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A touch of light: La Nina, government inertia and a tsunami of weeds


All photos © Mike Gillam

Alice Springs owes much of its uniqueness to the omnipresent power of nature, but too many of us expect nature to look after itself, to absorb and overcome all the shocks to the system of our unthinking behaviour delivered down the centuries. La Nina’s rainfall bonanza of 2020-21 has a downside that exposes vulnerabilities in the natural environment and a legacy of chronic underspending by Government. 

Recently the Guardian reported on behind the scenes pressuring of scientists by senior public servants (political minders and spin doctors) to change or omit facts from their published findings. The ‘crime’ of the scientists was the promulgation of facts showing that Australia was spending far too little on the protection of threatened species. As an aside, their paper reported the extinction of 13 more species including the first extinction of a reptile since colonisation.

Is anyone surprised by the Guardian’s report? We’d be fools to ignore our own Northern Territory culture of political deception – bury the truth, distort the facts, shoot the messenger, deflect and dissemble.

Highly invasive stinky Eragrostis on a roadside.

The scale of neglect in both environmental management and enforcement compliance is enormous but it’s difficult to decipher the actual numbers. Some years back I decided to check up on the actual spend on the natural environment by the Alice Springs Town Council. I eventually sourced a colourful pie chart that showed a healthy proportion of the budget was allocated to the “Environment” but wait, the natural environment is a very low priority masked somewhere in the green zone by spending on parks, reserves, ovals etc. The green zone probably included the promotion of virulent pest grasses such as the lawn grass, Cynodon dactylon, couch.

At about the same time (possibly nothing has changed), the NTG’s operational budget for the management of Crown lands in the vast southern region of the Northern Territory was ridiculously low, about $150 k per annum. From memory there are only a couple of ‘weeds officers’ operating over this entire region but I was unable to readily locate financial information for this service.

Evidence of systemic failure by those under-resourced but entrusted with stewardship of the natural environment are highlighted in this post La Nina period. New grassland pests are rampaging under our very noses and there’s no indication that the authorities have registered the threats. Might recognition bring an expectation of action by those agencies responsible?  

Scientists are talking of ecosystem collapse in the Alice Springs region. Old taboos are being challenged more vigorously and the scourge of buffel grass (a common name that encompasses a raft of distinct variants and hybrids) is the subject of preliminary research demonstrating the devastating environmental costs of its spread.

Buffel becoming established in the highly disturbed environment of the roadside before expanding further.

While the South Australian government has declared buffel a weed and environmental pest, here in the Territory our politicians continue to sit on their hands. Confronted with an environmental challenge, doing nothing is our preferred default position. I should clarify that our administrations are reasonably efficient at identifying threats and writing reports but often missing in action when it comes to committing to the ongoing physical work.

I spoke with botanist Peter Latz about the tsunami of introduced grasses that are visible on every roadside and sub-divisional drain in our local environs. There’s the very widespread stinky grass, Eragrostis triphoflora that creates a dense and inedible monoculture, a pale yellow haze on a roadside near you. And couch and red natal grass of course, both a threat to watercourses.

Perhaps the most obvious sign of neglect, a grass that could be readily eliminated, is fountain grass. As its name suggests it is a dense, tall tussock that is moving steadily along the pavement cracks and verges of Leichhardt Terrace, immediately adjacent to the Todd River! There are two variants of fountain grass, the reddish purple cultivar is supposedly sterile but the straw coloured one is clearly reproductively successful and expansionist.

According to the NT Department of Environment and Natural Resources this species poses a very high risk to the environment. The climate suitability score, which indicates out of 10 the proportion of the NT environment that is suitable for this invasive species, is rated at 9.5. 

Situated in a botanical paradise, largely untapped, I’m not sure why we allow the nursery trade to release exotic plants? Why do we continue to take unnecessary risks to satisfy the latest nursery fad, imported by the wholesale box load from down south?

There are other threats and I’m not trying to be comprehensive here but I must mention the robust Sheda grass, Dicanthium annulatum that dwarfs buffel in stature (photo with Latz). This exotic seems to prefer moisture retaining soils and it has recently colonised several kilometres of the main sub-divisional drain at Ilparpa. Sheda inhabits the base of the drain and buffel, less fond of moisture, is perched on the banks.

I’m not aware that this monster has entered the river corridor yet but look out if it does! Unchecked, this species will invade riparian zones throughout Ilparpa and increase the risk and intensity of wildfires thereby annihilating more old growth trees. Not to mention the increase in costs and effort for residents of Ilparpa trying to keep it at bay.

Seed will drop in a few weeks but there’s still time to arrest this looming disaster if the authorities act now! Sheda is an African species and I’m guessing that maybe it arrived within bales of ‘hay’ from Queensland… 

Fountain grass (above) is an easier but no less urgent proposition for the Alice Springs Town Council. Tackling this pest before it colonises the river corridor, will save threatened old growth trees and ratepayers a great deal of money. At the time of writing, the small numbers of highly visible tussocks could be readily removed or treated in the streetscape.

An enlightened Council might urge residents to remove this species from gardens and bin the seed. Better still, our Council might offer a no cost service to rate-payers for the removal of this plant from the town’s gardens. Mature tussocks are huge and this will discourage many landowners from taking the initiative but they can be removed easily by a dedicated crew with some basic skills and equipment. Naturally, there will need to be some follow up in the future.

I wish I’d written this story during the drought when most of these pestilent grasses presented a lesser challenge for our community. Alas, as a species, we humans are crisis managers at best. At Ilparpa where Latz lives on a restored five hectare property resplendent with native grasses and attendant flocks of budgerigars and cockatiels, my friend spoke of similar issues with exotic grasses in the United States.

“The expansion of inedible exotics means that some ranches have been completely lost to grazing.”

The whir of bird wings invaded my thoughts and I wondered about the plight of granivorous birds in Centralia. Loss of breeding hollows to fire is affecting many species from micro-bats to parrots and owls. I’ve observed budgerigars eating buffel grass but it’s not high on their list of favourites, certainly finches won’t touch it. Macropods eat it when native herbage is scarce and cattle are no different according to some pastoralists while others swear by its grazing value.

Peter Latz standing amongst a Sheda grass infestation at Illparpa.

Of course not all buffel is the same, often a case of comparing limes and lemons – the subject of a follow up story. As the environment changes radically we will doubtless learn more about the consequences to other native species from plants to birds, lizards and insects.

Unless some miracle pathogen arrives, it’s too late to arrest the triumph of buffel grass in the Alice Springs district. At a broader landscape level, it’s imperative we create buffel grass free zones, native seed banks for the future if you like. To that end and further afield there is hope.

Parts of the Sandover would be a good place to start. Certainly buffel has invaded the road sides and many watercourses but much of the district would respond well to an eradication programme. Buffel-clear areas do exist where disturbance by livestock is minimal or absent. Fortuitously much of the district, de-stocked during the drought, has not been re-stocked yet and given the recent 300 mm of rain in some areas, the country is rebounding.

Purchase of the right property to enable the creation of an Indigenous Protected Area would provide huge benefits to the Sandover region. It would enable the persistence of significant islands of native vegetation and offer rich employment opportunities for the residents of Ampilatwatja.

An IPA landholding could be funded through a partnership of Federal and Territory Governments and managed collaboratively drawing expertise from private conservation agencies such as the Australian Nature Conservancy. This organization manages the Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary situated in the Tanami Desert further bolstering the conservation and social capital of the existing Southern and Northern Tanami Indigenous Protected Areas.

Unlike the Tanami to the west, the Sandover region lacks a dedicated conservation land management employment hub for Indigenous people but it does have a wonderful artistic legacy and newly opened art centre. The artistic wellspring of Ampilatwatja, the genius of internationally significant artists such as Emily Kame Kngwarreye and her descendants are informed by the rich natural environment, the twisting vines of bush banana (left) and bean, the annual flowers and grasses, the hidden beauty of the Sandover lily and edible yams.

It really is a question of joining up the dots, removing blockages and filling in some gaps. Most importantly it’s about political vision and strategic thinking. Yes, it’s also about money. I’m absolutely sure that those working within the justice system would make a compelling case for the latter! For the people of this forgotten region, I believe they would view the creation of an IPA as a national infrastructure project of the highest importance, almost as critical as housing.

I will of course send a link to this article to the Rural Areas Association, Environment Committee of the Alice Springs Town Council and Dept. of Environment, Parks and Water Security (Crown Lands).


For the complete series of “A touch of light” go to the Features button on the home page menu bar.


  1. Mike, your article demonstrates why I’ve come to the conclusion that government (or governance) as it is practiced now, taken as a whole, is irrelevant to finding solutions to our problems.
    Yes, there are individuals within government and bureaucracy who are extremely helpful – more power to them! – but such people I consider are exceptions to the rule.
    We have to find our own way as individuals and groups that no longer rely on government for getting by in life – and perhaps that is a very good thing!

  2. Thanks Mike. I’d love an informed visit to my home patch. I’ve been clearing buffel for nearly 30 years now in the neighbourhood and the seed burden is pretty low but I worry about weeds I have failed to identify.
    For those of us who are keen to make a difference, people like yourself, Peter Latz and Bill Lowe (and others I’m sure) could run a few workshops on effective weed removal around town at least.

  3. Great idea to run workshops on effective weed removal starting with the Alice Springs Town Council who first need to learn how to identify weeds.
    Currently their approach is to kill everything in the area they are spraying, such as nature strips, even if no weeds are present.
    They are actively creating ecological niches for weeds at our expense.

  4. @ Jon: The town council tends to spray weeds (and desirable species) too late to be effective, the target plants have usually set viable seeds by the time they get around to it.
    I also notice that the herbicide is invariably too ineffectual to retard – let alone kill – couch grass, it always quickly regenerates.
    In turn any slashing or mowing that is done simply spreads the seeds around for the next round of germination following good rain.
    These practices facilitate the entrenchment of weeds at the expense of native species.
    However, in the laneway at the rear of my home I’ve successfully taken advantage of these inept practices by personally eradicating the weeds (buffel grass, caltrop prickles, stinking lovegrass, sundry other species as they arise, and almost in control of couch grass) while leaving native species alone.
    I started this in early 2017 – the buffel grass was up to a metre high along much of the laneway – and maintained it to the present time.
    Despite mostly very dry and hot conditions prevailing for much of the subsequent time, native plant species now predominate along the laneway; and whenever council workers come along to slash the vegetation, they’re actually facilitating the spread and continued dominance of the native species that now dominate in the laneway.

  5. Council got lambasted for spraying in a park a few months ago. Now they can’t even kill a weed. Meanwhile a landcare group in the river can nuke everything within two metres of the Redgums.

  6. Thanks again, Mike, and to Alex, Bruce and Jon for some great comments.
    We too have cleared buffel from a large section of the hill beyond our rear boundary and it has been amazing the local native plants that have since grown to take its place.
    I did learn something from your article, Mike: one of the grasses I thought of as “native” is in fact fountain grass.
    In addition to the workshops, perhaps an article or two in the Alice Springs News, with lots of photos, would have a wider reach.

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