forests

It’s a long way to the top and every stratum plays a role

The wet forests east of Melbourne are home to the tallest flowering plant on earth, the mountain ash. Reaching heights of over 90 metres, they dwarf many of the other plants growing alongside them. Being tall gives mountain ash first use of the sunlight that falls on the forest. This is an important advantage because energy harnessed from sunlight is what almost all plants use to fuel their growth. Closer to ground level, smaller plants have to contend with less and less light, as foliage above casts them into shadow. This has resulted in adaptations including large leaves that are rich with the light-harvesting pigment chlorophyll to maximise the amount of light captured. You may be able to see this for yourself because these leaves are usually a darker green colour. Other plants invest very little energy in woody tissue and have adapted to become climbers instead. These species piggyback on other plants to get their leaves as high as possible at the lowest cost.

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  Many species, such as this swamp wallaby, live in the ground layer. Despite the tangled nature of the understory vegetation, the animals that inhabit this layer have little trouble moving through it. Photo: Rowan Mott. 

Many species, such as this swamp wallaby, live in the ground layer. Despite the tangled nature of the understory vegetation, the animals that inhabit this layer have little trouble moving through it. Photo: Rowan Mott. 

There is a paradigm that habitat diversity begets biodiversity. The many ways that different plants compete for available light open up opportunities for a diversity of animals. At ground level, the vegetation is often dense and impenetrable to people. Yet, many species of birds move through the tangle of leaves and twigs with ease, and swamp wallabies crash through with little problem. Some birds, such as the superb lyrebird and Bassian thrush, pass their days almost exclusively searching through leaf litter on the forest floor. Amongst the decaying leaves, their favoured invertebrate prey items are readily found.

Slightly higher above ground, small birds such as brown thornbills and eastern yellow robins inhabit low shrubs such as kangaroo apple and snowy daisy bush. However, brown thornbills and eastern yellow robins use very different foraging strategies. The latter sit and wait on an exposed perch, darting down to the forest floor to snatch insects as they emerge from the cover of the leaf litter, whereas small parties of brown thornbills actively move through the shrub layer gleaning small insects from the foliage.

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  The eastern yellow robin is a denizen of the lower stratum where it can be found clinging to a vertical trunk, or perched on an exposed branch, waiting to spot an invertebrate among the leaf litter. Photo: Rowan Mott. 

The eastern yellow robin is a denizen of the lower stratum where it can be found clinging to a vertical trunk, or perched on an exposed branch, waiting to spot an invertebrate among the leaf litter. Photo: Rowan Mott. 

Above the layer of soft tree ferns and into the forest midstorey, a new suite of birds replaces those found in lower strata. Here, tall shrubs and small trees including hazel pomaderris and silver wattle provide habitat for grey fantails, golden whistlers and Lewin’s honeyeaters. This layer is also frequented by white-throated and red-browed treecreepers as they hop upwards on the trunks of even taller trees. Once again, these species each have a specialist foraging strategy. Grey fantails sally insects while in flight, whereas golden whistlers pick their insect prey from leaves and bark. Contrary to what is suggested by its name, the Lewin’s honeyeater eats mainly fruits, but it does feed on nectar from time to time and also includes insects in its diet. The two species of treecreeper probe in crevices and under loose bark on trunks and branches, hoping to find spiders and other small invertebrates.  

High up in the canopy there is more freedom to move, and this is the domain of large-bodied species such as crimson rosellas, pied currawongs, and powerful owls, but there are also smaller species such as white-naped honeyeaters and spotted pardalotes. Often, the species inhabiting this stratum are predators, nectarivores or lerp specialists. This is also the layer where arboreal mammals such as greater gliders can be found.

Except for locations where people feed crimson rosellas, this species is usually found in the canopy where they feed on eucalypt seeds and a range of other foods. Photo: Rowan Mott. 

Except for locations where people feed crimson rosellas, this species is usually found in the canopy where they feed on eucalypt seeds and a range of other foods. Photo: Rowan Mott. 

All of this diversity is made possible because of the exceptional height of mountain ash trees. This allows many distinct vegetation strata to occur, which in turn support distinct assemblages of animals. When walking along a forest path, it is easy to get caught up in your immediate surroundings. However, by taking the time to look up and down, you may be lucky enough to see a wealth of life that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. It can also be good to take a little bit of extra time where the trail is flanked by steeply sloping terrain. Here, the forest below may offer the chance to glimpse canopy-dwelling species closer to eye-level, giving the illusion that you are high amongst the mountain ash. 


Rowan Mott

Rowan is a PhD student studying seabird ecology. When he's not thinking about the ocean he likes to think about woodland birds. 

Check him out on Twitter at @roamingmoth

Environmental Accounting: The Way Forward?

This piece is co-authored by Rachel Fetherston & Billy Geary

As people who are somewhat environmentally concerned, we are constantly asking ourselves one question: how do we best communicate the importance of nature to those who we have elected to make decisions for us?

Sure, we can pull out statistics like “Australia has the worst mammalian extinction rate on Earth”, or “there are only 50 to 60 orange bellied parrots left in the world.” But is this negative 'you-better-do something-or-else' mantra working? It certainly doesn’t seem so.

There aren't many mammals left in this eucalyptus forest, but is that a useful message to convey when trying to engage people in conservation? Sherbrooke Forest, Victoria. Photo: Robert Geary

There aren't many mammals left in this eucalyptus forest, but is that a useful message to convey when trying to engage people in conservation? Sherbrooke Forest, Victoria. Photo: Robert Geary

Often with nature blogs, we’re preaching to the converted. You’re probably thinking to yourself right now: “What can I do to help reverse the current situation?” On the other hand, we might get the inevitable response from Joe Bloggs in the street: “Why should we save something that does nothing for me?” It’s a fair point. Aside from its intrinsic value (i.e. taking value from the simple knowledge that things exist), what exactly does the orange-bellied parrot do for the average person?


Money Matters

The world revolves around money - this we know for sure. In the age of free markets and gross domestic products, most governments are almost solely focused on achieving a surplus. Unfortunately, the environment rarely gets considered in such conversations, aside from the occasions it becomes a resource (i.e. timber harvesting, redirecting stream flows for irrigation). One approach to resolve this is to put a price on nature, a process called environmental accounting.


Environmental accounts

The approach to environmental accounting is simple. By applying accounting principles to quantifiable aspects of nature, we can estimate how much a species, ecosystem or region is worth to the economy and therefore measure how its worth changes over time. The significance of this is substantial, potentially allowing for the importance of nature to be communicated beyond its intrinsic value.

In fact, the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists (including acclaimed scientist Tim Flannery) has highlighted developing a set of environmental accounts as an important step in the conservation of Australia’s biodiversity. Why? Because money is the language of human civilization. If we can quantify nature in terms of dollars and cents, we are suddenly speaking the language of those in power; those who make the big decisions and run the world. Essentially, we would be illustrating the value of nature in the most literal way that is currently possible.  

Furthermore, if we can put a dollar-value on entire ecosystems, we can then measure how their value might change over time. This allows us to monitor how our actions, good or bad, impact the environment on a large scale. This is inherently relatable to other businesses and industries that measure success or failure in terms of money.

Is this alpine woodland worth more to society for its intrinsic value or for the tourist dollars it brings in? Lake Mountain, Victoria. Photo: Robert Geary

Is this alpine woodland worth more to society for its intrinsic value or for the tourist dollars it brings in? Lake Mountain, Victoria. Photo: Robert Geary


Natural Capital: How much is that wetland worth?

For years now, various groups have attempted to put a price on nature. The seminal but controversial paper by Daily et al (1997) estimated that the Earth and its ecosystems could be valued at a whopping $127.3 trillion. This process essentially asked the question: “How much money would humans have to spend to ensure ecosystem function and services are maintained in the event nature stopped doing it for us?”

One way to look at it is to think of a local wetland or creek and the complex things it does. A stream might flow through it, and the plants, algae and invertebrates all contribute to cleaning and filtering its water. This could even be a tributary that runs into the Thomson Dam, Melbourne’s largest source of drinking water. Taking away the naturally occurring water filtration system, humans would have to perform that same function to ensure we could still drink water from the dam. That, as you can imagine, would cost big bucks.

Radiolab's story on the value of nature begins at 51:50. 

This concept has actually been put into practice with another incredibly important and valuable process: pollination. A recent study put the value of crop pollination by bees, bats and birds to the American economy at $29 billion. This is an enormous figure, illustrating that if pollination stopped, so would the American economy to a major extent.

This has actually happened in China, where mass die-offs of pollinators (e.g bees) led to Chinese farmers having to pollinate each crop by hand. As reported by Radiolab, this led to an increase in profits because the minimum wage is so low in China. However, in a developed country, pollination by hand would bear an enormous cost to the economy.


Problems: The Worth of Pricelessness

There is an inherent problem with the environmental accounting approach. How does one put a price tag on that which is priceless? Inevitably, there are some things that, comparatively, aren’t worth anything to humanity in terms of dollars and cents. For example, should we place the same monetary value on species that differ in terms of their influence on ecological function?

Consider comparing the value of a rare keystone species such as a large predator to that of a small rodent which shares an ecosystem with species that are ecologically similar. The former would perhaps be considered much more ecologically ‘valuable’ than the latter whose function can be carried out by a number of other organisms.

How much are unique apex predators, such as the grey wolf ( Canis lupus),  worth to ecosystems?  Photo:  Malene Thyssen  ( Wikimedia Commons )

How much are unique apex predators, such as the grey wolf (Canis lupus), worth to ecosystems?

Photo: Malene Thyssen (Wikimedia Commons)

What about the agile antechinus ( Antechinus agilis ) which is often found where other species of antechinus and rodents occur?   Photo: Mel Williams ( Wikimedia Commons )

What about the agile antechinus (Antechinus agilis) which is often found where other species of antechinus and rodents occur?  
Photo: Mel Williams (Wikimedia Commons)

This intrinsic value of nature and its relative importance in comparison to monetary value is a key tension. This must not be forgotten when considering environmental accounts as a tool, lest we risk ignoring those aspects of nature that do not provide a ‘service.’

The problem here is that ecologically non-significant species would suffer in the context of environmental accounts. For example, many of Australia’s increasingly rare species could be deemed economically irrelevant in terms of ecological function and would subsequently be last on the priority list when it comes to ‘valuing’ our natural world. There would indeed be casualties, as there are in any budget. 

Such a view of nature is therefore perhaps part of the problem. Viewing our natural world through the human eye means that we more highly value what is useful to us, but value less that which may actually be vital to the non-human.

Many environmental philosophers explore this concept, deeming such a view an ‘anthropocentric’ understanding of the world around us. Unfortunately, opposing anthropocentrism also involves opposing the primary idea at the root of environmental accounting – that is, capitalism. Should we be placing a dollar-value on nature or should we be learning to value nature more than the dollar?

In the opinion of many leading environmental philosophers and ecocritics, the capitalist model of the West is becoming more and more unsustainable in the face of climate change and environmental destruction. Amongst others, Val Plumwood is one philosopher who suggested that people still struggle to perceive the natural world without the influence of human bias.

The term ‘non-anthropocentrism’ is often used to describe a worldview that attempts to encompass a less human-centric appraisal of nature. This would involve a society that deprioritises monetary gain and instead accepts that humankind’s understanding of nature does not and often cannot involve the needs of the non-human.

That is not to say that it would be easy to implement said non-anthropocentrism. In many ways, it is currently an impossible as well as undesirable prospect. In the context of such a radically different worldview, humans may no longer enjoy many of the positive features of a society that values material goods and services; our favourite movies and TV shows, the amazing variety of products that some are lucky enough to afford, and perhaps even the ability to take a holiday and visit some of our world’s incredible natural wonders are just some of the things that may be lost if we choose to devalue financial gain.

For all of humanity's impacts on it, it is still the intrinsic value of nature that draws us in - each and every time. Lake Mountain, Victoria. Photo: Robert Geary

For all of humanity's impacts on it, it is still the intrinsic value of nature that draws us in - each and every time. Lake Mountain, Victoria. Photo: Robert Geary


Can we have our cake and eat it too?

The bigger issue is, then, is it possible to have our cake and eat it too? Can we enjoy the perks of placing a monetary value on the environment whilst simultaneously educating the public to understand nature through a ‘more-than-human’ lens? It is a difficult thing to test, but is indeed something to keep in mind if a monetary model for nature is developed.   

So, is environmental accounting a silver bullet for speaking the language of politicians and treasurers across the world? No, not really. But, it does help us further communicate the value of nature to those that cannot or will not connect with its intrinsic value. Thus, it has the potential to be a very, very useful tool for ensuring the environment gets a seat at the budget table – something that has scarcely occurred in recent times. 

In Conversation with Professor David Lindenmayer: Part 2

Professor David Lindenmayer of the Australian National University is one of our country's foremost ecologists. An outspoken conservationist, David uses his decades of experience and years of scientific studies to support his argument for a Great Forest National Park, in our state of Victoria, a move supported by Wild Melbourne, and a host of other NGO's.  

With the recent release of the video advertising his proposal for the GFNP, now seems like the right time to revisit a conversation I had with him late last year. 

In this second part of the interview, David discusses the health of the mountain ash forests that he has worked on and their importance to our region.  

Prof. D. Lindenmayer: Courtesy of smh.com.au 

Prof. D. Lindenmayer: Courtesy of smh.com.au 

On the importance of these forests to our city and the surrounding region, David says that while we are probably dealing with about “300 direct jobs in saw milling and timber cartage” we know that the “value in water far exceeds the value in paper”, as is the case for carbon.

What does he mean by this?

Well, when the forest is young it uses a lot of water “because the trees grow very rapidly and they transpire massive amounts of water”. The more a forest is logged, the younger it becomes. The younger a forest, the more water it uses.

But how does that cost the average Victorian? Well, the less water we have, the more we will have to rely on our city’s expensive desalination plant.  

“You have to get the water from somewhere else because the forest isn’t providing it.” Says David, “The older a forest is, the more water it provides. And the more water it provides, the less desalination water you have to use... So the other values of the forest exceed the value of the paper.”

While David doesn't work on the hydrological aspects of the forest himself, he is currently working on a book with his father-in-law, who was a water based engineer, titled “The History of Melbourne’s Water Catchments”, soon to be released.

So just how important are these forests for the health of our local lands and the connected ecosystems across Victoria?

“I think most people are unaware that almost all of the water for Melbourne’s population comes from these forests. And that’s soon to be Australia’s biggest city, so you’re talking about a lot of water… and so these forests have a critical role in the integrity of Melbourne itself.”

Furthermore, these forests are among the most carbon-dense in the world, says David.

“When you get very old mountain ash forests they’re storing colossal amounts of carbon… And a lot of that carbon is emitted when you start cutting the forest down… It is important to hold onto that carbon… as a part of tackling dangerous climate change.”  

Indeed, under a carbon market, the forest becomes a huge economic resource. But their value doesn't end there.

“The other side of this is that in these systems where you have enormous tourism potential, then you have yet another important role for regional jobs and development and alike… the thing about tourism is that if you manage it the right way, then people can come and see these forests over and over again, whereas if you liquidate the resource through logging, you don’t get anything back for another 60 or so years. The thing about tourism is that it keeps on giving.”  

David believes that investment in infrastructure within these areas could greatly improve their ability to recover post-bushfire, and also bring a huge long-term boost to the state’s economy.

“At the moment” he says, “The [logging] industry is so heavily subsidised that it is actually costing us to cut the forest down.”

According to David, if the system continues to degrade it will not only lose carbon, but become more fire-prone and eventually “collapse” into a wattle-forest.  

“And that means it’s going to store a lot less carbon, have a lot less biodiversity, and provide a lot less water.”

Suffice to say, its tourism value will be lost a long with these other resources.

“Many people are unaware that these are the tallest flowering plants in the world… the most carbon-dense forests in the world… and just about the only place the Leadbeaters Possum lives.”

“Really it’s one of the best kept secrets, but it shouldn’t be a secret… it should be something people from all over the world want to come and see… When you come to Victoria you go to watch the footy, when you come to Victoria you go on the Great Ocean Road, when you come to Victoria you come and see the world’s tallest flowering plants because they’re very special.”  

For David, it is an outrage that the tourism potential of these forests has yet to be tapped.

“I think it’s an absolute crime and a scandal that it hasn’t been recognised, and that at the moment we are massively degrading those values by what we’re doing. It’s not only environmental vandalism but it’s economic bastardry as well... there’s no sense in trying to justify the rationale for this, it just doesn’t work. ”

He outlines the arguments for logging the forests as follows:

“I suppose people would say that it makes a huge amount of money for the state, and it did used to employ many jobs…. Now that isn’t the case. We are dealing with around 300 people employed that are directly cutting timber, mostly low-value timber products like pellets… only 2.7% of the wood that’s cut is actually high-quality furniture timber… this is a paper driven industry, and the reality is you don’t need large amounts of native forests to make paper. You can make paper from plantations.”

David says that the plantation sector is doing very well, while the native logging sector is dragging the industry down. He cites the fact that over the last five years Vic Forests have made a profit of one-million-dollars, while receiving subsidies of 25-million-dollars from the state government through bush-fire recovery grants.

“The only way that this organisation is viable is through a series of bushfire grants.”

He believes that the vested interest of Australian Paper in receiving cheap pulp from these forests is driving this “nonsensical” logging.

“This is economic insanity, and it is environmental insanity… the only reason you can imagine… is the massive vested interest… of Australian Paper.”

He also emphasises the fact that Australian Paper is owned by Nippon – a Japanese company.

Salvage logging near Marysville: courtesy of myenvironment.net.au

Salvage logging near Marysville: courtesy of myenvironment.net.au

But aside from this, David is also concerned about the rural towns in these areas. In places like Marysville, where he has previously lived, he says that people no longer want their communities to be known as “timber towns”, and are worried about the implications of this industry on their small businesses. 

And of course, he is deeply concerned about the fate of the iconic and critically endangered, Leadbeater's Possum.

More on that in Part 3 of the interview. 

In Conversation with Professor David Lindenmayer: Part 1

Professor David Lindenmayer of the Australian National University is one of our country's foremost ecologists. An outspoken conservationist, David uses his decades of experience and years of scientific studies to support his argument for a Great Forest National Park, in our state of Victoria, a move supported by Wild Melbourne, and a host of other NGO's.  

With the recent release of the video advertising his proposal for the GFNP, now seems like the right time to revisit a conversation I had with him late last year. 

In this first part of the interview, David discusses where he came from and what defines his science today.  
 

Professor Lindenmayer: courtesy of abc.net.au

Professor Lindenmayer: courtesy of abc.net.au


David spent the first years of his life in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. When he was ten he moved to Canberra, and upon completing his schooling spent some time travelling overseas. Returning to Australia, he studied Marine Biology at James Cook University, however, he soon developed an interest for forests and began to volunteer with the CSIRO.

While doing a Master’s degree, his research focused on the Leadbeater’s Possum, and became so intensive that he had to convert his degree into a PhD. His work investigated the habitat and nesting requirements of the possum, but also looked at the animal’s associated ecosystem as a whole. It was from this initial work that David would cultivate a life-long passion for the Montane Ash forests of Victoria, and spawn a highly productive career in ecology.

“I really have a strong affinity for a lot of the animals in the system. I really enjoy catching the animals, watching the animals; I do a lot of bird-watching down there... but I also really enjoy all the discoveries and all the work as well.”

Yet, David’s work isn’t restricted to the Ash forests of our state. His team of nearly 40 people runs the largest terrestrial-research monitoring program in the world, working throughout various habitats across Victoria and interstate.   

“What defines us… is large-scale, long-term research associated with the management and conservation of these ecosystems and the species in these systems… in the central highlands we have an understanding of fire, logging, of germination, tree-development, animal habitats… we’re beginning to build a major body of work around how a system functions”

His team have published some 180 papers and 7 books on the Victorian Montane Ash ecosystem and some 500 papers and 35 books across all the systems they have worked on.

But why forests? 

“I’ve always enjoyed forest environments… [And] I guess it’s a lot to do with the grandeur of the system… [And] the apparent simplicity that belies the true complexity.” 

 

David explores his passion and hopes for these forests further in Part 2 of our interview.