Bushfire-ravaged communities take future into own hands

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Indigenous Australians have managed bushfire through an intimate relationship with the landscape (Image by Alastair Smith / Flickr)

Bushfires and other manifold impacts of global warming will only cause further isolation unless we adopt a hands-on approach to effect change, writes Dr Simon Pockley.

'For most of history, man has had to fight nature to survive; in this century he is beginning to realise that, in order to survive, he must protect it.’

~ Jacques-Yves Cousteau

IMAGINE AN UNINTERRUPTED native bush corridor stretching from Queensland to Victoria. Wildfire risks are reduced by increased soil moisture and an ongoing program of Indigenous cultural burning. Wildlife thrives and adapts to climate change by moving freely north and south, as well as west and east. Australia’s ability to take positive action is the envy of the world and similar nationwide restoration projects are popping up everywhere.

This is the bold vision of the Great Eastern Ranges Initiative (GER), a 3,600km corridor of mostly intact uplifted natural lands extending from the Grampians in Western Victoria to Cape York in Far North Queensland.

For executive director Gary Howling, reconnecting isolated pockets of intact native vegetation is also about connections between people:

 “The capacity to achieve our vision comes from working with regional alliances of people working on the ground.”

While we hear stories of strong community resilience, the current wave of bushfires in Australia will cause further isolation and break many of the fragile connections that sustain life in the face of poor land management, drought and the manifold impacts of global warming.

Some important principles:

  • a country with a healthy, connected landscape is a country with some chance of a future;
  • nature can heal itself if we work with it (not try to dominate it); and
  • national scale initiatives are best achieved through on-the-ground or bottom-up action. It’s not something top-down governments can do on their own. 

These principles can be illustrated by what happened on two small blocks of "useless country", as it was once described. The first, beside the Warrumbungle National Park in north-western NSW, is home. An intense bushfire burnt us out in 2013. More than 56,000 hectares, including 95% of the park was turned to ash. Wildlife and the local community were devastated. With no sense of a future, few rebuilt and many families left the district.

Fire-adapted ecologies usually recover quickly but 2019 was the driest since records began. Springs, creeks and dams are dry, insects and birds have disappeared, trees and the local town are dying. The few people still around feel isolated and disconnected. It’s a mirror of many parts of regional Australia.

My own response has been to pretend I’m okay and call myself a "recluse".

Of course, I’m in denial. Healthy individuals are not isolated or disconnected, regardless of whether they are plants, animals, fungi or humans. They live in healthy communities, intricately interconnected with each other and their surroundings.

The second patch of land is 1,000 kilometres south, on a stream in Victoria’s Southern Otways. Back in the 1980s, we collected local seed, planted and nurtured more than 17,000 local species to revegetate a 20-hectare block, on which all but two trees had been cleared. Today, you can drink from the stream and the place is loud with koalas, birdsong and abundance.

To extend this project, a group of local volunteers, Southern Otway Landcare Network, decided that stream health was a measurable indicator of the health of the district. Together, we set about regenerating riparian corridors down every degraded stream – from source to sea – bringing the place alive again.  

There is increasing evidence that deforestation dries up the country and increases regional vulnerability to drought. Fire regimes, surface water catchment boundaries and groundwater recharge and discharge zones extend into private land, beyond protected areas and bioregional boundaries.

Australia has been identified as one of six countries most suitable for carbon-capturing reforestation with 58 million hectares potentially available for revegetation.

Successful revegetation needs local participation and capacity for collecting, planting and nurturing seed with local provenance. Simply put, local plants do better because they have evolved to grow in local soils and conditions; the ground is prepared by unique combinations of micro-organisms, seed chemistry, fungi and fire regimes.

Without ongoing local ownership, it is difficult and expensive to maintain the kind of top-down, short-term projects that emerge from politically motivated Commonwealth programs. The consequences of short-termism and underfunding cascade down through government agency staff-cuts to create on-ground disconnection — even confrontation.  

The natural resource management workforce has very little job security. The give-and-take of the once pragmatic application of land-use regulations evolved from long-term relationships between landholders and departmental or agency officers. Without those relationships, heavy-handed enforcement of by-laws damages trust and alienates well-intentioned landholders.

NSW north-coast dairy farmer Andrew Drain says he was fined for clearing lantana. He explains on social media how he came to conclude there was a "green conspiracy".

Retired earthmoving contractor, John Marriner comments:

Back in the days of the Forest Commission, in the period leading up to the Summer fire season, I would receive a phone call from the local forestry officer asking me to run the bulldozers through the bush tracks in our area, to make sure they were clear for fire fighting vehicles. As far as I am aware, this practice no longer happens.

Similarly, environmental organisations such as the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) have become isolated inside their urban-centric, activist bubbles and have lost the trust of regional communities.

Too many people see native bush as something that should be cleared or pushed back from where they live or work; residues of a European colonial inheritance and aesthetic, not to mention a fear of fire. So much of the need to dominate nature rather than work with it is embedded in the words, "out-of-control".

How Australians respond to fire and begin to understand the complexity of how to live in, and with, native bush is now being influenced by the Indigenous-led  Firesticks Alliance.

Director, Jaqueline Gothe says:

 I think the most important element the Alliance has focused on, in amongst the requirements of fire plans, is the recognition and acknowledgement of culturally significant animals and plants by local Aboriginal Elders and communities. This is one small step in the attempt to shift fire planning to a more connected focus on enhanced biodiversity.

For Indigenous leader Victor Steffensen, the knowledge required to read trees, soil types and wind conditions comes from an intimate relationship with the landscape.

While Indigenous groups have made the greatest conservation contribution by adding more than 67 million hectares to the National Reserve System of 151 million hectares, there are thousands of local initiatives. Some are driven by tenacious individuals such as (my sister) Jane Lemann’s Mount Gibraltar Restoration. Others, such as the Mulloon Institute, estimates that 60% of Australia’s agricultural land is severely degraded and deteriorating. The Institute promotes natural land management, regenerative farming and rehydration, as championed by authors Charles Massy (Call of the Reed Warbler) and Peter Andrews (Back From the Brink).

The impact of forestry and mining is increasing but intensive land use is considered the greatest contributor to the loss of Australia’s biodiversity. Around 56% of Australia is subject to grazing leases on largely cleared habitat where only about 26% of native vegetation remains uncleared.

Beyond agricultural profitability, any significant change of land-use from grazing and dryland farming to nature conservation needs to demonstrate significant cost benefits. The value of ecosystem health is often ignored because the monetary value isn’t evident. Nevertheless, water, oxygen, carbon capture, drugs, recreation, even spiritual solace can all be monetised with natural capital accounting. Although a flawed idea, this can be a powerful lens through which to model the potential for uneconomic farmers and graziers to be rewarded for revegetating their landholdings and finding more viable occupations as land stewards.

It’s easy to participate; introduce yourself to those locally tenacious people working to restore natural values close to where you live — or start your own project.

The simplest and most far-reaching action is to find time to be quietly present in nature.

If we Australians don’t value our native bush, we have little chance of changing national priorities.

Dr Simon Pockley is a former chair of the Southern Otway Landcare Network and a senior business analyst at Australian National Data Service. You can follow Simon on Twitter @simonpockley.

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