REAL AUSTRALIA

Voice of Real Australia: Can't see the trees for the forest

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On a day when all the talk seems to be about Facebook, we are keen for you to leave cyberspace behind and walk with us among some trees ...

Dead snow gums killed by fire in Kosciuszko National Park. Picture: Kate Matthews.

Dead snow gums killed by fire in Kosciuszko National Park. Picture: Kate Matthews.

When I was 11 years old I visited Thredbo Ski Resort in the Kosciuszko National Park for a ski camp. I was seeing snow for only the first or second time. Early in the day, I fell off my skis and whacked my face on the ice. I watched crimson drops of blood as they slid from my nose and spiderwebbed through the snow.

I looked up from the hard snow and about 30 metres away, shining through the gloom, was a snow gum. This would have been an old tree, boughs twisted and sagging with age bright against the snow. It wasn't one colour, I remember, but somehow all of them. Green and orange and smoke blue and grey. I only took my eyes off it to watch as one of my skis took off down the mountain. I took off after it, and didn't pay close attention to the snow gums again.

15 years later I visited the Snowy Mountains again, driving up to work on this week's episode of the Voice of Real Australia.

Tom the Podcast Man in the field at Kosciuszko National Park. Picture: Kate Matthews

Tom the Podcast Man in the field at Kosciuszko National Park. Picture: Kate Matthews

Did the landscape look different, feel different? This time it was summer - carpets of snow replaced by dirty green pasture. The Kosciuszko Road takes you from Jindabyne and up into the mountains, and I drove along it, this time paying extra careful attention to those magical gums.

At higher altitudes the snow gum becomes the only tree in the landscape - nothing else substantial will grow up there. Yet there wasn't any of the bright colour I remember. Thousands and thousands of them are dead - grey skeletons standing silent and lifeless. They're relics of the bushfires which tore through here in 2003. This graveyard continues all the way up to Perisher resort.

However, I'm not here to report on those trees killed by fire. The snow gums in the Australian Alps are dying now but for other reasons, and scientists like Dr. Matt Brookhouse and Jozef Meyer from the ANU are trying to figure out why. A native wood boring beetle is ring-barking them, but it's unclear why these trees all of a sudden can't seem to fight off the beetle plague.

A dead snow gum with tell-tale signs of the phoracantha beetle's damage. Picture: Kate Matthews

A dead snow gum with tell-tale signs of the phoracantha beetle's damage. Picture: Kate Matthews

Snow gums under beetle attack look healthy at first glance. But when you look up at the branches poking out of the canopy - grey and brittle - you realise that this is a landscape in distress. Once the beetle burrows beneath the bark, it's not known if anything can be done to save the tree. Around the resorts in Perisher, almost every snow gum is infested - and affected trees have been detected throughout the Alps, from the ACT to beyond the Victorian border.

If researchers can't find a way to halt the beetle's march, every tree above 1600 metres could die -- that's hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of trees in one of the most precious and fragile ecosystems in the world, wiped out.

How have these so beloved mountains been allowed to become so degraded? Thousands of visitors come to the Alps year round, yet the slow and steady decline in healthy trees went unnoticed. People simply don't know what the landscape should look like. The Snowy Mountains have been in crisis for years without anyone paying attention.

If this most cherished of Australian landscapes can so visibly suffer with only limited concern, what does that mean for the rest of the country? Or the rest of the world? And what other silent killers are out there, destroying landscapes which are less visible but no less precious?

To report sightings of the phoracantha beetle or snow gum dieback, go to saveoursnowgum.org.

Listen to the story on the podcast.

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