ON Monday, the first day of summer here in Australia, residents of the little town of Barmah in northwestern Victoria, drove cattle into their forest in defiance of a government ban. The Department of Sustainability and Environment has threatened legal action, but so far the cattle are still there.
The forest has historically been grazed and the Barmah locals believe this is important to reduce the fire risk.
Max Rheese explains:
Today, the first day of summer, with 80 residents of the tiny Murray River community of Barmah I helped to drive cattle into the Barmah forest in defiance of a Department of Sustainability and Environment [DSE] ban on cattle grazing in the forest. The cattle were purchased last week by individuals in the community as part of the Barmah Community Cattle Company to be put into the forest to reduce the serious fire risk from chest high grass along the river.
On October 23rd the Barmah Grazing Advisory Committee met, as it usually does at this time, and recommended to the department that 420 cattle in total be placed in the 29,000 hectare red gum forest to graze for 2 -3 months subject to review in January 2009. In particular, 70 cattle were recommended to be placed on the 1500 hectare part of the forest adjacent to the Barmah township for 8 weeks to reduce the fire threat to the town. This was refused by the department who stated that no grazing would be allowed for ecological reasons.
This is a ludicrous statement as the chest high grass and weeds consist of wild oats, rye grass, Scotch thistle and Patterson’s Curse – not a native grass amongst them. No self respecting forest manager would tolerate infestations of these species but in Barmah there is hundreds of hectares of these grasses and weeds. Grazing should be required for ecological reasons.
DSE are required under the Forests Act to carry out fire prevention works in all forests under their control. This year they have carried out two fuel reduction burns of less than 50 hectares in total in a 29,000 hectare forest and none of those closer than 10 km from Barmah township. In effect, there has been no fire prevention work carried out within 10km of Barmah township this year.
Victorians have suffered badly in recent years from public land management decisions made by DSE and this can be read here in the Parliamentary Inquiry into the Impact of Public Land Management Practices on bushfires. This decision has all the hallmarks of more bad public land management. No fire prevention work as required under legislation, no allowance for controlled cattle grazing and nothing has been done to reduce the fire risk to Barmah or other small communities that are adjacent to public land.
The Alliance wrote to the Minister for the Environment two weeks ago asking him to direct the department to reverse their decision and advising him that cattle would be put into the forest if no action was taken. I phoned his office last week seeking a response. We wrote to the secretary for the department a week ago pointing out his obligations, particularly in light of the parliamentary inquiry recommendations that were very critical of his department’s fire management practices. There was no response to any of these communications.
The community were driven by this apathetic attitude to collectively act illegally in driving the cattle into the forest – but we did get a response today! The DSE Manager for Land and Fire stated on ABC Radio that he was disappointed at the actions of the community in putting cattle into the forest. He then went on to say how the department had a duty of care to the community – but they have not done anything to mitigate the fire danger.
Part of the lack of confidence at a local level in DSE’s fire management skills were highlighted on ABC television news out of Melbourne tonight where they were described as incompetent fire managers. This was because of a poorly managed fuel reduction burn on October 16th that is highlighted on the Alliance website.
Despite this badly run burn for which the Alliance has provided the Premier’s office with a detailed report, despite the recommendations of the parliamentary inquiry which are critical of the department’s land management practices, despite the support for the Alliance position of grazing as a fire mitigation tool by University of Melbourne fire ecologists, the department still does not seem to grasp that they are the problem not the solution.
Until there is a change in the public land management paradigm as outlined in the Alliance Conservation & Community Plan Victorian’s will continue to suffer sub optimal environmental outcomes from public land managers.
Secretary, Rivers & Red Gum Environment Alliance