Issues Magazine

Protecting the Heart of Our Country

By Barry Traill

With wilderness areas across the globe rapidly disappearing, Australia’s outback remains one of the last great natural places on Earth. How do we manage our wild lands into the future?

The ranger walks slowly down the track, stopping to touch his flaming torch to the dry grass every few paces. The flames flick up and start to crawl through the savannah grasslands, turning the grass to ash and scorching the lower leaves of the eucalypts. After lighting up along a few hundred metres of a faint four wheel drive track, Nigel meets back up with colleagues doing similar work down the way and they casually return to their vehicle and to camp for the evening. The fire burns slowly on into the bush.

We are in the bush in the late afternoon near Kabulwarnamyo, a tiny Aboriginal outstation in Arnhem Land in the Top End of northern Australia. It is a sunny May day, early in the winter dry season. The ranger, Nigel Gellar, is a senior indigenous ranger working with Warddeken Land Management. Warddeken manages a huge sweep, a million hectares of the beautiful Arnhem Land Plateau.

This is one of the most biodiverse parts of Australia. Along with the adjacent Kakadu National Park, the cliffs, gorges, rivers, rainforests and savannas of this country are home to thousands of species of native plants and animals. Around 20 species of vertebrate animals and dozens of native plants are endemic species, largely or totally restricted to the plateau. The region is also of cultural significance, with thousands of rock art sites and other areas important for the local Bininj people. And it is one of the most spectacular and beautiful parts of remote Australia.

The apparently casual lighting up of the dry bush by Gellar and the other Warddeken rangers could therefore appear negligent. Why start a fire and then walk away? But the work of Gellar and the other Warddeken rangers is actually carefully planned and cautiously delivered. The rangers are burning strips of country at a time of the year and time of the day when they know the fires will creep along and then safely burn out. This puts in place fire breaks that will stop any bigger, more intense and very destructive wildfires that could occur later in the year.

The work by Warddeken goes to the heart of one of the big environmental and social issues facing Australia: the protection and management of one of the very few great natural places remaining – outback Australia. With almost seven billion people now living on Earth there are few places where the impacts of industrialisation and intensive agriculture don’t dominate. Large numbers of people means that large amounts of resources are necessary: land, water, timber and materials. This impact directly reduces the habitat available for native wildlife, and it degrades the natural ecological processes, such as water flows through the landscape, that maintain them.

Very big areas of wild country are now very rare. This is easy to overlook for Australians. We have, as a birthright, fairly easy access to huge stretches of country in Australia where nature remains in abundance, places where other people are now sparse or absent. A trip to virtually anywhere overseas, however, quickly reminds us how rare this vastness, this diversity of wildlife, now is. Europe, Africa, North America and Asia – these are continents quite crowded with the other seven billion of us. Human solitude is hard to find. Some wildlife does hang on, but there are fewer species and in much reduced abundance.

In fact, just five continental-scale terrestrial wild places remain on Earth: the Amazon and its rainforests; the tropical savannahs of South America; the boreal forests, the great band of conifer forests and tundra across Canada and Alaska in North America; the Sahara Desert in northern Africa; the cold, dry and nearly lifeless ice-lands of Antarctica; and the Australian outback.

Our familiarity can hide the fact that our outback country – remote central, western and northern Australia – is now one of very few places in the world where the bush still stands, the rivers still run naturally and where wildlife still moves over huge distances as it has for tens of thousands of years.

A conventional approach to conserving such a global treasure is to assume that large, remote and biologically rich areas in the outback, such as the Kimberley, Arnhem Land or Lake Eyre, should be protected from the incursions of too many people and demands for their resources. Certainly that is important in keeping out unsustainable and potentially destructive activities such as strip mining and damming of major rivers. But that overlooks a conundrum at the heart of managing large landscapes in Australia.

In many parts of modern Australia you can walk for weeks or drive for days without seeing another person. Large parts of the outback are the polar opposite of the crowded cities in other countries or in our crowded places like Sydney and its surrounds. Very, very few people live in our remote wild lands.

This was not always so. For more than 50,000 years Aboriginal people have lived throughout Australia, in all types of country. This is far longer than in most other parts of the world. People only moved into the Americas 13,000 years or more ago.

During their extraordinarily long period of time in Australia, Aboriginal people built up detailed land management practices that maintained particular habitats. These habitats sustainably provided a living for people.

Fire was the most important land management tool. Country was burnt by Aboriginal people in ways that maintained its productivity and diversity. A wide diversity of native species adjusted and co-evolved with this land management.

In modern Australia, the big outback landscapes are still largely intact, and largely undegraded by the bigger impacts of a crowded and industrialised world. But much of the land is now empty of people, and this hasn’t been positive for the protection of nature. With the changes wrought by invasion and settlement of the continent by Europeans from 1788 onwards, Aboriginal people have now largely moved into more centralised settlements. Few Australians of any background are engaged in active land management in the big outback landscapes and there is now no active management of much of the continent. In most of Australia fewer people – both Aboriginal and non-indigenous Australians – are living on country and managing it than in the past 50,000 years.

This matters for nature. Dangerous, uncontrolled wildfires now occur regularly throughout much of the country. In addition there are modern threats to deal with. A wide range of invasive species – feral animals and noxious, exotic weeds that have been introduced to Australia – now proliferate in much of the country. Non-Australian animals like feral cats, wild donkeys, camels, pigs, horses and cattle, cane toads, foxes and many others all compete with our native plants and animals or eat native flora and fauna. Noxious weeds like lantana from Central America, gamba grass from Africa and rubber vine from Madagascar threaten to choke native plants in many districts. Without active management these species threaten many native ones.

Australia has the worst rate of mammal extinction in the world. Twenty-seven species have become extinct since 1788. Species of bandicoots, small kangaroos and native rodents were hit especially hard. Many other species didn’t become globally extinct but did disappear from much of the country they once occupied.

The latest scientific research and the knowledge of Aboriginal people in much of central and northern Australia concur that many of these species disappeared from regions at the same time that Aboriginal people left their home country and moved into towns. The loss of the Aboriginal land management practices were to the detriment of many native animals. This process is continuing in many remote districts, with continuing local extinctions of some birds and mammals due to fire and feral animal impact.

Here lies the heart of the problem for Australia and our future generations. In the outback we have one of the truly great natural places remaining on Earth. But unlike some other places on Earth it needs active management by people to maintain its richness and diversity. Locking the land up in parks means much of this country has lain rarely visited and unmanaged for many years.

A two-part approach is increasingly used. First, areas are declared as Indigenous Protected Areas and agreement is reached between Aboriginal clans and the federal government that an area will be managed for its environmental and cultural values. In parallel, Aboriginal ranger organisations are established to manage the lands. Modern approaches are used that combine the use of Aboriginal traditional knowledge and western science.

The approach still remains little known by many Australians, but it is covering increasingly large and important areas of our country. There are now 58 Indigenous Protected Areas covering over 50 million hectares, an area nearly twice the size of Victoria. Individual areas can be vast. The largest, in the Tanami Desert, is nearly twice the size of Tasmania. Over 700 full-time Aboriginal rangers work to protect country for the benefit of their local communities and for all Australians.

In addition, large areas are now being purchased and managed by non-government conservation organisations such as the Australian Wildlife Conservancy and Bush Heritage Australia. These groups and others have purchased large cattle stations and put in place active management to ensure that wildlife habitat is fully protected and enhanced. Many of these properties are huge, covering thousands of square kilometres. As on Aboriginal-managed lands this involves careful management of fire, and control of feral animals and noxious weeds. These approaches complement the more conventional national park system in place and are slowly growing in most states.

These new approaches are showing the world how to manage huge wild landscapes. But the challenge for Australia is this: over three-quarters of the continent is intact, healthy wild landscapes – will we continue to build a system of national parks, Indigenous Protected Areas and privately owned sanctuaries for the protection for the globally recognised gem that is our outback?