Dieback summit looks for solutions as ancient bunya pine ‘skeletons’ spread beyond national parks: ABC Rural

ABC Rural / By Jennifer Nichols

Any activity that moves soil, water or plant material can spread the tiny pahtogens killing bunya pines.(ABC Rural: Jennifer Nichols)

A “heartbreaking” stand of “skeletons” along one of Sunshine Coast’s most popular scenic drives is sobering evidence that bunya pine dieback is spreading outside national parks – killing trees from an ancient species that once fed dinosaurs with its spiky football-sized cones.

For thousands of years, Aboriginal nation groups journeyed to Queensland’s Bunya Mountains and Blackall Range, gathering large nut-filled cones from pine trees towering up to 50 metres high.

A number of green cones on the ground, some are broken, showing the encased nuts inside.
The heavy bunya pine cone contains dozens of edible nuts.(Submitted: Jaqueline Moura Nadolny)

The bunya pine, Araucaria bidwillii, has survived since the Jurassic period at least 145 million years ago, but soil-borne plant pathogens introduced since European settlement are taking a terrible toll.

Visiting the group of dead bunya pines on the outskirts of Maleny, senior forest pathologist Louise Shuey described the dieback situation as “heartbreaking”.

A woman poses in front of dead Bunya Pines.
Senior forest pathologist Dr Louise Shuey hopes she has found a potential treatment for bunya dieback.(ABC Rural: Jennifer Nichols)

“Phytophthora is a fungal-like organism — it’s not a fungus, it’s a microscopic water mould that’s pathogenic and lives in the soil,” Dr Shuey said.

“It’s amazing that something so small can take down 800-year-old trees … it infects through the fine feeder roots.”

Dead stand of trees
The dieback “bulldozed” its way through this stand of trees on Landsborough-Maleny Road.(ABC Rural: Jennifer Nichols)

Dieback spreading

Dr Shuey, who is conducting research for the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, said that tests showed a different type of phytophthora dieback killed the stand of bunyas on the side of Landsborough-Maleny Road.

It was not multivora, the strain impacting both bunya and hoop pines, Araucaria cunninghamii, in the Bunya Mountains.

“So, the bunyas that are dying here [at Maleny] we’ve detected Phytophthora cinnamomi — cinnamomi tends to move more like a bulldozer so you don’t get that patchy dieback as much.

“All of the trees here are dead, rather than just being patchy like it is at the Bunya Mountains.”

A young indigenous man and his father stand tall with dead Bunya pines behind them
Adrian and Shannon Bauwens are members of the Bunya Peoples’ Aboriginal Corporation.(ABC Rural: Jennifer Nichols)

Skeleton trees

Bunya Peoples’ Aboriginal Corporation members travelled to Maleny for the Beyond Bunya Dieback Symposium to collaborate in the search for solutions.

Walking in the footsteps of his ancestors who treasured the majestic trees, Adrian Bauwens said he had been mapping dieback deaths in the section of the Bunya Mountains National Park he cared for.

A big brushy tree turns brown next to a trunk with bare branches on it.
A dying giant next to the skeleton of another bunya pine.(Supplied: Queensland Department of Environment, Science and Innovation)

“If I gave you a figure it would probably make you sad, it’s everywhere,” Mr Bauwens said.

“We have been calling them skeletons … they’ve dropped all their limbs and leaves, as well as leaving a lot of canopy missing from the rainforest, which is really sad to see.”

A shoe, scrubbing brush and disinfectant in a cleaning kit.
Nature lovers should come prepared to protect the forest.(Supplied: Karen Smith, Queensland government)

Slowing the spread

Any activity that moves soil, water or plant material can spread phytophthora, including bushwalking, mountain biking, four-wheel-driving, timber harvesting and feral pig incursions.

“Make sure your gear is clean, your shoes are clean, your bike’s clean, don’t go out when it’s muddy,” Dr Shuey said.

“Don’t go out underneath dead trees in really wet conditions.”

Walkers are being asked to clean their footwear.(Queensland Department of Environment and Science)

Impacts of ignorance

To help protect the bunyas, footwear should be sprayed with methylated spirits or disinfectants before entering or leaving bushland, and cleaning stations have been installed in the Bunya Mountains National Park.

“Unfortunately, we have had people just ignoring the problem,” Mr Bauwens said.

“When it gets wet that’s when the dieback’s spreading so we go and close some of our tracks to stop that spread, however, we found tracks around our washdown station.

“People are just seeing the sign and going, ‘Oh, whatever, I came out to the Bunyas so I’m going to enjoy it,’ so they’ll go on the tracks anyway and spread it and because they’re not using the washdown, it’s just going everywhere, it’s not being managed.”

A woman and man pose with a large green Bunya Pine cone.
The Beyond Bunya Dieback Symposium was organised by Brush Turkey Enterprises’ Karen and Spencer Shaw.(ABC Rural: Jennifer Nichols)

Blackall Range impact

Spencer and Karen Shaw from Brush Turkey Enterprises organised Queensland’s first dieback symposium.

It brought together about 100 people including community members and representatives from councils, national parks, Landcare and conservation organisations.

A room full of people.
The Beyond Bunya Dieback Symposium brought together more than 100 people.(ABC Rural: Jennifer Nichols)

“There’s a whole group of people from all these different stakeholder groups who are all concerned and have come together to share knowledge, to learn, and hopefully to, together, have some kind of action for the future,” Ms Shaw said.

The couple established their bush education, revegetation and restoration business 26 years ago and have watched dieback rear its ugly head on rural land, historically cleared for farming.

Nut kernels in a bucket.
First Nations people once travelled hundreds of kilometres for bunya nut festivals.(ABC Rural: Jennifer Nichols)

“Over the last four years we’ve started noticing the death of bunya trees on the Blackall Range where we live; the communities of Maleny, Witta and Montville in particular,” Mr Shaw said.

The Shaws believe dieback is part of a bigger picture of environmental pressures caused by clearing, soil degradation and climate change, and said bunya pines in more isolated national parks on the Blackall Range, buffered from human impact, were still looking good.

A man wearing a high visibility shirt and hard hat, injecting a tree.
Phosphite injections have been successfully trialled to help contain phytophthora in tree plantations.(Supplied: Dr Louise Shuey)

Treatment options

Dr Shuey has been mentored by retired plant pathologist, 87-year-old Ken Pegg, who developed successful treatments for phytophthora in Australia’s avocado industry in the 1970s.

They have worked with HQPlantations, which manages about 40,000 hectares of hoop and bunya pines on state-owned land, to test injections of phosphite, which stimulates the trees immune systems.

“Rather than injecting sacred trees [in national parks] and accidentally killing them, HQPlantations have helped inject and trial phosphite onto their plantation pines,” Dr Shuey said.

“And we’re getting really, really, promising results — they’re tolerating the injections really well.”

The plant pathologist is still hoping to secure government funding to extend the research project for another year.

A grey haired indigenous woman cups Bunya nut kernels in her hands.
Jinibara elder Aunty Zietha Jalamala Murphy prizes the bunya nut.(ABC Rural: Jennifer Nichols)

Culturally significant

Jinibara elder Zeitha Jalamala Murphy said collaboration was crucial to preserve the precious species that has inspired dances, rituals, ceremonies, corrobborees, storytelling and connection.

“I’m very concerned because it is part of our cultural values and when you take away culture, when we don’t look after the land, the land ends up dying,” Ms Jalamala Murphy said.

“We need to find a way to look after country, look after the Bunya trees, because they were here before all of us.”

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