By April 2020 let's hope that Australia's catastrophic fire season is finally over ... at least until next season. The forests, woodlands and native grasslands that have been burned are not permanently destroyed as often proclaimed in the media. But they will take some time to regrow. Most forests will recover, although others may be irreversibly changed. But will koala populations rebound? How will other iconic native animals fare, like marsupial gliding possums and lyrebirds?
The only way we will ever know the answers to these questions is through rigorous long-term monitoring, that often must extend over decades or longer in environments subject to a sequence of fires. Monitoring provides critical insights into why some areas are especially fire prone and how fast environments and wildlife populations recover after fire. It also tells us which places should not be subject to prescribed burning, where the critical refuges for wildlife occur in the landscape, and how some native animals can accelerate the breakdown of leaf litter (and hence reduce fire risk).
Even though monitoring provides crucial evidence to better manage the natural environment, it is usually neglected and poorly supported. This is why monitoring is sometimes called "Cinderella Science".
Some findings from long-term monitoring are expected. For example, the more times an area is burned, the greater the loss of native bird species. And the greater the area in a forest landscape that is burned, the bigger the decline in native mammals. Animal populations in patchily burned areas rebound faster than where the landscape is totally burned with no green areas remaining.
Other findings from long-term monitoring are less obvious - but are also important. And sometimes they bust long-held myths. For instance, while bumper stickers tell us that alpine grazing reduces blazing, clear empirical evidence from long-term monitoring shows the opposite. That is, grazing in the Australian High Country actually increases blazing. This is because native grasses are replaced by more fire-prone shrublands.
Long-term monitoring also has shown that logged forests are more likely to burn at greater severity for up to 4 decades after timber harvesting. That is, a forest logged today, will still have an elevated fire risk in 2060. This is because logging debris adds fuel to the forest floor, logged forests are drier (as young fast-growing plants use large amounts of water), and plants like tree ferns that shade the forest floor are all but lost from harvested forests.
The empirical evidence about the environment that comes from long-term monitoring is precisely the kind of information needed by people fighting fires as well as others charged with managing natural assets like forests.
Many nations around the world are acutely aware of the need for long-term monitoring, especially as environments are changing quickly with climate change and the pressures of human development. The US has a network of 28 Long-Term Ecological Research sites that are funded to the tune of $US28.5 million per year. Networks of long-term monitoring sites also can be found in numerous other places around the world, including Europe, South America and Africa because these nations understand the value of the information coming from these networks. But not in Australia.
Australia has totally dropped the ball when it comes to monitoring its fire-prone forests and woodlands. Australia used to have a Long-Term Ecological Research Network that encompassed over 1000 plots in 11 major ecosystems across the continent - from wet forests to tropical savannas, and from alpine grasslands to coastal heathlands. Many of these sites provided critical insights into the effects of fire and the rate of post-fire recovery.
At about $1 million per year, the Long-Term Ecological Research Network provided exceptional value for limited investment, especially in terms of environmental understanding about fire. The network was axed by gob-smackingly poor management decisions at the end 2017. That myopic decision can readily be reversed - to the great benefit of the nation. Indeed, 10 years of funding to massively boost understanding of fire and post-fire recovery would be equivalent to 0.1 per cent of a single new submarine.
It is time to rethink the nation's priorities and equip fire and land managers with the knowledge they need to do their jobs, and help wildlife managers determine which species may survive and those at risk of going extinct in a future where more fire is inevitable.
- Professor David Lindenmayer AO is a landscape ecologist and conservation biologist at ANU's Fenner School of Environment and Society.