Habitat Loss                                         A grassroots movement towards orchid conservation


orchid species alan stephenson
Alan W Stephenson's  Orchid Species of Shoalhaven, NSW Australia

A book about Australian orchids, habitat,  and conservation

Available from:
[email protected]

Click on pictues for larger pictures

Alum Mt. fire 2009

bulahdelah fire
After the Alum Mt. fire 2009

bulahdelah fire
After the Alum Mt. fire 2009

r slateri bulahdelah
Rhizanthella slateri by Alan Stephenson

r slateri vincentia
Rhizanthella slateri by Alan Stephenson

Link to: A related story on Rhizanthella slateri

c hunteriana
Cryptostylis hunteriana

Link to: Fire
Retardant Chemicals Effect on the Enivornment

Orchid Habitat Loss 

BULAHDELAH ON FIRE (Again) text by Alan Stephenson
Severe burn of main habitat and type site of Rhizanthella slateri

By now many followers of orchid events would be aware of yet another fire on Alum Mountain at Bulahdelah. Am I imagining this or does Alum Mountain attract more fires than most other geographical landmarks in New South Wales (NSW)? Several of these fires have not happened during the normal summer bushfire season but seem to have occurred at random intervals during the year.

I learned of it via the ABC news on the third weekend in September when well known orchid expert David Banks was interviewed about the nature and ramifications of the fire. Any interested orchid person would be aware the NSW Roads and Traffic Authority (RTA) have planned for several years to construct a road by-pass of Bulahdelah and from numerous options for the route, chose “Option E”, which as luck (or fate) determined is the worst possible path for the by-pass. Option E in its initial form would have destroyed approximately 66% of all known plants of Rhizanthella slateri, a very large number of Cryptostylis hunteriana and also a large proportion of Corybas dowlingii. Up until recently I was horrified at the prospect of the destruction of these three species but as mentioned in a previous article, the RTA relented to public pressure and following good work by three scientists the situation for all three species was greatly improved. Intense study has been done and much information gathered regarding all species and the relocation operation planned for them by the RTA did not appear to be their death knell as was originally the case.

bulahdelah fire
Suspicious fire on Alum Mountain at Bulahdelah

Information from Bulahdelah directly relating to the fire states it occurred on September 23, 2009. It was supposed to be a back burn to clear an area for a new power line easement and my information is that a separate environmental study was to be conducted prior to the operation, due to a required two year waiting period following a similar fire in 2003. This delay was to determine the incidence of flowering of R. slateri and C. hunteriana post 2003. The RTA had advertised a flora and fauna investigation would be undertaken during the clearing process but the fire appears to have put a stay to this study. Information also suggests at least one person involved in this operation was also involved in a similar operation in 2003.

r slateri bulahdelah
Rhizanthella slateri  Bulahdelah, Australia by Alan Stephenson

There are many questions yet to be answered about the fire and the lack of an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). A report on submissions indicated an EIA was critical to the process and also that the ability to retain vegetation in the gully associate with the power line due to possible damage to orchid species and threatened species in general. The power authority (TransGrid) stated the RTA shall bear all costs arising from the relocation of the transmission line, including environmental assessments, approvals, and access tracks and that all fencing and road cutting should be at least 15 metres form the centre point of the line. It would appear the fire has saved the RTA  a significant sum of money as none of this will now be undertaken including a construction management plan for the vegetation which is now lost. A cynic would see this as extremely convenient.

bulahdelah fire
After the burn on Alum Mountain at Bulahdelah

Unfortunately the recent fires have occurred in the main habitat (and type site) for R. slateri and also the area planned for their relocation. As the fire was out of season and probably a burning off operation (no confirmation to date) prior to the ongoing road construction, my assumption is that the area was being cleared to permit the safe continuation of RTA operations during summer. A letter has been written to the federal and NSW Environment Ministers requesting information regarding this and other concerns I have about the timing and precise location of the fire. This is not the first time a fire has broken out in this immediate area and the timing of it must cause some concern. My experiences with R. slateri have noted it can flower from its underground rhizome from early October to late March as these are the times when I have seen plants either in flower or almost in flower at Bulahdelah and two other sites near Jervis Bay (NSW). Again my assumption is that if plants were in or about to flower they would be destroyed for that season and possibly for a season or more to follow. I assume this, as my understanding is, all vegetation has been burned by the fire and the orchid will lack this support system and mycorrhiza produced by the vegetation is unlikely to be produced until regrowth occurs. This must also be the case with the planned relocation site.

So much information is unknown about the fire and principally whether it was a hot or cool fire and what effect either might have on the survival prospects of Australia’s most unique orchid species. A hot fire can effect growth below ground by cooking orchid tubers but even a coolish fire out of season can have negative effects as it is designed to remove ground covering vegetation leaving tubers open to predation by birds and animals and erosion from wind and rain. There are many questions to be asked as I consider this to be a serious incident and certain authorities should have some questions asked of them. These are the NSW RTA, NSW Forestry and the Rural Fire Service. I cannot and do not make any accusations but the frequency of fire at this site and this particular incident, which has targeted the most environmentally sensitive site in the area cannot remain unknown or be put in the too-hard-to explain basket.

I do not hold out much hope of a sympathetic response from the government as the RFS and Forestry are in the untouchable category and seem able to do no wrong and if a response from the Environment Minister of another state is an example, I would not be surprised to receive a letter containing the same brand of bureaucratic waffle, designed to keep letter writers in their place and my cynicism intact.

Alan W Stephenson
National Conservation Officer
Australasian Native Orchid Society (ANOS)

Map is fully functional. You do not need Google Earth installed. 
Latitude:-32.412261, Longitude:152.224106