Article – A Modern Outback: nature, people and the future of remote Australia

11 October 2014
Barry Traill
The Australian

IT is as the legends have it: red, vast, and there are very few people in it. But the Outback is also astonishingly varied, alternately lush and bountiful and harsh and ­inhospitable. There are red sand-dunes dotted with hummocks of spinifex grass, barramundi nosing along a tropical waterhole lined with paperbarks, dust rising from cattle on a brown plain, and mist rising in the dawn light in a Cape York rainforest.

Our remote lands are a deep part of our Australian identity, part of the birthright of being on the island continent. It is the space we can choose to visit, or to reside in for a year or a decade, far from a suburban life.
On an increasingly crowded planet this is something few other countries can give their citizens. But do we understand this gift? Can we get beyond the ­mythology?
To date, the concept of ‘‘the Outback’’ has sometimes been deliberately, and delightfully, vague. In Australian myth it is often seen as somewhere else, somewhere more remote, never quite exactly here or there. The residents are frequently described in terms tinged with nostalgia — its stockmen and Aboriginal people are somehow from a time past, and are not related to a modern world.
But the Outback is a real piece of bush, water, soil and rock, and it is a very tangible piece of Australia, with real people living in its spaces. It covers an enormous swathe of land, more than 70 per cent of the continent — the arid country of the centre and west and the tropical savannas, wetlands and rainforests of northern Australia.
The Outback stands out as one of the great natural places globally, a place where nature remains in abundance; a landscape where the bush still stands, where the rivers still flow and where wildlife still moves as it always has to find food and shelter in a tough ­environment.
Importantly, it’s also a modern landscape. The stockmen and Aboriginal rangers are likelier to use helicopters than ­horses to traverse their country. They use laptops and satellites to check for fires and the state of water tanks in distant paddocks.
The enterprises of the great stations now include carbon-farming and tourism enterprises as well as cattle and sheep.
There are especially magical, mysterious, spectacular places in the Outback — Kakadu, Uluru, the Kimberley — icons that draw visitors from the nation and ­beyond.
But these are parts of a whole, places embedded within a vast natural landscape, and dependent on the greater landscape for their ecological health. It’s essential that we think about the Outback as an entire and modern whole because its varied landscapes now face similar problems.
Many of its communities have urgent needs for jobs and stronger local economies. The needed solutions for conservation and development can be powerfully applied to the whole of our remote lands.
The necessary starting point for thinking about the outback is its people. In an increasingly crowded world part of what makes this geographical region special is that it has relatively few people living in it. Of Australia’s population of 24 million, less than 5 per cent live within the 70 per cent of the continent that is the Outback, the half- billion square kilometres of the centre, west and north.
Rapid industrialisation and population growth have destroyed many of the world’s natural wonders. The nature of the Outback, however, has remained largely intact through more than 50,000 plus years of human occupation and management. Substantial parts of the Outback, in fact, need more people, not fewer, living in and actively managing the land if it is to remain healthy.
The Outback is at a crossroads economically and environmentally. Social and economic development is highly dependent on maintaining the natural health of the Outback. The condition of many landscapes and wildlife species in the Outback is dependent on active human management.
It is possible, and Australia now faces the challenge and the opportunity, to create a modern Outback that depends on nature, which in turn supports people, jobs and regional economies.
ONLY a small number of vast natural landscapes remain on Earth. These are the wild landscapes where ecological processes function normally and movements of wildlife remain largely, or wholly, unfettered by the fragmentation of habitats. These are the places that are likely to remain the strongholds for wildlife. These few places include the wildlands of the Amazon basin; the boreal forests and tundra of far northern America and Siberia; the Sahara Desert, and our Outback.
In it you will find the most intact tropical savanna on earth, covering nearly two million square kilometres across northern Australia. Its three million square kilometres of deserts are among the least disturbed in the world and, at 160,000sq km, the Great Western Woodlands in the southwest, around Kalgoorlie, is the largest remaining temperate woodland.
But the intact nature and low population hides an apparently perverse problem. One of the great threats to its nature is now not too many people but not enough people — people living in and on the country and actively managing it.
From the 1950s onwards the Aboriginal people of the Gibson and Great Sandy deserts, the Pintupi, the Martu and the Walmajarri, progressively left their country, moving to more centralised settlements on the desert fringes, to cattle stations, missions and government-run communities. Most people had moved out of the deserts by the end of the 60s.
But it was only 30 years ago that the last desert people came into contact with modern Australia. The ‘‘Pintupi Nine’’, a family of two co-wives and their seven children, decided to come in from the desert in 1984.
What was noticed by the desert people during the time of their merging with mainstream Australia were major alterations in the wildlife and country during their lives.
In the deserts, the areas of the Outback with apparently the least impact from modern world changes, the numbers of some ­native wildlife plummeted in the 20th century, particularly some of the smaller mammals.
These included bilbies, the desert bandicoot that has risen to fame in recent years as a replacement for the Easter bunny. Also vanishing from many areas were small desert wallabies — the burrowing bettong and ­rufous hare-wallaby. Some of the native mammals disappeared entirely from our deserts.
Others have held on but only in greatly reduced numbers and ­locations.
The declines are ongoing. The tropical savannas of the north have been a hot spot for major losses of native mammals and birds in the past decade.
A range of causes are at play in these losses. But people are a core part of the needs for managing the land. In part the mutual connection between people and country is 50,000 years old, and in part threats that have arisen since Eur­opeans arrived.
Fire is the ancient connection. Practices varied from place to place, but the drier parts of the Australian landscape were burned in particular and often in very nuanced ways by Aboriginal clans. The general pattern was to have smaller fires at times of the year, including when the vegetation was moist, and large wildfires were rare. The smaller fires created a patchwork of bush plants of different ages. This mosaic provided food and homes for different animals such as the bilby and dozens of other species.
Where the deserts and savannas have been left unmanaged Outback fires have tended to get bigger and more intense. Sometimes they ignite naturally from lightning strikes, and sometimes by unguided people in the driest seasons. These fires can now burn huge areas intensely, dramatically altering the balance in the bush.
In the Aboriginal Martu lands of the desert, the average size of fires in the 50s was 60ha. By the 80s, across lands now empty of its custodians, the average fire had grown to cover 50,000ha. While some wildlife prefer such fire-rich country, others fail to find food or shelter over wide fire-scarred areas and struggle to ­survive.
The second more recent threats came with the partner colonists of Europeans: feral animals. The Outback now has a rich collection of introduced animals gone wild in the bush — feral cattle, water buffalo, pigs, donkeys, ­horses, camels, rabbits and goats — all of which eat native plants. Feral cats and foxes hunt small ­native animals, which are ill-adapted to dealing with the new predators. The infamous cane toad poisons quolls and goannas seeking an easy meal of a toad, with devastating consequences.
The connection between people and these ferals varies across the landscape. In some areas there is effective control, at least of the larger animals such as water buffalo.
In others, ferals reign uncontrolled. In deserts, hunting by Aboriginal people of feral animals for food would have assisted in keeping numbers down. Feral cats, in particular, were a favourite food of desert people, and are relatively easy to track and run down in sandy country.
We know now that to maintain wildlife in the landscape, to keep ecosystems healthy in the Outback, we need active land management. The landscapes of much of the Outback need more people living and working on them to thwart the series of deeply entrenched threats.
AT the most basic level, active land management is required in all the Outback. We need to manage fire, control feral animals and noxious weeds, and implement conservation programs that maintain wildlife, protect the general health of the environment.
This matters for people and dev­elopment across the landscape as a whole as the condition of the land underpins much of the key enterprises of the region — tourism, pastoralism, fishing and emerging enterprises such as carbon farming. The Outback and its residents face many social, economic and environmental challenges, largely due to patchy social and economic foundations.
Aside from Darwin, all the political centres that control the Outback are to its south and east. In part, the Outback operates as a colony from which natural ­resources are exploited and usually exported elsewhere for processing. Mining and government services dominate its overall economic output. Tourism, fishing, ­pastoralism, conservation and indigenous art industries are more dispersed and support more communities and individuals outside of the cities and major towns.
However, the trend for decades now has been towards fewer people in many landscapes, not more. National policies and economies during the past 150 years have led to altered patterns of people on the land. Much of the Outback now has fewer people inhabiting and actively managing the land than at any time in the past 50,000 years. Few people share the responsibility of managing the millions of square kilometres of country. Because too few people are managing these lands, parts of the landscape are faltering.
Fundamental to protecting its wildlife and communities is establishing a modern Outback that values and respects its nature.
From its unsettled present-day position, this unique region has a range of potential futures. These may be realised by doing nothing, or by deliberate choice.
But this choice is real and urgent, and to date it has been neglected. In the absence of deliberate planning, ad hoc changes are chipping away at what gives the Outback its distinctly Australian character.
It is also undermining opportunities for future generations to choose a sustainable future.
One possible future — a ‘‘do nothing’’ or business-as-usual approach with patchy engagement and little strategic investment — would risk the continued decline of one of our true national icons.
It also would reduce the Outback’s importance to the national economy and lead to many regions having failing communities. It also would diminish its international significance.
Another imagined future is to treat the Outback as a land ripe for unfettered development. It would divide the landscape into exploited and conserved (or neglected) sectors, and would seek to transform the areas by creating an economy highly reliant on intensive agriculture and mining.
It would seek to overcome logistical and environmental constraints of such industrialisation through government subsidies. This may create brief economic growth in a few districts. However, in the long term this approach would cause irredeemable loss to those values that make the Outback so distinctive and important.
There is a different future that instead recognises the extra­ordinary existing inherent value in the Outback, and supports development that adapts to and works within the environmental and other constraints of remote and dry lands.
This approach recognises that the Outback must pay its way and that it is in the national interest to further develop some of its areas, but recognises that the scale of such efforts needs to be carefully managed. It should, above all else, be sustainable, without damaging the broader ecological health that defines and underpins the area.
Such development should also contribute more specifically to local communities and to broader regional land management, providing the longer-term security for land management activities to grow and function effectively.
SUCH changes are already happening in many districts. More than 50 million hectares — an area more than twice the size of the state of Victoria — are now managed and protected in Indigenous Protected Areas.
These are parks on Aboriginal-owned lands managed by Abor­iginal ranger groups using a combination of modern and ­traditional knowledge and techniques.
The growth of Indigenous Protected Areas during the past 10 years, and their management for the benefit of local communities and all Australians, has been one of the success stories in the environmental and economic development of remote Australia.
In substantial parts of the Outback, some pastoral leases are no longer commercially viable as grazing enterprises.
However, some existing leaseholders and new owners — conservation organisations, mining companies, Aboriginal communities, tourism operators, and individuals — are using the lands for tourism, carbon farming and conservation, which provide better land management and stronger economies in some districts.
These activities have an ambiguous legal foundation, as they occur under leases that mandate use for grazing operations. Changes in the leases are needed to enable the development of jobs, local economies and conservation benefits on a much greater scale.
Much in the old Outback has stagnated during the course of decades of general disregard. There is now a compelling opportunity for the modern Outback — the future Outback — to be shaped more deliberately and thoughtfully. It represents one of Australia’s greatest conservation and development opportunities.
Those best placed to lead this creation are the people who live in, value and actively care for the immense landscape. Connecting, supporting and resourcing these stewards, indigenous and non-­indigenous, provides the best ­opportunity to protect Australia’s largest natural wonder for forevermore. Such a process must involve a dialogue. The first in the Outback Papers — The Modern Outback: Nature, People and the Future of Remote Australia — seeks to contribute to that dialogue and to encourage Australians to consider the heart of Australia and how its future will be crafted.
The Outback faces a range of potential prospects. It is imper­ative for Australia, and the world as a whole, that a positive future is crafted for our beautiful heartland.
At a glance.
Courtesy of The Australian