Read the transcript for Episode 12 of the Voice of Real Australia podcast: What's killing our Snow Gums?

Tom Melville 00:00

Hello, I'm Tom Melville. Welcome to Voice of Real Australia. Each episode we bring you people, places, and perspectives from beyond the big cities. The snowgum might be one of Australia's most iconic trees. For many of us, it's a tree which symbolises the Australian alps, and the country's wild bush heritage. A frontier past which is slowly being forgotten. They're a haunting presence - grey gnarled trunks striped with orange, mottled green, smoke blue and grey bark twisted and heaving with age set against sheet white snow. In the Alps - which stretch from the ACT, through New South Wales and beyond the Victorian Border - the snowgum dominates, it's the only tree in Australia that grows above 1600 metres. But the snowgum is in danger. Scientists believe a beetle is killing snowgums throughout the region and no one knows why. A previous dieback on the Monaro plain, a vast stretch of open cattle and sheep country in the foothills of the Snowies, gives a glimpse of what the future of our alps could look like. The fear is that unless something is done, every tree above 1600 metres could be lost. And that could have profound effects for the entire ecosystem. To find out more, I visited Kosciusko National Park - where scientists are trying to figure out what's going on, and how to stop it.

Jozef Meyer 01:17

Music on or off? Who's not wearing a seatbelt? Very naughty.

Jozef Meyer 01:24

Yeah, so I think you're gonna take a walk up the hill to Smiggins. That's a good spot to show you guys kind of how bad it gets, I guess. And that's kind of interesting there too, because everything's quite young and already look quite degraded. Like that's a spot I was saying was like a salt lake.

Tom Melville 01:41

Of course. So former pastoral land

Jozef Meyer 01:44

Yeah, like heavily grazed.

Tom Melville 01:46

So when did the grazing end up here?

Tom Melville 01:49

Jozef Meyer is an honours student studying environment and sustainability at the Australian National University. He's staying in the Perisher Valley while he does an insect survey - he's investigating the beetle believed to be killing the snowgums.

Jozef Meyer 02:01

Dieback is always like real complex, but in terms of like what causes it, it's this sort of like just everything blended up together. Like there's basically like not a lot going well for this so like. Like in terms of like ecologically there's not not heaps happening that is going to improve it. So of course, it's going to get degraded and then you have things that move in and just start I mean, like I'm ready to see like all these trees like there isn't a single tree that isn't I mean, this tree is pretty good, pretty typical. So you have like that kind of horizontal cracking in it and the bark because underneath if we like clears out the phloem underneath the bark.

Tom Melville 02:42

Phloem is the bit which takes nutrients from the roots to the canopy, right?

Jozef Meyer 02:47

Yeah, it's like that outside living layer. It's only about a centimetre too thick. But it has like all the sugar and all the kind of like juiciness of the training inside just water. It's basically a big straw.

Tom Melville 03:00

This place is essentially deserted in the summer. The lodges are empty, the chairlifts silent. The ground is carpeted in rough, dirty green pasture. A road snakes down the valley, flanked either side by hundreds and hundreds of dead snowgums. These were killed during the 2003 bushfires - a catastrophic event from which the area is still recovering. They're grey, skeletal. We turn away from the firekill and up into Smiggin Holes -- another ski resort, just down the road from Perisher. The trees here are dying for another reason.

Jozef Meyer 03:32

Yeah, like there's one there's one. That's where they come out of there. Like they spend like a lot of that time. It's kind of the outside like eating that juicy bit on the outside. Yeah. And then when they mature enough and the conditions are right, they'll go in and they'll pupate, and then they'll come out these little holes that kind of bust out.

Tom Melville 03:50

On every tree here, just above the last of the Smiggin lodges, there's evidence of the phoracantha beetle. The first sign is a small hole with an ooze of sawdust trickling out the side - that's called "frass", and it means there's beetle larvae working away on the trunk just underneath the bark. On a clear day, watch closely - Jozef tells me you can see little puffs of sawdust coming from the trunk. The beetle itself is about three centimeters long and coffee coloured, with tortoise shell markings, it's flat like a cockroach and has long swooping antennae the length of its body.

Jozef Meyer 04:23

The one thing that kind of gives you a bit of hope, you know this outside layer I was talking about eucalypts I can re sprout from that. So say the borers get to there

Tom Melville 04:30

Down right to about two feet before the bottom.

Jozef Meyer 04:33

And then you know, like potentially one of these shoots can become a new branch. But sometimes they go all the way down to the bow. I mean you can see all the sawdust down there.

Tom Melville 04:43

Some time later, those larvae will become adults. They'll burst out the side - leaving a jagged exit wound in the bark. By this point, the damage has been done. Soon, the bark will start to peel away, revealing centimeter deep gouge marks which run horizontally up and down the width of the trunk - like someone has dug their fingernails into it while being dragged away. So what's the future like for a tree like this, which it's got lots of leaves on it?

Jozef Meyer 05:13

Nah it's gone. It will be like this in like a year. There are great examples of trees I saw last year in December, that I was like, Oh, yeah, it's pretty early stages. It should be okay. And then this year that it's just completely gone, like

Tom Melville 05:24

So this reasonably healthy looking tree, which you reckon is in a year's time. You don't look like this half dead fella. Yeah, right next to it. Yeah. It looks like a classically dead tree.

Tom Melville 05:36

This group of trees -- or stand -- looks healthy. The trees are close, and their boughs sag with age. But then you look up, and see the dead branches poking through thinning canopy - tops of trees completely devoid of leaves. Jozef says that despite first impressions, all these trees are doomed.

Jozef Meyer 05:55

So you see how big those holes are. I mean, they're big beetles, you saw them like that they're quite big beetles

Tom Melville 05:59

It's just fascinating. It's just amazing how they, this beetle can dig an inch deep inch thick plug out of a tree,

Jozef Meyer 06:09

You can really see on this tree. You can see, like, kind of laddering of the galleries the whole way up.

Tom Melville 06:18

Jozef's got a few different traps - a light trap called the bug dome - a sort of tent with an LED light meant to attract the bugs. He also has field traps set up at sites around the valley which he checks every couple of days. He's trying to work out what is the most effective way of catching the insects.

Tom Melville 06:33

And do we know what makes a tree attractive to them?

Jozef Meyer 06:37

Nah well, my kind of project trying to work out exactly what the bale is, or beetles are because there might be multiple species. And then by working data, you can work out like what that beta was actually looking for. And then you can work out like why a tree would become susceptible. Because there haven't been forever. The fact that they're here means I haven't been getting killed like this. Because they're quite old a lot of them.

Dr Matthew Brookhouse 07:03

Now I'd heard for some years that there was dieback occurring in snow gum, when people talk to me about the Monaro dieback. So after visiting long plain, I then arranged to go up to Perisher. About a fortnight later for nine to three weeks later. And when we arrived in Perisher, this scene was worse, shocking.

Tom Melville 07:28

That's Dr Matthew Brookhouse, the person who is sounding the alarm over snowgum dieback in the alps. He's an academic at the Australian National University - I meet him at his office in Canberra. He's telling me the story of how he first came across snowgum dieback - he was invited to Perisher Valley by staff there, and asked if he could tell them what was happening to a couple of snowgums at the resort.

Dr Matthew Brookhouse 07:58

Then what followed were a couple of very quick trips into Thredbo and to Guthega, and then up here to Namadgi National Park into a few other areas. And it became evident to me very quickly, that we had quite a substantial, very widespread and in some cases very, very severe dieback event playing out across the mountains. So what started as a very small scale, very niche activity focused on one species that doesn't grow very large as a very narrow range has now grown to include the most highly regarded favourite species among Eucalypts for many people across an area that spans here in the ACT all the way through New South Wales and the Victorian Alps.

Tom Melville 08:46

That's a vast area, thousands of square kilometres in size and containing possibly hundreds of thousands of snow gums.

Dr Matthew Brookhouse 08:52

We see trees across the entire range of decline at this at this point in time trees that are well and truly dead and have been dead for some years, through the trees that are just entering into into an infestation. In terms of what we can do about it at this point that that picture is not at all clear.

Tom Melville 09:14

It's a sobering thought - these are the only trees which live above 1600 metres and they're being wiped out with no obvious way to save them. Matt doesn't even know why the beetles have chosen now to attack, nor why they pick this tree or that tree.

Dr Matthew Brookhouse 09:31

So how does it find a host? Is there something particular that it looks for in host trees? Is there a host species volatile that the insect is attracted to? Is there something about individual trees it's attracted to doesn't like drought stress trees doesn't like any tray. Is it a matter of selectivity at all? Or is it just a matter of where the lava can survive? You know, these are things that we at this stage We don't have an answer to and it may not be an either or it might be, you know, yes, they're attracted to this tree. And yes, they are attracted to drought stress trees, but they're also attracted to others. And yes, there is an issue in terms of larval survival. But it's not necessarily one of the other.

Tom Melville 10:18

Matt's thinks drought stress could play a key roll - the snowgums have been weakened by years of successive and brutal droughts. Back at Jozef's field lab in Perisher, he tells me something similar.

Jozef Meyer 10:29

We kind of think so snow gum, generally have a, quite a low drought tolerance, they're living in a place with a lot of water. So they don't really have a reason they don't have a selection mechanism to adapt to water stress, because they've never really been water stressed. And it doesn't really make sense for them, I guess from a competition standpoint to have that there's no way for them to adapt it really. So they don't respond well to droughts at all. In fact, when it gets really dry, they'll try to grow and, you know, just grow themselves to death because they have no water.

Tom Melville 11:02

But we've had, we've had droughts before. Yeah. And they've been huge droughts up here, in particular in the last 20 years. And you haven't seen all the trees die?

Jozef Meyer 11:10

Well, I mean, we are though, that's the thing. Yeah, we've had these droughts in the last 20 years, and the earliest sort of instances of these trees being attacked, that we've seen, date back to the 1980s. So in terms of like a compounding effect, you know, like I was saying, but he's like insect populations, if you have regular droughts, maybe not constant droughts, but regular droughts, then you have this, say, like your first drought period where these insects that are always there, they get to kind of bolster their population a little bit. And then, you know, the next kind of drought cycle, it just happens again, and it happens again, and happens again, until you kind of have this like snowball. Until you're at where we're at now, where it seems like there's just 1000s and 1000s of them around and affecting every tree and every every tree susceptible.

Tom Melville 11:53

So that's the fear that that it's now got its own momentum.

Jozef Meyer 11:56

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And it kind of does feel that way, that there's enough trees that are just stressed and dead to kind of sustain this population, until there's no trees. You know, they can just keep eating away until the until they're done.

Tom Melville 12:10

Matt's question is an obvious one: Where does it end?

Dr Matthew Brookhouse 12:13

When you see trees that are dead, that's one thing. But in a way to stand in a place where you are surrounded by trees that are still alive and from a distance appear to be, you know, really full of life. And then you get into those stands. And you can see that they're on the edge of where the outbreak is occurring. And you can see the upper parts of the tree are already attacked. And you know that those trees have got 10 years at the most, and there'll be dead too. And the insects will have moved on and maybe move down on to the next Valley. And, you know, where does this stop?

Tom Melville 12:52

We've been here before. Dieback is occurring throughout Australia for a variety of reasons and to different degrees. The alpine region suffered a recent catastrophic dieback event: on the Monaro High Plains hundreds of thousands of ribbon gums in an area roughly the size of the ACT were killed over a 15 year period. If you drive from Cooma to Jindabyne you can see it - a seemingly endless number of gum trees, in some cases centuries old standing grey and lifeless along the road. The landscape should not look like this. In the Monaro it was a different native insect killing the trees. Something had changed - scientists still don't know what - and the eucalypts were suddenly unable to defend themselves. The ribbon gum was the dominant tree in that landscape - and now they're almost all gone.

Dr Matthew Brookhouse 13:39

And if it's driven by something larger than some local landscape disturbance process, if it's driven by longer term trends and climate. You know, it's not long before you find yourself wondering or not wondering anymore where it's going to end. Because when we're working in Kosciusko in the back of your mind, it's hard to put away what happened on the Monaro plains. If we were to think about the diaeback event that really played out the people around here occasionally have said, well, that dieback process has ended. Well, that's true. That dieback process has ended. Because everything is dead.

Michelle Francis 14:34

My family's never left country. My family's always lived on the western side. I'm on both sides of the mountain. So it's my home. It's my country. The country owns me. If I can possibly be here every day and every second day. That's where I am.

Tom Melville 14:50

Michelle Francis is a Ngarigo elder local to the area. Ngarigo custodians have lived in the Australian Alps for thousands of years, although many were dispersed by colonial violence. MIchelle and her family first noticed something was wrong with the ribbon gums after the 2003 bushfires - a blaze which created an essentially continuous patch of scorched landscape from Victoria to the ACT.

Michelle Francis 15:12

From a cultural perspective, very emotional, because it affects our whole ecosystem. They're there for a reason, every plant, you know, has a job to do. When one's remove what's next. It's very sad to drive to Kunama Namadgi, which is our name for the mountain, to drive up and just see that and not see people jumping out and saying what's going on, you know, with the habitat, what's going on with our environment?

Tom Melville 15:45

That's one of the most striking things is that, this area's incredibly popular means a lot to a whole number of different people. But no one is jumping out of the car and screaming into the heavens, why, does that shock you?

Michelle Francis 15:59

Yeah, I think we've grown away from that. Everybody wants to be doing everything now, yesterday. We're entitled to enjoy our life while we can. And to some degree, I understand that. But what's coming afterwards? And why aren't we just trying to do a little bit to save what we really really have here to continue to be able to enjoy?

Tom Melville 16:22

Matt has the same question. Why don't people recognise this is a landscape which is heavily degraded, and getting worse? And why has it taken so long for people to start doing something? He's continually surprised that he's actually breaking brand new ground in his research on snowgums. He tells me about a time he skied up to a beautiful stand of snowgums in 2008 - at the time he noticed that many were being attacked by boring insects. It looked to him like the insects were mainly attacking fire affected trees, and in the process cleaning up the forest. A decade later he went back to the same spot.

Dr Matthew Brookhouse 17:00

It was hot. The ground was dusty. And every tree was dead. 10 years ago, I skied down here with friends. And you know my girlfriend at the time is now my partner. You know, we have a five year old daughter now. And I was thinking 10 years ago, this was this was alive and healthy. And now there isn't a single tree here alive. That was a difficult afternoon. When did this happen? Why is no one talking about this? If I come up here twice. And I can see that what appears to be the entire low elevation at least range of of these spaces is disappearing disappeared very quickly. Surely people are seeing this

Tom Melville 17:53

Matt says some people just presume the dead trees are the aftermath of a fire, or part of the eucalypt's natural lifecycle.

Dr Matthew Brookhouse 18:00

It's not until 10 years down the track. When you ask someone to compare a photograph of what was there 10 years ago with what's there now that the truth really presents itself. It's not fire that has done this damage. It is an explosion in an insect population. But the key thing for these insects is that it's not like fire. It's not like a fire that comes through and just wipes a stand out in one afternoon. And then 10 years down the track all those trees that were burned, have generated these new shoots and they're growing away. And yes, it was devastating, but the forest is recovering. That's not what's happening. What we see happening is that the trees are attack consistently over years and in some cases for a decade. And by the time the above ground part of the plant, has died, there are no resources left for the plant to call upon to recover with. I have seen hundreds of trees that have been attacked and then re sprouted from the base, only to have those sprouts just die.

Tom Melville 19:14

Despite the annual rush of tourists to the Australian alps, and despite the snow gums being so beloved -- people don't seem to know this is happening.

Dr Matthew Brookhouse 19:21

This this process is playing out and it's it's being mistaken for something else. And my suspicion is that that's why it has gotten to the point it has without without any major research being focused on it up until this point because it just driving through the landscape and looking at trees. From a distance you simply don't see it. That's a terrible thing because these forests are slipping away in front of people's faces and they simply can't see it.

Tom Melville 19:55

Michelle says more needs to be done to protect the park if it is going to continue as a unique ecosystem and as a tourist attraction.

Michelle Francis 20:01

It's sad to think that people don't see these trees as life. They give us a life. They are alive. They tell their own stories. We actually call them the old wise ones. They'll talk to you. They'll give you something back. It's not just about when you look at them. It's a life. It's a change of color. I mean, they're the most beautiful thing, through the seasons in how they change how they put on a display. You know, that is life. And if we lose that, we lose the National Park. It'll just be a hot bowl, where you'll come and there'll be nothing. It'll be devastating. They're absolutely screaming out going, what are you going to do about this? How are you going to save us? And how are you going to bring life back into the park? It is a skeleton. There's no other words to describe it. It's depth, you know, at the top of the mountain, and yeah, I don't understand right now. Why don't think that that's going to have a big effect. on all of the tourism that's here. I don't see it being rocket science, something seriously has to be done about it and national parks need to be put on notice.

Tom Melville 21:19

Do you want to see a bigger role for Ngarigo custodians in the park?

Michelle Francis 21:23

Absolutely. The land owns us, we've got to be there maintaining it, 24 seven,

Tom Melville 21:29

Michelle and I drive out to an area of the Monaro affected by dieback. We're barely 20 minutes from Jindy when grey, lifeless eucalypts start popping up in rolling paddocks along the highway. Initially I only noticed a few dead gums here and there, but as I looked closer more and more appeared to me. We're standing by a barbed wire fence on the side of the road, looking out into a farmed landscape. It's an emotional sight for Michelle. It's been a hard hour or so this afternoon, hasn't it?

Michelle Francis 22:01

Yes. And then I've just turned my head. And I'm just seeing a massive line. These trees have to be at least 100 years old or more. And they're all gone. It's a sad hour and it's a sad time every time I have to drive to the mountains. It's like a count every time I drive up. Oh, does that look like? You know there's more disappearing? I'm keeping an eye on them now.

Tom Melville 22:32

Scientists think the ribbon gums on the Monaro Plain - like the snow gums at higher altitudes - were already weakened which meant they were unable to defend themselves against the hungry insects. Over grazing, drought stress, fire damage, climate change - potentially even a lack of Indigenous cool burning practices - have all been touted as possible culprits. But MIchelle thinks a big part of the issue is that it's gone on too long unnoticed, she says we're disconnected from the country - we just don't know anymore what the landscape should look like.

Michelle Francis 23:03

Maybe people think that Oh, well after a certain time trees die. However, one of the oldest ones snowy gum is in Victoria and he's over 400 years old. And he and I'm calling him a because he's robust. And he's massive and every limb and colour that you know spans from his body tells a story. He long time long time. So maybe they do think that trees die off and yeah, another one will pop up. But they don't. What's there from the beginning is there. And yeah, that undergrowth will keep bringing up the new ones. But there's nothing here to bring up any anything.

Tom Melville 23:55

Those stressors mentioned above - drought, fire, and a long history of grazing - are also present in the higher altitudes. Matt Brookhouse believes this is key - the wood borers are feeding on trees which are already sick. The next question is, how do you stop it. If a tree in your backyard had a beetle infestation, you could treat it - an arborist armed with readily available pesticides would do the trick. That won't work on the level of an ecosystem - the distances are just too vast, the number of affected trees just too massive. And what would a chemical do if you were to disperse it over the entire high plains environment? This lack of certainty over what we can do about it makes Matt anxious - it's why he's so desperate to find out as much as he can so hopefully he can help develop the tools to save the snowgums.

Dr Matthew Brookhouse 24:41

What happens if there is no way we can slow the insects as they gradually move across the landscape? What are we left with? are we left with the scenario that that played out in the Monaro? that yes, the outbreak ends but it ends because there's nothing left with the answer. way. It's difficult not to be affected by that.

Tom Melville 25:05

Michelle is particularly concerned at what she sees as problems within the National Parks organisation itself, and how they're managing Kosciusko.

Michelle Francis 25:12

Parks do what parks want to do. Parks have their own ideas in how they want to maintain and look after the park itself. And with no Aboriginal liaison officer or traditional custodians that are in there working, how do you make the difference? How do you talk to these people to make those differences? It comes down to science. We've been doing science for over 65,000 years, you know, so in response to Parks, they're not doing anything about it. And they've got no programs to do anything about it.

Tom Melville 25:49

I spoke to Parks - they said they are helping to support satellite and ground-based surveys to try and understand the extent of the dieback throughout the affected area. They did not respond to my specific question about Indigenous involvement in Kosciuszko National Park other than to point to the app where members of the public can report sightings of the wood boring beetles or dieback in snowgums. There is a Memorandum of Understanding between the Park and Ngarigo representatives, but Michelle says it isn't clear how that MOU has worked so far. The snowgum is the only tree that can survive in its ecological niche - the sensitive, alpine environment above 1600 metres - it's loss would be catastrophic, and have flow-on effects throughout an environment that covers NSW, the ACT and Victoria. Matt explains how devastating that could be.

Dr Matthew Brookhouse 26:39

I suppose you have to think about the kind of loss associated with the loss of the Great Barrier Reef, the Barrier Reef is itself alive. Coral that builds the reef is alive. But also all of the attendant fish and other species that depend upon that structure. In terms of snow gum, you then, ok we'd lose only one species in the overstory. But it's that structure that then impacts upon every invertebrate and vertebrate species that is using that structure, much like animals and other organisms are using using the Barrier Reef itself. So substantial cascading ecological losses

Tom Melville 27:24

Back at Perisher, Jozef is working hard, trying to help protect those venerable trees which live in Australia's high country. He says as the climate changes the problem could spread even higher on the alps, completely transforming the landscape.

Jozef Meyer 27:37

And it's not like these are young trees. You know, there are trees out there that have hundreds and hundreds of years old. And yeah, this is what's killing them. Like they've been through everything. And then you see them getting killed by this. It can kind of be a bit alarming to think about I think when you kind of play it out and you're like, if no one does anything and no one even cares, then that's where it ends up no trees from Rennix gap to Charlotte's pass just nothing.

Tom Melville 28:13

Jozef Meyer there, he's hoping to find a way to save the snow gum. And if you think you might've spotted a phoracantha beetle anywhere in the country or a dieback affected snow gum in the Alps, go to saveoursnowgum.org to report your sightings. That's saveoursnowgum.org.

Tom Melville 28:27

That's it for this episode of Voice of Real Australia. Thank you so much for listening. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen. I'll be back in a couple of weeks. If you like the podcast please share it with friends and give us a five star rating on Apple Podcasts. If you'd like to share your story, email voice@austcommunitymedia.com.au. That's voice@austcommunitymedia.com.au. Our Facebook page is Facebook.com/voiceofrealAustralia. Voice of Real Australia is recorded in the studios of the Newcastle Herald. It's produced by Laura Corrigan and me, your host, Tom Melville. Follow me on Twitter @TomMelville124. Our editors are Gayle Tomlinson and Chad Watson. Special thanks this week go to Kate Matthews, Sitthixay Ditthavong and John-Paul Maloney. This is an ACM podcast.

This story Voice of Real Australia Episode 12 Transcript first appeared on Newcastle Herald.