By ALEX VAUGHAN
In response to public pressure the NT Environment Minister Lauren Moss’ public acknowledgement that buffel grass is a serious problem is welcome. The recently announced buffel grass technical working group, however, must not be used as a delay tactic.
The Minister has said that the working group will assess buffel grass impacts, as well as consider management opportunities, including weed declaration.
It is damning that in 2023, more than 60 years after buffel grass was deliberately sown at scale, the NT Government still doesn’t know what the impacts of buffel grass are.
This is despite the fact that the Northern Territory Parks and Wildlife stopped planting buffel across the Parks estate in the 1970s due to a recognition of the threat it posed to ecological values.
The environmental impacts of buffel are nothing but catastrophic. We know that buffel grass fires are hotter, larger and more frequent than native grass fires. Buffel is changing the patterns of fire across Central Australia.
Buffel is transforming mulga woodlands and native grasslands into frequently-burnt monocultures, and 500 year old river red gums into blackened posts. Buffel grass suppresses Central Australia’s wildflowers. Habitats across many different vegetation types, destroyed.
It is a key threatening process for dozens of threatened species, and puts places like the MacDonnell Ranges, nationally recognised for their conservation significance, at risk.
Indigenous custodians and land managers in Central Australia have also identified buffel as an enormous threat to the health of their Country and recognise the spread of buffel across their lands as an enormous injustice.
The Desert Indigenous Protected Areas Rangers Statement on Buffel Grass (the Umuwa Statement) opens with the sentence:”We the First Nations people of the desert did not bring buffel grass to this land. But it is here, and it is killing our country and threatening our communities and culture’ (p.8-9).
The Umuwa Statement and many other First Nations statements and testimonies call on governments to take steps to remedy the tremendous cultural and ecological harms directly caused by buffel.
Buffel grass wildfires are a major public safety threat.
In the last few weeks a home was destroyed by buffel grass fires in the Alice Springs rural area. The partially buffel grass fuelled wildfires in Tjoritja / West MacDonnell Ranges in 2019 and 2023, the Watarrka fires in 2021, and the overgrown Larapinta Trail in 2022, all negatively impact the tourism industry.
Athel pine, gamba grass and mission grass were once perceived to have benefits and were deliberately planted. Gamba grass and mission grass were both planted as pasture grasses.
However, it was eventually realised that their impacts were disproportionately negative due to the risks they posed to the environment, culture and/or public safety. Today, they are all declared weeds in the Northern Territory.
In 2014, the Federal Government received Threat Abatement Advice for buffel grass.
Even a controlled burn of buffel grass in good weather conditions can result in significant damage to very old river red gums.
It is comprehensive and provides a framework for the Federal Government, as well as States and Territories, to act on the buffel grass threat. Amongst many opportunities, it recommends that all states and territories declare buffel grass a weed.
Another decade has been wasted since this advice was made publicly available. The decades the Northern Territory government has squandered in not declaring buffel grass a weed has set a dangerous precedent whereby key threatening processes are not identified nor subjected to adequate control measures.
A Class (B) weed declaration is the obvious path forward for most buffel impacted areas. A Class (B) weed declaration under the Weeds Management Act recognises that buffel spread and growth needs to be prevented. This is clearly the case.
A weed declaration is the only path to developing a statutory weed management plan. Further, weed declaration enables all sorts of opportunities.
For the NT, the key steps forward are clear: declare it a weed, limit its spread, comprehensively map its distribution, identify priority areas for management, work towards a landscape scale solution and collaborate with the Federal Government on a biological control.
The NT Government has the added benefit of being able to learn from management measures in South Australia, where buffel grass was declared a weed in 2015 and where coordinated, reasonably resourced management measures are producing gains.
To date, the Arid Lands Environment Centre (ALEC) has not been invited to participate in the government’s working group. Last week ALEC sent a letter to the Minister requesting to be part of the working group. The Minister has not yet provided a response.
Speaking on ABC’s NT Country Hour, the Executive Director of Rangelands within the Department of Environment, Parks and Water Security stated that pastoralists will “definitely be” included in the working group.
The optics of including pastoral representatives, whilst excluding the peak environmental organisation for Central Australia, are bad. ALEC’s exclusion would undermine public trust in the process.
ALEC represents hundreds of people who entrust it to advocate and act on regional environmental issues and has knowledge and skills that will positively contribute to the Working Group.
Indeed, ALEC is currently developing a discussion paper on buffel grass that includes extensive focus on its impacts, as well as management opportunities. ALEC also takes part in regional and national weed management committees, and has close relationships with buffel stakeholders in South Australia.
For decades, the Northern Territory Government has delayed, ignored, mismanaged and obfuscated responsibility for the threats posed by buffel grass.
This announcement should be cause for cautious celebration, but for now all the Northern Territory Government has announced is that it will receive advice on a problem that it has spent decades ignoring. This opportunity to finally address the buffel grass threat must not be wasted. Please Minister, the time for action is now.