A touch of light: It is not too late to climb out of the environmental abyss

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Invasive grasses – Part 3

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

Part 2: Sleepwalking into the environmental abyss

By MIKE GILLAM

Photos © Mike Gillam (except where noted)

In the late 1970s I occupied an office at the Arid Zone Research Institute and my immediate neighbours were the hard working and congenial members of the Soil Conservation Unit. Today, I find myself interrogating their efforts, made with the very best intentions, to sow buffel seed and remediate the land surrounding the Alice Springs airport.

This area was notoriously degraded and scalded, the combined effect of a protracted drought through the 1960s and relentless overstocking for a much longer period. From their softly spoken leader Bob Keetch to the machinery operator Col Stanton, a Bunea-bardi man from Western Australia, whose laughter filled the corridors at day’s end, the soil conservation team were determined to arrest the airborne dust causing a hazard to aviation.

Aircraft passengers would marvel at the ploughed patterns colonised by grass and I wondered if Col, married to a local Arrernte woman, had cleverly directed the whole enterprise, to pay homage to totemic designs – concentric circles, spirals and cicatrices no less. (I have been unable to find out who took the photo of his work reproduced above and the three below, but I’m grateful to them, whoever they are.)

He smiled broadly at my suggestion, admitting he’d once spelled out Happy Birthday Keetchy in buffel grass swirls, and whenever he worked on cattle stations he’d often finish with a flourish and an arrow pointing to the homestead. Bob Keetch hastened to explain the scientific basis for circles and spirals, designed to resist the wind coming from any direction.

In the late 1960s and ’70s our nation was still firmly in the grip of big picture naivety: the disastrous beliefs of acclimatisation societies that gave us rabbits, foxes and sparrows had not yet been completely abandoned and discredited. There was also the appalling lived experience of drought and the spectre of more to come, not to mention that endless human search for gold at the end of the rainbow.

Unlimited grass was a form of gold for the kings in grass castles and science came to the rescue! While these motivations ring hollow by today’s standards, clearly few scientists foresaw the full gamut of destruction that buffel would inflict on arid Australia, in part because the seeding of buffel was not an instantaneous success. Allegedly, few trained observers expected the grass to really expand beyond actual plantings and apparently, some were genuinely shocked when it invaded the hillslopes.

It’s worth remembering there was a long history of buffel plantings interstate, but apparently red flags were either ignored or never raised. One of the leading lights of soil conservation, the extensively published R.W.Condon of the Soil Conservation Service of NSW, recommended buffel for the Alice Springs dust control issue. Keetch acted on Condon’s advice, adding exotic legumes such as Siratro (Macroptilium atropurpureum) but the latter, a subtropical plant, failed to persist.

They really had to work at the buffel project though, adding different strains and replanting at different times when their attempts failed. The high rainfall years of the 1970s certainly accelerated the fortunes of buffel, with variants eventually hybridising and ‘naturalising’ to local conditions throughout the region. The airport plantings commenced at this time with seed obtained from a variety of sources including CSIRO in Alice Springs, according to Keetch.

Research trials by CSIRO were reported in the local Alice Springs press much earlier, including the visit in 1958 by C.S. Christian, Chief of the CSIRO Division of Land Research and Regional Survey, who singled out buffel grass for favourable mention. It seems probable that demand by pastoral interests often moved ahead of the science, and scientists, invariably concerned with matters of reputational relevance, hastened to catch up and preferably lead.

Much has been written about the role of the Afghan cameleers whose packsaddles contained buffel grass, routinely highlighted as the original source of this virulent exotic that is proving so damaging to Australian ecosystems. When I compare the straggly and uncommon tussocks attributed to this first invasion and the waist high, very dense super grasses introduced later by our own government agencies, I’m lost for words.

I was told of one grazier in the Alice Springs district who planted buffel from 1962 with at least some seed obtained from the CSIRO’s Katherine Research Station. Local historian Alex Nelson provided the earliest dates for planting in central Australia, including an article from the Centralian Advocate which quotes Mr Burge Brown of Murray Downs, encouraged to settle in the Northern Territory by the Minister for Agriculture and Commerce Mr John McEwen, future leader of the Country Party and briefly caretaker Prime Minister of Australia following the disappearance of Harold Holt.

In this story we can’t under-estimate the formidable influence of McEwen, who was Deputy Prime Minister throughout much of the period in question when CSIRO were pursuing pasture trials, notably buffel in the Northern Territory. He was evidently “anxious to see new methods of plant introduction tried here….an experimental plot was established and the eleven types of cenchrus ciliaris grass…were all tested…In all experiments so far the CSIRO have been more than co-operative, said Mr Brown. He added that this organisation has supplied seed and information and has conducted a number of successful experiments at their research stations.” (Centralian Advocate, 8 August, 1952.)

Initially, I accepted without reservation the suggestion that most trained observers among the early scientific community were surprised to see buffel grass expanding beyond actual plantings and shocked to see it invade the hillsides. My view has changed. The following key passages published in the Centralian Advocate in 1954 quote John Driver, the owner of Elkedra Station, who like his neighbour at Murray Downs had also planted buffel. Significantly, “Mr Driver said there is quite a bit of buffel grass growing on Anzac Hill. But no one seemed to know how it got there…He and a number of others in Alice believe that experiments now being conducted by CSIRO, if successful, may have a revolutionary effect on the cattle industry…”

1951 was a ‘dry’ year and ’52 was below average so pastoralists to the north-east of Alice Springs were already in the grip of what they described as “semi drought” and both Brown and Driver saw buffel as their saviour. I can only conclude that senior scientific staff, swept along by the expectations of their political masters and the aspirations of industry, ignored the early signs of disaster, crossed their fingers and hoped for the best.

While the Northern Territory’s soil conservation workers are mostly remembered for the part they played in releasing the buffel grass curse, they also pioneered ponding banks in the region to aid moisture retention, and windbreaks using Centralian mulga and eucalypts, adding bluebush and saltbush for stabilising scalded soils. (Extensive plantings of old man saltbush, still in evidence today, were used to stabilise severely scalded sites, such is that  between Bradshaw Drive and the range).

Land reclamation knowledge was passed on to interested pastoralists, notably Bob Purvis at Woodgreen station, north of Alice Springs, who implemented and further improved their ponding methods. Change finally occurred in about 1989 when the unit applied for and received modest funding to undertake trials using native grasses as a buffel substitute.

Ostensibly this was promoted as a search for native species that might perform in the non-alluvial soils where buffel struggled or failed. There was also some mention of ecosystem conservation, particularly on national parks and I sense that the first warning signs of an introduced grass spreading where it wasn’t wanted also underscored this project. Funding enabled a 60% commitment of a single position to be dedicated to native grass trials.

Native grasses in country west of Glen Helen.

To fill in some gaps in this story, I recently spoke with Simon Reu, who was employed as an undergraduate, the third person to accept the job in as many years. He reports that approximately 10 native species were trialed with minimal success. On balance the natives needed to be more carefully cross-matched to appropriate soils and proved much more labour intensive to harvest, sow and manage.

These days, Reu operates Lone Dingo, a highly successful travel, outdoor and adventure store created with his wife and business partner Maryann.  He engages with tourists on a daily basis, including walkers following the Larapinta Trail, and reports a definite disdain for buffel from a growing number who walk to explore the ecology of a region, not just its mountain peaks. “There are definite consequences for the wilderness experience on offer in central Australia,” he lamented.

A letter from Alex Nelson, responding to a 2008 tourism advertising campaign by the NT Government, made a similar point: “The cheerful faces of the happy couple enjoying themselves in the bush belie the tragedy of the immense ecological disaster that is occurring silently around them…” Nelson’s letter highlighted the reality at Uluru where planting around the monolith in 1968 to arrest soil erosion (see photo below left) had spread along the roadside and invaded Kata Tjuta, creating massive problems for the national park that persist to this day.

There were always voices of dissent on the buffel question, among them early scientific and technical staff working at the Arid Zone Research Institute and some of these, such as botanist Peter Latz, were openly critical. Before then, renowned botanist, George Chippendale, stationed in Alice Springs from 1954 to 1966, was dubious about planting it but his concerns fell on deaf ears, Nelson has told me.

Nelson provides a unique bridge to that earlier generation of botanists and horticulturalists, some working for CSIRO and especially the Agriculture Branch (a precursor to the Department of Primary Industries) when the Northern Territory administration was still under the control of our federal Government in Canberra.

In a pertinent comment on an Alice Springs News story published earlier this year, he wrote:Frank McEllister (senior horticulture technical officer) is the first person I recall being critical of buffel grass as it was a major weed that we had to control at the Horticulture Block. Frank often pointed out that crops provided a far greater economic return per unit area of land compared to beef cattle, so from his viewpoint the benefits of buffel grass for pastoralism was far outweighed by its cost for weed control in horticulture. Ironically, the AZRI Horticulture Block was the same location [where] the CSIRO conducted the pasture species evaluation trial in the early 1960s that demonstrated how successfully buffel grass could grow here…”

Today, the freewheeling Northern Territory is firmly in the sights of big AG and big GAS, with generous water licenses and publicly funded infrastructure such as roads provided by their friends in government. It seems likely that the high commercial value of pastoral properties will entrench and even continue the steep rises of recent years and with that, privately funded conservation agencies such as Australian Wildlife Conservancy and Bush Heritage will be priced out of the market.

Buffel at Uluru. Photo taken before the climb closure, from the Alice Springs News archive.

Or, will the pastoral luminaries of the next generation enter into mutually beneficial agreements with conservationists in a desperate attempt to save their country? Will some initiate class actions against culpable governments for the damage done to their native pastures and grazing enterprises? Will the model of sustainably low stocking rates, yielding beef of premium quality, pioneered by Bob Purvis (a man ostracised by so many within the cattle industry) become the way of the future?

I won’t be alive to see all of this but I do know that flourishing native seed banks throughout the landscape are a vital investment in the future for wildlife conservation and pastoralism. If we open both our eyes, I believe the signs are everywhere, they were written in the landscape decades ago. A futurist is not required.

•••

After submitting my opening article  on the threat posed by new super spreaders, namely the exotic sheda and fountain grasses, I went for a drive with a companion in search of some buffel free country. I needed to take an image for the cover of an upcoming book. West of Alice Springs and beyond the roadside slasher zone, buffel grass, knee high, dominated the understorey, kilometre after kilometre.

We passed Standley Chasm, hard hit by the 2019 fires, where built infrastructure including plastic water tanks were apparently prioritised by fire fighters over ancient irreplaceable red gums. Now the shiny black mallees, Eucalyptus socialis, exhibiting thick basal regrowth, remind me of the decorative leafy anklets of Aboriginal dancers clustered together and taking a break from ceremony. The taller ghost gums and bloodwoods, with single trunks and gaunt outstretched limbs show strong epicormic growth along the stems, surreal sentinels ready to flee in a ravaged country now dominated by buffel regrowth and the purple blush of autumn Ptilotus.

There were also delicate reminders of the past where impoverished soils, apparently deficient in phosphorus, were largely buffel free, native islands of oat grass, and several showy species of Ptilotus, from vivid pink to sea foam green. I stopped at the Ochre Pits, parking at the roadside where the buffel had been slashed some time ago, to examine such a site, foothills awash with mauve Ptilotus exaltatus clustered together in the spiny embrace of spinifex tussocks.

The chatter of budgerigars could be heard over the engine and soon we encountered flocks of several hundred, partnered with groups of cockatiels (some 50 or so), feeding in the short grasses. A strong fragrance filled the air as I stepped from the car and I quickly located the source, a tall leafy green plant called Streptoglossa decurrens.

We paused frequently to examine delicate flowering plants, some such as this Scaevola ovalifolia (left) occupying the area of a 20 cent coin, about 5% of the underside of a bullock’s hoof. At a point approximately twenty-five metres from the road I paused in horror; there at my feet on a buffel-free sandstone slope was a small, spindly runt (beware the future vigor of its descendants!) of a tussock with seeding heads that looked very much like sheda grass.

Careful not to disturb the seeds, a couple of weeks’ shy of floating free, I uprooted the tussock and placed it into a plastic bag. We failed to find any more as we returned to the vehicle, however I feel certain the parent plant remains at the roadside hidden from view amongst the cut buffel and waiting for the summer to reshoot and reproduce.

How did this plant travel so far, presumably from the infestation at Ilparpa? Surely the seed of the first tussock was transported by a vehicle and its seed in turn became airborne during the act of slashing and a favourable wind. If the Minister for the Environment and the Alice Springs Town Council fail to take action against sheda grass at Ilparpa, they are condemning the whole region to a new destructive wave by this super spreader. If the source infestation at Ilparpa is not eliminated in a timely manner this species will be easily overlooked and confused as a native by even the most vigilant among us.

The presence of buffel is by no means continuous and I’m reassured by the persistence of native plants in pockets along the way. Such plant communities are rebounding in the absence of grazing livestock, a result of widespread destocking across the region during the drought followed by last year’s luxurious La Nina event. I paused with my usual delight at one of my favourite landmarks, a sandstone outlier that seems to foreground the resting shape of Mount Sonder in the distance (photo at top).

West of Glen Helen, the roadside buffel continues, colonising the nitrogen rich patches around isolated trees and branching to follow creek lines, but its spread suddenly slows where a broad band of Triodia longiceps meets the road, indicating a change in soil. Here the buffel has gained feeble purchase, one that might be expanded through the agency of future fires or other forms of disturbance.

Beyond the spinifex, barrier ridges of maroon sandstone further thwart the easy spread of buffel by virtue of soils relatively low in phosphorus. I stopped the vehicle and we took a walk. I did find occasional individual buffel tussocks among the spinifex and it only seems a matter of time before this appalling grass reaches the richer colluvial soils further south. The fate of several buffel-free valleys, totalling many square kilometres, hangs in the balance and the image of healthy tussocks of this virulent grass growing from cattle dung comes to mind. 

For the moment there are no cattle and we entered a variegated landscape of great beauty, minor and localised drainages, a mosaic of gibber plains and vegetated islands of bluebush and spinifex fringed with native oat grasses. Breasting a low sandstone ridge, our eyes feasted on the gardens of eremophilla, indigofera, sennas and spinifex.

Beyond this vantage, a swathe of dense mulga fills the first of several intermont valleys, the broken line of sandstone progressively replaced by quartzite ranges of increasing elevation and a crescendo of birdsong. I sense rather than see the astonishing native pines and remember so many of their kind, ancients of the high country lost to fire, barbecued by buffel.  

Several species of ptilotus form a foreground apron below the sandstone outlier and I knew I’d found the front cover (photo above) for an upcoming book on the ecology of arid Australia written by my colleague Dr Steve Morton. In a state of bliss, I flew the drone, distracted every which way it turned by the beauty and botanical diversity of this place. The seeding stems of spinifex flared white as the last light blazed, flickered and died and the drone sent a low battery warning

Late afternoon sun touched the east-west trending peaks and with that the undulating caterpillar mountains carried me home, ruinous grasses for the time being relegated to the shadows.

I visited Latz next morning. My suspect grass does strongly resemble a native Dichanthium. I can’t be sure; is this sheda, D. annulatum? Latz examines the specimen and nods grim-faced, so I visit the herbarium located at the Alice Springs Desert Park. The identification is confirmed and the specimen will be lodged as a new record of this invasive grass.

•••

I realise my buffel story is large on wrist-slashing despair that overwhelms its ‘touch of light’ purpose. Accordingly, I’ve decided to feature photographs that portray the buffel-free desert, an antidote and also a reminder of what we stand to lose, infinitum. In publishing these images, I also hope to challenge the assumption that it’s too late and the damage is irreversible, a familiar lifeline for every do-nothing politician or public servant.

To complement the upland images from the west MacDonnells, I flew the drone over a local floodout, a forest of smooth barked coolibah, Eucalyptus intertexta, that miraculously exists within the Alice Springs municipality. It’s an area I’ve visited many times, a special place where walking on tiptoe feels like an act of desecration, a sacred envelope flanked by claypan country that’s relentlessly flogged by motorbike riders.

Once more I was being given a second chance to record the botanical paradise I first encountered as a young man, almost fifty years ago. The ground was covered in pencil yams, intertwining legumes, herbage and grasses – the photo below is a sample of more to come as I photograph this 3.5-hectare site from canopy to forest floor.

This is the legacy of one man, Peter Latz, who prefers to roll up his sleeves instead of watching the advance of invasive grasses. I stopped in disbelief to study the deep wheel ruts. Clearly all this fecundity and grace had not prevented some wanker from struggling under a fence for the ‘pleasure’ of riding a quad bike right through the middle. On another occasion our hearts sank as we discovered the first sheda tussocks on the fringes of Latz’s coolibah forest.

As I wonder how to end this story, I think about the people I see most mornings at first light, a small army of volunteers who are chipping away at buffel grass and the build-up of mulch around old growth trees. There’s Sue M. of course who roams widely over Spencer Valley and the Todd River, Sue G., Henry S. and V.M of the New Eastside foothills, Ken J. of the eastern bank of the Todd River, Jude P. of Ankerre ankerre (coolibah swamp), and the indefatigable Rosalie B. who appears to be everywhere and is rarely separated from a backpack that seems far too large for her small frame. She must be in her mid-eighties.

There are hundreds more physically engaged in the taxing eradication of buffel and couch on private land and enjoying the benefits of healing the country. Over the past year, I’ve travelled extensively, looking critically at the spread of roadside buffel with a view to writing this story. I’ve discovered great cause for hope in the thousands of square kilometres that are still virtually free of buffel, where removal of threatening roadside buffel could perpetuate this trend if we got organised. If only I could channel the motivation and dedication shown by the original soil conservation workers and undo some of their buffel triumphs.

Yes, of course, the federal Minister, Sussan Ley, and her NT counterpart must confront the mistakes of the past and provide the funding and remedies required for the control and management of this highly damaging weed, but I’ve spent half a lifetime writing submissions, endlessly hoping that those offering public consultation actually believed in what they were doing; that this was something more than a cynical ploy, sucking the government’s critics into a biased process, perverting democratic ideals and wasting our time. We really must stop forgiving the unforgivable, find our backbones and roar! Time is of the essence.

Thankfully, public concern has begun to shift dramatically. Younger Australians are showing a willingness to confront difficult environmental issues and drag us out of the 70-year malaise that charts the rise of buffel grass since the very first scientific trials. They seem to possess the passion and anger, both essential qualities to shift political parties and corporations. It’s all we’ve got. Alternative methods employed by big business, such as well targeted and preferably disguised campaign donations, are not really acceptable to ordinary people. Protecting our homeland is up to all of us.

Note: In writing this article I am especially grateful to Alex Nelson for his phenomenal memory and archives.

 

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

Last updated 9 Juy 2021, 10.05am. (Image of the intexta forest floor replaced.)

3 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you Mike for this informative and beautifully written essay. It inspires me to move beyond keeping buffel at bay near my home, to campaigning.

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