Monday, July 15, 2024

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HomeVolume 28From grass castles to fiery ruins

From grass castles to fiery ruins

By MIKE GILLAM

Part one in a series of four.

“Grass castles” of the new pastoral era vaporise and reform as fiery tornados. Nine hundred degrees C at the core of a buffel grass fire, heat rises quickly, carrying a blizzard of blackened twirls of grass and leaves and even fire.

Scores of fork tailed kites power glide back and forth to catch lizards fleeing the fire-front. Competition for prey is fierce, a frenzy of kite wings beat rapidly, rising above the flames to win a flying grasshopper. Small items are eaten on the wing, kite heads bowed, legs thrust forward and talons clenched.

Belching into the sky, destroyed pastures rapidly form into blackened clouds that block out the sun. As fuel reduces, the sun returns as a fiery disc, waxing and waning from orange to red.

Collateral damage and loss of old growth trees and biodiversity is immense. Post-fire, exotic buffel grass and its many hybrids are re-energised, outcompeting native vegetation; consolidating and expanding with successive fires. Green shoots of buffel return within weeks.

Repeated over decades, this cycle hastens pasture “rundown” and some agricultural scientists are now recommending that cattle producers add phosphorous to soils and plant legumes to restore nitrogen in depleted buffel pastures.

In the interests of honesty and disclosure perhaps scenes of wildfire destruction should accompany those glossy images, frequently used to promote properties for sale, showing fat contented cattle wading through waist high green grass.

We might also add some facts. That a monoculture of buffel will likely deplete soil health to a point where pasture productivity is halved. In addition to combating pasture “rundown” there are many hidden costs in maintaining buffel pastures long term. These include the need to invest in re-seeding areas with severe dieback.

In the short to medium term the high biomass of buffel can increase stocking capacity. For pastoral investors the trick is always knowing when to sell, hopefully before the music stops.

Majestic river tree destroyed in buffel fuelled blaze.

The well documented impacts of buffel, a pest that invariably spreads beyond pastoral leases, poses ethical questions. Given the destructive realities, how can Governments ignore their responsibility to biodiversity, society, the national park estate and indigenous protected areas?

What about the cultural imperatives of many small enterprises, visual artists among them, that depend on wild places to inform their work, not to mention the future of their subjects, the native plants and animals that are crushed by this plague?

I suppose Governments traditionally favour the bigger is better doctrine, and are simply blind to the significant financial ecosystem that underpins community life in Central Australia and collectively represents jobs, jobs, jobs!

Do our decision makers still view working on the land through a traditional stockwhips and open cut lens? Biodiversity supports and informs the indigenous art movement, ceremony, literature, art, craft and nature therapies, film making, photography, land management and tourism.

Collectively this enterprise ecosystem, many of its elements truly sustainable, poses no tangible threats to other land based industries. Moreover these small enterprises are less likely to walk away from a hollowed out landscape and expect the public to pick up the rehabilitation tab.

In contrast, all of these creative and service industries are threatened, some profoundly, by the buffel grass plague and yet no remedy is offered by Government or those industries responsible for the spread of buffel. Glaring issues of public safety will become a major factor in political life only when some of those who are travelling in the bush or living in remote communities, lose theirs.

Traditional owners and custodians from Uluru, Watarrka and the Peterman Ranges recently met in Alice Springs. Supportive of a proposal by national park’s staff to re-introduce locally extinct species to Uluru, Aboriginal people also wanted buffel grass issues to be part of the equation. Clearly the failures of habitat had to be addressed if reintroductions were to have any chance of success beyond a managed compound.

Those present were unanimous on the buffel grass crisis and decided to draft an edict and a plea for their country: “Since the time of living in the healthy abundant country … the children witnessed country … in its glory, before the arrival of buffel grass. There were … a multitude of wonderful species. Our people lived very contentedly when it was like that. But now we are contending with an issue that brings us great sorrow … It’s choking up the land …blocking the natural processes of the country.

“We didn’t bring it here and our people are at risk. We are calling on Governments … to recognise the impacts and threats that buffel grass has on we, the first nations people of desert Australia. For too long we have been pushed to the side when making decisions about this tjanpi kura (bad grass).

“We need serious action taken to … manage this dangerous weed that is taking over the deserts. We call on federal, state and Territory Governments to do what is needed to stop the march of this weed across our country. We stand together with desert people across Australia.”

I’ve spent days searching the literature for papers focussed on buffel grass as a threat that can profoundly alter landscapes, degrading not only biodiversity but also the productivity of rangeland pastures.

Cattle truck

Frustratingly, the science, much of it undertaken by Government funded researchers working for the agricultural sector, is skewed in favour of buffel grass as “saviour”; a successful means of restoring severely degraded rangelands. This speaks volumes about the influence and priorities of capitalism eclipsing our pre-eminent role as caretakers of the natural world.

Clearly the use of graphic images to compare scalded ground with the vivid addition of plant cover, the “saviour” model is engaging but what deeper truths will be revealed over the longer term?

Perhaps it’s too early in this unfolding story to know the big picture definitively and yet, by waiting how can we prevent the collapse of whole ecosystems? Given the pressures already imposed on natural ecosystems and those still increasing with climate change, the time for action was twenty years ago but today will have to do.

My probing in Central Australia revealed the spectre of oxalate poisoning, of a high incidence of still born calves, when cows were grazed on a buffel grass monoculture. The cattle producers, small in acreage by Northern Territory standards were duly advised of causal factors by Government veterinary staff.

Curiously, the autopsy results and the broader implications for Central Australian graziers were never published. In rangelands, calf losses can easily go unnoticed and I firmly believe this is indicative of a trend still unfolding across the inland.

Imbalances in the scientific literature are steadily correcting however, and from the USA to Australia, conservation land managers are unanimous in their condemnation of the severe threats to biodiversity that buffel grass poses.

Equally vehement are indigenous communities who are observing the rapid displacement of culturally significant plants and animals. Indeed rangers and staff working for Indigenous Protected Areas are at the forefront of buffel grass eradication and management.

It’s a fact of life that a great majority of jobs on offer in the natural sciences lie within Government but few University lecturers prepare their science students for the full, unvarnished realities of this. Unfortunately, most science professionals who come to understand the full horror of buffel grass, will be muzzled by political considerations or worse, pressured into acting against the public interest.

Those with strong convictions will experience coercion that can quickly manifest as bullying from senior colleagues. While some, from park rangers and planners to fire-fighters, have spoken to me privately, most appreciate anonymity.

Chewings Range, a jewel in the crown of The Centre’s tourism assets.

Even pastoralists who spoke candidly about the dramatic landscape changes they had seen over decades, of life-stock burned to death, trapped against fencing, are shy about going on the public record. Therefore on matters of huge importance to the nation, we appear to suffer from an epidemic of lying by omission.

Tourism operators are more forthright about their concerns because no glossy brochure can truly brag about a wilderness experience that is so thoroughly degraded, a reality that most tourists do not appreciate until they arrive.

Opinions are divided In every community and pastoral managers are no exception. Some Australian beef producers vociferously promote buffel, doubtless spurred on by neighbours invested in an optimistic and possibly, short term outlook.

Others appear to take a pragmatic view: basically I can’t stop buffel and I want to believe it will be OK in the long term. I suspect those who still regard properties as an inter-generational asset and legacy are watching on in abject horror as their country is overwhelmed by this super grass. They remain silent however, out of concern for a community that is by now heavily invested in this great pastoral myth. I must add, there is a strong financial disincentive for most, if not all landowners, to admit that buffel poses a problem and invite devaluation of their asset.

Over time stock losses from future wildfires combined with pasture rundown and oxalic poisoning might well change the financial equation that drives pastoral enterprise across inland Australia.

Certainly, the pastoral leases are vast and it would be uneconomic to adopt the recommendations of Ag scientists advising beef producers, on smaller properties in Queensland and NSW to re-seed areas of buffel dieback, plant legumes and add phosphates to depleted soils.

From public servants to pastoralists, a shutter of silence is endorsing inertia, mis-shaping policy and contributing to ignorance within society. Gross complicity is also killing in numbers that are beyond our comprehension.

While we can well imagine the burnt corpses of cattle or kangaroos, we know nothing of life forms that are hiding under rocks or in a burrow, protected from the flames perhaps but asphyxiated as buffel consumes available oxygen. There can be no graphic images to show the destruction of the native seed bank, locally more devastating and complete than any drought on record.

Without management and biological interventions, events will run an inevitable and horrifying course. Tragically climate change will hammer more profoundly those arid zone ecosystems already compromised and made vulnerable by the elevated severity and incidence of fire.

Moreover, buffel fires with a shocking capacity to destroy woodland trees will contribute further to the carbon bomb that is driving climate change.

The Northern Territory is a bread and circuses kind of place, with the scale of Government spin and hyperbole, the only “boundless possible” that I can see. Recently (2023) the NT Government has responded to mounting pressure from residents by appointing an advisory committee to kick the can down the road.

In July this year the NT Cattlemen’s Association contacted members with a buffel grass survey containing the following misleading assertions: “As you may be aware, the NT Government has established a technical working group to consider declaring buffel grass a class B weed. This would require land managers to control the growth and spread of buffel on their properties.”

The terms of reference for the NT buffel grass Technical Working Group (TWG) do not predict, foreshadow or mandate a class B listing for buffel grass on pastoral lands. If there is a blanket Class B outcome – “it is necessary to prevent the growing and spreading of the plant” – approved by the Minister, it seems likely that exemptions and a variation of conditions are possible and the word “control” seems over-stated. Based on existing precedents of established pasture species later declared a weed eg. gamba grass in the Top End and buffel grass in South Australia, a Class (B) declaration is still quite flexible.

Obvious caveats must be applied to speculation I offer here. Softer “controls / requirements” would probably be applied to existing areas of buffel persistence and incidental spread, a declared Class B weed, on pastoral lands.

Roadtrain carrying cotton.

Deliberate seeding with buffel however, an undesirable act for the region’s biodiversity, would not be permitted unless the relevant Minister has given an exemption. The devil is always in the detail.

Usually a weed management group is appointed to determine the design and application of a weed management plan, following declaration. TWG terms of reference as follows:

Purpose: The NT Buffel Grass Technical Working Group has been formed to: 

• Analyse the “issue” of buffel grass and how it is being managed in the Northern Territory.

• Consider and evaluate existing and alternative management approaches; and

  • Make recommendations to the Minister for Environment, Climate Change and Water Security about the best management approach or approaches.”

I can only draw one conclusion for misrepresenting the TWG’s terms of reference: That NTCA’s newsletter is more about push polling its members than conducting an objective survey. That’s a shame because I feel certain a great many pastoralists, by virtue of the extended time they spend living in the bush, are regretful and anguished about the collateral damage that is happening to some of their favourite places.

Throughout the Northern Territory, the pastoral industry has a great many friends in business from aerial mustering and transport, motor vehicle sales and auto repairs, stationary engine and pump retailers, fuel, tyres and parts, yard builders, civil engineering, fencing contractors, stock agents, stock feed, buffel seed, herbicide and chemical vendors; so it goes on and on.

In post La Nina conditions pastoralists can anticipate spending much more on the labour intensive and costly business of fire-fighting such as hiring grader operators and contractors to cut fire breaks.

True to form, I feel certain that vested interests broadly will bring significant pressure to bear on the NT Government to delay or more likely dilute the listing of buffel grass as a weed. Are there senior public servants on lucrative contracts who are relied upon to double guess their political masters and keep troublesome true believers in check? The truth has a habit of reaching the surface.

Certainly, there is abundant evidence of rapidly growing dissent and activism, of a mass revolt by ordinary people who are challenging the Northern Territory’s autocratic style of government and environmental neglect. A lack of government honesty, oversight and compliance on mining, fracking, water licenses, cotton and buffel have stripped NT Labor of the last vestiges of environmental credibility.

The investors, not the corporate kind but those who actually care for the natural world, who live in the far flung towns, communities and hamlets of inland Australia have had enough. From Alice Springs to the bush communities, twenty five years of fighting buffel has generated a lot of anger.

Notwithstanding a sharp rise in people power, it’s the insurance actuaries who will probably lead the way. Ultimately the insurance industry will raise premiums to cover the prospect of more frequent and devastating wildfires and attendant risks to livestock, people and infrastructure.

This may encourage some banks to look more closely at the true value and risks of buffel infested rangelands.

A previous Labor government presided over the loss of 50% across Tjoritja / West MacDonnell Ranges National Park that was burnt out in 2019. Water bombing aircraft were never deployed but the spectacular “Territory Events” budget remained buoyant!

To the best of my knowledge, national park managers have received no increased funding of significance to assist with managing buffel grass or fighting the intense fires that now occur. Already this year another 20% of Tjoritja was burnt out in a single March wildfire with several more fires occurring in the past six months. Collectively, losses in 2023 must be approaching 50%.

The various strains of this super grass, genetically altered or naturalised, are the greatest threat to biodiversity facing inland Australia.

The buffel grass plague was developed, promoted and released by our national Government with enthusiastic support from states and Territories since the 1920s in Queensland and more recently in the NT. Used like a giant petri dish and exposed to numerous buffel strains, the Alice Springs region is now experiencing widespread ecosystem collapse.

For those invested in the life-force and future of this place, I search in vain for an analogy to capture the shocking scale of this catastrophe. The plague is killing our spirit, the beauty, history and promise of our country and our federal Government is withholding an array of biological (“vaccines”) remedies.

Interstate, in Queensland and New South Wales, buffel pastures (the plague) are receiving life support including generous investments in agricultural research from the Federal Government of Australia.

Essays about buffel by MIKE GILLAM

ESSAY THREE Privatise the buffel profits, socialise the costs

ESSAY TWO Buffel: South Australia leading the way

ESSAY ONE From grass castles to fiery ruins

9 COMMENTS

  1. That’s an excellent article. It’s hard work digging out the roots of buffel, but I have cleared the hillside adjacent to our block over the last three years.
    After many hot hours of labour, you really get to despise the pastoral idiots who went for the quick beef dollar and are now causing an ecological collapse of Central Australia. And the bastards are still seeding it in Queensland!

  2. @ Mike: Great article and great tactics.
    First you offer two articles to remind us of the wonderful part of the world we live in and you follow it up by telling us how greed (the second deadly sin) is the catalyst for the likely fiery end of this paradise.
    The first step to dealing with a problem, is to recognise that there is one.
    Thank you Mike (and Erwin for providing a forum).

  3. Thanks Mike, this is an incredible piece of writing. Every para captures a key insight, and overall a compelling plea to act on buffel grass invasion.
    Time to declare buffel grass a class A/B weed over the NT, this will provide a tool that allows us to work together to stop its spread and manage its risks.

  4. Thank-you Mike (and Alice Springs News).
    A very insightful evisceration of the many players who have had a role in our current “vaporised era of fiery tornados”.
    The old school science which you note that justified the establishment and spread of buffel grass holds firm to its origins in western enlightenment approaches to knowledge garnering, this was always harnessed to a self-identified (i.e western) views of progress inextricably entwined with economic growth models. Not surprising then the “old school” supported the “old industry”. Fortunately as you note there is a new school.
    The old industry hides behind the colonial model of taming the land, with the plaintive bleat of “but we love it too”. This fallacious argument is so obvious. You can’t love something while you kill it. This stands for human to human as well as human to non-human relationships.
    Your analysis of the political landscape, correctly draws upon this synergistic role of governments to enable the ever forward economic (unfortunately not usually ecosystem) growth model.
    Where is the wriggle room? Maybe in this election year cycle the new Minister will see an opportunity to declare buffel grass a grade B weed (as the pastoralists fear) as there are votes in the bush on this issue.
    And having been in government for a while they will be looking for a new sales pitch. It would be embarrassing to lose Gwoja and the ALP only lost Barkley by a margin of 0.1 and Namatjira by a margin of 0.3 – both very gettable. Both for slightly different reasons this year having massive fire seasons.
    Hopefully not preempting parts 2-4 (looking forward to them), an action for me will be to write to the new Minister and petition the case for declaring buffel a grade B weed across the NT.

  5. @ Clive: Following weed declaration a hunt for a biological control is urgently needed.
    Buffel grass is affected by the fungal pathogen Pyricularia grisea, and ergot (Claviceps spp.) affecting seed production. The buffel grass seed caterpillar (Mampava rhodoneura) is a major insect pest of buffel grass in Queensland.
    Of course, the pastoral industry will fight any biological control measure but this is the only practical and cost affective way to control buffel.

  6. I recall talking to a ranger at Finke Gorge National Park decades ago who was trying to keep buffel out of Palm Valley.
    A Sysiphean task, but his conclusion was that digging the stuff up was “creating seedbeds for the next crop”.
    I agree.
    Round Up (glyyphosate) has been demonised by the ultra-organic people in the last few years, when it was found to be “possibly” carcinogenic. (The basis of this claim was dodgy.)
    One of the quoted victims, who sued in the USA (where else) testified that even though he wore protective clothing he finished the day saturated with the spray.
    If you regularly saturated yourself with petrol you would almost certainly increase your cancer risk.
    Glyphosate is one of the most thoroughly tested herbicides ever. Stories of it persisting into food grains are not credible.
    The reasons for the anti glyphosate movement can be traced back to Monsanto [which] bred glyphosate resistant strains of crops, so that blanket spraying of crops could be used for weed control. A dangerous and stupid use of a useful chemical.
    For spraying buffel, with care, I find it a useful and much less time consuming method. Much of the buffel removal from Olive Pink Botanic Garden was done with spot spraying, aided by food dye in the mix to mark done areas.
    The soil structure is maintained, and the dead root systems break down to improve the soil.
    Done after a summer rain when the grass is growing vigorously gives a close to 100% kill.
    Not practical for large areas of course, but neither is digging up, and I can do the couch at the same time. Young recruits can be pulled up after a soaking rain.

  7. As I submit my essays I find it reassuring to know there will always be one or indeed, many of the readers attracted to this site who know more than me!
    Ralph’s post has helped to inform buffel essay #3 about to be posted.

  8. @ Charlie Carter: I challenge your assertion that digging up buffel grass provides a seed bed for its germination.
    I’ve been weeding buffel grass on and off since about 1971 when, as a young schoolboy, I encountered it as a pest in my veggie patch when living at the AIB Farm (AZRI). That’s actually when I learned to use a mattock, at age seven!
    Later, when living at the CSIRO Field Station, I used Roundup (Zero) to control buffel and couch grasses in our one-hectare yard. That was back in the early 1980s, in the early years of Monsanto holding the patent for glyphosate, and it was extremely expensive – it used to cost about $30 or $40 per one litre bottle.
    Years later, I visited our former CSIRO home where subsequent residents hadn’t maintained weed control in the yard – both the buffel and couch grasses had re-established as if nothing had ever been done before.
    In 1999, I eradicated all existing buffel grass on my parents’ five-hectare rural block with a mattock, which was a decade after my mother had partially cleared the block.
    That year was very dry but in December there were some heavy storms, a precursor to the very wet years of 2000-2001.
    Unfortunately, I was unable to follow up with controlling the germination of seedlings, so my entire effort was lost. The property promptly reverted to being dominated by buffel grass.
    Limited spraying was done at Olive Pink Botanic Garden before I turned up on the scene in June 2000.
    The extremely heavy rainfall early that year prompted a massive eruption of buffel grass over most of the botanic garden, some of it chest high along the Todd River side boundary fence.
    I took to the buffel with a mattock and physically dug it out over the next few years, occasionally aided by Australian Conservation Volunteers.
    While at OPBG, I observed that during extended dry periods, there is enhanced mortality of buffel seed in the soil bank. The reason for this is that termites consume it readily.
    On one occasion after a decent fall of summer rain, I was pleasantly surprised to find virtually no germination of buffel seedlings across the grounds of OPBG, notwithstanding my physical eradication of the mature grass.
    A few months later, it was a different story. That same rain had prompted the buffel grass on the hillsides to grow, flower and set seed.
    When another fall of rain came that summer, it was the fresh seed washed downslope from the hills that germinated prolifically (however, I soon made short work of them, too).
    Another fundamental difference with spraying and uprooting buffel grass is that the latter breaks down much faster than the plants killed by chemicals.
    Again, its termites that make the difference – these insects are rapidly attracted to disturbed soil and preferentially consume dead matter spread like a mulch layer over the ground.
    Most people make the mistake of piling uprooted buffel grass into heaps. Termites tend to avoid such piles of grass.
    I’ve observed in several locations where buffel grass was killed with Roundup, and the dead clumps remained in situ for many years. This included at OPBG where I was able to compare the difference between sprayed and dug up grasses (the termites invariably favour the latter).
    I have literally thousands of photographs taken of my observations over a number of decades on this subject, not least where I am currently vigorously digging up buffel grass and leaving it as a mulch layer across the grounds at Pitchi Richi Sanctuary.
    There is always at least a minimum of two (usually three) passes for controlling buffel grass on any site, irrespective of whether it’s dug up or sprayed.
    Both methods have their pros and cons but, after most of my life having experience with weeding buffel grass, my favourite herbicide by far is called “Mattock”.

  9. Thank you so much Mike and Alice Springs News. A brave and thought provoking article.
    As you highlight, after decades of being suppressed, civil society is starting to rise, we’re just getting going and have shocked even ourselves with our energy and determination.
    This conflict weed sure has created a great sense of unity and shared purpose!
    It would be great to see a proper economic evaluation of the pastoral industry (in GSP and employment terms its contribution seems shockingly low, including opportunity-costs in relation to work for ancillary local business (I suspect decently funded buffel grass management would provide significant opportunities).
    @ Charlie Carter: Glyphosate is an issue as contentious as buffel grass, with many of the same players involved in research and trade.
    It’s a good discussion to raise at this point, we must learn from what has happened in the Top End following Gamba Grass Weed Declaration, a response that appears to revolve largely around herbicide sales.
    Re the evidence base you referred to:
    In 2015 the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) conducted a meta-analysis and determined that glyphosate was a probable carcinogen, mainly for non Hodgkin lymphoma.
    Australia was one of the countries that did not impose a ban in response.
    Why?
    • Organisations representing Australian farmers – the National Farmers’ Federation, Agforce, Victorian Farmers Federation, WAFarmers – strongly rejected the IARC finding (surprise, surprise, no doubt they also dismissed the IARC’s rigorous meta-analysis as “dodgy”).
    • The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) accepted several papers disregarded by the IARC for reasons such as “limited experimental data” (i.e. the IARC determined they were unreliable!) while the APVMA disregarded 174 studies cited by the IARC because they “utilised non-conventional species or methodology for evaluating human toxicity”. (All of a sudden animal experimentation carries no weight!)
    The APVMA has been in serious trouble re it’s capacity to governance pesticide use.
    Given how captured pesticide (herbicide) research is by industry (the APVMA lit reviews remind me of the early days of research into tobacco harm – lots of muddied waters and ‘inconclusive’ research) the fact that this major (rigorous) EU lit review found:
    “With respect to ecotoxicology, the data package allowed a conservative risk assessment approach, which identified a high long-term risk to mammals in 12 out of 23 proposed uses of glyphosate.”
    All of this suggests at the very least glyphosate should be used with extreme caution.
    That is especially so given the lack of research into the impact of glyphosate on local native animals, including those that live in the soil. One of the few papers published suggests application of glyphosate significantly stresses skinks.
    NZ guidelines suggest it should not be used in areas with threatened lizards (others are apparently fair collateral damage!)
    WIRES state: “Glyphosate (Roundup) will cause severe eye irritation in birds if they come into contact with the spray.”

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