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Australian Alps: Kosciuszko, Alpine and Namadgi National Parks

Australian Alps: Kosciuszko, Alpine and Namadgi National Parks

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Australian Alps: Kosciuszko, Alpine and Namadgi National Parks

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Dec 1, 2015


Australian Alps is a fascinating guide to Kosciuszko, Alpine and Namadgi National Parks. It introduces the reader to some of Australia’s highest mountains, their climate, geology and soils, plants and animals and their human history. It traces the long-running conflicts between successive users of the mountains and explores the difficulties in managing the land for nature conservation.

The book gives credit to little-known or understood stories of the people who have worked to establish better understanding of the Alps, especially their vital role as the major water catchments for south-eastern Australia. This new edition updates many themes, including the involvement of Aboriginal people in the region, catchment function and condition, pest plants and animals, fire and the issue of climate change.

Written by a specialist with over 25 years’ experience in community education in and about the Australian Alps National Parks, this new edition features many excellent natural history and historical photographs. Ideal as support information for field trips, it will make a wonderful memento of an alpine visit.

This book acts as a detailed companion to park interpretive material and to topic-specific field guides: it caters for readers who want a broad overview of areas of interest they will come across in a visit to the mountains.

Dec 1, 2015

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Australian Alps - Deirdre Slattery


Australia’s Alps – the Brindabellas, the Snowy Mountains and Victoria’s High Country

The funny thing is that when you’re there, among them, you know all the answers, everything you ever wanted to know. You can see exactly what life’s all about. But it evaporates as soon as you come away. Perhaps that’s why you keep going back. Doug Scott, British mountaineer, on the experience of visiting mountains.1

Of course, Scott was probably talking about mountains three or four times the size of any in Australia. His experiences as a mountaineer presumably involved hanging on to cliffs by his fingernails, sitting blizzard-bound in a very small tent and enduring numerous other high mountain miseries. But perhaps other people’s experience of mountains is similar even when the style or effort involved is different. Scott’s spiritual exhilaration was certainly shared by Paul Edmund Strzelecki, whose ‘ardour of discovery’ on first ascending Mount Kosciuszko2 in 1840 reminded him of ‘Liberty, Patriotism and love’, as he wrote to his beloved friend Adine, at home in Poland. To Strzelecki, ‘Mount Kosciusko is seen cresting the Australian Alps, in all the sublimity of mountain scenery ... [it] is one of those few elevations ... [which] presents the traveller with all that can remunerate fatigue’.3 No doubt his exhilaration came from being the first European to be there, but as we pant to the top of even a well-trodden peak, many of us have felt a similar thrill.

In 1834, John Lhotsky, setting out from Sydney for the Australian Alps, also felt the exuberance that comes with physical freedom and adventure, with leaving everyday worries and cares behind – although it’s to be hoped that we don’t all use the mountains as an escape from the law:

I left behind me all Bills of Exchange, Courts, Summonses, Attorneys, Editors of Newspapers, Gaols and such like and exulted in the feeling that abandoning all these delights of ultra-civilised society, I should once again enjoy for some time, a freedom nearly approaching the state of nature.4

Another attitude, that the Alps were there primarily to be exploited for material human benefit, is also basic and longstanding. In the late 1800s, John Gale, a well-known Queanbeyan journalist (and later known as the ‘Father of Canberra’), spent many happy hours exploring the nearby mountains. Appreciative though he was, his enjoyment was strangely contradictory:

I had a splendid view of a male lyre-bird gambolling near to me on a bare rock. He had come down from the higher ground and was making towards cover nearer the river. When he gained the rock he paused in his progress, and pirouetted in the exuberance of his joy, bounding with long springy strides, his gorgeous tail trailing train-like behind him ... ‘Things we see when we haven’t a gun!’ A lyre-bird’s tail in its best plumage would probably have been mine that morning had I carried a breech-loader instead of a rod.5

Figure 1.1: Pre-war hikers. Equipment may have changed, but the spirit of adventure continues. Source: DEPI, Victoria.

This is a graphically concise statement of what must be one of the most bizarre human qualities: appreciation of the beautiful in nature coupled with a desire to kill it, take it home and stick it on the mantelpiece. We are a bit shocked now by Gale’s lust for a trophy, as fashions have changed in our attitude to the slaughter of wildlife. But Gale’s heedlessness pales into insignificance compared with other activities that have changed the mountains since his day and have not been rejected so readily.

Use of the Alps to satisfy various personal and economic needs and wants was conducted almost without regulation or accountability in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Disruption of the Aboriginal tribes’ seasonal visits to the mountains and rapid destruction of their relationship to land occurred as logging, mining, widespread free-ranging sheep and cattle grazing and clearing for agriculture proceeded. Some of the early activities were conducted with such freedom and thoroughness that only when the integrity of the landscape itself was seriously threatened were some controls imposed.

In 1932, Baldur Byles, an up-and-coming young forester, sounded early alarm signals about widespread damage resulting from grazing the alpine and subalpine areas. On a 6-month long inspection conducted for the Commonwealth Forestry Bureau of the headwaters of the Murray River, he compared the condition of the upper Murray catchment with the Taurus Mountains in Turkey, which he had visited in 1930. In the Taurus the destruction of forest cover had gone much further than in Australia, and as a result:

... drainage is not by rivers but by torrents overflowing with water in winter but almost dry in summer. The torrent beds are filled with boulders which every year are hurtled down from the mountain-tops to the valleys and from the top of the valleys to the bottom.6

In his report, Byles went on to conclude that a conservative approach to land use made more sense than allowing damaging processes to continue:

In the mountains of the Murray catchment the damage is, by comparison, only just beginning and the problem is one of prevention rather than cure; surely it is better to stop the process of forest destruction than to ... leave future generations the work of repairing the damage that should never have been allowed to take place.7

Byles’ report recognised that the Alps are the vital source of the water systems of south-eastern Australia, where most of us live, and the damage that so alarmed him had happened in a frighteningly short 100 years. This makes it surprising that the changes he warned of were only slowly officially recognised as a potential disaster. Although land degradation had begun to destroy the efficiency of this catchment, with resultant deterioration to the quality and quantity of alpine water resources, Byles’ warning had little effect until 1957. Then, a report instigated by the Australian Academy of Science found:

... catchments are in danger if there is any loss in the infiltration capacity due to a deterioration of vegetative cover, and in great danger if this deterioration is likely to lead to accelerated soil erosion, which could, in time, reach devastating proportions.8

Figure 1.2: Camp Creek near Mount Bogong, Alpine National Park. Source: David Tatnall.

Figure 1.3: Soil and vegetation loss in the Snowy Mountains, 1931. Note Byles’ hat (centre). Source: Baldur Byles, Roger Good Collection.

Figure 1.4: Soil and vegetation loss after grazing and fire near Dainers Gap, Snowy Mountains, 1959. Source: Alec Costin, Roger Good Collection.

This same report also warned of the damage being caused by the acclaimed Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Scheme, which was then in its middle stages of implementation. This warning was the basis of a lengthy public dispute over the value and effectiveness of parts of the scheme, and of its level of environmental care. The scientists also considered a third land use, tourism and recreation, as a possible alternative. But overall, the future of the mountains was in nature conservation, said the report, written by eminent ecological authorities of the day. ‘This increasingly important aspect of our high mountain catchments cannot be neglected’.8

During the last 60 years, grazing, Byles’ initial focus, has been removed from the mountains. National park protection for nature conservation has changed the legal status of the land and its management. But activities associated with power generation and irrigation and with ski resort development have dominated recent changes to the landscape. These activities have included the creation of several vast lakes made by damming alpine streams, and the construction of power stations, roads, lifts and tows, car parks, food and shopping outlets and accommodation.

What does ‘conservation’ mean? In everyday terms, it could be interpreted to mean something like ‘saving a place for the uses I’d like and getting rid of the others’. But Baldur Byles and the Academy of Science committee were clearly arguing that in the long term everyone loses if natural places are damaged by unsuitable, short-term use. If such important places are not valued for what they can do best, the loss is not just personal and aesthetic, but also economic and social. As Alec Costin, ecologist and principal author of the AAS Report, wrote at the time:

We need such undisturbed areas more than the developments which are possible in them. If we cannot save a few of the best, it does not say much for our scientific, cultural and spiritual standards.9

Not many Australians think of the Alps as a foundation of their wellbeing. The use of the mountains in the last 50 years has featured conservation, development and recreation and tourism, to the point where there is often conflict between them. Such conflict may not be apparent to many of the 5 million or so visitors to the Alps each year. For them, they are a place to visit for a winter weekend of skiing and socialising – a place of car parks, bars and ski tows. Most of the fine detail of the landscape is hidden beneath the snow; the panoramas and peaks are a delightful backdrop to a great weekend.

The Australian Alps National Parks

Mainland Australian alpine and/or subalpine areas are found in eleven national parks and reserves, stretching from Canberra through New South Wales (NSW) to eastern Victoria, crossing state and territory borders. These parks cover 62% of the alpine country of Australia. This book deals with three of them: Namadgi, Kosciuszko and Alpine.

Namadgi National Park (NP) is the smallest of the three. Most of it was reserved in 1908 as part of the development of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), to provide water catchment for Canberra. It contains the headwaters of the Cotter, Paddys, Gudgenby and Naas rivers. The need to ensure purity and reliability of water from these catchments meant that other uses were excluded, establishing an area of high conservation value which made it relatively straightforward to add the adjoining Gudgenby Nature Reserve to become Namadgi NP in 1984. Namadgi, the Aboriginal name for the Brindabella Ranges, occupies 46% of the ACT.10

Figure 1.5: The Australian Alps National Parks are continuous across state boundaries. Source: AALC.

It was nearly 60 years later in NSW and 80 in Victoria before the Alps started to be looked after primarily for their value for conservation. In NSW, the Snowy Mountains National Chase was declared by 1906, but it covered only the area around the highest peaks. In 1944, part of the present park, Kosciusko State Park, was declared as a result of a struggle to protect the area from soil erosion and to retain it for nature conservation. The Kosciusko State Park Act 1944 established a Trust to run the Park. Although a strongly pro-conservationist member of the Trust was Baldur Byles, this body lacked the political will to control or eliminate many of the pre-existing damaging uses, particularly seasonal grazing. Damage continued until the development of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Scheme in the 1950s and 1960s drew public attention to the need to protect expensive dams and tunnels from siltation. This added the voices of engineers to those of soil conservationists, downstream farmers and bushwalkers. So, interestingly, Australia’s greatest engineering project led directly to the creation of one of its best-known and biggest national parks.

After 1967, under a new National Parks Act, areas were added to the existing State Park and all grazing was finally withdrawn, so today Kosciuszko is the largest of the three parks (690 000 ha).

The Victorian Alpine NP, comprising 646 600 ha, is the newest, having been declared in 1989. The struggle for protection was long and bitterly fought in Victoria. Over time, the dissected shape of the land had promoted many other uses in the valleys and slopes between the high plains, making it hard to draw acceptable boundaries for a park. Past uses also produced diverse interest groups, which protected their perceived interest fiercely and often successfully. These included the timber industry who wanted access to the mountain and alpine ash timber of the mountain slopes, and graziers who formed a powerful political lobby group. In the absence of good public information about the significance of the damage done through grazing, they succeeded in capturing public sympathy. This led to compromises, one of which was that, in 1979, three areas were made separate national parks – Cobberas-Tingaringy, Wonnangatta-Moroka and Bogong – before links were made between these to form the complete Alpine NP in 1989.

So a dream of many people was finally fulfilled – as with many dreams, in less than ideal form. Nevertheless the result provides a firm basis for both conservation and enjoyment.

The Alps: their physical features

With a total length of ~500 km and an average width of ~50 km, the Australian Alps occupy some 25 000 km2, or 0.3% of the continent. This includes not only the ‘snow country’ above ~1400 m, but also the surrounding slopes and valleys. Australia as a whole is flat and dry, with an average elevation of only 300 m, so this small area of reliable high rainfall and snow cover – with its particular soil, plants, animals and landforms – is of great value and interest. Although the Alps are not high or extensive by world standards, they determine the distribution of water to rivers, and therefore to people, in a way that affects the whole of south-eastern Australia.

The Alps stretch from the Brindabella Ranges near Canberra to not all that far from Melbourne. The Brindabellas include Coree in the north, Gingera, Bimberi, Morgan and Murray. You can see some of them from the streets of Canberra, streaked with snow on a frosty winter morning. The Brindabellas are the northern-most extension of the subalpine vegetation of NSW and Victoria, with several peaks above 1800 m. Their extensive woodlands also connect with those of the coastal escarpment to the east and the Murrumbidgee catchment to the north.

South of the Brindabellas, brooding over the northern plains of Kosciuszko NP, is the crouching giant, Jagungal. Further south again is the great arc of the Main Range, including the highest peak, Mount Kosciuszko at 2228 m, and Tate, Twynam, Carruthers and Townsend mountains. This whole area encircles the headwaters of the Snowy River. Further south still are more easily discernible separate peaks, including The Pilot, the source of the Murray, then over the Victorian border, the remote Cobberas Range. Bogong, the highest mountain in Victoria, has its own separate plateau. Across the Big River valley, on the Bogong High Plains, are several peaks over 1800 m – Nelse, Cope, McKay and Jim. To the south and west lie Mount Hotham and Mount Feathertop; then the Victorian High Country continues at a lower elevation towards the Howitt Plains, around which Despair, Speculation, Buggery, Howitt, Magdala and The Bluff are among the highest points on the main ridge line. Other significant subalpine areas in Victoria are also in national parks – the separate granite plateaus of Mount Buffalo to the north and Mount Baw Baw to the south of the main divide, and the Avon Wilderness Park, which adjoins Alpine NP south of the Wonnangatta area.

What does ‘alpine’ mean?

The term ‘alpine’ is used in a general way to describe any high mountain area. A stricter definition is ‘the area above a certain altitude that is treeless due to the inability of trees to grow at low temperatures’. That is, the area above the treeline, which is at ~1700–1900 m in mainland Australia. A further area, the subalpine zone, is that in which snow gums are the only tree species, above ~1400 m. Open areas of grass and heathland as well as snow gums vegetate the subalpine area.

However, the term ‘Australian Alps’ generally also includes the forested montane and tableland zones that lie below the alpine and subalpine zones (see Fig. 1.5). That is, Australian Alps are a system of linked mountain landscapes where climate and elevation shape the landform, soils, plants and animals found there. In Australia there are many local names for different parts of the mountains: the Brindabellas near Canberra, the Snowy Mountains and the Main Range in NSW, and the High Country in Victoria are just some of these.

Although high peaks are among the many common features recognisable throughout the Alps, there are also some distinguishing differences in the way the land looks in each park. The core of alpine Australia, Kosciuszko NP, is characterised by the largest areas of continuous elevation. These may not look like plains at first, as they are rolling and hilly, but when you come to the western edge of these high plains and look into the Geehi or Tumut valley, you’ll come to appreciate that the plains are an example of ‘low relative relief’ – a term describing land that is much the same height. The drop on the western slopes of the range is very steep but to the east is a gradual descent to the Monaro Tableland, which is still quite high at ~800 m at Cooma or Jindabyne. Stretching to the north from this solid block of country are the long, folded parallel ridges separated by high valleys of Namadgi NP.

Figure 1.6: Looking north from Mount Gingera, Namadgi NP. Source: David Tatnall.

Figure 1.7: Main Range, Kosciuszko NP, from the Thredbo walkway. Source: Phil Ingamells.

Figure 1.8: Alpine NP looking north to Mount Buffalo from near Mount Loch. Source: AALC.

Table 1.1. How high is it? A peak-baggers guide to the Australian Alps.

Source: Wikipedia.11

If you could travel south along the ridge-line and into Victoria, as some walkers do, it would be like turning a corner. Instead of travelling with the grain of the country, you’re now travelling across it, up steep slopes and down into valleys. Active river erosion has eaten deeply into the mountains, creating several small isolated high plains, above a dissected terrain of steep valleys and narrow ridges. This landform explains the pattern of Alpine NP, consisting of several elevated areas separated by lower foothill forest – convoluted boundaries resulting from compromise with the timber industry for access to tall alpine ash forests and with other private land users.

The Australian Alps: important for the nation and the world

The Alps have high status because of their national park legislative status. This ensures that nature conservation is the highest order use of alpine land in each state. But in addition, national and international legislation, agreements and programs can act as a support for this standing. Three important ones are described here.

Australian Heritage listing

In Australia, state governments control and manage most public land, including that reserved in national parks. But the Federal Government’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) also gives it powers on matters of national importance on the environment, heritage protection and biodiversity conservation. Under the EPBC legislation, the whole area of the Australian Alps National Parks is listed as an Australian Heritage Landscape: one of 16 across the country.

If the national interest is judged to be under threat, the Federal Environment Minister can limit actions and decisions by state governments or others. Under the EPBC Act, species, communities or ecological processes can be listed as threatened, and therefore can limit processes that endanger them: Alpine Sphagnum Bogs and Associated Fens is one such system. In the case of Alpine grazing in Victoria, this power was used in 2012 by Federal Environment Minister Burke to prevent the Victorian Government from re-introducing cattle grazing to the High Country.

Alps to Atherton: The Great Eastern Ranges Initiative

This is a national program based on connectivity conservation – an approach that recognises the need for ecological processes to operate over much greater scales than previously appreciated. The Great Eastern Ranges are 2800 km long and extend from the Australian Alps north of Melbourne to the Atherton Tablelands north-west of Cairns in north Queensland. They include dissected tablelands and escarpments and span major variations in rainfall, temperature, soil types, altitude and latitude.

This vast area contains a rich diversity of plants and animals that depend on a wide range of habitats, including rainforests, woodlands, heaths, wetlands, herb fields and grasslands. It contains water catchments for over 90% of the population of eastern Australia.

Through such large landscape-scale programs, landholder and community organisations are encouraged to work together to preserve, restore and build resilience in our environment. The Great Eastern Ranges Initiative is a globally significant and internationally recognised program that will help adaptation to future environmental threats by maintaining, improving and reconnecting ‘islands’ of natural vegetation along the eastern seaboard.

Australian Alps and World Heritage

It is frequently suggested that the Australian Alps should be nominated for World Heritage status, as a place of outstanding universal significance. Such status would place the Alps in the same category as the Sagarmatha NP (which includes Mount Everest).

Kosciuszko NP is already a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, one of 631 worldwide. This network of significant conservation reserves allows study and protection of the world’s natural systems. Criteria for inclusion are that the reserve should be a good example of its type of system (alpine in this case), that it should be diverse, in natural condition and large enough for effective ecological study.

Significance of the Australian Alps

What are the qualities that attract all this recognition?12

Criteria that give value to the Australian Alps are both scientific and aesthetic.

The scientific values of the Alps arise from alpine connections to other world alpine systems, and also from those unique to Australia. From both points of view, we can piece together the story of the development of the natural world. Some connecting features are plants and animals shared now with far distant places. These links show the common origin of the modern southern landmasses as lying in the former supercontinent Gondwana. That is why the Australian Alps have plants in common with those of New Zealand and South America.

The mystery of just how and when the Australian Alps were formed is debated among geologists and in itself this lack of a clear explanation for their form is significant. The mountains are unusual in being so close to the edge of the continent but not to the tectonic plate edge, whose margins are well out in the Pacific. They are complex in structure and origin, made up of rock types from many eras.

Unique features include the well-developed covering of soil across the landscape. Australian Alps are rounded, not rocky and jagged like the conventional image of mountains. It is an interesting exercise to look at common advertising images of the Australian Alps and see how many of them portray European or Himalayan ‘pointy’ Alps, rather than the more significant reality of our high plateaus. The well-developed soil mantle has great value for water catchment, because the soil absorbs water and regulates its flow to the valleys.

Much other Australian alpine vegetation developed in isolation after Gondwana split up. In most countries, you will find that different types of tree specialise to meet the demands of life under differing conditions. But in Australia, the continuous cover from coast to treeline of the genus Eucalyptus is unique in its type, its extent and the fact that there are so many species of this genus, each adapted to its particular location. So, wherever you travel in the Australian Alps, from Canberra to near Melbourne or from the deep valleys of the Snowy Gorge to the treeline near Mount Kosciuszko, the dominant tree cover is the remarkable eucalypt, of which there are ~46 species in the alpine national parks. In the foothill forest, one species is the tallest flowering plant in the world: mountain ash E. regnans. At the treeline is the often twisted and stocky snow gum E. pauciflora. This forest developed directly from its older relative, rainforest, which still survives in remnants in the Alps and elsewhere.

Figure 1.9: The remarkable snow gum is the characteristic tree of Australia’s Alps. Source: Phil Ingamells.

Figure 1.10: Wildflowers in the Alps are luxuriant and brilliant during the short growing season. Source: Alec Costin, 1956, Roger Good Collection.

Above the treeline the evidence of past periglaciation (or ‘almost’ glaciation) also gives a unique opportunity to understand past climatic and earth-shaping processes. The evidence of these processes has increased in value with growing recognition of the pace and extent of climate change. The splendour of the Alps can better be appreciated through awareness of the huge timescale and energy involved in shaping the plains and slopes as we now see them, in this brief moment in their history.

As for the aesthetic value, the land itself, the natural landscape of gently rounded high plateaus, gorges and escarpments, the ragged untidy individuality of the eucalypts and

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