Time to learn from the past: Indigenous Peoples are leading land management in Southwest Australia, and the rest of the world should take note

By Adam Cross. Western Australia faces a biodiversity crisis driven by climate change and inadequate conservation and land management. Rates of extinction here are already among the highest in the world, and government projects have struggled to improve the situation for most species. But as land management is increasingly being turned over to Indigenous Australians, successes have begun emerging from the ashes.

Western Australia is known internationally for its remarkable biodiversity and high levels of floristic endemism. It is a landscape of rugged natural beauty that supports among the most ecologically unique and highly specialised organisms on the planet, and in which occur some of the world’s oldest rocks, oldest living life forms, and oldest continuous human cultures. And, it is a landscape of extremes—not only environmental extremes, such as the contrast between the cool, wet forests of the southwest and the hot, dry deserts of the interior, but also extremes in human impact.

Curtin University PhD student Thilo Krueger undertaking a biodiversity survey in the seasonal wetlands near Esperance with Tjaltjraak Aboriginal Rangers. Such projects are examples of the highly successful cross-cultural learning between Indigenous and Western scientists that are increasingly underpinning land management in Western Australia. Photo: Zoe Bullen.

In the southwestern corner of the 2.6 million km2 state, the result of wholescale clearing of millions of acres of native forest and woodlands for broadacre agriculture, mainly in the 1940s–1970s but continuing today, can be easily seen from space. Flying over Western Australia’s Wheatbelt region can yield horizon to horizon views containing little more than scattered handfuls of trees in a vast ocean of yellow-brown. In large areas of the Wheatbelt, for example, less than 3% of the landscape remains covered by native vegetation. It is among the most extreme examples anywhere in the world of habitat destruction on an industrial scale in an astonishingly short time frame.

In contrast, in the remote north of Western Australia in a region known as the Kimberley, there remain vast wilderness areas of remote savannah woodland, among the most ecologically intact and least human-impacted ecosystems still in existence. Although globally some 70% of tropical savannah ecosystems have been lost, a vast 1.5 million km2 of them remain in northern Australia, mostly in good condition, of which nearly 350,000 km2 is in the state of Western Australia. Nestled within this seasonally-dry savannah are rivers and deep rocky gorges, extensive sandstone plateaus and uplands, rugged ranges, and a myriad of seasonal and wetland habitats, providing a complex suite of more mesic habitats supporting high levels of botanical endemism. Over half of the 3,000 plant species currently known from the region have been described scientifically in just the last four decades, highlighting how remote and inaccessible the Kimberley remains even today.

A huge pall of smoke rises from an intense prescribed burn in seasonally wet peatland ecosystems near Albany, September 2017, turning a bright spring midday into an apocalyptic scene. Photo: Adam Cross.

These extremes in human impact come with considerable challenges in how we manage, conserve, and restore biodiversity and ecological resilience. Not even the Kimberley region is immune from external anthropogenic threats: weed invasion and rangeland stocking levels are ongoing concerns, and mining activities impact some areas. Indeed, a copper mine proposed within 20 km of the iconic Horizontal Falls in the Kimberley archipelago is cause for concern. Apparently illegal track and exploration clearing at the site has already prompted outcry from tourism operators, environmentalists, and the general public. Conflict between development, industry, and environmental interests in this manner is common in Australia, and current approaches and legislation are far from doing a sufficient job of managing and maintaining the country’s unique natural environment.

After reportedly being buried for several months by the previous federal government, the recently published 2022 Australian State of the Environment Report paints a bleak picture of a continent’s ecosystems in ecological freefall. Vegetation loss due to land clearing continues at remarkably high rates around the country. Nearly 2,000 species are now threatened with extinction and some 19 ecosystems remain on the brink of complete collapse. Conservation and land management strategies are poorly coordinated and often fail. In addition, anthropogenic climate change is now recognised as a threat to every Australian ecosystem and is expected to compound the significant and growing impacts of numerous other threats and stressors.

The enormous smoke cloud from a prescribed burn darkens the sky over agricultural land near Margaret River, September 2017. Photo: Adam Cross.

Indigenous land management leaders

One of the very few positives presented by the 2022 State of the Environment Report, however, is recognition that Indigenous land management and the incorporation of Traditional Ecological Knowledge in environmental programs is having real, genuine benefits for biodiversity and the integrity of Australia’s ecosystems. Native Title, recognition by Australian Common Law that Indigenous Australians have cultural and historic land rights and interests, has resulted in over half of the Australian landmass being recognised as Indigenous estate. This means that now 54% of the National Reserve System of protected natural ecosystems consists of Indigenous Protected Areas and conservation reserves that are jointly managed by Indigenous Australians in partnership with other groups. In many cases, traditional approaches are returning to the management of Australia’s land and seas for the first time since European colonisation.

Cool fire-stick burns such as this one in open savannah woodland in the North Kimberley, April 2019, promote pyrodiversity by creating complex matrices of burnt and unburnt habitat in the landscape. Photo: Adam Cross.

Many around the world will have heard of the recent catastrophic bushfires spread across eastern Australia, caused by climate change coupled with changes in the way that we manage our native forests. These fires, impacting some 28 million acres, are estimated to have killed or injured over 3 billion native animals, and damaged many ecosystems to the point where their recovery remains uncertain. And, amid highlighting the growing urgency for improved management and increased efforts to undertake ecological restoration across the Australian landscape, they rekindled the vigorous debate over a controversial topic in Australia—prescribed burning. Many of the areas that burned intensely in the summer 2019/2020 fires had recently undergone prescribed burning regimes in an effort to reduce fuel loads, a practice undertaken throughout many Australian ecosystems despite mounting evidence of its inadequacy at achieving safety outcomes and significantly deleterious impact on native biodiversity.

Contemporary prescribed burning is often undertaken by dropping incendiaries from aircraft, complemented by drip burning around the edges of the target area to be burnt to ensure fire boundaries are maintained. It is also typically undertaken in winter and spring, when weather conditions are most conducive to ensuring that fires do not become uncontrollable, at fire return intervals of seven years (studies suggest natural fire return intervals in most Western Australian ecosystems are in the decades or centuries). Unfortunately, the reality of this strategy means that large areas of remnant bushland are repeatedly incinerated from the outside inwards, often during peak flowering and breeding season for most species of native flora and fauna. For example, a catastrophic prescribed burn in one of southwest Western Australia’s most biodiverse regions in March 2019 transformed over 2200 acres of biodiverse woodland into a desolate, blackened ‘morgue’. However, in some regions, land managers are increasingly turning to the Traditional Owners of the land, Indigenous Australians, to understand how fire might be better managed.

Cool fire-stick burns such as this one in open savannah woodland in the North Kimberley, April 2019, promote pyrodiversity by creating complex matrices of burnt and unburnt habitat in the landscape. Photo: Adam Cross

Indigenous Australians have employed traditional approaches to fire use and management for tens of thousands of years, particularly in fire-prone ecosystems such as the monsoon tropical grassy savannah of the Kimberley. Every year, around 40% of the vast 420,000 km2 region can burn. In recent decades, driven both by recognition of the inadequacy of Western fire management strategies and by Native Title returning the management of Traditional Lands into the hands of Indigenous Australians, Indigenous fire management has returned to the Kimberley. While many prescribed burns in the region are still undertaken by dropping incendiaries from a helicopter, much greater focus is being placed upon the timing and spatial arrangement of burning. This ensures the landscape comprises a complex mosaic of different burn ages, providing suitable habitat for native species that often possess very different fire resilience strategies. Indigenous fire management centres around lighting fires in the late wet season (March–July) rather than in the late dry season (October–December), resulting in cooler fires that burn slowly and remove fuel for more intense fires later in the dry season. Often these fires are lit on foot, a traditional practice referred to as ‘firestick farming’.

Even when fire from cool, early wet-season fire-stick burns does intrude into sensitive habitats such as this outcropping of sandstone pavement, the impacts are typically patchy rather than resulting in entire outcrops burning. Photo: Adam Cross.

As an indication of how cool the fires started by traditional burning practices can be, one can often step over the fire front as it passes slowly through the Savannah grasses; fire intensity several orders of magnitude lower than dry season fires that can individually burn millions of hectares and may burn for weeks at a time in rugged, remote country not at all conducive to firefighting. And, crucially, cool burns lit on foot typically result in remarkable ‘pyrodiversity’: crosshatch patterns of fire scarring representing complex mosaics of different fire ages, fire sizes, and fire intensities. Individual fire areas from this approach are often tens of square kilometres or less, and don’t homogenise the landscape in the same manner as huge dry season fires.

Example of a sandstone outcrop habitat following the passage of a cool late wet season burn, showing the patchiness of fire impacts and illustrating how these habitats often act as areas of fire refugia. Photo: Adam Cross.

For Indigenous Australians, ‘Country’ is inseparable from the people who live within and upon it. Indigenous land management aims to maintain healthy Country through the practice of cultural lore and activities, and traditional approaches to healing Country are increasingly recognised as a profound form of ecological restoration. Such activities are holistic, also achieving cultural and community healing, and are not limited only to terrestrial ecosystems: Indigenous approaches to restoration have also markedly improved the outcomes of restoration in seagrass and other marine and near-coastal ecosystems.

Indigenous land management initiatives, including the highly successful Aboriginal Ranger Program, appear to be taking strides forward in appropriately managing Australia’s threatened ecosystems and biota where many other initiatives continue to flounder or fail. For example, in 2017 the Auditor General’s Conservation of Threatened Species Follow-up Audit examined whether progress had been made on a suite of recommendations made during an environmental audit in 2009. It found that progress by the State Government department tasked with managing Western Australia’s biodiversity had been “disappointing”, noting that the department has “considerable work to do” and will “continue to struggle to show… that scarce resources are being effectively targeted to conserve our world-renowned biodiversity”.

Blackened stumps and bare soil, all that remain of biodiverse forest in Southwest Australia following a prescribed burn near Albany, 2019. Though a different ecosystem in another region from the North Kimberley savannah, the significant ecological impacts of intense, aseasonal prescribed burning are clearly evident. Photo: Amanda Keesing.

In 2009, 601 Western Australian species were threatened with extinction and 37% of these had recovery plans (strategies for improving their conservation status) in place. By 2017, another 71 species had been placed in the threatened list and 55% of all threatened species had recovery plans. But, as the threats to our environment have increased, staffing and expenditure on conservation and threatened species management by the State Government has fallen. Fortunately, this contrasts with an increase in funding for Indigenous land management programs, with nearly $AUD 37 million ($USD 25.8 million) committed to develop new Indigenous Protected Areas between 2018 and 2023 and over $AUD 746 million ($USD 521.5 million) allocated to support Indigenous Ranger Programs until 2028. There are lessons to be learned by Australian land managers around the country from the success of returning traditional Indigenous land management approaches to areas like the Kimberley, as the 2022 State of the Environment Report implies. We need to find a mixture of modern ways with the old ways. We need to adjust, or completely change, the way we approach land management in Australia across the board: not only in fire management but in appropriate stocking levels, weed control, regenerative farming practices, sustainable mining, conservation, and the restoration of areas that have already been degraded or destroyed. Unlike the Kimberley, where we are lucky that so much remains so intact, so many other ecosystems around Australia are in increasingly dire need. Hopefully, with Indigenous Australians leading the way, there is still enough time to conserve or restore them before it is too late. 

The low flames from a cool fire-stick burn lick through the still-green savannah grasses in the North Kimberley, April 2019. Photo: Adam Cross

Australia’s amazing and vulnerable deserts – not as pristine as they look.

In this second report from arid Australia, James and Thibaud Aronson discuss the debated roles of fire, cattle and invasive mammals on the native fauna and flora.

To quote Gary Dinham, director of the Alice Springs Desert Park, “although the average annual rainfall in Alice Springs is just 270 mm, [9 in.], it’s erratic. For example, in 2009 the year’s total rainfall at Desert Park was 64 mm. In 2010, it was 990!”

Imagine, then, a vast region where almost no rain falls for several years, and then one year, a meter falls in two weeks, causing devastating floods. Despite the aridity, and the unpredictability, there are wooded areas in vast parts of inland Australia with annual rainfall comparable to that of Syria or Sudan! In fact,  there is such a remarkable diversity of trees and shrubs, and indeed such extensive savanna or woodland tree cover, that it makes perfect sense to speak of desert canopies occurring there. However, that stunning first impression does not reveal how much the ecosystems and landscapes have been disturbed, especially in the past two centuries. How? Through severely altered fire regimes, overgrazing by domestic and feral herbivores, open-pit mining, and outrageous numbers of intentional and accidental introductions of exotic species of all sorts that really shouldn’t be there.

Open Eucalypt woodland with spinifex grass (Triodia spp.) dominated undergrowth. Karijini National Park, Western Australia.

Open Eucalypt woodland with spinifex grass (Triodia spp.) dominated undergrowth. Karijini National Park, Western Australia.

Because of its inordinately high biomass, the Australian center burns – or gets burned – every year or every other year…. The 70 species of spinifex grasses present throughout the arid and semiarid areas are in fact some of the most flammable plants on the planet. But that’s just part of the story.

500 meters away from where the previous photo was taken, this spot had burned six months earlier. The Eucalypts display here  the unusual feature of branches resprouting high in a tree with a completely burnt trunk. What makes this possible in some trees – including the Mediterranean cork oak - is epicormic buds. Annuals are taking advantage of the nutrients released in the soil, and the spinifex will come back too, only that will take a little longer.

500 meters away from where the previous photo was taken, this spot had burned six months earlier. The Eucalypts display here the unusual feature of branches resprouting high in a tree with a completely burnt trunk. What makes this possible in some few trees – including the Mediterranean cork oak – is epicormic buds. Taking advantage of the pulse of nutrients released in the soil, annuals have germinated in profusion, and spinifex will come back too, a little slower.

Because European settlers stubbornly tried to import inappropriate farming and pastoral techniques into Australia’s arid center, with its poor soils and unpredictable rainfall, they overstocked and let their cattle roam essentially freely over vast areas. Under these conditions, certain grasses and shrubs are favored, and vegetation is much more fire-prone. this has led to a large increase in the frequency of monster fires, capable of burning vast areas within days or weeks.

Even today, most landowners with cattle in the outback burn their land every single year. Why? So as to reduce fuel load, as a matter of fact, in efforts – often unsuccessful, as we’ve just said – to reduce the risk of wildfires that might burn down their houses and other infrastructure. But they also are aiming to increase the amount of palatable grasses, including the introduced Buffel grass.

Buffel grass (Cenchrus ciliaris) by a river, showing the worst of its invasive capability, where it forms a blanket which crowns out all other understorey species under the canopy of red river gums (Euc. camaldulensis).

Buffel grass (Pennisetum cenchroides, more commonly known by its old name Cenchrus ciliaris) by a river, showing the worst of its invasive capability, crowding out all native understory species under the canopy of red river gums (Euc. camaldulensis). Hardey River, near Paraburdoo, Western Australia.

There is little doubt that this approach could be improved on, but the truly problematic point is whether or not the desert needs to burn. That debate ultimately is rooted in divergent interpretations of the past 100,000 years of Australia’s history.

It is generally agreed that humans arrived on the island continent approximately 50,000 years ago. What is unclear is what lasting impact the first immigrants had, and on what scale. The suggested date for their arrival roughly coincides with the extinction of all animal species weighing more than 100 kg, similar to what happened later in the Americas and even later in Madagascar. Therefore, some argue that humans must have driven the megafauna to extinction. Others say that Australia had been getting progressively hotter and drier for 20 to 50 thousand years prior to the arrival of humans, and that large animals could not cope with the new climate. If that’s true, at most the earliest Australians hunted out only tiny remnant populations of these large animals (including giant kangaroos, rhinoceros-sized wombats, a lizard twice the size of a Komodo dragon, giant turtles, marsupial lions, and some of the largest birds that ever lived on Earth).

Beaten only by the ostrich, the emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae) is the second largest living bird, standing as tall as an average person. Among the now extinct Australian megafauna was the flightless mihurung or thunder bird (Dromornis stirtoni), that was nearly twice the size of an emu and weighed half a ton!

Beaten only by the ostrich, the emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae) is the second largest living bird, standing as tall as an average person. However, it is small compared to the now extinct mihurung or thunder bird (Dromornis stirtoni), that was nearly twice its size and weighed half a ton!

Through the use of ‘fire-stick farming’ (the practice of setting fires in patches to stimulate new tender shoots on grasses and other plants, and thereby attract game), the Aborigines – according to some scholars – gradually transformed most of Australia’s landscapes from fire-sensitive thickets, woodlands, and forests, to spinifex grasslands and Eucalypt woodlands highly tolerant of this kind of fire regime.

Others counter that the earliest humans in Australia in fact stayed at low population densities until the arrival of Europeans and that their nomadic societies could not possibly have transformed landscapes at any meaningful scale. To date, no clear consensus has yet emerged.

What is beyond question is the enormous impact that Europeans have had since 1788, when the first English settlers drove in their tent pegs and set up corrals for their sheep and cattle.  The introduced livestock were the first animals with cloven hooves ever to walk on Australian soil. As a direct result, the biocrust, that is the beneficial communities of lichens, mosses, and bacteria which form on undisturbed soils in many arid lands, and indeed the top profiles of the soils themselves were quickly eliminated.

European settlers also cleared vast areas of land for grazing and crop lands, and introduced rabbits, cats, foxes, rats, mice, donkeys, camels, and other exotic animals  which have had horrific impact on small marsupials, birds, and reptiles of the island, not to mention the complex ecological networks and community dynamics in which those animals occurred. Sad to say, Australia has the worst record of any country for recent animal extinctions.

Cattle at a waterhole. Cockatoo Creek, Willare, Western Australia.

Unsupervised cattle at a waterhole. Cockatoo Creek, Willare, Western Australia.

Cleared and overgrazed land on a cattle station in Western Australia. The ribbon of woodland in the background provides a reference for what the whole area once looked like.

Cleared and overgrazed land on a cattle station in Western Australia. The ribbon of woodland in the background provides a reference for what the whole area once looked like.

Of the 60 mammal species that have gone extinct worldwide, in the last 200 years, 30 were Australian – and most inhabited the arid and semi-arid zone. Besides, a further 6 formerly widespread mammals are on the brink of extinction today, surviving only on handkerchief-sized, fenced off reserves or offshore islands inaccessible to feral cats and foxes.

While that is a terribly bleak legacy, promising steps are now being taken to limit the damage going forward, and ensure that the history of massive human-caused extinctions is not repeated. In our third and fourth blog posts from Australia we will discuss the obstacles to restoration, and then some of the encouraging endeavors underway.