Photo above: Wattle in bloom. At right: On the other side of the tourist road into the West MacDonnells – Botanist Peter Latz with wattle after a wild fire. Which would you rather see? Centre left: The 1990 report about prisoners working on the Larapinta Trail. Centre right: The Dolomite Walk from Ellery Big Hole after the bushfire two weeks ago. Bottom: A section of the Dolomite Walk not affected by the fire.
By ERWIN CHLANDA
When the new government gets cracking on its promised work camps for prisoners it needs to look no further than the Larapinta Trail, much of which was built by inmate labour in the 1990s.
The current dry spell coupled with the onset of hot weather, and the escalating threat from weeds to our neglected national parks, add urgency for a cheap workforce that can be deployed at short notice.
And the need to halt the decay of our prime natural assets, which should be bringing home the bacon for our flagging tourism industry, makes a good argument for change for people now doing time in what some – inside and out – regard as holiday comfort.
Renowned botanist Peter Latz (pictured right) as well as a senior Parks and Wildlife officer speaking on the condition of not being named, paint a stark picture of our parks if we continue the present policy of inaction: “We could end up with continuous fires in our creeks and we’ll lose our river redgums,” says Mr Latz.
“They’ll end up as pissy little mallees.
“More and more big trees will be burned to the ground, turned into stumps or holes in the ground.
“And the hollow trees are getting burned which are the home of much of our wildlife.
“I’m really worried about our red tailed black cockatoos. They need big hollows in trees for nesting sites.”
What would the country look like in 30 years’ time?
“Buffel grass in the richer soils and ghost gums,” says Mr Latz.
“Bio diversity is so important.
“Imagine 100 years ago. You have the choice of living in a village that is dominated by miners and blacksmiths, and one that has a combination of doctors, butchers, teachers and the whole range of society.
“Which village would you rather live in?”
And which ecological “village” will tourists be prepared to spend money to see?
Fire to fight fire
“The most important thing is fire management,” says Mr Latz – a task grossly underfunded, both in terms of burning fire breaks and fighting wildfires – the first of which have already occurred this season.
The government has thrown in the towel so far as wide-spread control of couch grass and buffel is concerned, says the Parks and Wildlife source.
“Unless we get biological control we are not going to overcome the couch and buffel,” says Mr Latz.
As long as the cattlemen’s lobby opposes the declaration of buffel as a weed, nothing is likely to be done about exploring the application, for example, of a fungus already spreading in Queensland buffel.
Mr Latz says he’s warned authorities about the effects of buffel spread 15 years ago.
He says: “They laughed me out of the room. You’re absolutely stupid. If we even talk of biological control with the pastoralists they would slit our throats.
“They consider buffel the best thing. And they have a lot of political clout.”
Jewels in the crown
But there is no excuse for not returning to their pristine state the “jewels in our tourism crown” like Simpsons Gap, Ellery Big Hole, Ormiston, Palm Valley and Emily Gap.
Two localised measures can be applied, say the source and Mr Latz: burning firebreaks around these attractions so wildfires cannot harm them; and controlling buffel and couch by spraying them with Roundup.
Both measures have narrow windows:-
• Controlled burns need relatively low temperatures and light, predictable winds. The reliability of weather forecasts these days provides adequate notice of these conditions.
• Weeds need to be sprayed within about three weeks of rain while they are growing vigorously.
For both measures a captive workforce is ideal – for focussed training ahead of deployment, and for deployment at short notice.
As it turns out, we have nearly 600 mostly idle prisoners in the Alice gaol. Possibly half of them are suitable for “outside” work, and some are already engaged in collecting rubbish in town.
The fact that this labour is free is another bonus.
Of course, says Mr Latz, the number of parks rangers would need to be boosted significantly to advise on the prisoners’ training and oversee their deployment, under the supervision of prison officers.
Prisoners keen to work
The prisoner gang working on the Larapinta Trail was not at all reluctant: “Most of these blokes would much rather be out here.
“They whinge like hell when you take them back to town for the weekend,” a prison officer is quoted in the Sunday Territorian of June 24, 1990, reprinting a story supplied by the NT Government’s Territory Digest.
“This ridge has been the roughest patch so far,” prison guard Dennis Tomlin is quoted, describing the Alice to Wallaby Gap section, “partly because the need to construct steps from local stone.
“In five days we cleared eight and a half kilometers, but those are 12 hour days.”
“The guards vie for the chance to be outdoors,” says the story.
“The prisoners learn skills they might be able to use after being released.”
There was a lot of pride linked to the work on on the Larapinta Trail: “It will surely rank alongside the Cradle Mountain Lake St Clair Trail in Tasmania or the Appalachian and Pacific Trails in the United States as one of the world’s best foot tracks.”
A mobile camp was set up near Simpson’s Gap with a stone barbecue which the prisoners “turned into a monument”.
“The cost of setting up the work camp was minimal because we got transfers of assets from Transport and Works,” says the story, and rebuilt and renovated equipment and vehicles on site, in the prison.
“Virtually the whole camp was built in prison.”
Prisoners on the project were usually serving a year or less and “their offences are generally alcohol-related.
“No sex offenders or others who have committed serious crimes are eligible.
“Everyone in the program is a ‘low-risk’ prisoner.”
At the time of writing the report a dozen prisoners were on the job, all except one Aboriginal.
They were paid 40c a day. There were 130 inmates in Alice Springs old gaol at that time.
Today there are 574 – 531 men and 43 women.
USA interest in the ‘chain gang’
The project even got a run in the Los Angeles Times.
In its March 21, 1993 edition Paul Alexander reported from Alice Springs:-
Prison inmates sweat heavily under the desert sun, clearing another section of what officials say will be one of the world’s best hiking trails.
But this is no forced-labor chain gang. All are aborigines who put their names on a waiting list to work outdoors for the equivalent of 27 cents a day.
“It’s hot, but being out here is better than jail,” said Sam, who acted as spokesman.
Sam had three months left of an alcohol-related offense and is typical of the men. They are low-risk prisoners – no one with a sex or violence conviction is allowed – and none has tried to escape, despite plenty of chances.
The program started in 1987 under the direction of Tony Bohning, superintendent of prisons for the Northern Territory. His jail in Alice Springs usually holds 130 to 170 prisoners, 80% of them aborigines, with little or nothing to do.
“I had an abundance of prisoners and a lack of work,” he said. “We took trusted prisoners out and worked on the Ghan railway” that runs from Adelaide on the south coast across the Australian Outback to Alice Springs.
Bohning said everyone benefits from the program and he would like to see it extended to other parts of the country.
“The goal is to break the cycle of going to jail, getting released and going to jail again,” he said. “This gives the inmates an inch of a chance to gain some kind of a work ethic and work skills to take back to their communities.”
About half a dozen white inmates have participated since the program began, Bohning said.
When work on the railway was done, the Northern Territory Conservation Department came up with a new project: the Larapinta Trail, to stretch 135 miles from Alice Springs to Mount Zeil, linking seven existing attractions, when it is finished in five years.
The Larapinta, with 13 sections and about 15 access points with water sources, is intended to attract both overnight walkers and long-distance hikers to the newly created West MacDonnells National Park.
“It’ll be a shorter version of the Appalachian Trail in the United States,” said Alan Ginns, senior park planner for the Conservation Department. “Very few people are going to walk it at one shot.”
Ginns said hikers, both Australians and foreigners, have been asking for years for more opportunities to see Australia’s rugged “Red Center” up close.
“But they were terrified of going Outback solo,” he said. “On the Larapinta, there’s something for everybody. We’ve targeted the easier stretches around the more popular attractions.”
Three sections are finished. The first is easy enough for school groups to tackle overnight and already is being hiked by more than 8,000 people a year. Others will be much tougher.
Some like it rough
“Some people want it rough,” Ginns said. “It’s part of the Central Australia experience.”
The reddish-orange mountains and cliffs provide breathtaking, constantly changing scenery.
“The geologists say the MacDonnells once were huge, Himalayan-size,” Ginns said. “They’ve been washed down since they were created 600 million to 700 million years ago.”
For each section of trail, the Conservation Department declares a small area to be a prison. The work gang’s trailers – kitchen, workshop, minigym, living quarters and recreation room – are moved in and a fence goes up.
Comparatively little work is done during the Australian summer, December through early February, because of the heat.
Leith Phillips, a park ranger, said the prisoners’ work is of good quality and improves as they gain experience in how to build a trail.
“How fast they can clear the trail depends on the countryside,” he said.
“If it’s flat, they can do two kilometers a day. If it’s rough, we’re lucky to get a half-kilometer.”