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.

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:

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

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.