Are fire vandals the only ones to blame for the state of the river?



People are arrested for deliberately throwing matches and setting fire to the landscape but who bears responsibility for allowing fire-promoting conditions to become entrenched? The Todd River corridor is a conservation zone and the Alice Springs Town Council has responsibility for its management. The Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority has given council a certificate permitting it to carry out “fire abatement management works”.
To the casual observer it would appear that precious little has been done in this regard and many a tree in the river has borne the brunt of our neglect. These grand survivors can be hundreds of years old. They also have special status as sacred to the Arrernte and are protected by law. Yet with last summer’s heavy rains, couch and buffel grass increased their stranglehold on the river and as they hayed off they provided the perfect conditions for fire vandals, mostly unchecked right up to the base of the trees.
The Alice Springs News Online asked council if it had undertaken, prior to the warmer weather, fuel reduction in the river corridors (including the Charles), particularly slashing and /or spraying buffel and couch grass in general and particularly around mature trees.
We also asked whether council is going to undertake future fuel reduction as the burnt out areas in the river corridors regenerate and hay off. We suggested that the regeneration phase is the perfect time for spraying with Roundup and making a start on getting rid of these alien grasses. To those who believe this is unrealistic, it’s worth bearing in mind the efforts of individuals and small family groups in the rural areas who have cleared buffel grass from densely infested blocks of up to 20 acres.
Director of Technical Services, Greg Buxton, replied:
“Earlier in the year Council made a decision to implement a mowing blitz across the municipality in response to large amounts of growth brought on by unprecedented rain events during 2010/2011.
“This proactive initiative was successfully implemented and coupled with Council’s ongoing weed and growth program, which does include the Charles and Todd River beds, control of growth has been a priority for our teams.
“Alice Springs Town Council is working diligently to control growth and will continue to work proactively on this matter.”
Our photographs show otherwise. Taken by vigilant naturalist Alex Nelson they clearly illustrate the priorities of council, which are to create parkland-type areas along some sections of the river banks, and to control growth along the walking and cycle path. Protecting the mature river gums clearly has low to nil priority.
There is also concern now about the large amount of tree debris from the fallen trees. The appearance of the river has been compared to a war zone and the larger trunks and limbs could present a hasard during flood. The Alice News asked whether council is going to remove debris from burnt trees in the river corridors? If so, in what time frame? And is council going to do this with the utmost care to preserve any tree survivors?
Said Mr Buxton: “All action taken by Council [to date] was in accordance with AAPA advice.  This will continue to be the case for the remaining carcasses.  This has so far been to remove any public safety concern of the tree (if required), but other than that the tree should remain where it lays.”
Pictured: from the top – As we prepared our report  the Town Council was at work in the river, removing sand while seeming to do its best to preserve couch and buffel grass around the base of a mature tree. Keeping the edges of the walking and cycle path mown takes priority over the protection of trees. As the long grasses hay off, the stand in the distance, surrounded by a  sea of thick grass, will be in danger.  • Dried buffel and couch grass right up to the base of a mature tree, just a stone’s throw from the Civic Centre, whose distinctive roofline can be seen at the left of the photo. This photo was taken in July.  • A clear demonstration of the problem – surrounded by long dry grass these trees were lucky to escape with an early season singeing. Photo taken in July. • Creating the appearance of parkland by mowing couch grass on the eastern bank of the river, while as can be seen in the middle distance, nothing has been done in the riverbed and along the thickly infested western bank. All photos by ALEX NELSON.


  1. Perhaps some other questions need to be asked.
    Which, if any, of our three tiers of government is responsible for Australia’s waterways?
    Would that include the portion of the Todd River within the municipality of Alice Springs?
    And if legal responsibility can be sheeted home to one tier of government, is it possible to ask them to do something about the fire and flood hazard that the Todd has become?
    At present it sounds like there is still too much buck-passing. From the NT Government to AAPA, from AAPA to the Town Council, but who has the final say?
    In contrast to the Todd, the Stuart Highway and the large storm water drain between Bradshaw Drive and Larapinta Drive are well looked after by MasterPath. I think they are under contract from the NT Government to keep that corridor mowed and clean.
    Earlier in the year I watched some controlled burns.
    They have recently completed an extensive replanting with what appears to be a significantly successful strike rate.
    Periodically they undertake work to ensure that any flood water that does enter the drains has every chance of making it out of town. Or at least as far as the Todd.
    Can a similar contract be let for the Todd River? The contract could include removing the existing fuel load and keeping it down, and dredging the accumulated sand islands that are anchored by the invasive couch and buffel grasses. The initial costs will be significant, but that’s to be expected after years of dithering, buck-passing and cultural demarcation disputes.
    It may be too late for many of the hollowed out and burned out older trees. I noticed another one smouldering last Sunday in front of the Casino.
    After dragging out the old, dead stuff and dredging a deeper water course, we could reforest. In time we might successfully re-incorporate the Todd into the life of Alice by making it an area to be proud of rather than an area to avoid.

  2. I wrote a letter to a local paper six months ago and predicted the destruction of many of the trees in the river and its environs because the “responsible authorities” were doing nothing. Unfortunately many trees have been destroyed along a long stretch of the river.The federal government recently announced 50 new ranger places for the NT to be trained in Certifictate 3 Conservation and Land Management and care for the country. Surely a ranger group consisting of say 10 local unemployed indigenous people could be employed and trained to work on a program of caring for the river and other important sites in the Alice Springs area. It has imense benefits for the community and the environment. Funding should be allocated and work begin to stop the fires, weeds and erosion.

  3. Geoff is absolutely right when he highlights the devastating predictability of what has happened in the Todd River and the potential for professional land care to turn this around – I only hope that genuine change will commence very soon before we see any more senseless tree loss.
    According to organization structure charts, the Town Council employs a Cemetery Curator and a Manager for its “Landfill” but there are NO dedicated positions focused on the management of the Todd and Charles Rivers. We need an appropriately qualified and highly experienced River Curator who is directly responsible to the CEO, the elected members and this community. A nucleus of support staff could be assembled from a spread of positions already on Council’s books.
    We need someone dynamic, with a sound understanding of desert ecology and the pressing issues of land management such as weeds and fire. Someone who will not go to sleep at night in the knowledge that trees are burning themselves out, who understands the value and importance of working with and not against the country. Such a person would readily marshal the resources of this community, engage with ranger groups and I’d like to think, earn enough respect to attract volunteers from across the community. Imagine that, blackfellas and whitefellas working together – such a highly visible partnership would reduce the number of deliberately lit fires overnight and build relationships in the process.


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