By ERWIN CHLANDA
While the Centre is facing what experts say is likely to be the biggest bushfire season in recorded history, the question is not what the NT Government is doing about it, but what it is not.
The first blaze is already under way, in the Ormiston Gorge area of the West MacDonnells (Geoscience Australia image above, 5.25pm today).
The fuel is clearly buffel grass, booming after three record La Niña rainy seasons, and now set to dry out in the coming El Niño period.
The word buffel appears just once in the 30-page Alice Springs Regional Bushfire Management Plan 2022-23: “Work with NT Weeds Branch to determine the extent of Buffel grass throughout the Alice Springs Region.”
Many people at a meeting last night, organised by members of the Buffel Information and Action Group at Olive Pink reserve, one of the town’s few public places not infested with buffel, could have answered that question, but clearly nobody in the government ivory towers in Darwin has asked.
There have been four decades of discussion about the grass in The Centre, at top scientific levels.
Last night’s meeting, attended by about 100 people, was told that the worst-case scenario of the progressing degradation in the nation’s heart would turn it into a Sahara-like desert without a blade of vegetation.
The NT Government Weed Management Branch has appointed as its buffel guru a Darwin-based expert in gamba grass.
Last night Michelle Franklin told the meeting, in a somewhat apologetic tone, that she’s been “in a steep learning curve” about buffel for just “three or four months” and she would do her best to get the knowledge that’s “out there” about a subject that is “more complicated” than gamba grass.
Gamba grass has been declared a weed.
Buffel has not, but that’s an issue – according to another official from Darwin, Lauren Cooper, Assistant Director of Weed Branch – that will be considered by a “small” advisory committee … yet to be formed.
It may take South Australia’s lead in declaring buffel a weed in 2015.
“How the control is going to impact everybody” – what to do and how – is another question to be resolved, says Ms Franklin.
Should there be biological control, which could range from importing seed head eating caterpillars from Queensland to have cattle grazing in national parks?
Unsurprisingly, that would have to be a Federal issue, for the CSIRO, for example, and the NT Government would “look at recommendations,” according to Ms Cooper.
The “small group” will prioritise “asset protection” because a complete removal of buffel “just isn’t going to happen,” according a locally-based NT official John Gaynor.
The assets have not yet been selected.
In the massive MacDonnell Ranges blaze in 2019 the assets protected were mostly rangers’ offices and accommodation, not the superb landscape that is the lifeblood of Centre tourism.
Locals at the meeting asked: Will the absurd situation come to an end where volunteers, in backbreaking work, eradicate buffel in places like the Eastside’s Spencer Valley, while the government-run Telegraph Station, just across the fence, “is full of buffel” which is “left to run wild”.
There will be “more resources,” according to Mr Gaynor.
Peter Latz (“I was born here and I will die here”) is one of the foremost buffel experts. He says a mixture of buffel and native plants is “really good for the pastoral industry” but if buffel takes over there are “big problems ahead”.
Mr Latz (pictured) said: “Some of the pastoralists are blaming the dingo for killing their calves. What’s happening, if they’ve got nothing but buffel to eat, the cows give still births and the dingoes eat the dead calves.”
Alex Vaughan, Arid Lands Environment Centre policy officer, said when gamba was declared a weed in 2008, it was seen as an opportunity for progress.
The buffel debate should not turn into a binary for or against issue: “It has widespread impacts, way outside the pastoral estate.”
It’s unfathomable that there is no plan for dealing with buffel in the MacDonnells, said Mr Vaughan.
The government should ban the spreading of seed.
We should learn from the successes in SA: “They are showing the way.”
Que Kenny, the MC, a staff member of the MacDonnell Regional Council and a Traditional Owner for Ntaria (Hermannsburg), read a statement by Sadie Williams, a Traditional Owner for Lilla, who attended with two members of her family, Vera Williams and Sonia Williams.
The statement said the locals didn’t introduce buffel yet now it displaces native plants which feature in traditional knowledge. This makes it hard to pass on the stories to the children, interrupting the transfer and survival of cultural information.
A tourist operator, Anna Dakin, told the meeting that visitors are expecting to experience the distinctive landscapes they were promised, not burnt-out country.
“Why is nothing being done?” she asked.
She had to evacuate clients during fires, in the middle of the night, a “scary experience”.
Sunil Dhanji, Chair of Alice Springs Landcare, which has six groups, said they had been been discussing buffel with the Town Council for “quite a long time”.
He said at first, since 2008, “we were trying to convince them that all they needed to mow in their open spaces were couch and buffel.”
This had been met with “excuses”. African lovegrass has since come on the scene.
“Now we have two grasses capable of smothering our natives,” he said.
“Look after your own verges. You can do it better than than they can.”
Mr Dhanji said we can only hope that the native seed store will last long enough, and that “legislative processes or some biological pathogen will come along and will take buffel out.
“Natives then could re-colonise.
“The alternative is that buffel becomes a monoculture, and through successive fires and stripping nutrients out of the ground, buffel will one day be taken out by something, and then the country will look very much like a Sahara type of desert.
“We do need to act.”
Statement from Fiona Fraser, Threatened Species Commissioner
Invasive species are one of the key threats to Australia’s biodiversity, impacting the health of Country and degrading cultural sites. In our arid and semi-arid regions, Buffel Grass is undoubtedly the invasive plant species that poses the single biggest threat to the environment.
It is known as a “transformer weed” because it radically alters and degrades landscapes.
It leads to hotter and more frequent fires and it directly outcompetes native plants, destroys habitat and threatens many culturally significant plants and animals with extinction, including the Greater Bilby, Tjakura (the Great Desert Skink) and the Princess Parrot.
And while the environmental impacts of Buffel Grass are already dramatic it has by no means reached its full potential. We only need to look to the northern savannas and the story of Gamba Grass to appreciate how important it is to act now to manage Buffel Grass, before it is too late.