Managing fire-dependent vegetation in Byron Shire, Australia: Are we restoring the keystone ecological process of fire?
By Andrew G. Baker and Claudia Catteral
Andrew G. Baker is a Vegetation Ecologist with Wildsite Ecological Services (PO Box 1172, Mullumbimby, NSW 2482, Australia; Email: ; Tel: 61 2 66846827).
Claudia Catterall is an associate lecturer with Southern Cross University with research interests in native vegetation ecology and conservation (School of Environment, Science and Engineering at Southern Cross University; Lismore, NSW 2480, Australia; Email: ), where she supervised this research project while Andy was an honours student.
Fire is a keystone ecological process in many ecosystems. In such ecosystems, the exclusion of fire can lead to fundamental shifts in vegetation structure, composition and distribution and poses a major threat to the biodiversity dependent on these habitats. Programmes to manage and restore native vegetation have increased rapidly over recent decades, and while many such programmes have demonstrable success managing a range of environmental threats, their effectiveness in identifying and addressing the major threat of fire exclusion in fire-dependent vegetation is questionable. This study sought to identify impediments to the management of fire-excluded vegetation at the assessment and planning stage of ecological management programmes in Byron Shire in north-east New South Wales. Sixty ecological management and restoration plans for sites known to be fire-excluded in the shire were reviewed to determine the rate at which fire exclusion was identified and addressed in planning over the last decade. Document analysis found the majority of plans failed to accurately identify fire exclusion or to recommend the reintroduction of fire in fire-excluded management sites. Absence of standardised guidelines that require comprehensive consideration of fire exclusion in ecological management and restoration plans is suggested as a key factor in the low response rates observed. Furthermore, it was found that existing implicit prompts to address inappropriate-fire regimes generally, including government policies, project objectives and site-assessment prompts had little effect on identification and response rates, further confirming the need for more-explicit assessment prompts relating to fire-frequency issues. Without improvements of the current ecological assessment and planning process to increase identification and management of fire exclusion in the study area, fire-dependent biodiversity values will continue to decline wherever fire exclusion remains unmanaged. It is recommended that explicit assessment and planning templates are developed and implemented to effectively manage fire exclusion and conserve the fire-dependent biodiversity of Byron Shire and the far north coast of NSW.