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The parable of Gospers Mountain

By Vic Jurskis - posted Wednesday, 12 February 2020

Lieutenant Watkin Tench arrived at Warrane (Sydney Cove) with the First Fleet in 1788. Tench described a diversity of birds and animals, present in small numbers:

The country, I am of opinion, would abound with birds, did not the natives, by perpetually setting fire to the grass and bushes, destroy the greater part of the nests; a cause which also contributes to render small quadrupeds scarce.

Tench and Judge David Collins observed fire behaviour during drought and extreme weather. Aboriginal fires were, as always, burning in bushland northwest of Parramatta in February 1791. Over three days of extreme temperatures (>430 C) and searing northwesterly gales, flying foxes and lorikeets were dropping dead in what is now Parramatta Park. However, the fires did not affect the European settlement.


Fifth of Decem­ber 1792 was another extreme day. One house and several fences and gardens were burnt in Sydney. Extensive fires at Par­ramatta were "brought under" by settlers with green branches. However a firebrand from the crown of a tree ignited a thatched roof, destroying a hut, outbuildings, and a stack of wheat at Arndell's farm near Toongabbie. These fires were controllable because they were in light, discontinuous fuels.

Surveyor General Thomas Mitchell noted that "no vegetable soil is formed" on sandstone in New South Wales because "con­flagrations take place so frequently and exten­sively … as to leave very little vegetable mat­ter to return to earth." He described the country between Parramatta and the Hawkesbury River:

no objects met the eye except barren sandstone rocks, and stunted trees. With the banksia and xanthorhaea al­ways in sight … The horizon is flat ...

When Mitchell surveyed the road to the Hunter Valley, he wrote:

… the whole face of the country is com­posed of sandstone rock, and but par­tially covered with vegetation. ... on many a dark night … I have proceeded on horseback amongst these steep and rocky ranges, my path being guided by two young boys belonging to the tribe who ran cheerfully before my horse, al­ternately tearing off the stringy bark which served for torches, and setting fire to the grass trees (xanthorhaea) to light my way.

Charles Darwin visited Sydney and Bathurst in January 1836:


In the whole country I scarcely saw a place without the marks of a fire; whether these had been more or less recent – whether the stumps were more or less black, was the greatest change … In these woods there are not many birds.

Darwin travelled unconcerned through midsummer fires in severe weather during a drought:

We experienced this day the sirocco-like wind of Australia, which comes from the parched deserts of the interior. Clouds of dust were travelling in every direction; and the wind felt like it had passed over a fire.

… The season … had been one of great drought … The Macquarie figures in the map as a respectable river … I found it a mere chain of ponds …

The next day we passed through large tracts of country in flames, volumes of smoke sweeping across the road.

Mitchell wrote:

the prevailing geological feature … is the great abundance of … sandstone … The sterility of the country … has been frequently noticed in these volumes. …

A deposit, upwards of 1200 feet thick, forms the Blue Mountains … although declining towards the sea at … at an angle of about 10 with the horizon ; yet it is traversed by ravines, which increase in depth, in proportion as the sandstone attains a greater elevation, and present perpendicular crags and cliffs of a very remarkable character.

These ravines were carved out from the end of the Triassic, 201 million years ago, when the Blue Mountains started to rise and the Cumberland Plain to descend, at the Lapstone Fault. The sandstones around what is now Sydney Harbour were pushed upwards as well. During the Jurassic which ended 145 million years ago, these ravines cut back into the mountains. Erosion also gouged out the gorge that became Sydney Harbour after it was drowned by rising seas.

Fossils show that Araucarias (hoop and bunya pines) Agathis (kauri pines) and Wollemia (Wollemi Pine) diverged from a common ancestor after the ravines had dissected the sandstones. At this time, the Blue Mountains were in southern Gondwana - with a cool moist climate. The most recent ancestor of Agathis and Wollemia in the fossils is 110 million years old. Genetics suggest that they diverged during the Cenozoic which began about 60 million years ago. A molecular study indicates that they diverged only 18 million years ago, when volcanic basalt flows were covering some sandstones in the mountains. One remnant flow is the basalt cap now known as Gospers Mountain.

Wollemi Pine, dubbed the Dinosaur Tree, appeared after the Cretaceous – Tertiary mass extinction 66 million years ago. Nevertheless, it survived millions of years of natural climate change as Sahul (New Guinea, Australia and Tasmania) broke away from Gondwana and 'drifted' north, becoming hotter and drier. The deep easterly ravines, now containing a hundred odd surviving Wollemi Pines, were a perfect refuge, providing shade and shelter from the sun and from drying winds and lightning fires.

People arrived in Australia at least 65,000 years ago, and by 40,000 years ago they had taken control of fire and changed vegetation across Australia. For example, on the Atherton Tablelands, Aboriginal burning converted Araucarian dry rainforests into grassy, eucalypt woodlands. Charcoal deposition (from biomass burning) declined with increasing aridity, as the last ice age advanced.

The oldest known Aboriginal site in the Blue Mountains is 22,000 years old. It has art galleries under overhangs and rock slabs used to grind stone axes. About 12,000 years ago, extreme climate change brought a massive rise in sea levels when the ice age ended. Tasmania was separated from the mainland, and then, New Guinea. Gorges in sandstone country east of the mountains were flooded and became Broken Bay and Sydney Harbour. Coastal areas where Aborigines lived are now part of the continental shelf under the Tasman Sea.

Rainforest reinvaded the Atherton Tablelands as climate became warmer and wetter. Charcoal deposition increased as Aborigines tried to maintain country. When it became too wet to burn, charcoal declined to low levels. A genetically distinct race of pygmies developed in the extensive tropical rainforests of north Queensland. The new soft-leaved rainforests were protected from wildfires by mild fires lit by Aborigines in open grassy woodlands.

There seems to be only one sediment core from the Blue Mountains that extends as far back as the earliest known Aboriginal site. This record of vegetation and fire around Mountain Lagoon was analysed by a university student in a B Sc thesis that was never published. I suspect that it challenges prevailing academic wisdom. Otherwise, it would surely have been the basis for a Ph D and copious scientific publications. Anyway, it seems that Aboriginal people maintained the Blue Mountains in an open, healthy, safe and productive condition for at least 20,000 years before explorers were disappointed by their sterility.

Whitefellas progressively occupied and developed grassy sites with more productive soils on shales, or particularly on basalts. For example, 80 acres around the fairly remote Uraterer Mountain were allocated to Robert Gosper as a Conditional Sale in 1877. An adjoining 100 acre block was a Conditional Purchase by Clive Pickup in 1907 and another 300 acres adjoining both blocks were alienated from the Crown later on. Uraterer Mountain became Gospers Mountain in 1970.

Wilderness guru Myles Dunphy assembled an elite group of city-dwelling bushwalkers – the Mountain Trails Club – in 1914. They formed the National Parks and Primitive Areas Council in 1932 to lobby government to establish national parks as exclusive playgrounds for a privileged few. Blue Mountains National Park was secured in 1959. After the National Parks and Wildlife Service was established in 1967, Colong Foundation took on the mission for wilderness.

NPWS acknowledged that wildfires were more frequent and less intense in the sandstone country prior to 1970, when 'stra­tegic' burning with general fire suppression was introduced. Reduced frequency and in­creased intensity of fire resulted in scrub development, impaired access, reduced floristic diversity, disease and a self-perpetuating regime of high intensi­ty fires. Wollemi National Park was gazetted in 1979.

In 1984, Dunphy and the Colong Foundation took new Environment Minister, Bob Carr, bushwalking in Kanangra Boyd National Park. They enthused him to create the ridiculous Wilderness Act of 1987. According to the Act, a wilderness area must be:

…in a state that has not been substantially modified by humans and their works … of a sufficient size to make its maintenance in such a state feasible, and the area[must be] capable of providing opportunities for solitude and appropriate self-reliant recreation.

The High Court Mabo decision of 1992 rejected wilderness or Terra Nullius. Green academics, bureaucrats and politicians now pay lip service to Aboriginal elders, past and present, whilst denying their monumental work across millennia to maintain a healthy and safe environment. Above all the obvious flaws in NSW Wilderness Act, the outstanding problem is a fundamentally racist denial of Aboriginal economy.

In January 1994, wildfires, in equally severe climatic and weather conditions to those faced by European settlers with green branches two centuries earlier, were uncontrollable. They burnt more than thirty thousand hectares around Sydney, claiming hundreds of houses despite the efforts of a well-equipped army of firefighters. Large expanses of three-dimensionally continuous fuels generated fire storms and ember showers. For example, a run of fire that claimed a human life spotted 800 me­tres across the Woronora River. Another jumped the Georges River. However NPWS reported that other runs un­der extreme weather were effective­ly contained in four localities as a result of prior hazard reduc­tion burning.

Since then, prescribed burning in NSW has been reduced.

Later in 1994 the Wollemi Pine was discovered by self-reliant recreationists abseiling into a fairdinkum mini-wilderness. NPWS has since kept the location secret to reduce opportunities for self-reliant recreation. In the following year, abseilers found a major Aboriginal art site in another part of Wollemi National Park at Eagles Reach. There are more than 200 paintings in 12 layers representing many generations of Aboriginal culture.

The disastrous 1994 fires gave impetus to a review of the Bushfires Act, intended to improve standards of land and fire management, which varied greatly amongst different Local Councils. Fahey's coalition government was defeated by Bob Carr in 1995 and the reforms were corrupted by green influence. NSW Rural Fires Act of 1997 specified that fire management would have "regard to the principles of ecologically sustainable development". The Nature Conservation Council, with a privileged position on the Bush Fire Coordinating Committee, ensures that these principles are misconstrued.

Lean, decentralised land and fire management was replaced by a huge top-heavy paramilitary emergency response organisation with no regard for local knowledge, experience or healthy landscapes. It is now illegal to apply fire frequently enough to maintain a safe landscape and almost impossible to apply mild fire under the onerous regulations.

The huge Wollemi Wilderness was declared in March 1999. Colong Foundation asserts that fire management can cause wildfires and species extinctions, kill wildlife, promote erosion and sedimentation and destroy old growth. It quotes Dr. John Benson, who, despite all the archaeological, traditional, historical and scientific evidence "is adamant that most forests and woodlands of Australia would not have been subject to frequent (less than ten-year) burns". When the Wollemi Pines were threatened by wildfire in 2002, Benson announced that they have been burnt before. Apparently there are remains of charred trunks with new coppice shoots. Obviously, the mini-wilderness in the ravines has recently been touched by intense fires.

In 2005, NPWS announced an phytophthora infection in the Pines and the soil. They blamed unwanted recreationists who'd left footprints and signs of campsites. NPWS staff and researchers supposedly weren't responsible because they sterilise their clothes and equipment. However phytophthora originated in Gondwana and has likely been at the site longer than the Wollemi Pines. It responds to deterioration of tree roots as a result of unnatural disturbance. I think it's most likely that the Pine's 'guardians' have caused an outbreak by all their trampling of the thin, poorly developed soils with a high content of organic matter. This is a truly unprecedented development in the mini-wilderness.

Bob Carr, in a 2014 keynote speech, reminded wilderness enthusiasts what a great job he'd done: "saving these vast, wild places preserves our rich indigenous cultural heritage". In almost the same breath he said we "must push back against" the use of natural resources because "human actions elevate species' extinction risks". This reminded me of the best-ever bumper sticker: The only true wilderness is between a greenie's ears.

A lightning strike on 26th October 2019 in New South Wales' biggest Wilderness Area started the largest ever forest fire that has occurred anywhere in the world as a consequence of a single, in this case, natural, ignition. A couple of weeks later, it was declared an emergency. Up to 3,000 firefighters, mostly volunteers, were battling the fire at any one time. It burnt uncontrolled for three months, covering an area of more than half a million hectares, with a perimeter of 1400 kilometres. It was reported to have been "tamed" by Rural Fire Service Superintendent Karen Hodges on 12th January 2020 after running into rural or residential areas and other fires.

On 15th January we were informed that:

Desperate efforts by firefighters on the ground and in the air have saved the only known natural grove of the world-famous Wollemi pines from destruction during the record-breaking bushfires in NSW.

The rescue mission involved water-bombing aircraft and large air tankers dropping fire retardant. Helicopters also winched specialist firefighters into the remote gorge to set up an irrigation system to increase the moisture content of the ground fuels to slow the advance of any fire.

"It was like a military-style operation," NSW Environment and Energy Minister Matt Kean told the Herald. "We just had to do everything."

The National Parks and Wildlife Service, backed by the Rural Fire Service, kept their efforts largely a secret to avoid revealing the location of the Wollemi pines.

With fires still burning out of control in southern NSW and VIC, Peter Hannam of Sydney Morning Herald added that:

All up, fires in NSW have scorched about 5.2 million hectares, with estimates of national wildlife losses from this season's bushfires topping one billion animals nationally.

Thank heavens for Bob Carr, child oracles and Extinction Rebellion!

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About the Author

Vic Jurskis has been a forester for 40 years. He has published extensively in academic journals. He is the author of Firestick Ecology: fairdinkum science in plain English (Connor Court, 2015).

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