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A Burning Issue


Dry grasses are burned at the beginning of the Northen Territory’s dry season to avoid larger fires later when lightning storms occur. Credit: travellinglight/iStockphoto

By Kate Osborne

The use of fire to manage Australia’s vast northern savannas is being doused by government bureaucracy, resistance by pastoralists, loss of indigenous knowledge and mistrust of science.

The vast, thinly populated country north of the Tropic of Capricorn is Australia’s great frontier. The icons that form our collective image of the north are the reef, the rainforests and the arid interior.

Yet these iconic landscapes are the exception rather than the rule. More than 1.9 million km2 – roughly one-quarter of the total area of the Australian mainland – is savanna country.

Globally, savannas are threatened by population pressure, land clearing and overuse. In Australia the sheer scale of the savanna is a risk factor – with so much country the ecological values are not considered rare or threatened. Yet scientists believe we could be on the brink of the next great extinction.

Savanna is also known as grassland, rangeland or, in northern Australia, simply as “the burning country”. Globally, the savanna biome occurs in a wide band on either side of the Equator. These habitats are shaped by a strongly seasonal climate and the transforming effects of fire. The summer “wet” is a time of flooding rains and growth, followed by a long “dry”. As the country slowly becomes parched, fires spring up or are lit in the grass understory. In Australia’s north, the extent of grassland areas without trees is restricted; most of the country is flat or undulating, and vegetated with annual and perennial grasses and scattered trees or shrubs.

Since European settlement the dominant land use of the northern Australian savanna has been beef cattle grazing on leasehold land. In recent decades substantial areas of land have been returned to indigenous ownership, and there are also protected areas such as national parks and other properties where land is co-managed by indigenous people or graziers for conservation.

What they have in common is that the natural assets of the land are their primary resource. If sustainable land management fails, so too will the northern communities.

The one constant in every media article, government report or academic research paper about the north is that “inappropriate” or “changed” fire regimes are threatening biodiversity, beef producers and indigenous country. The most significant reasons for modified fire regimes in northern Australia over the past 150 years are the removal of indigenous people from the land and the loss of knowledge about how to use fire sensitively, not just for hazard reduction but as a positive force in land management.

Research and reports from government and the beef industry have repeatedly shown there is no agreement concerning the use of fire, even within similar landscapes. The result is that, either through deliberately lit fires or wildfire, some land gets burnt too often and some land not enough.

Dr Gabriel Crowley has studied the ecology of northern savanna systems for over two decades and, through the organisation Firescape Science, has been working with Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) to improve land management on Cape York’s grazing properties. Crowley says that burning small areas, as was historically done by the indigenous inhabitants, can create a patchwork landscape that is positive for plant and animal biodiversity. In contrast, allowing conditions that create extensive or very hot fires are detrimental to both biodiversity and beef producers.

Yet since satellite-based measurements began in the 1990s, hot and extensive fires have ravaged 20% of the northern savanna annually – and more than 50% annually in higher rainfall regions in the far north. Research shows that, unlike in southern Australia, controlled burning that is timed to prevent fires from getting out of control is extremely effective at preventing wildfire. Effective grazing can also create patchy grass distribution that can halt the spread of fire.

The failure to protect the northern savanna from damaging fires stems from a lethal combination of inadequate resourcing, poor governance and legislative frameworks that are not supporting the practical application of land management science.

According to A/Prof Allan Dale of James Cook University’s Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Studies, the mismatch between scientific knowledge and land management practices in the north stem from a history of social and political conflict based around individual land use, management and tenure decisions. “On one hand there are individuals (both conservationists and pastoralists) that see fire as a critical part of the landscape,” he explains. “On another, there are those that want to exclude fire. In the middle of that you’ve got an indigenous view of landscape and country and the role of fire within it. When people don’t agree on how they are going to manage country at the whole-of-landscape scale, the result is environmental decline, serious economic and social impacts and property risk.”

There are stills significant gaps in scientific knowledge concerning how to optimise the use of fire in savanna ecosystems for ecological, cultural values and productivity. However, getting a better understanding of what needs to change so that land managers can “agree” on how to manage country and to support them to take action is the real priority for science-based land management research in northern Australia.

The federal government report Science Engagement and Tropical Australia recognised the need to build science–industry partnerships that will drive innovation and to move away from consultative decision-making. One recommendation of the report that is being tested in northern Australia is the need to develop co-research and action research models. As an example, participatory action research aims to blur the line between the scientists and land managers. Ideally the people being researched – in this case the land managers – become partners in the whole research process by selecting the research topic, assisting with data collection and making decisions about what actions should be implemented as a result of the research findings.

Partnerships that have the approval and involvement of indigenous land managers have already been successful in creating more diverse habitat conditions and reducing destructive fires. Since becoming active in fire management in 2007, the Garawa and Waanyi Garawa Rangers have reduced late season wildfires by 87% across the land they manage in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

In Kakadu, the traditional owners have used fire to transform the wetlands of Boggy Plain from a dense thicket of grass into a mosaic of habitats that is rich in biodiversity and is of greatly enhanced cultural value to indigenous people. Senior traditional owner Violet Lawson and her family have been monitoring the changes in vegetation since they began burning. The data they collect is used to assess vegetation change in combination with historical aerial photographs, remote sensing data and ground-based surveys by scientists.

Innovation is also emerging, with indigenous communities forming partnerships to generate income from the carbon market. Dr Jeremy Russell-Smith of Charles Darwin University believes the linking of fire management with carbon offsets is an important part of the success of the Western Arnhem Land Fire Abatement Project (WALFA). Russell-Smith says that in the past indigenous groups have been let down by short-term funding structures, but now indigenous landowners recognise the need for projects to become both ecologically and economically sustainable.

But for this to happen there is an equal need for governance structures that connect and support local projects through larger entities, including not-for-profit corporates. One of the WALFA partnerships is between the traditional aboriginal owners, the indigenous ranger groups of the plateau and Darwin Liquefied Natural Gas, which funds fire abatement projects to offset emissions from a liquefied natural gas plant in Darwin.

Dale says that many of these regionally-based organisations are part of the emerging “fourth” sector – organisations that blur the boundaries between the traditional roles of government, business and the not-for-profit sector. He believes they offer potential to more meaningfully connect financing and political aspirations from the south, and internationally, with the communities of the north.

The theme of encouraging innovation and supporting learning is also a cornerstone of research to make northern beef production more sustainable. Dr Ally Lankester of CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences has been working towards an understanding of what tools or processes will engage beef producers with science to develop more sustainable farm management. Her surveys of land managers on Cape York found that beef producers who had an emotional connection to the family property and who were attracted to business innovation were more likely to have beliefs that were congruent with sustainability.

While collective learning through courses, workshops or field days can build trust in science beef producers are unlikely to actively seek out new learning experiences unless they experience adversity such as drought. According to Terry McCosker, an educator who works with farmers to improve farm ecology and profit, most of the men are brought to his courses “kicking and screaming by their women”. He says he always tries to get family partnerships to participate in his courses together. “If you get the husband and wife, things change,” McCosker says. “Individually you don’t get change.”

McCosker says that “there’s one way the pastoralists have always done things,” but “traditional methods of farming and an understanding of the ecosystem have not been linked”. As a result, “many properties are undergrazed and overstocked at the same time. All your understocked country gets burnt and all your overstocked country gets flogged into the ground. If you want to destroy the country just do that for 100 years. That’s what we’ve done.”

Furthermore, McCosker believes that “strongly entrenched thinking about what you can and can’t do is in the industry and in science as well. We need to do things differently.”

To build trust in science in the northern savanna, scientists as well as land managers need to do things differently to create partnerships for action. Crowley’s latest project, through MLA and Firescape Science, follows the action research model, with workshops, surveys and consultations providing pastoralists with the knowledge and skills to decide for themselves how to use fire on their property.

Crowley says that previous research identified there was a lack of information and clarity about how to use fire for land management. In the workshops, which concluded in 2013, they explored how existing research was applicable to different management problems on grazing properties. The results and resulting recommendations were published in a research and development report for the MLA.

Crowley says that another goal of the MLA-funded project was to discover why science-based fire management is not widely used even though it is known to get good results. The study identified aspects of policy and governance that were impeding the adoption of better fire management.

One issue was that centralised fire agencies did not support the use of fire in land management. Following bans on vegetation clearing in Queensland, land managers were told they would not get permits for fire management unless they were for hazard reduction.

The findings in the Firescape Science report epitomise the conflicts that Dale believes are stymieing sustainable development. Crowley’s findings suggest that fire agencies give little credence to the use of fire for the broader goals of land management. At the same time, Crowley says that property managers are not held accountable for land condition, and this also needs to change.

According to Dale: “Fire sparks some real divides in how different groups in Australian society see the landscape, but there are some commonalities as well. It’s important that we celebrate our differences and bring some maturity to the discussion.”

Much like climate in the north, research, development and economic cycles tend to occur in a boom/bust pattern. The development of northern Australia is a policy priority of all the state and territory governments. Indeed the the federal government’s 2030 vision policy document states: “No longer will Northern Australia be seen as the last frontier: it is in fact, the next frontier.”

Most of the northern savanna is unseen and unknown to the Australian public. The plants and animals that have declined or are threatened are unfamiliar – the northern quoll, the masked owl, the northern crested shrike-tit, the partridge pigeon, the brush-tailed rabbit-rat, northern hopping-mouse and the northern cypress-pine are just a few.

Our recent knowledge of the pastoral industry is dominated by images of starving cattle and barren paddocks. We have few images of the land protected under Australia’s national reserve system. Their names – Errk Oykangand, Oyala Thumatang and Kulla – are unfamiliar.

What the next frontier will look like will depend on bringing the northern savanna into focus for all Australians and pursuing models of science and governance that will empower northern communities and rebuild trust between science and society.

Kate Osborne is an ecologist and science writer.