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HomeIssue 16A touch of light: sleepwalking into the environmental abyss

A touch of light: sleepwalking into the environmental abyss

Invasive grasses – Part 2

Part 1: La Nina, government inertia and a tsunami of weeds

By MIKE GILLAM

Photos © Mike Gillam

Millions of words have been written about the buffel grass plague that is devastating Centralian ecosystems. There are upwards of five or six common variants, some introduced by Afghan cameleers, some by NT Government soil conservation scientists, some by CSIRO, some by pastoral interests ably facilitated by commercial seed suppliers (Google reveals a dazzling array of them extolling the virtues of this appalling pest but failing to mention the risks to natural systems).

It’s worth noting the establishment in our region was largely justified by a need to control raised dust, a threat to aviation at the Alice Springs airport, although many earlier trials, going back to the early 1900s, were motivated by a desire to improve pastures for livestock with drought resistant grasses. To this end, buffel was first sown in Queensland in the late 1920s.

Decades passed before buffel’s deleterious impact was recognised. It has now been declared a noxious weed in Arizona and also in South Australia (see road-sign photo below) where north-eastern parts of the state, especially the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands have been devastated by buffel introduced in the 1980s for dust control around settlements.

Some hybrids are more valuable as stock feed than others, but toda it would take a brave pastoralist, one willing to accept a substantial loss of land value and the ire of their bank, who would claim their ‘sweet’ native pastures have been overrun by an exotic grass monoculture of questionable long term value.

However, a burgeoning number of published papers – freely available to us all, including the Minister for Environment – make this case. These include a landmark paper from 2020, “Ranking buffel: Comparative risk and mitigation costs of key environmental and socio-cultural threats in central Australia” challenging the myopic view of buffel grass’s grazing value:

The economic benefits of buffel…are not the focus of our research but we acknowledge that they are substantial. Conversely, we also note that, in some situations, assisted or accidental spread of buffel into pastoral regions can, paradoxically, result in loss of pastoral production through elevated oxalate concentrations (Cheeke,1995 ) and acute oxalate poisoning (Offord, 2006; Thomas, 2004 )…The most serious economic threat for the pastoral industry caused by buffel pasture may be drawdown of nitrogen and other nutrients with an associated decline in live-weight gain (Graham 2000; Puckey & Albrecht, 2004) and a halving of carrying capacity in buffel pastures after 10-20 years, predicted to cost the cattle industry over $17 billion over the next 30 years (Peck et al., 2011). Furthermore, an undiagnosed and as yet untreatable buffel dieback potentially threatens the future viability of buffel pastures (Makiela & Harrower, 2008).

– Read et. al. Ecology & Evolution. 20202:10:12745-12763.

One of the six authors is ecologist Dr Christine Schlesinger, a resident of Alice Springs with a deep knowledge of central Australian ecosystems, garnered over a long working history in this region.

The legacy of involvement in this land use tragedy involves the CSIRO (who introduced several variants to a number of trial sites including Alice Springs and east of Simpsons Gap), the Soil Conservation Unit of the Northern Territory Government (responsible for the introduction and proliferation of buffel variants especially in the Alice Springs region, mainly for dust suppression, and also for soil stabilisation of scalds); the NT Department of Primary Industry (who invested in the quest for pasture improvement and are loyal ‘gatekeepers’ for the pastoral industry); and both the NT and Commonwealth Governments for their systemic failure to act over several decades.

Pastoral interests that enthusiastically embraced the promises of buffel, with little or no understanding of the environmental hazards, included Aboriginal owned properties. A great many of those entities and individuals who introduced buffel with cavalier zeal and little oversight or coordination treated the Alice Springs region like a giant petri dish, where seeds of many varieties were blended.

Time has all but erased the fingerprints of these buffel pioneers; most are retired and some are deceased. In a variation of follow the money, I’m now trying to trace the origin of commercial quantities of seeds that were widely distributed well before the dust control programs conducted by the NT Soil Conservation Unit from the 1970s.

It remains a mystery to me that Northern Territory scientists and bureaucrats were clearly naive to the deleterious impacts of buffel despite half a century of prior experience in Queensland. Today there are a great many government controls, and biosecurity measures that should prevent such reckless behaviour, notwithstanding the heightened risks of internet purchases of seed that may well be taking place under the legislative radar. However, the effective management and control of a suite of exotic grasses that are already established in the central Australian environment remains a glaring omission by governments over the past 30 years.

It’s not really feasible to apportion ‘blame’, especially given that so many players seem anxious to brush over their tracks creating distance between this environmental disaster and their organisations. We really need to focus on the future and encourage our public institutions to combine resources, progress beyond a culture of denial and contribute energetically to strategic control and management of these serious, landscape altering pests.

The present neglect can be explained in large part by woefully inadequate funding. As one retired public servant put to me “weeds have always been the poor cousin in government budgets…”

In previous articles I’ve highlighted the meagre budget for the management of Crown land and, in recent conversation with one ecologist, I was told that a report of fountain grass invading the bush within the Alice Springs municipality, several years ago, fell on deaf ears. He was informed that the species was not a declared weed! End of story.

This is in direct conflict with the NT Government’s own widely publicised weed strategy, which, quoting from the current Australian Weeds Strategy and NT Biosecurity Strategy, emphasises the importance of early intervention and presumably eradication.

In light of such bureaucratic blockages, the actions of buffel grass activists in demanding that high risk weeds be declared has great merit. It is a travesty that weeds such as Sheda and Fountain grass can be tagged highly invasive or equivalent and yet there is no obligation to act unless they are officially declared.

Advancing buffel grass encroachment on spinifex slopes.

In the scheme of conservation management, the infestation of Sheda grass within the Ilparpa drain (described in my previous article) is not a mammoth issue requiring input from the NT Cabinet. The least dynamic Minister in the world should be able to handle this. Technically, responsibility for the drain was handed over from the NT Government to the Alice Springs Town Council after the creation of the original subdivision. Herein lies another example that’s ripe for buck-passing.

Note: There are at least 15 recorded infestations of Sheda grass in central Australia, all virtual time bombs, exploding at different rates. Acting now would amount to early intervention, further delays are both unconscionable and inefficient.

The story of buffel grass includes a few genuine albeit unsuccessful attempts by those in power to investigate, their efforts thwarted by persons unknown. Notable among these was the attempt by Minister for Central Australia and Attorney General in the 2001 Martin Labor Government, Peter Toyne.

There were early indications that this government was not going to adopt a cosy relationship with big business. Their ban on cotton farming in the NT was one such example. The erudite Toyne quickly established a reputation as a hard working and capable Minister and true to form he initiated an inquiry into buffel grass in central Australia.

In recent conversation he confirmed his concern: “We realised buffel was a major environmental issue and saw a need to balance environmental protections with pastoralism and other vested interests…it became a pressing issue when we received a request by a cattle station to aerially bomb the station with seed…The Minister for Primary Production was being asked to sign off on it…”

As yet, I have been unable to find any trace of the inquiry Toyne initiated. An informant, speaking on the condition of anonymity, says they provided damning evidence on two occasions to the public servant charged with the investigation, only to be told that their verbal contribution (a two-hour interview) was not recorded (apparently the tape recorder was never turned on) and their detailed written submission that followed was not received/presumed lost.

Toyne confirmed to me that he never received the report: “Perhaps the inquiry was concluded after my resignation in 2006.”

On another occasion, a local landholder engaged a private vet to investigate the extraordinary deaths of calves in a buffel-dominated paddock. The attending vet suspected oxalate poisoning and requested the intervention of an NT Government veterinary laboratory. Despite the best efforts of the on-site vet, seven cows died out of 45 in the paddock with 12 calves either still born or ‘pulled’ (dead in utero). Three of the still born calves were autopsied and oxalic acid crystals were found in the kidneys. Subsequently, one of the government vets sought permission to write a paper on this event, but was told by a superior that this issue was not to be publicised.

(It should be mentioned that oxalic acid also occurs in native pasture with high levels in Parakeelya and Portulaca, but it’s difficult to imagine a situation where these species would achieve sufficient densities to pose an equivalent risk to grazing stock).

In conversation, one grazier raised an important possibility: Are elevated calving losses already occurring, due to oxalate poisoning on buffel dominated properties throughout the region, simply unrealised by managers who assume causes such as wild dogs to explain low calving rates? I’d like to hear from anyone who has knowledge of this occurring.

This photo has appeared previously but it is worth repeating for its clear illustration of the relationship between roads and the spread of buffel.

This is a tragedy involving key people in government and industry that are invested in maintaining the hyperbole, one might say mythology, that buffel grass is great for the pastoral industry in all situations and nothing else matters. I’ve spoken to various people to corroborate these facts but I’ve decided not to name my informants. I’m happy to take the barbs from some who are clearly determined to maintain the status quo and line their pockets at the expense of the country.

Compared with government electoral cycles, the environmental disasters I’m exploring accelerate slowly. If only I could demonstrate the relentless impact of invasive species on biodiversity and on the spirit and beauty of this place. It would probably take a single cataclysmic event to get angry citizens demanding change. But wait, we did have such an example, massively upscaling the constant incremental losses. In 2019, a mostly out of control wildfire raged across 661.21 square kilometres of Tjoritja/West MacDonnell Ranges National Park, consuming around one fifth of the park as well as additional Crown and pastoral lands beyond the park boundaries. Does anyone believe it won’t happen again? And again?

It gives me no pleasure to write bluntly about an unfolding disaster, a tragedy of immense proportions nurtured within our sick, shrivelled and broken democratic system. The Northern Territory has been described as a failed state and certainly it seems to make little difference which party is holding the reins.

What is it about weeds that attracts so little action? Dumbstruck, we watch that first tentative spread of a new weed. Is it delusory optimism that convinces us that maybe, against the odds, it won’t take hold this time; is it laziness, is it ignorance of, and disrespect for biodiversity, pushback against Landcare and environmentalists, is it some weird misplaced empathy for the invader, I’m a colonist too?

Instinctively, I believe it’s a hefty dose of “it’s not my job” combined with a widespread lack of connection to the natural environment and more deeply, this place. How many of us who live in Alice Springs, enjoy the bounty of stunning desert landscapes, clear skies and water, decade after decade, but neglect to commit fully to Centralia’s wild heart?

At a time when we need the best people, the best policies and real compliance, how many of our representatives are going through the motions of doing their job, pointing to blockages or difficulties – including departmental budgets largely consumed by staff wages and benefits, building rents and vehicles, yet ridiculously tight on working capital –  as excuses for avoiding their responsibilities, all the while shepherding us into the abyss.

In particular, the construction and maintenance of roads is directly and severely threatening the state of the natural environment, but the agencies involved accept no responsibility for their actions. Our Minister for Roads, sorry, Environment, should take this up with her colleagues because roads are a major conduit for the spread of environmentally destructive weeds throughout the Northern Territory. Equally, management of the roadside and road works offers a unique opportunity for controlling potentially devastating pests thereby protecting and expanding valuable native seed banks, our legacy for the future.

A strategic ‘roadside’ brand of land care could be a remedy for the chronic under-employment of Aboriginal people in central Australia. Jobs could include mapping of weed infestations (survey on foot and using drones and satellite technology), establishing and monitoring photo points, spraying and removal as required, innovative techniques for management, plant operation and machinery modification, recommendations for the timing of roadwork and slashing, improved rehabilitation of detours, machinery standoff areas and borrow pits.

Wherever I travel in Centralia, there is great concern amongst Aboriginal people for the loss of important totemic species and the damage to sacred sites and plant communities caused by buffel. There is a great appetite to push back and an army begging to be mobilised. 

Before anyone bleats “there’s no money”, please consider the enormous social costs of unemployment in our region. Also, consider the enormous amount of money that has recently been gifted to the fracking industry for the building of roads which pose myriad new threats to the natural environment and society as a whole.

Does the Hon. Eva Lawler MLA, our Infrastructure, Planning and Logistics Minister and Minister for the ENVIRONMENT want be remembered as one of the Territory’s greatest environmental wreckers? In fact, could most of our political leaders, past and present, be remembered as little more than passengers on this road trip to hell? What about Hon. Bill Yan MLA, Member for Namatjira and Shadow Minister for Parks and Rangers? His electorate includes the Ilparpa sub-divisional drain where African Sheda grass is exploding unchecked, a future expensive battle for the voters who put him into parliament.

With the right candidate, there is some logic in placing Environment and the potentially conflicting interests of Infrastructure development under the same Minister. There are certainly great opportunities for the current Minister to exercise her strategic authority to reduce conflict and protect the natural environment.

Photo at top: Not the sort of greening that we want: buffel grass steadily taking over our uplands.

 

Additional reading:

Unwelcome guests: a selective history of weed introductions to arid and semi-arid Australia. M. H. Freidel (2020)

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

2 COMMENTS

  1. Very interesting to read examples of apparent departmental cover-ups of the adverse environmental impact of buffel grass in the Centre.
    An example I’ve been made aware of occurred during recent coverage of this topic on ABC radio where an official was constrained about how much could be spoken on air about the subject.
    Given the autocratic regime that now so dominates the NT bureaucracy, it was quite amazing this person actually had the opportunity to speak on air about it – I’ll wager it won’t happen again for a long while!
    However, it seems repression of debate and discussion on the disadvantages of buffel grass may extend much further than the NT Government.
    A decade ago, late in 2011, I was interviewed at some length by new local ABC rural reporter Caddie Brain about my concerns over the spread of buffel grass on hill slopes around Alice Springs; in particular highlighting my observations of live buffel grass seed transmitted via the scats of euros (hill kangaroos) that I had seen when working at the Olive Pink Botanic Garden and a simple follow-up experiment to confirm what I had noticed.
    In addition to a report broadcast on the ABC’s NT Country Hour, Ms Brain also went to a lot of trouble to put together a slide show which was uploaded onto the ABC website.
    It didn’t last long. About two years later I could find no reference to this item anywhere on the ABC’s website including its archives, despite finding many other reports on a wide range of topics dating from that same period.
    Inquiries with local journalists at the ABC likewise proved fruitless. The story had completely vanished.
    Fortunately it’s not lost. The slide show was uploaded onto You Tube on June 21, 2014, exactly seven years ago.
    In light of the revelations in Mike Gillam’s article, it would appear my experience was by no means unusual.

  2. Thank you Mike … well researched and contemplated views of what is going on in Central Australia, here and now, is the only platform I can see to build change for betterment.
    It’s effort and community cohesion, with some very good tools that transform things from the ground up.
    Knowledge, open and clear methods of thinking are the bottom line. Great things have been done, can be done and will be done.

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