The fiery curse of conservation
Land-use legislation has driven catastrophic bushfires in southeast Australia. Now is the time for Aboriginal people with the knowledge and desire to return their Country to health
It may feel unimaginable as the rain continues to fall, but southeast Australia also continues to face a bushfire crisis.
We saw this crisis in action in the devastating 2019/2020 Black Summer bushfires. Fires that burnt nearly 25 million hectares of bush, devastated peoples’ homes and livelihoods, killed or displaced an estimated 3 billion animals and had an estimated total cost of up to $AU73 billion.
Our team investigated the bushfire history of one of the worst hit areas during the Black Summer bushfires – Buchan, a town on Gunaikurnai Country in the east Gippsland region of Victoria.
Our research found that there were no catastrophic bushfires for almost a century until the mid-1970’s, following the establishment of Victoria’s 1970 Land Conservation Act.
This legislation established the Land Conservation Council in Victoria. Among its aims, the council sought to protect public land from fire.
Up until this time, farmers had sought to mimic Aboriginal burning practices by using frequent fires to promote grass for livestock. But the council’s approach led to stringent conditions on farmers’ fire practices.
Our research shows the amount of flammable trees and shrubs in the region subsequently exploded, and catastrophic bushfires became an issue in the Buchan area for the first time.
Cultural Burning and the overstocking
Aboriginal people make use of all kinds of vegetation, from closed forests to treeless grasslands, from freshwater to sea Country.
Each mob care for their Country according to their own laws and philosophies. The principal (but not only) tool for caring for Country is fire - a process now referred to as Cultural Burning.
The Victorian Traditional Owner Cultural Fire Strategy eloquently captures what Cultural Burning is:
“Cultural Burning is Right Fire, Right Time, Right Way and for the right (cultural) reasons according to Lore. There are different kinds of cultural fire practices guided by Lore applicable across Victoria’s Countries.”
The net effect of caring for Country is a diverse territory comprised of all the things people need for themselves or for trade.
It is not a homogeneous application of fire designed to only keep fuel loads low or to attract animals. Rather, it’s a sophisticated and diverse system of using fire dictated by an intimate and reciprocal relationship with Country.
Aboriginal care for Country, like most land care and management approaches, promotes a safe, productive and predictable world.
It is regulated by strict protocols derived from spiritual, cultural, and pragmatic underpinnings. It is intimate and small-scale, it occurs year-round and it is long-term.
Aboriginal care for Country allows for, and sustains, the occurrence of all types of vegetation on Country, from forests to grasslands.
Cultural Burning has both immediate and cumulative impacts on Country, like heterogeneous landscapes, increased biodiversity, less catastrophic bushfires, productive land and water systems as well as a safe home for people and other occupants of Country.
Settler farmers and open Country
Settler farmers in southeast Australia capitalised on the systematic, fine-grained and diverse set of ways Aboriginal people applied fire to Country.
Indeed, most agricultural areas in the southeast are on Country that was already open and grassy because of the systematic application of fire to care for Country over many millennia.
This open Country was deemed “desirable” land. Much of it was further cleared for agriculture, while “less desirable” land was essentially neglected or viewed as a source of timber.
These neglected areas have become woodier and, as a result, much more fire-prone. These catastrophic bushfires incinerate vegetation and topsoil layers resulting in post-fire sediment erosion.
In 2008, an inquest in to the impact of public land management practices on bushfires in Victoria (2008) by the Victorian government a number of local Buchan stakeholders were interviewed about the causes of bushfires in the region:
“In earlier times indigenous people used the fire stick as a management tool, burning the dry grass off, keeping the grassy areas fresh and ensuring a plentiful supply of wildlife — that was their food supply. These slow-burning fires, just creeping along, maintained the balance of the bush as they were done by custom at the right time of the year, which is autumn, winter and spring.”
“After Europeans arrived, the settlers followed the Aboriginal ways and the country was all open, rolling grassland. My father said it was paradise on earth. Orbost right through Gelantipy, Wulgulmerang, Omeo and all that country was rolling grassland, and the settlers came there because it was great for their cattle.”
Many settler farmers observed and mimicked the practice of burning by Aboriginal peoples.
They wanted the benefits of increased green shoots following the low-intensity burning of grasses to feed their livestock, as well as the protection that burning of ground fuels provided from bushfires in this perilously flammable environment.
In the previously mentioned inquest, local Buchan farmers submitted the following statements about settler burning of Country:
“After the limitations on these [Aboriginal] people, the settlers followed their ways and the country retained its grassland quality. Forestry Officers took over the responsibility of maintaining a balanced public land service.
“These men had a good understanding of the bush and did a very good management job. Then the regulations began to be more and more restrictive. Public land management and the responsibility of the Minister, have been evaded, over a long time.”
Land management practices
To understand how vegetation, fire and erosion have changed over the past 120 years, we analysed the pollen, charcoal and sediment characteristics of a sediment core from Tooculerdoyung Lagoon on the banks of the Snowy River – near where it joins the Buchan River.
Tooculerdoyung is a local Gunaikurnai word that translates as - “a point of river”.
The site is currently surrounded by eucalypt forest and lies in the centre of a well-known 1867 lithograph drawn by renowned realist painter Eugene von Guérard in which the landscape surrounding the site is depicted as an open forest.
Our data demonstrate that the area surrounding Tooculerdoyung Lagoon was an open grass and herb-dominated landscape, with a consistent low variability and low-intensity fire regime from the early 1900’s – shortly after the establishment of the town of Buchan in 1873 – until the 1970’s.
After 1970, the fire regime becomes more variable, with a shift to less frequent and higher-impact burning. This switch in fire regime is accompanied by a drastic increase in flammable trees and shrubs and the onset of post-fire soil erosion for the first time.
These changes reflect a switch from a frequent low-intensity fire regime mimicked by settlers that kept woody fuels low, to an infrequent high-intensity climate-driven fire regime resulting from a drastic increase in flammable woody fuels.
Local people in the Buchan area blame this shift in the fire regime on the banning of settler mimicry burning which has created the conditions in which catastrophic bushfires could occur.
In the submission to the inquiry into the impact of public land management practices on bushfires in Victoria, local Buchan residents submitted the following statement:
“In our area, it was 35 years ago when the use of the burnt areas for cattle grazing was stopped… That happened in about 1970, and in fact it was when the Land Conservation Council first started that it stopped cattle grazing and took the runs off us in our area.
“That is when the demise of all this started happening. The older ones who are still around will still tell you that one day they will burn us out, because there is no management in the bush anymore as far as fire suppression goes, and, really, it is coming true.”
A call to action
We implore land management agencies to rethink the way Country is perceived and cared for. Country needs people and the neglect of our forests is destroying them.
Aboriginal people hold the knowledge, connection and desire to return health to their Country and they must be supported to do so.
The prolonged neglect of southeast Australian forests under the guise of wilderness-inspired conservation has created a situation in which our forests carry dangerous levels of fuel. This dangerous fuel load creates the conditions in which climate-driven bushfires become megafires, fires that have devastating impacts on people and Country.
Centralised land management approaches have failed.
It is time to empower the local communities who depend on and are connected to these landscapes to take the lead in creating a safe and healthy environment for all.
This article was updated on 20 March 2023 and 9 December 2022.
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