April 25, 2016

Land clearing: seeing red, not green

In Europe, farmers are often considered whingers if they complain about their lot. If they're over-privileged landed gentry, they receive little sympathy, but small producers being screwed by powerful supermarkets are a lot more deserving of attention. Curiously, French farmers are obsessively protected by their government from risk of any kind.

In Australia, dairy farmers, for example, are similarly squeezed, by a supermarket duopoly. Not everyone has the resources of Scenic Rim 4Real Milk who set up their own bottling plant to be free of the system, and many go to the wall. In Queensland's drought-stricken far west, beef producers don't complain enough in my opinion. Successive state governments have been slow to react to an ongoing crisis, necessitating the Buy a Bale campaign supported by those of us back east who have failed to redirect our rainfall inland.

Sometimes farmers push their luck, however, which happened a week ago. Agforce, Queensland's rural lobby group, urged landholders to object to The Vegetation Management (Reinstatement) and Other Legislation Amendment Bill introduced into Parliament in March and currently before the Agriculture and Environment Parliamentary Committee. (The Bill seeks to overturn damage done by the 'green-tape cutting' LNP government, who made land clearing much more of a free-for-all.)

Agforce misrepresented a key aim of the Bill after the fashion of sensationalist tabloid journalism. '[The Bill] re-introduces the reverse onus of proof and takes away the "mistake of fact" defence, meaning farmers are presumed guilty until proven innocent, relegating them to a level below most criminals.' In fact, the Bill reinstates the onus of proof that applies under any law. Farmers will be obliged to be fully aware of land clearing regulations, and will not be able to plead: 'Oh sorry, I didn't know I wasn't allowed to doze that last stand of remnant woodland for fodder cropping.'

And again: 'These outrageous changes… will restrict supply and drive up food prices, stifle development and cost jobs.' That old chestnut: strike fear of higher prices and fewer jobs in the hearts of those who are not fully aware of what the Bill actually intends, which is to protect high-value regrowth and remove provisions that permit clearing applications for high-value agriculture and irrigated agriculture, in order to reduce Queensland's shockingly high rate of land clearing in recent years. The notorious clearing of large areas of Olive Vale in Far North Queensland last year was supposedly for high-value agriculture, but it is extremely doubtful that would be possible in the soils of the area.

Australia has a history of rampant clearing and burning, an almost inevitable consequence of settlers let loose over a vast, even though largely inhospitable continent. These days, one person's opportunity to raise extra cash from growing fodder crops is many others' loss of biodiversity.

A couple of days later, it was reported that a former LNP branch president (from Atherton in northern Queensland) and 'land-clearing consultant' – whatever that is – had recommended to landowners that they hang up on Federal government employees investigating whether land clearing had breached conservation laws, and that they refuse access to Federal Environment Department officers turning up without a search warrant. This shocking encouragement to flout environmental regulation is consistent with Coalition attitudes to conservation, climate change mitigation and land management generally. They are, of course, beholden to big business donors, so it is hardly surprising.

The clearing of trees destroys habitat and therefore wildlife, and ultimately biodiversity; increases salinity and carbon emissions; and reduces the wild places in which we seek sanctuary and solace (Bimblebox Nature Refuge, in Central Queensland, top). The continued planet-wide loss of woodland and forest is likely to trigger more serious climate change than already threatens. Those who cut down trees must bear a huge responsibility.

Trees, especially large old trees (or LOTs), affect hydrological cycles, nutrient cycles, ecosystem disturbance regimes and the distribution of plant species. In the human psyche, they are massive, both literally and figuratively.

By the way, the cut-off point for submissions concerning the Queensland government's proposed Vegetation Management, or land clearing, amendments has been extended until next Friday, 29 April. You still have time – see Land Clearing Act Now, my blog post from 18 April.


April 21, 2016

Big Sur, surf and seals

So, which is the world's greatest ocean drive? The road to Hana on Maui, Hawaii; the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, Australia; the Atlantic Ocean Drive in Norway; the Amalfi Drive in Italy? Or is it California's Highway 1? We've all read travel features about the best drive, or the most beautiful beach, made a mental note of those that appealed the most, and then planned trips around them.

I'd had a previous shot at California's State Highway 1, way back. There had been seriously bad weather beforehand, and mud slides blocked my progress beyond Bixby Bridge (above). But still I dreamed of driving from Carmel to Big Sur and beyond. Just as you can't say you've been to Sydney unless you've caught the ferry from Circular Quay to Manly, you can't say you've seen California unless you've turned up the volume and travelled this iconic stretch of road squashed between the Santa Lucia Mountains and the spectacular Pacific coastline.

The Highway runs for more than 1000 kilometres from Mendocino County north of San Francisco to Orange Country south of Los Angeles. It took 18 years to construct, and was completed in 1937. It has since been declared a California Scenic Highway and an American National Scenic Byway, but it's the middle section in particular, through Big Sur, that attracts those of us who will forever worship the cult of California – ever since we heard West Coast folk rock or watched The O.C. Such is Highway 1's beauty and notoriety, it has become a destination in itself.

Incidentally, why are American road numbers so seductive? Later on in our trip, I became disproportionately excited about driving an extremely short stretch of Route 66.

We left Carmel-by-the-Sea – headed for Cayucos on Morro Bay – on an April-showery morning, but soon the weather was glorious. It would be easy to sail past Point Lobos State Natural Reserve: you've barely left Carmel when there's a turn-off to the right. It's well worth detouring for the rocks, the surf and the seals.
Harbor Seals resting
It was Tasmanian watercolourist Francis McComas who described Point Lobos as 'the greatest meeting of land and water in the world'. It juts out into the ocean, affording stunning coastal views, and boasts more than 250 bird and animal species, including those beneath the waves. There are hiking trails for visitors with more time than we had.

From then on the coastal scenery just gets better and better as you head south. Even the bridges are photogenic. First up was Rocky Creek Bridge, and then the more renowned Bixby (Creek) Bridge, both completed in 1932. Before these bridges were constructed, the route south from Carmel was hazardous, especially in winter, and, at Bixby Creek, necessitated an 18-kilometre inland loop. Upon its completion, Bixby was the longest single-span concrete bridge in the world.
I had to keep an eye on the time. We were booked for lunch at Nepenthe restaurant. We had to forego detours to Point Sur Lighthouse or the Henry Miller Library, where apparently you can still get free tea or coffee and wifi as you relax among the redwoods and pay homage to formative writers – including Kerouac – and artists who made their home in Big Sur. 

Nepenthe has been run by the same family since 1949. It is hard to imagine a nicer outlook while eating your lunch. I would advise booking to make sure of this view. It was almost hot on the terrace. We took a chance on warm sunshiny weather in February for the whole of a 17-day trip, but that's what we got. Sunny is how one imagines California: it has to be.
After lunch we backtracked a couple of miles to Pfeiffer Beach. Access down to the sea along the Big Sur coastline is for the most part restricted by either private property or steep cliffs. The road to Pfeiffer isn't easy to find. Sycamore Canyon Road is not signposted, so you need to know the turn is beyond the entrance to Pfeiffer Big Sure State Park, to the right if you're travelling south. If you reach Big Sur post office, you've gone too far. It's sealed (and ungated) at the top by the Highway, but over the couple of miles to the beach the road is narrow and winding, potholed and rough-going in places, so isn't suitable for trailers. 
Taking good photographs of waves crashing through a curious hole was as challenging as finding the road to Pfeiffer. 

We continued on down this glorious highway. We observed Gray Whales off shore: they migrate south in the northern hemisphere autumn from their summer feeding grounds off Alaska to the waters around Baja California where they breed. When we were there, they were heading back up north with their calves. There were piles of brown seals on remote beaches. And we witnessed a disturbing road-rage incident as I took the picture below. I imagined there was a Kathy Bates-style crazy woman behind the wheel of a car honking its horn and tailgating another far too fast and close around the z-bends.
 
In theory, Cayucos is only 180 kilometres from Carmel, supposedly a three-hour drive. On departure from Pfeiffer Beach, we were aware we had to step on the gas to reach our beach house before sundown. The landscape became far less dramatic towards San Simeon, where you turn off to visit Hearst Castle. Absolutely everyone had told us we must see this place, but the artefacts of opulence are not really our bag: we preferred the Elephant Seals of Piedras Blancas.

The colony numbers some 23,000 seals, spread along ten kilometres of beach, but they are never all in residence at the same time. From January to May there may be many thousands, however, and as many as 100 alphas fighting for their patch. They weigh up to 2300 kg (females weigh 800 kg) and measure up to 5 metres in length (females are 4 metres). Pups are born in January and breeding follows a month later. An elderly couple (of humans) alongside us were watching the goings-on. The woman observed matter-of-factly to her husband: 'There's a lot of rape going on down there.'
Alpha plus hareem and pups
The boss
The babes
A neighbour
We spent two nights in a large, light and airey house right on Cayucos Beach, with views to Morro Bay and its extraordinary Rock, part of a chain of extinct volcanoes. Morro Bay is a fishing town, with wetlands and other interesting features to explore for those with time; Cayucos is smaller and sleepier, with a great pier. We chilled, ate fish, and ran along the beach in comfortable temperatures for once. The shorebirds were numerous and long-beaked.
Surfin USA
Next morning we turned inland and back to San Francisco. Beyond lay California's best vineyards.


April 18, 2016

Land Clearing Act Now

William Blake opined that a robin redbreast in a cage puts all heaven in a rage, and he was not wrong. Fortunately for Blake, he never had to listen to a tree-eating machine, one of the worst sounds in the world. The first time I heard it, I rushed outside, unable to imagine what was responsible for such a monstrous noise. It's a familiar sound in a city bursting with new development, but I will never cease to be profoundly disturbed by it.

A vast continent of harsh conditions and impenetrable vegetation has produced a race who excel at gadgetry to bring wild landscapes under control. Wood-chippers and stump grinders can clear an urban block before you can find Council's number to ask if they're allowed to be doing it. Tree equipment companies boast 'aggressive feed' and 'massive chipping capacity', concepts that make me pale.

Felled trees means fewer birds and other critters, greater run-off, eroded soils, warmer micro-climates and fewer objects of beauty. Trees live for longer than humans, if they're allowed to. They are mighty, benign and the powerhouses of the natural world. We destroy them at our enormous peril.

Every Aussie bloke seems to think he can wield a chainsaw. My neighbour took his to a beautiful variegated fig tree on his property's boundary. It affords us shade and privacy, and has a resident possum and Blue-faced Honeyeaters, but he doesn't care. He didn't have a clue about how to prune, and a year later the tree still has a weirdly empty centre, because that's where the most accessible branches once were. The idiot climbed up it in thongs (flip-flops), of course, waving his gadget around until he noticed me glowering: we've had issues in the past and don't talk unless in an emergency. Unfortunately, he didn't fall off his perch despite the inappropriate footwear.

For larger-scale land clearing, the Aussies have developed an even more terrifying method: namely, dozers and chains. It's hard to watch the footage at the start of this ABC piece from 10 months ago.
http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-06-04/queensland-government-steps-in-to-stop-olive-vale-land-clearing/6521928

Tim Seelig of the Wilderness Society described what was going on at Olive Vale as Joh-Bjelke-Petersen-era land clearing, referring to the method pioneered by Queensland's notorious 31st premier on his peanut farm near Kingaroy (see picture at top).

Decades of rampant clearing were reined in by the Vegetation Management Act 1999. It used a series of maps to determine which vegetation was regulated and where clearing could not occur. Further attempts to curb broadscale clearing followed in 2004 and under the Sustainable Planning Act of 2009. Progress was seriously undermined by Campbell Newman's destructive land clearing efforts, during which, in just one year, 2013/14, 300,000 hectares of native woodland were destroyed in Queensland, the kind of per-annum figure from the bad old 1990s. Clearing on that scale means the destruction of threatened species' habitats and increased run-off to the Great Barrier Reef; not to mention the release of 36 million tonnes of carbon.

The Olive Grove land clearing in Far North Queensland was supposedly for high-value agriculture. One look at the dry earth once the tree debris was cleared away proved the fallacy of that intention. Now there's even more of Australia for cows to eat.

Ten days ago I attended a briefing by the Environmental Defenders Office in Brisbane. Speakers including Dr Seelig encouraged us to make a submission to the Agriculture and Environment Parliamentary Committee in support of the Labor government's Vegetation Management (Reinstatement) and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2016, VMROLA to its friends.

The legislation is by no means fully comprehensive, but it will go some way to undoing Newman's damage. Please consider making a submission, the cut-off for which is 25 April. It should be in your own words, but it doesn't need to be long or complex. Here are three links to provide background, answer questions and help you write a submission:
https://www.parliament.qld.gov.au/work-of-committees/committees/AEC/
   inquiries/current-inquiries/11-VegetationMangt
http://www.edoqld.org.au/news/vegetation-protection-in-qld/
https://www.wilderness.org.au/making-submission-queensland-land-
   clearing-reform-bill-0

Speak from the heart and don't be afraid. Just list the points you consider to be most important, as clearly and concisely as you can.

My friend and I have travelled extensively in Queensland. When we're driving through the ever-changing landscape, or looking out from a viewpoint, we often ask ourselves, 'I wonder how much of this is original vegetation?' Thankfully, it's a rhetorical question: I suspect we wouldn't like the answer most of the time.

I know many environmental protectors who would like to see tighter regulation to protect high-value conservation areas and remnant ecosystems, and to restrict resource and urban development. Land clearing is often the start of all sorts of slippery slopes, so the reinstatement of vegetation management laws is a vitally important first step to achieving some of these aims.

Please take time to write a submission. Thank you for your support.
Clearing in the suburbs
Clearing in the Outback
Cleared



April 16, 2016

So long, Hillary Clinton

I'm sorry, Hills, but it's over.

It's been a long relationship. During Bill's presidency, I marvelled at your poise and, ultimately, your staying power during those excruciatingly personal revelations about his sexploits with a White House intern, and others. I would probably have killed him for being such a jerk. I certainly wouldn't have stuck around, even for the sake of my political ambition.

I read Carl Bernstein's book (A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton) and learned about your early life: the law career; your beginnings with Bill; and the development of your shared and massive political ambition.

I've always admired you. To the extent that I bought the wrong T-shirt as I flew out of Washington in December 2007: yours, not that of Barack Obama, who, as it turned out, has been the coolest POTUS imaginable.

I admire you most for your tireless work for women's rights and women's health, both at home in the US and globally. This clip, from much later when you were Secretary of State in the Obama administration, illustrates the point: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UH9rC0MaBJc

All good things must come to an end, however. There is nothing I would like more than the United States to follow its first black president with its first female president. That would be such a huge political-historical moment. (It almost seems to be your destiny.) It's hard not to be rooting for that.

But along came Bernie. He's going to ban fracking. You, on the other hand, have accepted donations from fossil fuel companies. Bernie's spoken so carefully about empathetic 'faith', without all that must-have-religion bollox that American politicians have to wear on their sleeves. He finally won me over by shattering a taboo: that you cannot criticise Israel; and you must never mention the Palestinians' right to existence. I'm afraid you cannot talk about Israel's right to defend its borders – even if there are 1.2 million Jews in New York – without also considering the people who lost their nation in order to make those borders possible, and their plight ever since.

Bernie has made the right noises on the most important issues. I had to make a choice, even though I cannot vote. I have followed American elections for as long as I can remember. After all these years, and at what must be the final hurdle, you're not my choice. Even though you may well win the Democratic nomination.

The other night I went to listen to John Fenton from Wyoming. His home and his land and his life have been ruined by the effects of what you guys call coalbed methane. He spoke from a heart almost broken by a life plan slowly poisoned. Then he played us a clip of Bernie Sanders telling America it should ban fracking. John said he could never have imagined that an American politician, let alone a presidential candidate, would say that. Bernie's announcement brought hope to a community reduced to drinking bottled water trucked in from 100 miles away, their environment polluted by chemicals the gas company isn't obliged to identify.

He inspires hope, in fact, way beyond the USA. The hope that dogma-deluded politicians can and will be replaced by voices of reason on a planet in dire need of a survival management plan. In several countries there have recently been moves to escape the neoliberal bind of the last half-century: the Podemos party in Spain; Jeremy Corbyn in the UK; former Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis; Thomas Picketty at the Paris School of Economics. And now in the US, presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders.

Come on, my American friends, take a chance, feel the Bern.


March 25, 2016

Tall Trees and Ocean Drives

In California you can see the oldest, tallest and thickest trees in the world. Giant Sequoias are the biggest in terms of volume of wood in the trunk. They are found in the Sierra Nevada mountain range in the east of the state. The Coast Redwoods of the Pacific Northwest – from southern Oregon to Central California – are the tallest.

We had originally planned to see both. Our California tour originally included two nights in the foothills of the Sierras, where we would have seen 'General Sherman', the largest living thing on earth. It is 83.8 metres tall, with a girth near the ground of 31.3 metres. Its branches don't begin until 40 metres up. We didn't see this marvel. I had foolishly assumed that, with the California drought and a super El NiƱo, there would be little or no snow in the Sierras. Two weeks prior to departure I called the lodge where we were booked in. They had 5-7 feet of snow and weren't expecting it to disappear anytime soon. Avis in LA wouldn't allow us snow chains: we couldn't enter Sequoia National Park without them. End of story.

So it was all down to the Coast Redwoods for our big-tree experience. From San Francisco we drove south, eventually along slow, narrow, twisting roads, to Big Basin Redwoods State Park, whose address I love: 21600 Big Basin Way, Boulder Creek, Ca. You will recognise a familiar story when I tell you that Big Basin was the first State Park, founded in 1902 when it was realised that these magnificent trees had fast disappeared into 28 saw mills to meet the timber demands of the gold rush and urban development. This was the start of the conservation movement in California. Today, less than five per cent of a once-massive ancient forest remains: Big Basin's rare stand of Coast Redwoods includes trees ranging from 1000 to 2500 years old. Some are 100 metres tall and more than 15 metres in circumference.

The Redwood Loop Trail is short, and there are much longer ones, but your neck will ache after half an hour or so. You are compelled to look up all the time because these towering trees are almost unbelievable in their scale. And you'll try to spot the red-capped Acorn Woodpecker, who will soon make his presence felt by a noise resembling the soft thwacking of wood rather than a woodpecker's more familiar tapping. Thanks to my friend for this shot of what appears to be a woodpecker eating a chip.
Extremely tall trees are impossible to photograph adequately. I tried.
I quite liked group shots…
…and the texture of the bark.
The Coast Redwoods couldn't live to such a great age if they weren't extremely resilient. If their tops or limbs break off during a big wind or storm, a dormant bud will sprout, enabling the tree to continue its reach for the sky. The 'Mother of the Forest' at Big Basin lost her top in a storm, but she's expected to regain her former grandeur. The 'Father of the Forest' was less impressive.
The Redwoods have several survival techniques. Roots do not go deep but extend outwards nearly as far as the tree is tall, intertwining with those of neighbours to form a stabilising network. Leaves are able to extract moisture from famous fog that rolls in off the ocean. Bark is thick and protects the tree from fire damage: it contains little flammable resin but it does have a repellent against wood-boring insects and fungi. Clever trees. Survivors.

Which is more than be said for the original people of the region, the Ohlone. After the Spanish arrived, they were impacted by violence and disease, and forced into missions. Like the Indigenous tribes of the Australian continent, they had inhabited the Big Basin for thousands of years, forging a deep connection to the land. They hunted and nurtured and harvested plants, and practised cool burning. This all-too-familiar story of destructive European invasion struck several chords.

How do you measure the height of a Redwood? By climbing up it and dropping a tape measure. The tree is rigged for the safety of the climber and the tree. Scientists explore and measure many things as they ascend, but the search for the tallest tree is never-ending. Laser technology is also used to determine height. 

The road was almost as wiggly down the mountain as it had been up. Boulder Creek is an attractive little town where we stopped to fill up with petrol, creating time for a short walkabout. Laura, whom I passed by on a corner, introduced herself and shook my hand as she welcomed me to California. I noticed the tall trees were integral to the towns on the way down, homes fitting around them. Many cabins were in permanent deep shade and had internal lights on even though the sun was shining brightly.
Route 1 around Santa Cruz was traffic-clogged. We longed to reach Monterey. We were staying in Pebble Beach on the Monterey peninsula between Monterey town and Carmel-by-the-Sea. We decided to reach our house via 17-Mile Drive. This famous scenic route includes forest and dramatic coast and, unfortunately, several golf courses, which I tried hard to ignore. Why were the greens so vibrant in the middle of California's worst drought in hundreds of years, possibly longer? Because the golf clubs are rich enough to pay the penalties. They are not in the business of caring and sharing a precious resource. 

The gated homes of the peninsula reflect enormous wealth and privilege. The 'private property' signs, restrictions on where you can walk by the ocean, even high fences in places keeping you away from the spectacular shoreline – and completely ruining photographs – are not conducive to feeling relaxed and at home, however beautiful the views.
The Drive itself is gated: you pay a US$10 toll for the privilege. I was determined to do it again, but felt disappointed and uncomfortable with the selectivity of the place. It didn't feel wild and free, but manicured, slightly sanitized and corporate, which of course it is, most of it being managed by Pebble Beach Resorts. Motorcycles are prohibited; presumably so golfers won't be put off their stroke by loud revving engines. If you're staying in Pebble Beach, make sure you tell the person on the gate you'll be coming backwards and forwards. 

The wildlife was a good distraction, however. We saw whales offshore and sea otters in the shallows. The variety of shorebirds was impressive. And the iconic Monterey Cypress (top of page) adds drama to a stunning coastline. For your $10 you get a little brochure denoting highlights along the route: Point Joe; Bird Rock; the Ghost Tree; Fanshell Overlook. It is all extremely beautiful; but there was most definitely a but.
Monterey Bay and Santa Cruz mountains from Shepherd's Knoll
The Restless Sea
Bird Rock? (Western Gull)
Cormorants, but are they Brandt's?
Sea otter
 
Our lovely house was buried in the Del Monte Forest but we could see the ocean. The glass-walled room on the side I called the lap room. Or the inside-outside room. As in San Francisco, we wished we had more time there. The next day was a chillin' day in Carmel-by-the Sea.
All those years ago I stayed in a condo and carried groceries home in a tall brown paper bag. I felt thoroughly American and wanted to pause my life. Clint Eastwood was once the town's mayor. Yes, it's fairytale land. I remember Carmel's beach was gorgeous, and it still is, but the town was not quite as I recalled. It all looked rather twee and touristy rather than cool. But the shorebirds were great.
Marbled Godwits?
Synchronised Sanderlings
A different Gull
Here's my take on Carmel-by-the-Sea, which I loved despite the tweeness, and the lack of decent coffee shops for breakfast other than sticky buns, with the exception of La Bicyclette, whose eggs were in purgatory. We actually ate a damn good dinner at a golf club restaurant on a stormy night (the only bad weather in two and a half weeks, and under cover of darkness). At Porter's in the Forest the food – I remember artichokes and halibut – was excellent, and the service equally so since we were virtually the only people who had ventured out on such a wild Wednesday.
The ocean driving had only just begun, however. There was great excitement about California State Route 1 upon the morrow.