GRASSROOTS INPUT TO ENVIRONMENTAL DEBATES
Fire in the Kimberley – November 2005
This is a three-part release triggered by recent local events:
- Thousands of square kilometers of the Kimberley once again affected by unmanaged fire
- Local people noticing large-scale environmental change
- Ministerial instruction to review environmental aspects of fire in the Kimberley and interior of the State of Western Australia
PART I is a statement by Kachana Pastoral Company on fire;
PART II is the Kachana Pastoral Company response to:
Fire in the Kimberley and Inland Regions of WA - Issues Paper of October 2005;
PART III is the Kachana Pastoral Company report on the “Fire Meeting” convened in Kununurra 09.11.2005;
Kachana Pastoral Company Stance on FIRE November 2005
Being closely acquainted with certain upper-river rainfall-catchment areas of the Kimberley Region since 1985 we observe three disturbing trends:
- A net loss of carbon out of the region
- A net loss of soil out of the region
- And with these a net loss of biodiversity in the region
Observed factors that seem to compound these trends can be grouped into three categories:
- Existing laws (regardless of how appropriate or inappropriate they may be) that are being blatantly disregarded by a certain portion of the community
- Law enforcers are not adequately empowered to act on information given to them
- Largely reactive community focus' on singular issues (fire, erosion, flooding, drought, cane-toads, salinity, siltation, loss of biodiversity, etc.... rather than on broader positive out-comes e.g. healthy productive land and river-systems; regional landscape goals; etc)
- Lacking effective communication between those making the laws, those who could be enforcing them and those on the ground who are directly involved in creating the results we see.
- Low levels of community and department awareness of how landscapes actually function (beyond theory and/or special interest areas)
- Insufficient practical education and training for those who actually engage in the day-to-day activities that directly impact our landscapes
- Insufficient funds for large-scale implementation of fire-control measures towards the end of the dry season
- Lack of funding for exploring and implementing wild-fire mitigation strategies during the wet-season
- Insufficient coordination between various bodies that do have access to existing funds
- Lack of recognition and focus on future financial implications if current trends continue
- Termination of wet-season burning which has lead to new and larger fire patterns rendering much local “traditional knowledge & experience” obsolete and worthless...
- A few decades of new fire-patterns will modify any landscape and thus impact bio-diversity: Once new and "exotic" types of habitat are created, native species that cannot adapt are either displaced or simply begin to disappear... (Either way they are no longer there to perform the specific functions they were designed to perform.)
- The relatively rapid removal of thousands of herbivores (cattle, sheep, donkeys, etc.) off large tracts of country in recent decades...
Regardless of whether the animals were thin or fat; regardless of whether these animals made money or cost money; regardless of whether soil was being built, being lost or being shifted; regardless of whether the situation was politically, socially or environmentally desirable or not... one fact is obvious to those who think about it:
These thousands of animals were cycling thousands of tons of vegetation each year (eating, digesting, excreting)... Billions of plants simply do not stop growing from one season to the next when the animals that eat or trample them are suddenly removed...
Each individual plant will continue to grow in line with it's genetic potential... like humans once they reach old age they become senescent, die and dry out unless eaten or buried...
The chances are that in the Kimberley climate also many perennial plants (if they are not adequately pruned) will also become reasonably dry not long after the wet-season stops... (Stop watering and cutting your lawn and watch what happens throughout the year!)
Carbon, that in healthy functional landscapes is a vital natural asset, can now be construed to be a liability...
This is like saying: “Money in our bank-account that we have not spent this year should be thrown away...” It is the mindset that runs rife within many modern bureaucracies: “Burn up the allocated funds or you will not get as much to play with next year.”
Nature works a little differently; it tells us:
- Use your carbon or lose it…
- Reinvest your carbon and you can remain productive...
- Learn to live off the interest of your natural asset-base and then you do not need to deplete your resources...
Conclusion to part I:
In the Kimberley region, (with landscape health being as poor as it is now in many unmanaged or "under utilized" areas,) it really does no longer matter if it is arson or lightning that provides the spark that ignites our carbon. Either will continue to take our region in the direction of environmental bankruptcy.
As a committed local land-manager I therefore urge the powers that be to consider a change of focus: A focus on how our landscapes are to function if we wish for people in this region to have economic stability.
The long-term economic success of this region hinges on informed stakeholders making ecologically sound decisions that have genuine community support.
Fire in the Kimberley and Inland Regions of WA — Issue Paper; October 2005
Chris Henggeler responds on behalf of Kachana Pastoral Company
You can find the original issue paper here.
Today we have a situation where land-managers all over the planet can communicate and compare information, notes and results directly.
Do we really need to research and debate what others have already tested?
Can’t we just get on with taking on board what works for other land-managers and then modify it to suit our own particular situation?
(Remember the chicken and the pig that were to start up a food outlet:
One was to supply the eggs and the other the bacon…
Supplying eggs is an involvement…
Supplying bacon is a commitment… ?)
This response is frank. It is intended to represent the vested interest of direct stakeholders of the region (those individuals that arguably have deep ties to the region and who tend to be most immediately affected by NRM legislation and decisions) …
- The people who are born and grow up here
- The people who choose to live and to die here
- The people who come here to live and have invested more than $500’000 in the region
- The people who live here longer than ten years and invest the bulk of their time and income in this region
By this definition the “egg-suppliers” could be seen to be:
- Those that earn a return on capital investment but take it out of the region
- Those who earn salaries and invest outside the region
- Those from outside the region who earn salaries to provide services within the region
- Those who provide jobs in businesses and industries that cannot be sustained
- Those tax-earners in other parts of the nation whose earnings end up turning over in our local economy for a while
Those of us who supply the “bacon” primarily need to see better visible and scientifically measurable outcomes on the ground: up-stream in our water-catchments and nature/water reserves; downstream where we tend to find the hubs of social and commercial activity…
We are however very much aware of the need to work together with the “egg-suppliers”…
After study of ‘Fire in the Kimberley and Inland Regions of WA Issues Paper of October 2005’, we feel that the Western Australian Minister for the Environment may well get exactly what he/she asked for and what we pay for…
- More stimulated debate
- More generation of ideas
- More advice on environmental impacts
After 20 years of attending local meetings, workshops, discussions etc, planned, organized, run and stacked largely by “egg suppliers” (people who in their professional capacity get paid to worry about issues), all I see is more worry, talk and data… while outnumbered “bacon providers” listen and obey in the belief that this is the best that science can offer.
If anything the “Peter Andrews Story” screened on ABC earlier this year highlights the need to compliment existing academically driven research with practical outcome focused research. (See: http://www.abc.net.au/austory/content/2005/s1388590.htm )
It is my observation on the three continents I have lived on that people out in the field that face environmental challenges on a day-to-day basis have sufficient knowledge and innovative ideas at their disposal to begin implementing radical turn-around in deteriorating landscapes if given appropriate incentives to do so.
Many of the issues listed in the paper are highly pertinent… (We need to heed them…)
Many are not… (These distract us.)
Some are based on flawed thinking or on poor science… (These are misleading.)
It is however not our intention to pull apart a well meant effort… much of which needs to be acted upon at some stage…
We simply question the reasoning behind pushing for more of the same, when a different line of reasoning coupled with the implementation of new scientific knowledge can bring about more promising outcomes than current conventional wisdom has delivered. We invite dedicated citizens to visit and spend some time on: www.ManagingWholes.com rather than focus on issues that could largely be avoided in the first place.
Conclusion to part II:
We are by no means saying fire does not have a role…
We are not saying we can ignore it…
We simply believe that sound NRM is comparable to sound business practice. The primary focus of any management needs to be on “production” outcomes (e.g.: healthy productive land with high levels of biodiversity and reliable sources of perennially flowing water). We cannot support the current focus on “fault-finding” (weeds, fire, pests, etc.).
Should we perhaps also be paying “bacon-providers” for their time to attend meetings where decisions are made that impact our very future?
With reference to:
- Kachana Pastoral Company stance on fire (Part I; above)
- KPC response to Fire in the Kimberley and Inland Regions of WA Issues Paper; October 2005 (Part II; above)
- Modern pastoralism has the ability to make soil a renewable resource;
- Looking beyond conventional Pastoralism (February 2005)
Please find below a report on the “Fire Meeting” that convened in Kununurra, Wednesday 09.11.2005
About 27 people were present these included:
- Two from the media
- 13 that were there at the expense of the tax-earner
- 7 who paid for their time to be there out of their own pocket
- Not sure about the other five?
Given that the topic was "Fire in the Kimberley", it needs to be noted that key players were absent i.e. many of those who actually ignite the fires that are managed and all those who light the fires that run wild. (Even without conclusive scientific evidence it is safe to say that the latter are responsible for most of the atmospheric pollution, environmental damage and costs related to fire in the Kimberley.)
To seed debate maps of fire-scarring were shown: there was mention of “areas burned”, “number of fires lit” (including incendiary capsules), “number of fires that burned” with reference to time of year...
Not clear were actual amounts of biomass lost; whether or not the land on which biomass was exhausted into the atmosphere and ashes & charcoal washed downstream is in a position to replace this biomass, and if so within what time frame...
A bit like discussing fuel consumption on a neighbouring cattle-station that has one grader, three utes, four catchers, one town-car, three trucks, two generators, one welder, one lawn mower, one chainsaw, one whipper-snipper, two quads, four motor-bikes, one tractor, and a few engine driven monos.... without access to this year’s budget and information on fuel type and consumption of individual engines and planned annual running-time and which ones are still in working order…
The meeting itself however was well conducted…
People were given a chance to have their say and they were listened to…
Frustration was evident, but there was no animosity…
Ideas and information were exchanged and there was much debate…
As a citizen who wants to know how tax-money is being spent it was indeed frustrating to see a group of such dedicated, knowledgeable and highly qualified people "all dressed up and no place to go" simply because key players were not there.
Equally frustrating was the reactive nature of the whole process:
Why can NRM not simply focus on production outcomes (e.g.: healthy productive land with high levels of biodiversity and reliable sources of perennially flowing water)?
Why are we forever being told to focus on fault-finding (weeds, fire, pests, etc.). ?
It is becoming increasingly obvious to me that cutting-edge pastoralism in this country is now well ahead of our publicly funded bureaucracies in its NRM approach, knowledge and practices.
Managers of any commercially viable pastoral proposition know that their primary production is directly tied to the productivity of their soils and that relationships exist between the way the animals are managed, the vegetation that grows and the productivity of the soil that support it: in short we do our best to manage solar-energy and rain-water intake to maximise the health and productivity of our soils whilst animals are both the tool to do this as well as the measure of our effectiveness.
(If our efforts fall short of reaching these outcomes, it is seldom only due to a lack of understanding on the part of the land managers; too often we find social and financial constraints to be the limiting factors.) People in Australia consciously began to put this sort of thinking into practice in the early to mid nineties... RCS and Holistic Management are major proponents in the evolution of this knowledge...
Yet come to a meeting in Kununurra late 2005 and the public are still debating wrecks of past centuries and concluding: “cattle destroy land”, “these soils evolved with fire”, etc. ...
Conclusion to part III:
To the “bacon providers” (See: Part II above) my advice is that for the time being there are only three reasons to have representation at such meetings:
- So that we do not get surprised by new legislation
- To help public and official agency sentiment on NRM take the leap from “unconscious incompetence” to “conscious incompetence”
- To learn to become more effective communicators
To those who agree with the sentiment expressed by one representative of CALM:
“What we have been doing is failing...”
I wish to quote a piece of North American Aboriginal Wisdom: “When you discover that the horse you are riding is dead, the best strategy is to dismount.”
Then perhaps take a deep breath and consider joining us “bacon providers” at our level of “conscious incompetence” in the quest for “conscious competence” and more positive NRM outcomes out there in the real world.
The tribal wisdom of the Dakota Indians, passed on from generation to generation, says that, “When you discover that you are riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount.”
However, in government, education, and in corporations, more advanced strategies are often employed in such situations, such as:
- Buying a stronger whip.
- Changing riders.
- Appointing a committee to study the horse.
- Visiting other countries to see how other cultures ride dead horses.
- Lowering the standards so that dead horses can be included.
- Reclassifying the dead horse as living-impaired.
- Hiring outside contractors to ride the dead horse.
- Harnessing several dead horses together to increase speed.
- Providing additional funding and/or training to increase dead horse's performance.
- Doing a productivity study to see if lighter riders would improve the dead horse's performance.
- Declaring that as the dead horse does not have to be fed, it is less costly, carries lower overhead, and therefore contributes substantially more to the bottom line of the economy than do some other horses.
- Rewriting the expected performance requirements for all horses.
- Promoting the dead horse to a supervisory position.
For the record: Chris Henggeler’s input at the meeting:
Managing landscapes reminds me very much of flying an aircraft:
“Hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror…” (… though of course not if you enjoy flying…)
Once air-borne, if I as a pilot mess up… The chances are that I, as well as others may die.
If I do manage to walk away from a situation caused by my negligence, there certainly is no paid “stress-leave”…
When NRM makes a mess of things it can sometimes take generations for people to notice…
The result however is similar: Death - Only it is often less dramatic or less obvious to us…
It can even happen over centuries: individual-by-individual species-by-species until we coin terms for it like “loss of biodiversity”, “desertification”…
Or it can happen rapidly: viable populations get wiped out and we coin terms for it like “act of God”, “natural disaster”, “bio-terror”, “negligence”…
Our landscapes are far more complex than many of us like to believe…
They need to be… they were designed that way:
“Stability through diversity and complexity”…
Simple to manage and take advantage of when healthy but very easy to wreck if we lean for too long on the wrong leaver(s)…
Then things quickly become complicated …
That is when cabin-crew and passengers begin to take note…
If the situation continues to deteriorate head-office and Air-Traffic Control become involved…
All very disconcerting stuff if you are one of the pilots and if from what you can see in front of you, the real accident is still about to happen…
To stick with this analogy:
This meeting was called by the “Department of Aviation” to debate the specifics of “controlling an engine-fire”…
My message as one of the few pilots with 20 years of local knowledge is that we need to first look out ahead through the cockpit windscreen … to re-assess priorities as they stand today…
I feel that some of the horses have bolted… So have some of the pilots…
Now the place is swarming with officials of every description…
What do we wish to focus on?
By what criteria do we wish to measure our effectiveness?
I was told: “You are no orphan in your views about fire and that its use should be about increasing biodiversity and productivity”
Some wires may be crossed here:
These are not views, but a message both from a new paradigm (albeit a 40 year old one that is now well established on several continents) as well as from a business angle:
Fire is only a “tool”.
We say simply put it back in the “tool-box” and use it if/when appropriate.
Let’s first focus on the type of landscape we wish to craft and then choose the type and timing of the use of tools….
There are many new tools available to us…
There are also many new skills that are more easily accessible to us today…
We need effective action out in our broader landscapes not more decades of land-care rhetoric…
Our lives depend on healthy, productive landscapes and river-systems, as does the nation’s economy.
We therefore depend on biodiversity and perennially reliable sources of good quality water…
5% action in the right direction has to be better than 100% knowledge that arrives too late to be effective…
What I see today is at best 60% useful knowledge promoted by our departments and close to 0% effective action in much “inaccessible” upper-river rainfall-catchment country…
This country burns again and again and again…
Net fuel-loads are in decline…
Ever more bedrock is visible from the air…
Water-holes are sanding up…
Springs are running dry…
Yet on Kachana this year we got four springs to flow all year round that have never flowed throughout the dry in the 20 years of my association with this country. All it took was a few years of different management using natural forces at our disposal.
The message is not “doom and gloom”, but one of “caution” and “hope” for a new generation of land-managers…
From the web:
The information age has brought to Pastoralism: New global knowledge, new local skills….
With this come: New areas of research, new fields of employment, new wealth…
These are indeed exciting times for people on the land. All over Australia we are beginning to see proactive change at the grass roots:
- Holistic Management — A new framework for making decisions
- Soil Foodweb Inc. — A better understanding productive living soils
- Resource Consulting Services — “Redesigning Agriculture”
- Low Stress Stockhandling — Working with the nature of your animals...
- Biodynamic AgriCulture Australia — Working with natural cycles...
Kachana Pastoral Company uses this new knowledge to focus on the practical management aspects of catchment and rangeland issues in broader landscape settings:
- Building healthy productive soil
- Ensuring reliable flows of good clean water in our creek-systems
- Trapping carbon by increasing biodiversity in our soil, plant and animal communities
- Detoxification of areas where mistakes have been made in the past
- Revitalising areas that have a known history of higher levels of productivity and biodiversity
- Offering Landscape Management Advice
- Offering our “out-door out-back classroom” for workshops, seminars and practical skill-training
- Educational workshops
- The Byrne Terry Ellenbrae Fund: Skill training for agricultural students or young farmers in ecological crisis zones.
“Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing”.
Kachana Pastoral Company