dargo High Plains. Already a mosaic of burnt and reburnt forest, now characterised by the grey trunks of burnt trees, I knew that this would be another wave of impact on these mountain forests. Some parts of north east VIC have now burnt more than three times in a bit over a decade. Scientists warn about the loss of alpine ash and snow gum if the frequency of fire continues to increase.
In February this year, the Central Highlands Council in Tasmania rejected the Lake Malbena tourism development.
The controversial ‘helicopter tourism’ development planned for Halls Island in Lake Malbena on Tasmania’s central plateau had previously been approved by state and federal governments. The local Council was the last government authority which needed to sign off on the project. It rejected it and it had been hoped that the decision by Council would be the end of the proposal.
However, the developer lodged an appeal against this decision. And now the state’s planning tribunal has overturned Central Highlands Councils attempt to have it blocked.
This summer, Parks Victoria (PV) will continue its volunteer program which is working on eradicating the invasive Hawkweed from the Bogong High Plains.
Hawkweeds are a highly invasive pest plant species which could cause major environmental damage in alpine and sub-alpine areas of Australia if not eradicated early.
The volunteer courses run out of Falls Creek over the summer in week long blocks. Details are below.
There has been a limited number of private commercial tourism operations developed in wild places in Tasmania’s reserve system. There has also been a long campaign by some in the Tasmanian government and business to open up more of the state’s World Heritage and other protected areas to commercial development.
In 2018, plans were revealed to build a fly-in, fly-out luxury camp at Lake Malbena in Tasmania’s Wilderness World Heritage Area (TWWHA) on the Central Plateau. It is a remote location, to the south east of the famed Walls of Jerusalem area. The plan includes a helipad, accommodation, kitchen and toilet facilities.
More recently, the Tasmanian government promised $20 million to develop Tasmania’s “Next Iconic Walk”, which was intended to be another hut-based multi-day ‘Three Capes Track’-style development. After a public call for ideas last year, some 20 odd submissions were apparently received, but the full list has never been made public. Then, after another internal process without public scrutiny or clearly detailed selection criteria, the chosen option was announced on 26 July. Based on a proposal from the West Coast Tourism Association, it focuses on the Tyndall Range in the west of the state. The process by which prospective developments are assessed has been questioned over its transparency.
All these plans have been controversial and generated substantial opposition. Now they have attracted the attention of the auditor-general who has announced an investigation into the Expression of Interest (EOI) process for these developments.
We know that climate change is driving hotter and drier summers, and making fire seasons worse, and this is already impacting on mountain environments. Last summer there were significant fires across eastern Victoria and the Victorian Mountains, as well as in Tasmania. While the largest one burned in the Bunyip state park about 65km east of Melbourne, there were also fires which closed the Southern Alps and Foothills areas of the Alpine National Park, especially around Dargo and Licola.
One of the features of these fires was the formation of pyrocumulus clouds (as shown in the image above, taken from the north of the fire burning out of the Dargo River and onto the Dargo High Plains, with Mt Blowhard in the foreground). The Licola fire burnt with such ferocity it was visible on the Bureau of Meteorology’s radar. A huge thundercloud formed from the fire, which then produced more than 1,200 lightning strikes, some of which sparked new fires. It created unpredictable weather conditions that hampered fire fighting efforts.
We know that climate change is driving hotter and drier summers, and making fire seasons worse, and this is impacting on mountain environments. From the huge fires in Tasmania over the 2018/ 19 summer to repeated wildfire in the Victorian Alps which is changing the nature of ecosystems, fire is increasingly impacting negatively on mountain ecosystems. We also know that we need to expect a ‘highly active’ fire season this summer.
While the impacts on natural systems is obvious, there are also many economic ones, as longer and more dangerous fire seasons see mountain areas closed to tourism and other economic activity.
There is also the threat to the ability of fire fighting services to fight fires wherever they emerge. Traditionally, the various fire services share resources, both between the states and internationally. But as fire seasons become longer, there is more overlap of local fire seasons, and hence it is harder for individual states to release fire fighting equipment and crews to support other areas.
The economic cost of fighting fires also goes up.
And as demands on fire fighting agencies increase, there is the risk that ‘asset management’ (protection of human structures) can override the need to protect sensitive natural environments where there simply aren’t enough resources to fight all the fires.
Recently, 23 emergency services experts from every state and territory have written to the federal government, asking for strategic national firefighting resources to cope with climate change. They have joined together to highlight the risks of worse and more sustained fire seasons to our ability to fight fires in an effective and timely fashion.
The NSW government has now released the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Snowy 2.0 hydro project.
At the core of the Snowy Hydro 2.0 expansion will be the establishment of a new underground tunnel linking the Tantangara and Talbingo reservoirs and the commissioning of a new underground power station that will operate as Australia’s largest pumped hydro energy storage system.
The main works for the Snowy 2.0 project will include the removal of an estimated 9 million cubic meters of excavated rock. The federal government owned Snowy Hydro has proposed that more than half of this excavated material be relocated within either the Talbingo or Tantangara reservoirs, with the remaining material used to establish permanent structures, or for land forming.
While the prospect of a renewed Snowy Hydro scheme, operating as the ‘battery’ for the eastern seaboard, has appeal from a climate angle, it has not – until now – been clear what the physical footprint of the project might be. The EIS outlines the likely direct impacts of the works that would be required under the scheme. The National Parks Association of NSW (NPA) says that the EIS ‘proposes a completely unacceptable level of damage to Kosciusko National Park’.
We know that temperatures are increasing around the planet, and that this temperature increase is not uniform – areas at higher latitudes are experiencing a faster warming than areas closer to the equator. We also know that our own alpine environments are being affected by more erratic snow seasons, greater drought and longer fire seasons, and that this is affecting both plant and animal communities. This warming is more apparent at higher elevations.
Australia’s higher mountain ranges are relatively low and located at moderate latitudes. Our alpine zones are often quite isolated from each other, which increases the risk of localised species or community loss if a devastating fire impacts any particular area. We know that the snow line is rising and snowpack is in decline. As the snowline gets higher, warmer conditions will allow species to colonise higher up the mountain zones, potentially meaning that, over time, true alpine vegetation communities are ‘pushed’ off the top of mountains. For instance, recent research conducted by Brodie Verrall and Catherine Pickering from Griffith University found that subalpine grasslands will be impacted by ‘warmer and drier conditions becoming more common and repeat fires in some areas’, (resulting in changes to) ‘the distribution and composition of this and other communities in the Australian Alps’.
The following update on efforts to reduce the amount of rubbish going into landfill at Mt Hotham comes from the Resort Management Board:
‘Hotham’s pristine environment is a key reason people visit year after year, and it’s the responsibility of the Mt Hotham Alpine Resort Management Board (MHARMB) to protect this precious place. Over the past two decades MHARMB has worked to reduce the amount of rubbish exiting the resort into landfill. From 2002 to 2010 an active recycling program saw the amount of collected compacted recyclables double, and from 2010 to 2017 the amount of annual waste sent to landfill reduced by 112.5 tonnes.
The Chaser’s War on Waste has helped bring the issue of waste and its impact on the environment to the notice of everyone, but Australia continues to be to among the most wasteful nations in the developed world. However, Hotham is doing its bit in this battle and even as visitation grows year on year, the resort continues to reduce the amount of rubbish it puts into landfill.
Here on the mountain, MHARMB provides transparent red bags for municipal waste, clear bags for recycling and ‘Livin Bin’ green containers with opaque compostable liners for organics and food waste. In winter garbage is collected every day, with all waste from around the mountain taken to the recycling shed where it is sorted. The transparent red bags recently replaced opaque black bags to allow collection staff to identify and remove any items that can be recycled rather than be placed in landfill.
The empty plastic bags and all cardboard is baled and recycled by the garbage team, while co-mingled recycle items are sent to Tambo Waste near Bairnsdale. General trash is sent to the resort’s landfill site at Cobungra, while food waste is put in skips until full and are then delivered to the Cobungra facility to be composted. The compost is then used for revegetation programs.
Batteries are taken by MHARMB too (via collection bin in the MHARMB office), and cigarette butts are collected from butt bins; both are sent for recycling while the resort’s hard waste collection has recently expanded to include e-waste. Additionally, foam boxes are collected, stored and at the end of the ski season taken to Albury Transfer Station where they are chipped and melted into blocks for reuse – last year half a tonne of foam left the resort.
These are the main collection streams on the mountain but there are also many other items gathered and recycled by individuals, lodges and even Hotham Kids Club. Many of these initiatives have been kickstarted by MHARMB’s Environmental Officer Bev Lawrence (pictured here at the recent Backcountry Festival), a local icon who is passionate about reducing waste to preserve our fragile environment.
“Landfill is filling up and if we don’t slow it we’re just going to go under with rubbish. If something can be recycled or reused rather than being put into the ground – great,” Bev said. “People who get involved in recycling tend to see the long-term picture and the garbage team here at Hotham is really passionate and very committed to what they do.”
Bev says people often don’t believe the effort the resort goes to reduce solid waste and to dispel any myths, she runs tours of the recycling shed for anyone wanting to learn more. If you are interested in a tour of the Hotham recycling centre you can email Bev at email@example.com.
You might remember when the president of the International Ski Federation (FIS) Gian Franco Kasper went on-the-record in February, denying human-caused climate change and the science that supports it? Many in the snow sports community were suitably outraged, and Protect Our Winters (POW) started a letter writing campaign to ensure that FIS adopted a position consistent with mainstream climate science.
Following the campaign, FIS announced this week that it had joined the U.N. Sports for Climate Action Framework and made it part of its sustainability policy.
POW reports that ‘after seven months and more than 9,000 letters sent to FIS from the outdoor community, check out what we’ve accomplished together––it’s encouraging news and shows what the outdoor community is capable of’.