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For WWF-Australia’s conservation scientist Dr Stuart Blanch the burning of 19 million hectares of precious native forest in 2019-20 was an intensely personal loss, yet it has ignited in him a new passion for saving what remains.
The tipping point for me was when I choked up on live South African television in late 2019.
I had been doing a lot of interviews during the bushfires, particularly with international media. But it wasn't until I heard this particular reporter express her horror at what was happening throughout eastern Australia that I realised the true magnitude of the devastation.
I knew all the science and that weather records were being broken - we're used to extreme weather in Australia - but that conversation started this drumbeat within me.
Then, over Christmas and into the New Year, things got worse, much worse, and that drumbeat grew louder and stronger. With every interview, I had to maintain my composure and professionalism, and bury my own feelings. But the scale of the catastrophe became overwhelming.
By then the bombardment of shocking news was deafening and my emotions finally flooded out.
I felt this despair that I couldn't protect all these amazing places from the effects of climate change, even if they were within a World Heritage-listed national park. I was seeing forests I knew intimately, that I had helped save from deforestation, being catastrophically burnt anyway. And I sort of broke down emotionally. It was the lowest I’d felt during three decades of environmental advocacy and conservation science. I felt helpless and powerless.
During sessions with a counsellor in the weeks that followed, I had to make some important admissions. That climate change had forced me to unlearn much of what I had been taught as a scientist - to be objective, unemotional, impersonal. Despite all my scientific training, I'd become emotionally invested in what the bushfires were destroying and damaging; I clearly saw what climate change meant for the forests that I love, for koalas and gliders and other wildlife, for communities and farmers living near forests, and for me and my family.
While I didn't personally experience the fires, the loss of or impact on 3 billion native animals and 19 million hectares had become personal.
I wanted to share this experience for two important reasons. Firstly, because at WWF we don't give up, ever. Secondly, I've realised that we now have to be truly honest about what's at stake and what we need to do to protect the forests and ecosystems and animals that were spared.
That's because Australia's eucalypt forests - the seventh-largest in the world - are approaching critical tipping points, where they could irreversibly switch from tall, wet sclerophyll forests to acacia and eucalypt woodlands that are more tolerant of drier and hotter conditions. We could lose these forests and the many threatened and amazing animals that call them home.
So I'm doubling down on my efforts with renewed urgency, inspired by WWF-Australia and Environmental Defenders Office (EDO)’s ‘Defending the Unburnt Six’ campaign. It identifies priority pockets of unburnt forests that are in need of protection and restoration across six areas in three states, from the Border Ranges to East Gippsland, that we must, at all costs, work to safeguard. These 1.4 million hectares are now more important than ever, providing critical refuge for threatened species and wildlife that escaped the fires.
At the local level, that means we must address deforestation, land clearing and native forest logging. At the national level, that means continuing to push for more effective climate change policy. Internationally, that also means working to secure a science-based koala-safe climate target that will help keep these remaining forests safe from the future droughts and bushfires that could result from climate change. It is confronting to recognise that the 1.5oC climate target under the Paris Agreement has almost been reached in Australia, with the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO stating in the State of the Climate Report 2020 that Australia has already warmed 1.44oC since 1910.
The helplessness I felt a year ago has been replaced by a new hopefulness. I can no longer be dispassionate, nor do I lose hope.
The cold, hard truth is that if the world does not transition rapidly to a new energy future, and achieve outcomes consistent with the recommendations of the world's best climate scientists under the Paris Agreement of 2015, we risk losing these forests. So we have to do absolutely everything we can to ensure that doesn't happen. We need to marshal all the very best science, expertise, funding and support from people like you to defend the Unburnt Six.
In partnership with Environmental Defenders Office (EDO), we have used sophisticated satellite imagery to pinpoint these clusters of southeastern forests, establish what land tenure they are on, what laws govern them, what threats they face, and therefore where best to focus our energies.
The power of such a strategic approach was brought home to me recently when I met the community group Manyana Matters Environmental Association on the South Coast of NSW that has thrown its weight behind protecting 20 hectares of unburnt forest. Yes, a tiny parcel of 20 hectares.
This pocket of vegetation is where animals from near and far found refuge after their own habitat was scorched. It's become a little green ark within a burnt sea, containing trees that are perhaps 300 or 400 years old, with hollows big enough to be homes for nationally threatened wildlife like the greater glider.
If we can save this forest from being bulldozed for urban development - the latest threat - then the animals have a chance to breed up as their surroundings recover. That prospect gives me real hope.
All along the eastern seaboard, our number one priority now is to maintain the forests and woodlands we've still got. Australia needs to be a leader in saving and growing trees, which are natural climate solutions.
Our second priority is reconstructing landscapes, which WWF is tackling through our Towards Two Billion Trees initiative. But this kind of assisted regeneration takes time. In the interim, the Unburnt Six will guide our campaign for stronger laws and government commitments to adequately fund urgent on-ground actions.
At WWF we never give up. Thankfully, neither do you. With your support, we can help shape Australia's tomorrow, today.
You can help us defend the Unburnt Six. Become a defender today.
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