This essay is the first of a series of planned reports discussing the Australian landscape and its natural environment and how it has become significantly impoverished especially in recent years.
A land depleted of its natural heritage
After more than a half a century of exploring Australia to identify the best of its natural heritage, I must now reluctantly conclude that, despite the best efforts of conservationists and others determined to leave the world a better place for our grandchildren, we have failed. Apart from the legacy of a world depleted of resources (their stolen inheritance), we are bequeathing them a world overpopulated by people and with a dramatically impoverished natural and cultural heritage.
Fewer than 0.01% of Australians would have seen as much of the Australian continent as I have over the past quarter century. Even fewer would have been assessing the quality of the natural environment as closely or as critically as I have. My observations lead me to reluctantly conclude that my grandchildren will inherit a very impoverished environment.
All my life I have been interested in the environment. It began with farm holidays as a kid. It was nurtured by my love of the bush and was developed through scouting, through travel as a student at Agricultural College specifically looking at land management, and then while traversing half a million miles to organize Rural Youth clubs throughout Queensland. I have spent my last 43 years in the voluntary conservation movement including the last quarter of a century leading GO BUSH Safaris which explored natural areas and World Heritage sites in every state of Australia. It has been a wonderful adventurous life that has allowed me so see so much of the Australian continent and assess the quality of its many environments.
Unlike politicians and the media that prefer to measure progress and public welfare in monetary economic terms, in this series of essays I propose to measure the values of our landscape and how it has become impoverished.
Estate agents proclaim “Position! Position! Position!” as fundamental to the pricing of real estate. However economic rationalists don’t consider the landscape or its contents to have any value unless it is a commodity to be sold. Like the buyers of real estate, I believe that the landscape and all it contains has an enormous value. These values need to be respected and properly considered. The Australian natural environment has seriously suffered in ways that have gone largely uncommented on and disregarded for far too long.
Having already experienced many of the best natural areas of the continent by 1988, I craved to see still more, particularly of the best natural areas that I had only heard or read about. That led me to establish my own business, GO BUSH Safaris, to explore still more particularly those areas that were being touted as having World Heritage qualities. From 1988 to 2010 my travels have taken me far and wide across the continent from Kosciusko to the Kimberley from Torres Strait to Tasmania, from Lord Howe Island to Kakadu and countless points between. My travels have also taken me to every continent except Antarctica. I have experienced some great adventures and have been privileged to travel with many wonderful people and I have enjoyed a lifestyle that would be the envy of most even though it kept me away from home about 250 days a year. It has also allowed me to monitor the environmental quality of the places I visited over the period and draw several conclusions.
Australia is a land rapidly losing its wildlife. While the political focus has been on the rarer animal species, particularly those with sex appeal that are clearly endangered, most Australians are failing to notice that even our more common species are becoming much rarer. The laugh of the Kookaburra is now nowhere near as common; the once widespread raptor in Australia, the Australian Kestrel, is so much rarer. I could go on with the list of observations and indeed I will in my next article on the depletion of wildlife. In Australia, except for kangaroos, birds have traditionally been the most visible form of wildlife and certainly their songs and calls draw them to our attention. However the populations of most bird species have been shrinking dramatically over the past 25 years. There have been exceptions, particularly the among some species that are plain black, plain white or black and white such as crows, magpies, butcherbirds and mudlarks.
Most native mammal species are also in decline. This is probably better documented though than the birds because of our anthropocentric interest in other mammals. However, the decline of populations of native reptile and fish species is much more dramatic with fewer people knowing or caring about the fate of these animals. If the human population is largely unaware of the fate of these vertebrate animals, then they have even less concern for the massive number of invertebrates.
Coincidental with this decline of the wildlife has been the dramatic changes in the landscape and the progressive loss of soil and vegetation.
Because most Australians are urban dwellers they have been oblivious to the scale an extent of land clearing across the continent. While our method of farming requires clearing for crop land, there has been little discrimination in determining what land needed to be cleared. Steep land shouldn’t be cleared but far too much was with disastrous and self-exacerbating consequences. This is contributing not only to soil erosion on the hills, but a loss of water quality in our streams and in some cases, in dramatically increased salinity. Then there has been the most ill-advised land clearing carried out in marginally semi-arid lands. The sum total of the land clearing has left the nation poorer because of the desire of some landholders to improve the productivity of their land.
I was concluding a seventeen-day safari through Outback Queensland on 23 September 2009 when we were overtaken by a dust storm. That dramatic and well documented dust storm carried 18 millions tonnes of top soil from the Channel Country and other places we had just been and dumped most of it at sea. The value of 18 million tonnes of top-soil is incalculable. Soil formation takes decades or centuries and is almost a finite commodity. Soil along with water, air and biodiversity is the very basis of life on earth. It is the substance that produces the source of our food and fibre. Top-soil is appropriately named because as well as comprising the upper layer, it also contains the most nutrients and soil biota on which plant life is dependent. Every millimetre of top-soil is more precocious than the millimetre of soil (if any) lying beneath it.
The loss of such a vast quantity of Australian top-soil in just one storm was an environmental disaster on a scale that should be compared with the 2010 oil well blow-out in the Mexican Gulf. The value of this soil that should have been producing plants for centuries to come is worth much more than the value of many of our mineral exports.
I was waiting to see the political reaction. There was not a word I heard from any Federal politician about this national tragedy. They were presumably passing responsibility to their state political colleagues. In the end there was no response from any politician other than the Queensland Deputy Premier who said that the stringent water regulations prevailing in South East Queensland would be relaxed to allow people to wash the dust off their cars.
With such indifference to this environmental disaster prevailing, it isn’t surprising that politicians would also be almost oblivious to Australia becoming increasingly a land of alien species. Of course there was a dramatic introduction of alien species with the arrival of the First Fleet. Since then non-Aboriginal Australians have been dependent on alien introductions to provide almost every source of food and fibre we consume. This includes all of our meat except for fish, almost all of our fruit and vegetables and all of our fabric fibres. Since we imported domestic animals and crops as the basis of our survival, few people questioned the introduction of non domestic animals or even allowing domestic animals like goats, pigs, cats, camels, donkeys, horses, buffalo, etc. to run feral across the landscape. To these were added animals never intended to be domesticated such as rabbits, cats and later cane toads. Then there were the animals that were never intended to be introduced. They just arrived here, adapted and spread across the face of the continent to change the ecology in many adverse ways. Cockroaches, some flies and spiders, house mice, black rats and some garden earth-worms are just some unintended arrivals. However the spread of these aliens still continues and they take over an ever-increasing area at a significant environmental cost as the spread of the cane toad epitomises.
Despite the impact of introduced animals on the ecology and the landscape, the combined impact of introduced plants is even greater. Although we are aware of the impact of some scourges such as the cactus that at one stage in the early 20th century was expanding its territory at the rate of an acre per minute, we are still introducing and releasing other plant species and allowing them to go feral. The list is almost endless. Nasty ones such as lantana and mimosa and rubber vine get the headlines but the number of alien grasses represents a greater impact on the ecology. Some such as buffel grass crowd out and smother native vegetation. Other grasses exacerbate the impact of fire on the ecology. The net effect of these many plant introductions has been to transform the landscape even further and while they may have been beneficial to some introduced species, many have had a devastating impact on the natural ecosystems.
More than just feral plants and animals have found their way into the Australian environment. Many pathogens and diseases have unintentionally arrived here. While quarantine measures try to stop further introductions of pathogens affecting our ecology, for many species the door was closed too late.
The transformation of our rivers and waterways following early land clearing was most dramatic. In a few short years rivers such as the Clarence and Richmond silted up so severely that ships could no longer navigate the once deep waterways to places such as Grafton and Lismore. Such changes continue but less dramatically. The problem now though is less about keeping silt out of our rivers than getting more of the natural flow back into them.
I also plan to elaborate on other ways in which our landscape has become impoverished in forthcoming essays and I need to deal with the ways in which our grandchildren are going to inherit a much impoverished landscape because of the practices pursued over the past century (and particularly the latter part) that have transformed it.
In forthcoming papers I will expand on my extensive observations on Australia’s natural landscape.