Doomed Planet

Trees, Climate Myths and Mismanagement

According to an invitation from the Institute of Foresters, Dr. Patrick Baker, professor of silviculture and forest ecology at Melbourne University, will be taking an audience on “a deep dive into the science of climate change”. The online event, to be held on May 25, is open to all, so those curious about how low that dive can go might want to sign up for the show.

Me? I decided to get an early start by having a bit of a paddle in Professor Baker’s green wading pool, starting with YouTube. After the obligatory acknowledgement of ‘traditional custodians’, Baker’s presentation (below) begins by referencing temperature records since 1910. That is, it starts from the coldest period in the last 1,000 years, according to ring widths from Huon Pine in Tasmania. Even then, his graphs show a sustained rising trend only late in the 20th Century. Happily, he presents a more comprehensive record of droughts, going back more than 500 years. But it doesn’t seem to support his case.

The Settlement Drought in the early 1790s was the worst drought since the early 1500s. Whilst the Professor was providing scientific advice to NSW Natural Resources Commission (NRC), I mentioned to him that there were three successive extreme fire seasons at that time, Aboriginal fires were burning around the clock, and there were only two homes (with thatched roofs) lost. He explained that there weren’t many homes back then. It seems that the reason fire engines and waterbombers can’t save houses with steel and tile roofs, under similar conditions, is simply that there are too many houses.  

The worst drought in 500 years occurred in 1833, but there were no megafires. The 1851 megafires occurred during a period of average rainfall. This was less than two decades after Aboriginal burning was disrupted across Victoria by John Batman’s arrival in Port Philip Bay, the Hentys in the west and Angus McMillan coming south from the Monaro. The Millennium Drought was not unusual, but the academics have used it to explain the Black Saturday holocaust of 2009 with the tragic and preventable death of 173 people.

Baker says that relentless global warming has been baked into the system since the early 1980s. Despite the unexceptional Millennium Drought, followed by the wettest year in half a millennium, he assures us that droughts will be much worse in the future. How so? Well, the models say so — the same models that y can’t even ‘predict’ the past, such as what was going on during periods such as the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age. They’ve got almost a perfect record of overestimating temperatures. Dr. Howard Brady puts it this way: “Over 95 per cent of climate models agree: the observations must be wrong”.

According to Baker, southeastern Australia is “bearing the brunt of climate change”. In fact, it is southwestern Australia that has suffered a scientifically demonstrated reduction in rainfall over several decades, whilst southeastern Australia has not. But he’s almost right in saying that the southeast is ‘at the back of the pack’ in research to ‘manage’ climate change. It’s actually worse than that. Research in the southeast is heading in exactly the wrong direction, in my opinion because it is dominated by academics instead of experienced land and fire managers.

Despite the drying climate in the southwest, 60 years of empirical data from forest management show that prescribed burning reduces the incidence and extent of high intensity fires provided, that a minimum of 8-10 per cent of the landscape is treated each year. Such burning makes little difference in average fire seasons. The benefits occur mostly in extreme seasons, because firestorms and megafires can’t develop in properly managed landscapes. Hence Aborigines survived 40,000 years of climate change without boots, overalls, fire engines or advice from academics and fire chiefs.

In the southeast, Professor Ross Bradstock has been advising government on bushfires for decades, lately as a leader of the multimillion-dollar Bushfire Research Hub. Bradstock and colleagues have made models ‘showing’ that prescribed burning doesn’t work. They claim that it makes no difference in severe conditions. However, since we disrupted Aboriginal management, there hasn’t been enough burning in most of southeastern Australia to make any difference. Over a decade at the turn of the millennium, 0.4% of the Sydney Basin was treated each year by prescribed burning while ten times the area, on average, was incinerated by wildfires.

Bradstock has now co-authored another paper claiming that weather trumped fuel in Black Summer. I don’t know how they worked that out after the event, without having measured fuels, but Sydney Morning Herald environment writer Peter Hannam says “the latest paper examining the 2019-20 blazes adds to findings by the NSW independent bushfire inquiry”.

The problem is that Bradstock advised the ‘independent inquiry’, and thus it could be said he was judging his own work. The report was predictable, starting with climate change, calling for more research, emphasising emergency response and evacuation, and mentioning some operational matters that are no news to anyone with firefighting experience. It’s hardly surprising that the latest research has ‘confirmed’ that Bradstock is right and experienced managers don’t know what they’re talking about.

After showing us real data confirming that droughts are a recurrent natural phenomenon and haven’t grown worse since the Industrial Revolution, Professor Baker showed us some pictures of drought scorch in Black Summer. He said there was widespread landscape scale mortality, and threw a pitch for a citizen science app called the Dieback Detective. The fact of the matter is that dieback is a natural defence mechanism against drought in healthy eucalypts. It’s been long apparent, however, that forest pathologists are generally ignorant of the difference between natural drought dieback of healthy eucalypts on bony ridges and unnatural chronic decline of better-watered eucalypts on slopes and gullies. Baker’s photos, for example, show widespread drought scorch, not mortality.

I have personally observed drought scorch in many and various landscapes across the country, including three times since Baker arrived in Australia as a lecturer at Monash University in 2004. Drought is neither the cause of megafires, nor of widespread mortality of trees. But NRC has since announced a $1.3 million program of research to ‘untangle the causes of dieback’. I addressed this at Quadrant Online in December 2020.

Meanwhile, Baker continues to ‘show’ that droughts which haven’t got any worse in 500 years, but undoubtedly will in the future, are already causing dramatic changes in our fire regimes. He’s enlisted the help of Professor Scott Mooney. Mooney compiled heaps of charcoal records from sediment cores which show that there was a massive increase in high intensity fires after Europeans disrupted Aboriginal burning. They also show a dramatic downturn, against the warming trend, after foresters reintroduced mild fire to the landscape in the 1960s.

With forestry elder Roger Underwood and forestry cousin Neil Burrows, I’ve tried to place the charcoal records in a palaeological, historical and scientific perspective which recognises traditional management by blackfellas and whitefellas as well as its disruption by greenfellas. (Thanks to Noel Pearson for the terminology.) We point out that a huge increase in megafires, since sustainable fire management was trumped by green ideology in the late 20th Century, had not yet been sampled in sediments.

Now Professors Baker and Mooney have unwittingly served up the proof. They’ve sampled huge spikes in charcoal from bogs in Kosciuszko National Park. These are unprecedented in thousands of years of management firstly by Aborigines feasting on Bogong moths, then by seasonal graziers, and lastly by the joint Hume-Snowy Bushfire Prevention Scheme. Prescribed burning was wound down by NPWS from the 1970s.  Since then the Park and its bogs have been ravaged by a succession of high intensity wildfires, notably in 1978, 1983, 1988 and 2003. Corroboree frogs are critically endangered as a result.

This is well-documented in scientific papers and my book, Firestick Ecology.  The 2003 megafire from Kosciuszko to Canberra conclusively demonstrated that climate change was not the problem. Hundreds of lightning strikes at the same time in well-managed lands adjoining the Park were contained within 3 days. Canberra was burnt not by climate but by mismanagement. The Nairn Inquiry confirmed it. The subsequent 2004 COAG Inquiry effectively buried the Nairn Report and the 2020 Royal Commission kicked over the gravestone.

It is not climate change that is buggering the bush. It is those being lavishly funded to protect it who are doing the real damage.

Vic Jurskis worked for NSW Forestry Commission as a labourer, forester, researcher, manager and finally, Silviculturist for the Commission’s Native Forest Division. He investigated chronic eucalypt decline across Australia in a Fellowship with the Gottstein Trust, and with a Maxwell Ralph Jacobs Award from the Australian Academy of Science. He has published two books, Firestick Ecology, and The Great Koala Scamboth available from Connor Court

10 comments
  • Harry Lee

    Always useful to publish good articles on how Anti-Empiricism combined with Naive Do-Gooding is fast taking Western Civ into The Abyss.
    But the critical challenge resides in the manipulation of naive idealists -who “just want to save the Planet and all its Peoples, and Feel So Good Doing So”-
    -by the anti-Westernist, marxist-inspired, Big Statist power-lusters and/or money-grubbers who manipulate from the shadows, from all corners of all of our institutions.
    Australia’s form of Western Civ might be saved from these evil destructive forces.
    But it would take actual practical, expensive efforts by a couple million Proper Australians. This would involve great sacrifices of their time and money.
    So, it will not happen.
    No saviour is coming. No pendulum will swing back. No scales will fall from eyes, not spontaneously.
    Focused application of efforts -involving smarts, resilience, time and money- by the Ordinary People, or soon it will be The End, Finis, Kaput.

  • DougD

    “Dr. Howard Brady puts it this way: “Over 95 per cent of climate models agree: the observations must be wrong”.” Shouldn’t that statement be enough, without more, for a consensus among scientists that Dr Brady must be laughed out of every scientific organisation to which he has ever belonged. Or have I got it badly wrong?

  • vicjurskis

    You sure have. Brady has demonstrated that the consensus of so-called climate scientists is bs. you didn’t get it

  • Peter Marriott

    Good piece Vic, keep up the good work, it must sink in eventually but it is pretty hard to toss the Greens at present, I feel because they are given much too much credibility by our political class, probably due to our two party preferred compulsory preferential voting system I think. I’ve also purchased a few copies of your book ‘The Great Koala Scam’ and passed one on to my cousin in country North Qld where I come from. We never saw a lot of koalas on the Burdekin and my pioneering Grandfather and Father never mentioned many, but having said that I did see the odd one near our lagoon…mainly in Ironbark funnily enough. I now live near the Daisy Hill Forest in Logan and regularly see them there and got very good at spotting them…..whereas most people walk around and never see a one….they blend in so well . This of course must allow the Park people to easily get away with saying they’re continually endangered, but after 25 years of walking there I haven’t noticed anything along the endangered lines, just fluctuation and based on your estimates for normal density levels I’d say it might well be a bit too dense.

  • vicjurskis

    Thanks Peter,
    If you can see koalas there are too many. Explorers and squatters never saw any. The Senate accepted lies from green academics that there were 10 million when whitefellas arrived. The problem’s not so much preferential voting as democracy itself. Follow the money. Multimillion dollar green charities like WWF and AKF, as well as big corporates like NRMA put lotsa dollars into advertising based on the false claim that koalas are headed for extinction. Why would any politician challenge that? Their primary concern is warming their seat. One of my Chinese friends tells me democracy is not such a great system. It’s pretty hard to argue when you see China buying our coal, our land, our water and our infrastructure whilst laughing at us as we destroy our economy on the sacrificial altar of the climate religion. Joh Bjelke Peterson had the right answer. People in the bush got a say. Now we’re run by north shore liberals who are worse than inner-city greens.

  • Harry Lee

    Yes, as Vic Jurskis says: It’s a money-scooping scam. It’s also a power-grabbing scam. Have a chat with ALP and Green politicians -and their operatives- and that is obvious. And those north shore liberals and former Liberals, indeed ex-Lib voters in all the leafy and/or water-side suburbs in all the cities, are voting Green or ALP -because it’s what their kids tell ’em about disappearing koalas, polar bears and grubs, having been indoctrinated at school. And that’s why the Liberal Party backs the emission targets and such idiocies. That’s the pandering to the Cheap-And-Fake Virtue scam. But look, all this is known. Question is: Will a couple million Proper Australians self-organise and work to save our form of Western Civ? And the answer is: “No. Pass me that bottle, would yer, and switch to the footy.”

  • Peter Marriott

    You make some good points Harry, especially about the children. I never cease to be amazed at the level of ‘child worship’ that prevails among many families these days, and this very much includes the Grandparents. Older and wiser people are throwing their wisdom away in favour of simply believing too much of what the children tell them, and many actually try to dress and talk like the children. Sadly I also think many children are confused by this and seem to get the feeling that they can learn little from their parents and so turn to the computer etc. The computer, mobile phones and TV’s etc seem to be the clincher, and once the children see that mum and dad keep turning to them for help…. then bang goes are lot of the parental respect and guidance. Naturally there are people / parental skills to get around this….but pandering to the child isn’t one of ’em. All in my opinion of course.

  • Bernie Masters

    Good article but one small correction please. Where you say “it is southwestern Australia that has suffered a scientifically demonstrated reduction in rainfall over several decades”, in fact, it is streamflows into some of the south west WA water supply dams that have suffered demonstrated reductions over recent decades. Some sites have not suffered any reduction in rainfall – Mundaring, for example, is in the hills east of Perth and is the catchment for the Mundaring Weir and rainfall from 1880 has remained constant, with changes in the catchment such as forest regrowth causing reduced streamflows. And anecdotally farmers along the south coast tell me they’ve seen no change in rainfall over the past 50 or more years.

  • vicjurskis

    Thanks Bernie. No correction required. Info from BOM shows general decline in rainfall corresponding to general decline in streamflows across SW according to Watercorp data. Obviously, individual catchments will be more or less affected according to variations in evapotranspiration with changes in vegetation. The point is that the relationship between burning and lack of megafires holds good, even in a drying climate.

  • Harry Lee

    Peter Mariott -yes, I see this as you do. Very few parents, very few people generally, have the knowledge-base and the requisite intellectual-emotional system to deal decisively and authoritatively with the complexities, ambiguities and conflicts that characterise life/society today.

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