Burning away ecological ignorance

24 08 2009

This is the last post from the 10th International Congress of Ecology (INTECOL) in Brisbane. I’ve just returned after a long, but good week.

fire

© ABC Landline

Following my last two posts (here and here) from INTECOL, I end with a post about the very final talk of the Congress by a very well-known conservation ecologist, Professor David Lindenmayer of the Australian National University. David is a prolific and highly respected ecologist specialising in long-term ecological studies measuring forest biodiversity change. What made this final talk so compelling (and compelling it had to be after 5 straight days of talks) was not that it was essentially his acceptance ‘speech’ for winning the Ecological Society of Australia‘s Australian Ecology Research Award (AERA), it was the personal side of his science that kept the audience rapt.

As many CB readers will know, Australia (the state of Victoria in particular) suffered earlier this year some of the worst forest fires on record. Many died and many millions in property were damaged. Since then, everyone from Germaine Greer to MP Wilson Tuckey has become a laughably unqualified fire expert, but few have sufficient knowledge or experience to prescribe the most parsimonious fire regime for Victoria’s wet temperate forests.

Now, I think David was unfortunate to lose either friends or family in those fires, and he’s been collecting biodiversity data there and studying the ecology of south Australian fires for over two decades. Suffice it to say, he probably knows what he’s talking about.

So when the baying hounds of public misunderstanding demand that the remaining bush fragments of Victorian forests be cleared to protect people and property (so-called ‘hazard-reduction burning’), I think we should listen instead to David Lindenmayers of this world.

David’s talk was about just this – how the fires are portrayed as the Apocalypse itself by the media, when in reality ecosystems generally bounce back very quickly. Indeed, even in some of the most heavily burnt sites, most of the standing carbon in the vegetation remains (despite appearances). He also explained that our knowledge of temperate fire regimes is rudimentary at best, and that available evidence from the Northern Hemisphere suggests that clearing forests actually can lead to a HIGHER fire proneness, intensity and frequency. He explained how the homogenisation of fire patterns destroy are weakening essential ecosystem functions, and that spatial and temporal fire patchiness is essential to maintain ecosystems and the people living in them.

In summary, we have failed to learn lessons from northern Australia about buggering up the natural fire regime (see previous post). We as a society fall victim to sensationalist and uninformed media reports and develop ill-advised, knee-jerk policies as a result. Ecological considerations for our own welfare have been overlooked too long. It’s time politicians stop fuelling the fires of public ignorance and listen to the ecologists out there who know a thing or two about complex ecosystem structure and the disturbance regimes that create them.

Thanks, David, for a sobering reminder of the importance of our work.

CJA Bradshaw

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