How Aborigines Made Australia: Bill Gammage

A new book, The Biggest Estate on Earth, by historian Bill Gammage explodes the myth that pre-settlement Australia was an untamed wilderness revealing the complex, country-wide systems of land management used by Aboriginal people.

According to the publisher’s website:

“Early Europeans commented again and again that the land looked like a park. With extensive grassy patches and pathways, open woodlands and abundant wildlife, it evoked a country estate in England. Bill Gammage has discovered this was because Aboriginal people managed the land in a far more systematic and scientific fashion than we have ever realised.

“For over a decade, Gammage has examined written and visual records of the Australian landscape. He has uncovered an extraordinarily complex system of land management using fire and the life cycles of native plants to ensure plentiful wildlife and plant foods throughout the year. We know Aboriginal people spent far less time and effort than Europeans in securing food and shelter, and now we know how they did it.

“With details of land-management strategies from around Australia, The Biggest Estate on Earth rewrites the history of this continent, with huge implications for us today. Once Aboriginal people were no longer able to tend their country, it became overgrown and vulnerable to the hugely damaging bushfires we now experience. And what we think of as virgin bush in a national park is nothing of the kind.”

This book must challenge the myth of virgin “remnant” vegetation that currently underpins significant land management legislation in Queensland and NSW.

Bill Gammage is a historian and adjunct professor in the Humanities Research Centre at the Australian National University.


148 Responses to How Aborigines Made Australia: Bill Gammage

  1. Robert of Ottawa November 15, 2011 at 11:16 pm #

    I remain to be convinced …. these Rousseauian gardeners of Eden strolling around their parklands armed to eyeballs.

  2. Schiller Thurkettle November 16, 2011 at 4:34 am #

    The Great Plains of North America were intensely managed by the natives through the use of fire; the arriving Europeans were not looking at a ‘natural’ environment. It wasn’t a Rousseauian existence on the Plains, and certainly became a good deal worse with the advent of their modern ‘discoverers’.

    It is human nature to change the environment to suit their needs with the use of available technology, so actually there should be little fundamental difference between the Aborigines, the Amerinds, and the Europeans.

  3. John Sayers November 16, 2011 at 5:11 am #

    Very interesting book – I heard the author on radio discussing how Black Hill at Canberra was grassland when the first settlers arrived, now it’s all overgrown.

    There’s a local paper on the history of the upper Clarence. When the first settlers arrived via Tenterfield. (they couldn’t get here from the coast as it was all swamp and paperbark forest). According to this report the Clarence area was all grassland with around 8 huge trees to the acre. You could ride a horse up to Tenterfield – today it’s all scrub.

  4. Neville November 16, 2011 at 7:34 am #

    Everyone should go to the library and take out ‘The Life and Adventures of William Buckley”, a very interesting read.

    Buckley lived with the aborigines around present day Melbourne and surrounding areas and certainly talks about the use of fire (sticks) by the tribes.

    He talks about the miserable cold periods in winter when they couldn’t start a fire because the fire sticks were extinguished and presumably they couldn’t find dry sticks to start a new fire.

    I find that hard to believe because there were plenty of nooks and crannies and caves to store dry wood for use in winter.

  5. debbie November 16, 2011 at 7:46 am #

    A very interesting point.
    All this dialogue about what’s natural and returning or restoring natural environment is highly subjective.
    What many do forget is that mankind’s natural behaviour has always been to enhance the environment and manage the environment to make it either more habitable or more productive.
    Humans like order and security, nature does not.
    The ‘urban environmentalists’ fantasise about some utopian garden of eden where mankind can live in total harmony with a pristine and benevolent environment. They seem to forget that they are the ones who live in a totally ordered and protected urban environment because their forefathers created it that way.
    Their idea of ‘the real environment’ is not realistic.
    If we lose sight of the fact that nature is just as inclined to dry us out, burn us out, wash us out, blow us out, shatter us out (earthquakes), plague us out etc etc etc, then we are denying our own nature and definitely dooming ourselves to disasters like bushfires.
    This book is showing that the Aborigines knew that too.

  6. kuhnkat November 16, 2011 at 9:35 am #

    Robert of Ottawa,

    why wouldn’t the natives be armed to deal with the predators that they knew they needed to keep around to help keep the game from falling into the boom/bust cycle??

    I know little about Australian Aborigines so do not know if they had their tribal tiffs like American Indians and their southern cousins. The Incas and Aztecs, while very civilized, also had plenty of warfare among tribes.

  7. John Sayers November 16, 2011 at 10:22 am #

    In her book “the last of the aboriginals” Daisy Bates writes that all the tribes used to meet around Lake Eyre and exchange gifts etc which explains why shells from the Cape were found in SW australia. Young Men and Women were also swapped during these ceremonies to spread the gene pool. So it appears there were no major tribal tiffs.

  8. cohenite November 16, 2011 at 11:39 am #

    I don’t buy it; Gammage’s thesis is that the aborigines managed nature instead of it managing them; he reaches this conclusion by noting there was local micro-management and therefore the whole nation could be said to have been managed in a deliberate fahion as an estate would have been.

    The fact is aborigines, as humanity does everywhere, changed the continent to the extent of their technology; they made the mega-fauna extinct and through fire put the finishing touches to the rainforest continent, as Australia then was.

    But they could not change the landscape beyond their technology; or is Gammage saying they could manage the environment beyond their apparent technology? Is Gammage implying there is some hidden aborigine technology yet to be discovered?

    The aboriginal population of about 1 million tells us that the nature/human interaction was top down during that long period, aided and abetted by a stable continent, both geologically and climatically.

    Today, Western technology, if political interference was removed could sustain a population many times greater than was present previously. It is here that Gammage really irritates me because value judgements come in; today it is all bad, as usual the impact of Western values is destroying the land whereas the aboriginal culture consciously preserved it.

    This is ironic; previously nature dictated the terms of aboriginal existence; today with have the wherewithal to challenge natural limitations but a perverse moral code wants to take us back to the aboriginal condition.

  9. Neville November 16, 2011 at 12:10 pm #

    John all primitive people that lived in tribes had skirmishes all the time with other tribes in their area. The aboriginal tribes had regular interaction with each other for the exchange of young women, trade for items they didn’t have and disputes for all sorts of reasons that sometimes degenerated into pay back killings etc.

    These mini wars were well documented throughout Australia by the early settlers and explorers.
    The Maoris and Papua New Guinea peoples had just as many mini wars and are also very well documented.

    Some of these tribal fights from New Guinea have been filmed over the last century and shown on TV many times.

    Geoffrey Blainey’s “Triumph of the Nomads” covers this as well. He tells of an American anthropologist documenting the death toll from Aboriginal fights in northern Australia about a hundred years ago with some remarkable conclusions.

    Blainey states that the death toll over a period of years was essentially the same as the death toll on a percentage basis as that experienced during the first world war.

    But this didn’t stop after four years but was ongoing. Some of the Maori tribal fights were particularly gruesome and must have taken a toll on the tribal numbers there as well.

  10. Hasbeen November 16, 2011 at 12:47 pm #

    Oh please John Sayers, you do kid your self.

    Yes there were gatherings, like the bunya nut season around Marlborough, Fraser Island, where a truce was declared, but the Mary Fraser story includes mass killings, when groups came together at other less bountiful times.

    Can you imagine any one living like an aboriginal today?

    Pull out a fire stick, & you’d have some idiot, with an environmental science degree, from the Environment department, on you like a flash. They would want to see your fire permit, your clearing permit, & probably your birth certificate.

    Get past them, & the rural fire brigade, & a couple of twits from the local council would be next. Of course you would have notified everyone with in 50Km of your intentions, & have their approval.

    You may not have got your fire going, so why not build a humpy for the night.

    Watch it there. The greenies from about 6 departments will be on you, when you try to get a bit of bark. You’ll need a clearing permit, a timber harvesting licence, & I’ll bet they want you registered as a saw mill, before you injure a single gram of that bark. Then if you want to cut a single sapling, there’s sure to be a couple of court cases & environmental impact statements to prepare.

    Then the council will require 15 copies of your plans, a $2,000 application fee for a permit to build.

    If you’re still alive in 6 months time, they’ll be telling you that your door opening is in the wrong side. Must stick with green principals & passive warming/cooling you know.

    So, while your waiting, you’ll probably get hungry. Well there’s a few more problems. You’ll have to get a fishing permit if you want something from the river, & a gun licence, if you’d like a rabbit, or a wallaby. Even if you get these, your back to a fire permit, before you can cook your catch.

    You’d best just break all these damn fool laws, & get put in the clink. They’ll feed you, & they’ll have to fill in all those fool forms.

    So you can see those aboriginals had it so easy. No public servants there to prevent them doing anything intelligent. How could they not have run the place like a park, if they wanted to.

    Just think, if some Frenchy had got here a day before the first fleet, & set up an environmental department, & a local council, they would have defeated the entire British effort, with just a rubber stamp.

    I’m so glad I live in this free country.

  11. John Sayers November 16, 2011 at 1:56 pm #

    hasbeen – fair enough, but don’t kid yourself that they didn’t have as many rules and regulations within their tribal structure as to who can do what and where.

  12. Neville November 16, 2011 at 3:10 pm #

    John the trouble is the rules etc of the tribes were always made by men and mostly for men.
    Women had their role but very few rights as we would understand basic rights today.

    Stone age lives were brutal and short and sometimes very cruel.

  13. John Sayers November 16, 2011 at 4:05 pm #

    why do you call them stone age and brutal? Where is your evidence for that?

    Captain Cook was amazed at how docile they were, they weren’t even interested in Cook’s clothing, weapons etc. The Aboriginals that watched the first fleet sail up Sydney harbour were a dingo society where the head man had the head dingo and his wife had the head dingo bitch., doesn’t sound like a male dominated society to me – have you seen 10 canoes?

  14. cohenite November 16, 2011 at 4:30 pm #

    “The Aboriginals that watched the first fleet sail up Sydney harbour were a dingo society where the head man had the head dingo and his wife had the head dingo bitch.,”

    Yes, aboriginal culture was totemistic; it was also extremely patriarchal; one of the reasons that aboriginal women have statistically much greater violence perpetrated aginst them within their society is the reluctance of ‘white’ law to mitigate customary attitudes towards the role of women within aboriginal society.

    Maybe more aboriginal women should head dingo bitches as pets.

  15. RWFOH November 16, 2011 at 4:34 pm #

    Cohenite, fire can be a blunt or refined instrument depending on the imagination and skills of those deploying it. My guess is that you’d operate at the blunt end of the spectrum.

    And, in true “Conservative” form, you manage a dig at the “savages” with the quote “through fire put the finishing touches to the rainforest continent”. Never mind that Eucalypt domination of this continent began millions of years before humans even walked the Earth, or that Australia’s climate changed radically over the same period due to continental drift. A cheap shot from a man of commensurate merit.

    It’s all a bit too hard for some people to accept that Aborigines developed highly sophisticated fire management skills over 50,000+ years. It just doesn’t fit racial stereotypes does it?

    In a ABC interview Gammage said he believes that Aborigines burned small areas frequently and in a controlled fashion. In Victoria the conservative state government has introduced a regime to burn vast areas in the belief that they are “reducing fuel”. This will have the opposite effect of what is desired and what Aborigines achieved.

    As for the “Noble savage” arguments, these things are never black and white (no pun intended). Artifacts that originated on one side of the continent have been found on the opposite side of the continent suggesting trans-continental trade. At certain times of the year, Aboriginal nations from far afield congregated around the eel farms of Western Victoria. Wars and disputes were put on hold and trade and cultural issues like births ,deaths and marriages were dealt with. The eel traps and and stone huts date back around 10,000 years making them some of the oldest known sites of permanent human settlement known.

    A close relative witnessed inter-tribal war in the Northern Territory in the 1930’s. In one instance three men died of spear wounds in a fight over a woman when some mysterious laws were transgressed. News Ltd readers would surely applaud such swift and severe dispensing of justice?

    When we look at the ecological health and biodiversity of Australia when Europeans invaded compared to what it is today, I’d say that, at face value, Aborigines must have had far more sophisticated systems and understanding of land management.

  16. cohenite November 16, 2011 at 5:14 pm #

    “When we look at the ecological health and biodiversity of Australia when Europeans invaded compared to what it is today, I’d say that, at face value, Aborigines must have had far more sophisticated systems and understanding of land management.”

    What a load of crap; I suppose in your snide asinine manner you’ll be telling me next that aborigines had resolved the Mendelian, Lamarckian and Darwinian differences about inherited characteristics.

    One of the worst things which has happened to the aboriginal peoples is not the arrival of Western culture but the persistent allocation by the moralising luvies of the left to the aboriginal culture of the noble savage role; the noble savage lives in a paradise where his instinctive connection to the glorious rhythms of nature made his life so much more fulfilling than that offered by decadent, brutalising Western values.

    One of the dominant aspects of the AGW delusion is misanthropy; less people are better than more; as I noted aboriginal culture allowed for about 1 million people on the Australian continent; the argument goes that any more would damage the fragile, precious environment of this land.

    It is this misanthropy which I believe informs the view that aborigines lived in an Eden of their own creation and that accordingly what is required for restoration of natural equilibrium, which now masquerades under the various permutations of the wretched word, sustainability, is less people living less decadent, materialistic lives.

    To this end this veneration of aboriginal lifestyle and culture is merely another form of loathing by people-haters.

  17. Neville November 16, 2011 at 5:25 pm #

    John I’m sorry but all stone age lives were mostly brutal and short whether in Europe , Australia or any other country. Australian aborigines were stone age people and if you can’t accept that basic fact then there’s nothing I can do about it.

    Women were treated badly and lived subservient lives compared to men in the tribes and at times were very brutally beaten for petty indiscretions that wouldn’t be noticed within our society.

  18. RWFOH November 16, 2011 at 5:33 pm #

    Cohenite, you’re emotional response reminds me of Paul Keating’s version of an exchange with Kerry Packer.

    Keating; “I said to him, “You know what your problem is Kerry, you’re all quantity and no quality”. He turned around and walked straight out the door”. (That was his last ever discussion with Packer)

    So, is the sum purpose of human existence our numerical abundance? What a jolly biblical fellow you are! Cohenite Nirvana? Chinese style high rise human battery farms full of shoe box size domiciles for “consumers”. How wonderful! I can’t wait to tell my kids. Who did you say was a misanthropist?

    Here’s my scenario for the denouement of the imperious and hubristic European/Western approach to
    land management:

    Ever more “sophisticated” scientific solutions are employed to address the snowballing ecological issues
    arising from land management driven by economic fundamentalism and endorsed by bureaucrats and
    mercenary consultant scientists.

    Environmental issues coalesce into catastrophic ecological collapse. Australia is desertified and the human population collapses. Human survivors split into two tribes warring over dwindling resources, the Right (Israelites) and the Left (Palestinians).

    Eventually all vestiges of modern “civilisation” are lost and humans revert to subsistence tribal collectives
    operating in ecological equilibrium. Over time these tribes develop sophisticated systems to survive their
    hostile environement until someone comes up with the brilliant idea that he only has to grow seed and then trade it with the hunters and gatherers.

  19. cohenite November 16, 2011 at 6:23 pm #

    Yes, well delusion has set in; I’m neither Kerry Packer or Paul Keating, I don’t advocate unfettered population growth and your scenario of the future is, I believe, based on Max Max 3.

  20. el gordo November 16, 2011 at 6:24 pm #

    Mad Max

  21. el gordo November 16, 2011 at 6:28 pm #

    You’re one minute ahead of me cohenite.

    I also have a vision, but maybe this is not the time or thread.

  22. RWFOH November 16, 2011 at 6:33 pm #

    Comment from: cohenite November 16th, 2011 at 6:23 pm
    Comment from: el gordo November 16th, 2011 at 6:24 pm

    El Gordo, were you holding hands with Cohenite when you corrected him or are you one and the same? The time stamps seem a bit odd. Oh well, I must be confused and delusional.

  23. cohenite November 16, 2011 at 6:41 pm #

    EG, all the Mad Max movies are essentially the same, just the budgets seperate them. With RW, however, nothing seperates him from his nonsense; they are one and the same.

  24. RWFOH November 16, 2011 at 6:41 pm #

    While we’re in pre-emptive mode, shouldn’t someone accuse me of ‘lefty luvvie’ “groupthink”?

  25. Mark A November 16, 2011 at 6:45 pm #


    Not sure of the correct definitions of a troll, but taking an adverse position in every debate no matter
    what the subject, certainly should be a part of it.

    Cohenite offered some very coherent and valid arguments and all you can do is scoff.
    Do you honestly believe the paternalistic attitude only developed since white man arrived?

    “Aborigines must have had far more sophisticated systems and understanding of land management”
    They did the best they could with the culture they had, and whatever you may say, it was a dead end culture, all it would have taken is a mild epidemic of some sort to wipe out the lot.
    It was pure luck and isolation that prevented it.

    The reason there were only a mil. of them on a continent of this size has nothing to do with their
    careful “management” of the environment, but the fact that without proper agriculture there was no way to support a larger population.

    As to PK being a rude and generally uncouth ignorant peasant?
    So what’s new?

  26. RWFOH November 16, 2011 at 6:59 pm #

    OK Mark, I wouldn’t want to be considered a troll. What is the groupthink on this again? I’m always getting confused and delusional and forgetting the what the groupthink policies are on these things.

    I realise I was out of line with that GFC business and it’s really the fault of “socialist bureaucrats” but now I’m hoplessly confused on this “fire stick farming” business too. Something about Mad Max is it? Or was it Max Max? I, 2 or 3?

    Heaven forbid that someone should have a differing opinion! It certainly won’t be me as I strive to conform and fit in with the group.

  27. el gordo November 16, 2011 at 7:33 pm #

    I spend most of my time on left wing blogs where groupthink is the norm. Strive to conform here by taking a serious interest in the science.

    Cohenite and Marc are correct, these hunter gatherers had no concept of conservation in their effort to stay alive. It may have looked like Arcadia to the newly arrived Europeans, but it was just a coincidence.

  28. Mark A November 16, 2011 at 8:15 pm #

    “Heaven forbid that someone should have a differing opinion!”

    There you go again, nobody said we all have to agree on everything, far from it.

    BUT to disagree on everything?
    Not possible, unless you do it deliberately, even by accident we have to agree on something.

  29. RWFOH November 16, 2011 at 8:29 pm #

    “Cohenite and Marc are correct, these hunter gatherers had no concept of conservation in their effort to stay alive. It may have looked like Arcadia to the newly arrived Europeans, but it was just a coincidence.”

    These wisemen need to get out there and share their insights. I would love to know how they know that “these hunter gatherers had no concept of conservation in their effort to stay alive”? I suppose the fact that complex systems of lore/law served Aboriginal society so well for tens of thousands of years is just “coincidence” and blind luck too? I can’t believe these intellectual giants have not received their deserved recognition!

    Gammage cites historical references to rich, loamy soils that a hand is easily pushed into. That’s what thousands of years of Aboriginal agriculture produced. Where are those soils now? After two hundred years we have crusts that are barely more than subsoils and that only produce because we use phosphate fertilisers and pesticides. The superior attitudes about the pre-eminence of Western agricultural systems will disappear when finite fertiliser and pesticide inputs run out. The perceived and present carrying capacity of this land is a fleeting and ephemeral blip in the history of this land.

    Mark points out that “all it would have taken is a mild epidemic of some sort to wipe out the lot”. Yes and William Buckley’s account of Aboriginal society is tainted by the fact that Aboriginal society was already in unprecedented upheavel due to it being intentionally and accidentally exposed to diseases for which their immune systems were unprepared.

    Euro/Western civilisations/societies never suffered such things because…? Oh, that’s right, we did. But we survived because of our superior intellect and culture Mark? Or pure luck?

    We’re only ever one genetic mutation away from the same fate ourselves. Where would we be if our antibiotics became ineffectual? These haughty opinions can only be founded in your own ignorance.

  30. cohenite November 16, 2011 at 8:48 pm #

    You can cut and dice it anyway you want RW, the fact is you are value judging in the manner I described; your conclusions are just a variety of doomsdaying.

    How bleak you must be! Google Norman Borlaug:

    And look at how a real conservationist farmer goes about his business:

  31. Mark A November 16, 2011 at 8:51 pm #

    superior intellect
    I don’t think so, there is no proof or even a suggestion that aboriginals are in any way less
    intelligent than other races. (although there are rumors that the japanese and chinese are more inteligent than whites?)

    and culture
    Most certainly.

    Yes I may be ignorant of a lot of things, but at least I’m aware of my shortcomings, unlike you, it appears.

    I leave it this topic be for the time being.
    And before you think I’m running from debating you, I’m not, but I don’t usually bang my head against a brick wall either.

  32. cinders November 16, 2011 at 9:08 pm #

    Nowhere in Australia is a better example of what happened when the Aboriginal people were removed from the region is in north west Tasmania between the Arthur and Pieman rivers. The NW tribe a maritime peolple that lived on the coast made an annual journey from Sandy Cape on the coast between the rivers to red ochre mines located inland south of today’s City of Burnie.

    As they went they used the firestick to burn the scrub and to keep the grassslands open, for on the return trip they hunted the wallaby and possum that fed on the green pick.

    The people were ‘rescued’ and sent to flinders Island in about the 1830s and 1840s, family groups in the area were known as Peerapper, Manegin, Tarkinener and Peternidic. In a marketing coup the greens have named the massive 450,000 ha area after one of these groups and labelled it as pristine awe inspiring wilderness holding the largest contiguous temperate rainforest in the Nation, completey ignoring both the State’s largest open cut mine and the aboriginal land management practices, as described in this post.

  33. jennifer November 16, 2011 at 11:12 pm #

    I’m with Cinders and RWFOH on this one.

    I get the impression the country was in general, better managed pre-European settlement.

    Cinders has given one example… north west Tasmania.

    Also consider a region like the central Murray Valley… heavily populated by aborigines pre-European settlement. And we have some idea what it looked like from the diaries of the early explorers… a lot of open red gum forest, reed beds, lots of water birds, kangaroos.

    The first Europeans chopped the red gums clearing everything 100s of metres back from the river banks (much of the timber exported for use as railway sleepers etcetera), then came overstocking with sheep, cattle and rabbits. White Australian foresters were starting to get an idea of how to manage this landscape from about 1920 through to 1970… Now its all being locked up as national park and converting not to open red gum forest and reed beds but to impenetrable red gum thicket (not forest) very vulnerable to big fires.

    Cohenite… pick a specific Australia landscape that is better managed now?

  34. cohenite November 17, 2011 at 7:47 am #

    Jennifer, as I have been trying to say, it depends on what you mean by “better managed”.

  35. jennifer November 17, 2011 at 9:10 am #


    OK. So what are reasonable criteria? Resilience to fire? Biodiversity? Soil texture and structure? Water quality?

    If we can get a bit specific in terms of landscapes then we might be able to better define criteria.

    A few readers of this blog have a lot of experience managing western Queensland’s rangelands. Could someone give us a snapshot of their state now versus likely state pre-European settlement in terms of grassland species diversity, numbers of plains bird species, soil carbon?

  36. cohenite November 17, 2011 at 9:18 am #

    Actually I was thinking of a management criteria which can sustain [that word!] at current SOL a nominated population.

    We know the aboriginal method could sustain about 1 million; therefore before you go down the path of defining what is the ideal management result you should decide what population you are catering for and what SOL you want that population to have.

  37. Robert November 17, 2011 at 10:33 am #

    I was faced with converting my own ex-dairy acres to a delicatessen for wallabies and bower birds (hobby farm), a money hole (undersized cattle-spread in holding country), or a tangle of lantana, tobacco, privet, cockspur etc mixed with a few “natives” (regenerated bush). Instead, I gradually converted my land for human use, and only for human use. That’s because, as with an aborigine or a white settler, human use is the thing I understand. More through good luck than good judgement, I was able to use the lantana to foster a few little precious seedlings of moso bamboo. After twenty years, I now have my own private moso forest.

    Curiously, the land, having faced endless change forever, doesn’t care what’s “native” or “natural”. It has no particular fondness for the firestick or the plow, and lacks the interest and means to revive its “pristine” or pre-human self. It doesn’t like being eroded or nuked in hot burns – that much I know.

    Now I have a spacious, airy forest with good potential for poles and edible shoots. It’s now possible to walk on a fine leaf-mat in full shade, and I don’t have to deal with dangerous things called trees when I want a lump of timber. The neglected state forest at my boundary is turning into something completely different to anything an aborigine or farmer or forester of years past could understand or use. This “native” forest is actually new and weird, but, if managed for fire and species imbalance, the state forest’s a nice thing to have. The koalas like it, and so do I.

    The first lesson of conservation is not to waste time and resources. Which means that conservation has become the opposite of environmentalism.

  38. jennifer November 17, 2011 at 11:19 am #


    Who says “the aboriginal method could sustain about 1 million” and why do you accept such a proposition?

  39. kuhnkat November 17, 2011 at 11:31 am #

    Firstly, whether it was better or worse managed I would point out that we agree that it was MANAGED and not allowed to go wild like our current enviro nubags wish!! It was MANAGED for the benefit of the ABORIGINALS and not the rest of the biosphere!!

    RWFOH, as to whether the aboriginal culture was better or not, please tell us what their average lifespan was, child mortality rates, disease, medical care for major damage etc. As I doubt they lived long enough there would have been few cancers, heart disease, or other issues our older folk typically run into with their “sedimentary” life styles. What various trades or educational choices were available??

    Basically evey human society has had its pluses and minuses. Depends on which issues you put your emphasis upon as to which you choose to compliment or deride. As already mentioned, most technologically primitive societies are at the whim of the environment much more than modern societies. I CHOOSE technologically advanced over the ephemeral “in touch with the land” style. I CHOOSE to be scientifically advanced even though much of our latest larnin’ isn’t much better than mythology!! (I can still trust the engineers usually!!)

  40. debbie November 17, 2011 at 11:36 am #

    Good point Robert!

    Conservation has become the opposite of environmentalism.
    Jennifer also points that out when she said:

    White Australian foresters were starting to get an idea of how to manage this landscape from about 1920 through to 1970… Now its all being locked up as national park and converting not to open red gum forest and reed beds but to impenetrable red gum thicket (not forest) very vulnerable to big fires.

    In this example….the conservation is us learning to manage the landscape sensibly and to gain benefits from it as well.
    The environmentalism is to lock it up and lock everyone out and create major fire hazards (in this particular case).

    The national parks are suffering from the same problem….overgrown and also starting to be infested with uncontrolled (not managed) species of flora and fauna.
    Conservation is learning to manage the landscape, the Aborigines did know this. They used what technology and knowledge they had available to do just that. They of course did not have the same influence over the landscape that we do now. The basic principle however hasn’t really changed.
    Numbers and technology certainly have.
    It is natural for humankind to enhance and manage the landscape to make it more habitable or more productive or both. That’s what we have always done.
    We don’t always get it right, but, it is a bit ridiculous to say the only way we can fix things is to lock out humankind. That has the potential to create even more problems.

  41. Johnathan Wilkes November 17, 2011 at 12:57 pm #

    Jennifer said:
    “Who says “the aboriginal method could sustain about 1 million” and why do you accept such a proposition?”

    Can’t quote but it was mentioned somewhere, that at the time of settlement there were approximately
    a million aboriginals in Aus.

    Now unless you can prove that this number was maintained conscientiously by some artificial means
    and not restricted by the availability of food, then fair enough I’m listening.

  42. Stewie November 17, 2011 at 1:08 pm #

    Cohenites right. What is ‘better managed’.

    Cohenite, I think a lot of people are glad to go around in circles on this issue, when quite clearly certain answers, like exactly how aboriginals applied fire, or didn’t, we don’t, won’t and will not ever know. At least I think that this is true for SE Australia and their dry eucy forests and associated ecosystems.

    To argue over who better managed fire I think has been taken up as a modern day, political red herring by certain interest groups. It puts all the emphasis on aboriginals mastering fire, while excluding others of that same potential. This might be good for Native Title claims but is disastrous for forests. The other red herring is ecological science. So little is known and ecosystems so ill defined that any number of political outcomes are possible. They might not necessarily help the forests but are guaranteed votes.

    Bloody hell, many of the aborigines living in my area won’t even go in the bush. They are petrified of some oogie boogie monster in there. Is it the oogie boogie fire demon I wonder?

    This is true though.

    Since the 2007 fires decimated our area, the scrub is back with a vengeance. Due to the long absence of fuel reduction burns prior to 2007, enormous amounts of scrub and its abundant, long life seed stocks had accumulated. We need to deal with the resulting scrub. It needs controlling big time. The seed potential needs to be knocked back down with regular burns or you will have recurring explosions of scrub. A farmer I know has burnt regularly and carefully for 40+ years. He told me it took close to 30 years to get the scrub back in balance. His place is often open and park like. It feels and looks healthy. Directly next door is National Park and it is a disgrace. Thick contingous scrub, 20 ft. high. A tangled mess (like politics).

    Oh, but I here ‘science’ can produce computer models and predict extraordinarily complex, long term global climate patterns and its effect on the planets ecology. Yeah right. Sure, sure. I also heard they produced models on fire behaviour during 2009 fires and LOST THEM on the day!!! Good one.

    A lot of people need to get of the grass and onto the scrub. Pronto. It won’t stop growing while semantics are discussed. We know enough to apply the ‘precautionary principle’ and get on with it.

  43. jennifer November 17, 2011 at 1:56 pm #


    To argue as some do, that because there were about one million aborigines in Australia at the time of European settlement, that is all the land could sustain makes little sense to me.

    It assumes a Malthusian approach to population which I don’t agree with. See

    As a teenager I read lots of James A. Michener and I think I was really influenced by one of his general themes which is that groups of people can inflict a lot of harm on themselves and tend to eventually get overrun by more powerful and better organised groups of people. When displaced groups/societies/civilisations often suffer significant mortality and not always from warfare.

    I understand there is debate raging amongst US anthropologist as to whether population numbers of a particular Amazonian tribe were historically limited by resources or warfare. My predisposition would be to support the warfare theory… but of course I’m always open to contrary evidence.

    And regarding some of the above discussion about aboriginal tribes. Comments in the above thread take a far too simplistic view of the issue. There were at least two separate colonizations of Australia (by people we now refer to as aborigines) with the second wave of migrants significantly displacing an earlier first wave that were physically and culturally distinct.

  44. Ken Stewart November 17, 2011 at 2:00 pm #

    Having read the above comments, some of my own:
    1 million? In the 1960s the accepted and widely published figure was 300,00-400,000. Food may not have been the limiting factor on population so much as water. Except in very well watered (largely coastal) districts it is difficult to imagine the population being greater than that which could survive the worst drought. No one could live/ gather food more than a couple of days’walk from a waterhole, and remember there were no artesian bores. There are very vast inland areas that would be completely dry in a drought without bores. Getting water from trees or dewy leaves was for emergency only.
    Aborigines certainly used fire to encourage new grass, also to hunt. But they couldn’t very easily manage the fires once lit- there was no firefighting equipment. Fire destroys scrub and encourages eucalypts and grass. In Eungella national park are areas where rainforest has grown back around huge old gum trees since burning stopped 150 years ago. Stradbroke island was once a cattle station, and had a plunge dip early last century but the island is almost completely overgrown now.

  45. jennifer November 17, 2011 at 2:07 pm #

    Ken, There are many different ways of managing fire, all requiring an understanding of weather patterns (particularly diurnal wind patterns) and also landscape.

  46. Johnathan Wilkes November 17, 2011 at 2:20 pm #


    I simply look at some other countries with similar climate and population at that time in history and make a comparison.

    While Australia has huge deserts and more or less, for us, “uninhabitable” land, there are also very fertile areas larger in size than some European countries, yet the population sizes are-were vastly different.
    I don’t believe the availability or lack of water played any great significance.

    And remember Europe had gone through many devastating wars and famines not to mention the plague.

    I personally have no particular political interest in the matter one way or other, just an observation.

  47. spangled drongo November 17, 2011 at 2:33 pm #

    Cook couldn’t believe the amount of country on fire when he sailed up the coast.

    Aboriginals did not evolve in Australia and, unlike native species, are not immune to scrub ticks and the miriad nasties that live in the “big scrub” and so burnt the rainforest to get rid of them as well as opening the forest to easier hunting with spear and boomerang and attracting the bigger marsupials.

    The only Aboriginals that adapted to rainforest living were the pygmies that lived in North Qld. and they were only pygmies because of their forced habitat.

    The majority of Aboriginal’s “land management” was simply ongoing burning of impenetrable wet forest to convert it to open dry forest and savannah land.

    The fact that after 40,000 years of this “management” there was still huge tracts of unburnt [and unburnable] rainforest in the most biodiverse parts of the country is testament to how much scrub there must have been earlier.

    Aboriginals were mostly “day trippers” into this “big scrub” to collect what food they could, quickly, and avoid sleeping with the ticks and leeches.

    I lived and worked with full-blood primitive Aboriginals when I was young and as I have said before they were wonderful, honest people who thought the best thing the whitefella ever gave them was clothes [incl boots, blankets etc] because before that all they had was fire.

  48. debbie November 17, 2011 at 2:40 pm #

    That’s true Jen,
    We use those same principles on the odd occasions that we burn.
    However, it is mighty handy to have the fire fighting equipment there as well.
    Even though we fire break, back burn and work with the wind, those little whirly winds and even sudden gusts of wind can create havoc in very short order.
    I’m sure the Aborigines found that could happen as well.
    If fire escapes onto scrubby ridges or into valleys full of scrub & eucalypts, it can quickly get out of control.
    Gum trees love to burn!

  49. spangled drongo November 17, 2011 at 4:08 pm #

    “Fire management” to get rid of scrub [rainforest] requires as hot a fire as you can organise. IOW as big a conflagration on as hot a day as possible so that the fire will penetrate the wet forest and do as much damage to it as possible.

    That’s what the Aboriginals did and if Bill Gammage considers that “systematic and scientific management” he is under a bit of a misconception.

    To burn fuel-load so as to prevent future wildfire and preserve rainforest and wet sclerophyl requires as cool a fire as possible.

    This is what we currently try to do.

    To preserve and promote the incredible biodiversity of wet forests with their epiphitic extensions is not really something the Aboriginals even thought about.

    The major problem we have today is the incredible amount of feral flora [thousands of species] and feral fauna that will prevent us getting back to any semblance of “natural” state.

    Our feral future is thoroughly entrenched and we can’t “manage” our way out of it, nevertheless that isn’t necessarily a problem to our floral and faunal native survivors, because the fragmentation of today’s “wilderness” can be assisted by the food source and the protection provided by these exotics.

  50. cohenite November 17, 2011 at 4:10 pm #

    The issue: population of pre-Western aboriginal Australia; I find Flood’s book, The Original Australians helpful on most issues to do with aboriginal Australians; according to Flood first estimates were made by Radcliffe-Brown in 1920 which resulted in a figure in the 1930 Australian Yearbook of at least 250,000 and “possibly, or even probably, over 300,000”. This estimate doubled prior estimates and was consistent with Tindale’s estimate of about 450 members for each of the 600 or so tribes in Australia.

    Alternatively, economic historian Noel Butlin estimated the 1788 population at over 1 million but was contradicted by Kefous who thought Radcliffe-Brown’s estimate too low and Butlin too high; the consensus is now between 500-750,000. That figure does not represent an even spread with densities ranging from 2 per km2 to 1 per 200km2 and an average of about 1 per 15 km2.

    The comparison with New Guinea is instructive; the New Guineans also practised some horticulture as well as hunting and gathering, had population densities of about 4-10 per km2.

    I think it is romantic to think the aborigines were some sort of mystic supermen who managed the environment and themselves by consciously adopting a low impact lifestyle and consequent low population but the evidence suggests otherwise.

    So, the issue is what sort of lifestyle do you want and what population do you want; when you have an answer to those questions then you make considered decisions about what land you are going to use and what land you are going to set aside for ‘nature’.

  51. el gordo November 17, 2011 at 4:49 pm #

    ‘So, the issue is what sort of lifestyle do you want and what population do you want?’

    In this big brown land we have the capacity to settle 40 million people comfortably and in an environmentally sensitive way. This is how we begin to build cities in the Australian desert and Ord River is also on the board for development.

    Imagine these cities connected by very fast rail to Perth and Darwin.

  52. John Sayers November 17, 2011 at 6:05 pm #

    The Aboriginals were on foot. Stop and consider how far your influence on foot could be.

  53. Bill Burrows November 17, 2011 at 6:13 pm #

    With due respects I think many of you are missing Gammage’s point. This is that there is an enormous and varied source of evidence to suggest that our present ‘intact’ woodland systems differ substantially in vegetative composition and structure to that prevailing in 1788. He argues that the ubiquity of these changes – from Tasmania to Cape York and Sydney to Broome; and from rainforest to arid zone environments, points to a common management factor – differing fire regimes (frequency and intensity) applied to the land under pre- and post-European control. Gammage is not the first to highlight the significant of fire to the Australian landscape. But he challenges many by claiming that burning by aborigines was both deliberate and more or less planned. He is in accord with the anthropologist Rhys Jones who coined the evocative phrase “fire-stick farming” to describe the practice. I have previously contended that aboriginals managed the country by burning it in three ways – frequently, regularly and often. Or as an observer noted in the Tropical Savannas CRC Newsletter “aborigines lit fires anytime it wasn’t raining”.
    From an ecological perspective the most logical explanation for the open woodlands and grasslands in 1788, compared with the closed woodland structure common in many non-cropping or cleared pasture areas today, is a burning frequency of every 2-5 years or less. This is because regenerating eucalypts are generally encouraged by the ‘ash bed effect’, while the seedlings are very fire resistant once they exceed an age of 2+ years. When I studied botany in the early 1960’s the then Qld Government Botanist claimed that the reason the Mitchell grasslands were “treeless” was because the heavy cracking clay soils prevented tree root system development in drought times –‘ripped the roots apart as the clay cracked’. Since those times there has been increasing concern about widespread invasion of the Mitchell grasslands by Acacia nilotica, and iconic native Acacias have been removed from Moorinya National Park because the park was set aside to conserve the most eastern example of Mitchell grasslands [Psst ‘Don’t tell any rabid conservationists that I told you that!].
    Now here is the rub. In Qld for certain (and I also suspect NSW) we now protect up to 50M ha of woodland systems because they are supposed REMNANTS of the 1788 vegetation. Gamage’s argument strongly challenges that assumption. What we are now protecting are in fact vegetation artifacts established by European management, especially by virtue of changed fire regimes. They are protected by legislation – not because of ecological knowledge. This is elegantly demonstrated for the Burdekin/Belyando river catchment by studies of the pollen record in lake sediments, and by stable soil carbon isotope signatures and 14C dating (pre & post bomb). This published research plainly demonstrates that woody vegetation thickening in this area has only taken place in the last 150 years, with the vegetation composition in the previous millennium being relatively ‘stable’.
    The evidence for changed fire regimes leading to this change in vegetation composition and structure is quite strong to me – and I believe Gammage has added considerable support to this argument. But if you only believe history began the day you were born, I guess you might take some convincing.

  54. cohenite November 17, 2011 at 6:57 pm #

    Interesting points Bill which demonstrate once again the stupidity of green and conservation measures.

    I never denied what the aboriginals did was different from European treatment of the land but, as you cogently note, what we can learn from the differences is filtered to death by green sensibility which has little to do with benefit to either the bush or the aboriginals.

  55. John Sayers November 17, 2011 at 7:04 pm #

    A population of 1 million people across this continent = 7.74 people per sq kilometre. On foot.

  56. Johnathan Wilkes November 17, 2011 at 8:20 pm #


    7,686,850 Sq Km / 1,000,000
    I’m afraid you got it the wrong way around.

    It’s 1 person / 7.68 Sq Km

    And I fail to see your fascination with the fact that the aboriginals were on foot.

    What difference does it make?
    I know people in many places who never ventured further the 50 k
    from their house in all their life.

    On the opposite side, the American Indians and Eskimos migrated long distances from Russia on foot
    across the then land bridge.

    And if you believe that the original home of man was in Africa, then you have to admit,
    they did travel a long distance on foot, to colonise the earth.

  57. RWFOH November 17, 2011 at 8:32 pm #

    I’m wondering how some contributors here know what Aborigines were thinking when they went about their business some hundreds of years ago. It’s quite some feat to attribute intents and purposes without being able to refer to a verbatim record in one form or another.

    There are so many rich pickings here to dissect. E.G. “It was MANAGED for the benefit of the ABORIGINALS and not the rest of the biosphere!!”

    This declaration reeks of complete ignorance of Aboriginal spirituality and cosmology. Have you ever spoken to an Aboriginal about their spiritual connection with the land kuhnkat?

    And these rants about “environmentalists” wanting to “lock up the land”. I’d consider myself a environmentalist/conservationist/greenie/whatever and I don’t want to see fire excluded from the landscape. I just don’t want to see knee jerk and ill-considered fire management regimes imposed.

    In a Victorian context, when I look at the distribution of vegetation communities I see the consequences of a deft touch and finesse in the application of fire. Even a primitive understanding of Australian plant biology will lead to the conclusion that Aborigines did not partake in broadacre “fuel reduction” targets. Species within remnant communities that survive in elevated forests, wet forests and riparian communities would not exist if fire had been applied indiscriminately.

    There are just too many crazy rants here to address individually. Some of these comments show such an abysmal understanding of Australian ecology that I have a genuine fear for the future. It is scary to have such conviction from idealogues. Any sane person with a vague familiarity with the biological implications of fire in the landscape and an appreciation of a rich Aboriginal history in the use of fire as a sophisticated tool would only consider approaching the topic tentatively with the intention of building practice based on sound scientific method and empirical evidence.

  58. el gordo November 17, 2011 at 8:42 pm #

    ‘There are just too many crazy rants here to address individually.’

    That’s a bit harsh, but I would like to talk to you about this…

    ‘Environmental issues coalesce into catastrophic ecological collapse. Australia is desertified and the human population collapses. Human survivors split into two tribes warring over dwindling resources, the Right (Israelites) and the Left (Palestinians).’

    Does this come about because of industrial CO2?

  59. RWFOH November 17, 2011 at 8:53 pm #

    “Does this come about because of industrial CO2?”

    Perhaps. But, then again, it might be a result of the cumulative effects of the degradation of natural systems. Have you ever walked out of an old growth forest into a clearfell coupe? Multiply that by 7 billion people and divide by any economic fundamentalist factor that attributes zero value to the Earth’s natural systems that ultimately sustain humanity.

  60. RWFOH November 17, 2011 at 8:57 pm #

    Qualifier…”Have you ever walked out of an old growth forest into a clearfell coupe? ” …on a hot day.

  61. cohenite November 17, 2011 at 9:42 pm #

    Yeah, ok rw, so pick a number.

  62. Bill Burrows November 17, 2011 at 10:03 pm #

    To reiterate Gammage’s earlier point – what pre-1788 aboriginals were doing in a management sense in Victoria etc was likely mirrored elsewhere on the continent. The difficulty is in producing hard quantitative support in 2011. In my previous comment I noted that the scientific evidence for vegetative thickening in intact woodlands over the last 150 years was very strong, as was the evidence of stability in the previous millenium (based on 44 randomly sampled sites in Qld’s Burdekin catchment). See – Krull et al. (2007) Development of a stable isotope index to assess decadal-scale vegetation change and application to woodlands of the Burdekin catchment, Australia. Global Change Biology 13: 1455-1468. Now I direct you to another elegant study that quantifies the decline in fire frequencies from pre-1788 to the present day:

    Ward, David J.; Lamont, Byron B.; Burrows, Chantal L. 2001. Grasstrees reveal contrasting fire regimes in eucalypt forest before and after European settlement of southwestern Australia. Forest Ecology and Management 150(3):323-329.

    We have developed a convenient new method of ageing grasstrees (Xanthorrhoea) and determining their fire history over the last 250 years or more. Grinding off the charred leafbases reveals alternating cream and brown bands that we equate with annual growth cycles and occasional black bands that we equate with the passage of fire. The new method was employed on 159 grasstrees at 50 sites distributed throughout the dry eucalypt forest region of southwestern Australia. In the 80 years prior to European settlement in 1829, and for the next 40 years, fires were recorded on grasstrees at 3-5 year intervals. The ensuing decline in mean fire frequencies and increased variability corresponded with demise of the aboriginal inhabitants and onset of intense wildfires associated with unrestrained logging. Our data show that from 1920 attempts at fire exclusion followed later by prescribed burning programs were only partly successful. Currently recorded intervals on individual trees of 10-20 years are consistent with further changes in fire management practices. Both extremes would have had significant impacts on the biota.

  63. RWFOH November 17, 2011 at 10:46 pm #

    Bill Burrows, in light of some wild assertions in this thread, I appreciate your considered opinion but I’m wary of any attempt to extrapolate data on historical fire regimes in SW W.A. to the SE of Oz. Having lived in both areas I can safely say that the climatic and meteorlogical “fire flume” that operates in the SE has no parallel in the SW. I think part of the reason for the jarring disconnects occuring in this thread relates to the widely differing situations around this vast continent. I can relate to short intervals between fires in dry WA forests as that would be similar to Victorian coastal heaths and grasslands but does WA also have any areas where fire intervals of up to 500 years are not uncommon such as we have in Vic despite the occurence of the “fire flume”?

    Using fire to create a grassland in a given area wouldn’t be too hard I imagine, but how about using fire to protect a forest from fire for 500 years? My guess is that it would take a little more thought. More so if your survival depended on it!

    One thing I am sure about is that, in terms of our understanding of the historical and modern context of fire in the Australian landscape, the Western scientific model is in it’s infancy. As such, when I hear some supposed fire “experts” hold forth, I sometimes form the view that I wouldn’t piss on them if they were on fire. Especially when I get the impression that they’re only covering their arses in front of a Royal Commission.

  64. RWFOH November 17, 2011 at 11:20 pm #

    It’s occured to me that I’m being pointlessly cryptic in relation to long fire intervals in some parts of Vic.

    Nations, tribes and families from all over SE Oz converged on the Alps to feast on the Bogong Moths. As happened around the eel farms in SW Vic, this convergence had huge cultural significance.

    We have the Western notion that Aborigines wandered aimlessly around the land in a nomadic “walkabout” lifestyle. These festivals and pilgramages had social, spiritual, cultural and practical function. You could say that they were like Christian and Islamic pilgramages or mass except that they had more practical and less superstitious purpose.

    For me, the interesting part about these annual sojourns into the interior mountains after time spent on the coast is that the journey occured in summer. Men, women, kids, babies, old folk all wandered off into those fire prone death trap forests! Can you imagine what would happen if modern Australians took off en masse on foot into the Alps in summer? ‘Carnage’ just doesn’t seem to do the scenario justice.

    Those Aborigines, what would they know hey!?

  65. Louis Hissink November 18, 2011 at 5:39 am #


    I recall Jack Absolom mentioning in one of his ABC series that, according to the aborines, many of the salt pans etc dotting the Australan landscape were formed after the British introduced sheep into the outback.

    This anecdote seems to be confirmed by this book.

    Geomorphologically the landscape seems to have been profoundly influenced by the introduction of hard-hooved animals, causing, according to geomorphologist Hugh Pringle, a once off mass erosion event of the residual soils. It’s a significant factor affecting the interpretation on heavy mineral distribution patterns in the Australan regolth and soils.

    All v
    Rey interesting.

  66. Schiller Thurkettle November 18, 2011 at 7:01 am #

    Here in the US things are quite a bit different since the day when the environment was cultivated by indigenous persons. We have more forests now, than after the European immigration. Due to white people’s notion of ‘natural’, we have so much flammable undergrowth in the forests that forest fires of unprecedented proportion are rampant.

    Someone has to figure out that the environment must be managed in a rational way, instead of in accordance with vacuous romantic notions. And that someone will not be a Green. That someone will instead share fundamental notions with the indigenes.

    Manage the environment, or it will get you for sure.

  67. el gordo November 18, 2011 at 7:03 am #

    It is an interesting debate, Louis.

  68. cohenite November 18, 2011 at 7:57 am #

    Louis, no doubt that is the case; but I’m finding it hard to get a focus on this thread as to what RW and apparently Jennifer’s point is; the aboriginals had their method of interacting with the environment based on fire burn-off and that resulted in a continental landscape which apparently is being presented as a softer, more benign and appropriate landscape compared with the Western version.

    What I don’t accept is that aboriginal fire-farming was management in the sense that aboriginals deliberately setout to create a specific continental landscape condition; what I think is the case is that the landscape type happened as a hunting and gathering lifestyle was pushed as hard as its technology allowed.

    Western use of the landscape was always going to change the inherited landscape because of different technology and intensity; in addition we now have a sense of moral appraisal of the environment which is a capacity the aboriginals did not have the luxury of because they were too busy surviving.

    What is confounding both a reasoned appraisal of aboriginal interaction of the land and how the technologically superior Western interaction should deal with nature are green-type values which, as I have argued before, are misanthropic and denigrating of Western society.

    RW is no doubt a student of fire-farming and appears to know his bush but he avoids the crux of the debate as it flows from Gammage’s thesis; that crux is what population should we have in respect of the environment and the technologies we have and what lifestyle should we be aiming for.

  69. Stewie November 18, 2011 at 8:32 am #

    RW. The current ‘experts’ seem convinced that fire should be excluded in the alps and surrounds when in fact they were probably burnt annually by the aborigines on their way to the Bogong Moth festival.
    The cessation to this high frequency fire resulted in fuel increase and alterations to alpine vegetation composition. More understory shrubs now survived and spread, replacing the dominant snow grasses. Ground fires became more intense and lifted the fire up. The canopies of these trees are low to the ground and couldn’t survive these new, intense ground fires.
    This alteration to the fire regime explains the sudden and dramatic change to the snowgums following the 1939 fires, after a century of fire exclusion. They all went from single trunked individuals, hundreds of years old, to the multi-stemmed individuals you see today.

    Add to this the fact that alpine grasses are easier to burn and tend not to flare up as lowland grasses do and you realise how easy it was for aborigines to burn alps country.

    If I was an aboriginal in those times and I was taking the whole tribe high into the alps for a picnic, away from rivers and with some nasty tribes in the area, I would certainly burn to reduce fuel on the way. I’d have a forward party doing that job. It provides a community safe place as well as green pick on the way down for hunting on.

    RW, considering the current state of the snowgums how long do you think it will take for them to revert back to single stemmed individuals? Can you reference anything on this situation? Can you get me some science that backs up the long term fire exclusion policy now enforced?

  70. RWFOH November 18, 2011 at 9:11 am #

    “a continental landscape which apparently is being presented as a softer, more benign and appropriate landscape compared with the Western version.” I don’t know about that cohenite. I pointed out that Aus was biologically richer 200 years ago so the Western “superiority complex” is somewhat misplaced in dismissing the sophistication of Aboriginal society and culture.

    “we now have a sense of moral appraisal of the environment which is a capacity the aboriginals did not have the luxury of because they were too busy surviving.”

    This connects with the earlier stated idea that Aboriginal lives were miserable, “short and brutish”. I presume such ideas came about from observations after Aboriginal societies were already disrupted by first contact?

    Even the people who survived in the harshest of desert environments seemed to have had longevity that defied prevailing notions about Aboriginal longevity. Some of the old people had experiences that indicated they were far older than the presumed 30-40 year life span.

    And the idea that they were “busy surviving” doesn’t really stand scrutiny either. I’ve read that it is believed Aborigines spent around 4 hours a day tending to survival needs and the rest of the time was spent on social and cultural matters.

    In a rough “back of the envelope” comparison, we spend about 25 years of ~75 years working (plus a few sitting in our cars while commuting?). We spend about another 25 sleeping and the balance (~25 years) socialising. If Aborigines lived for 40 years, they spent around 6-7 years “working”, about 15 sleeping and the rest, about 20 years, socialising.

    Those poor Aborigines, they’ll never know the joy of traffic jams, a factory or office job or the sweet burden of a 25 year mortgage! And poor us, we’ll never get to experience being speared or clubbed when we stuff up. It’s all relative isn’t it?

  71. Bill Burrows November 18, 2011 at 9:25 am #

    RWFOH – You are nit picking. Like everyone else I would like to see far more evidence from all parts of the continent to add further weight to my own interpretations. But this does not imply that there is insufficient evidence for anyone, with an average intelligence and common sense, appropriate training and a preparedness to review the literature, not to arrive at a reasoned conclusion.
    I have provided references to scientifically hard data to illustrate that (1) intact woodlands have thickened up since the arrival of Europeans and following a previous long period of apparent tree-grass stability, and (2) that there is quantitative evidence of markedly declining burning frequencies, when comparing pre and post European periods of management. These data are supported by an equally strong historical record (see Ryan, D.G., Ryan, J.E. and Starr, B.J. (1995) The Australian Landscape — Observations of Explorers and Early Settlers. (Murrumbidgee Catchment Management Committee: Wagga Wagga) and the photographic/artistic record [see Darryl Lewis’s “Slower than the Eye can See” (Tropical Savanna’s CRC) and Gammage’s book].

    Finally, I provide 2 relevant quotes for my patch (northern Australia): As early as 1911 the distinguished geographer Karl Domin concluded that, in all parts of Queensland the open ‘forests’ (the true ‘remnant’ condition?) developed through the influence of aborigines, mostly by means of bush fires. Likewise in 1955 M.R.Jacobs, the doyen of eucalypt ecologists correctly prophesized in his seminal book written about the genus – “If fires were controlled the eucalypts would make a much closer forest in the far north of Australia”.
    Domin, K. (1911) Queensland’s plant associations: some problems of Queensland’s botanogeography. Proceedings Royal Society of Queensland, 23, 63–67.

    Jacobs, M.R. (1955) Growth Habits of the Eucalypts (Govt. Printer: Canberra).

    Gammage’s argument is that we should seek out the totality of the evidence when looking to interpret Australia’s vegetation history. Hopefully a few of the above sources will widen reader’s horizons in this respect.

  72. Stewie November 18, 2011 at 10:32 am #

    ‘Those poor Aborigines, they’ll never know the joy of traffic jams, a factory or office job or the sweet burden of a 25 year mortgage! And poor us, we’ll never get to experience being speared or clubbed when we stuff up. It’s all relative isn’t it?’

    Yes but…..

    The same vehicle I used when stuck in peak hour traffic on the way to my St Kilda rd. office, I used to convey myself many hunderds of times, deep into the mountains, where the aborigines once roamed. Where T.V. and books are replaced by a demanding reality. A reality that says be honest about yourself or you will suffer.
    With a 4wd and sound driving ability, I have been able to expose myself to many landscapes, relatively quickly, compared to aborigines on foot. Although once my vehicle got me in somewhere, I was often on foot, often visiting the remotest most rugged areas, all on my lonesome. Ever been in very remote locations and been scared for whatever reason. I have. Many times. At first you get nothing out of it but scared. Overtime though you can change profoundly until eventually you get an intuition, like a third sense. I used to be able to guess the time almost exactly to the minute on most occasions (as long as I didn’t think about it to much. The first guess that came into the head was the right one.) and I relied heavily on this ‘guessing’. I never wore a watch because where I went I would probably damage it, sweat formed under it, it could get caught on things and frankly I didn’t need it.
    So many times have I done this that the constant exposure and underlying threats of that environment can change you profoundly. You will start to think like an aboriginal in many ways. It is unavoidable. The environment dictates that. I think this is relative though, to how far out of your comfort zone you go and the risk to your personnel safety. I went right out of my comfort zone many atime and nearly died on a number of occasions. It can bring extrordinary human potential out. Whats your real potential in the mountains of Victoria RW. Or have you always relied on mad made systems and mainly books and perhaps, the odd EVC map. Perhaps you spend most of your time in an office. Air con and flouros.
    You lived in the bush did you? What does that exactly mean? I know many farmers and locals that never really go out in the bush. They talk sometimes like they do but they really don’t, that much. I’ve read many reports and books etc. but it’s hard to beat long term exposure. Many times I have stood on ground where no white man had probably ever stood before. But I was always accutely aware of the ghosts of the aborigines.

  73. Hasbeen November 18, 2011 at 11:17 am #

    RWFOH, I am fully prepared to grant that the Aboriginals had modified the Oz landscape to one more suited to people wandering around the place naked. I agree that the landscape they developed is a much more attractive one than has been forced on us by our damn fool greenies

    However to suggest that these naked people, throwing rocks & sticks at things, in an attempt to gather something to eat, is in any way an example of a sophisticated society is going a bit far.

    In my wandering around Oz & the Pacific islands I have seen many varied levels of sophistication in local peoples, & as a secure way of providing for people, the aboriginal is the least productive I’ve seen.

    With all this tripe we see written about their use of fire as a management tool, the main use is usually neglected. That is it’s use as a tool to drive game to the hunter. The park like landscape was an accidental result of their burning, not the aim of it.

    When used this way, the reason for a small patch of burning becomes more obvious, as it reduces the distance required to travel before the technique can be used again.

    Yes obviously they would have known that the fresh green shoots that follow a fire do attract game, but it is also much harder to get into spear or rock delivery range of game, when there is no cover for the hunter.

    I find far too much of this stuff is written by city people who have no idea of hunting, particularly with the short range weapons of the aborigines.

  74. el gordo November 18, 2011 at 11:39 am #

    Just found this to assist the science.

  75. el gordo November 18, 2011 at 11:45 am #

    I maybe wrong about the impact of humans on the Australian landscape.

    ‘The popular notion that Aborigines carried out widespread burning of the Australian landscape is a myth, research shows.

    ‘A study of charcoal records has found that the arrival of the first Australians about 50,000 years ago did not result in significantly greater fire activity across the continent.’

    Read more:

  76. spangled drongo November 18, 2011 at 11:57 am #

    When the only tool you have is a firestick then “management” can be pretty indiscriminate.

    A “smoke” was also a method of communication and when a group were travelling through other tribes territory they lit up burnable bush to be polite and let the locals know they were there.

    “We knew you were coming, we saw your smoke two days out”.

    Aboriginal stockmen [and white stockmen when they cottoned on] used this method for organising big musters in unfenced country.

    These calling cards got out of hand from time to time.

  77. cohenite November 18, 2011 at 12:32 pm #

    “These calling cards got out of hand from time to time.”

    Very Droll Spangles. The ‘relatives’ dropping by is always likely to create some heat.

  78. RWFOH November 18, 2011 at 1:41 pm #

    There are a lot of points I’d respond to if I had more time but two quick observations would cover most of them.

    1/ Without any evidence to support their case, people presume to know what Aborigines were doing, how they were doing it and why they were doing it. We can all make wild or educated guesses about these things but I don’t think any of us are definitive authorities on it.

    2/ Our scientific model is only just beginning to show us that we don’t know what we don’t know.

    “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. ” Former United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld

  79. Stewie November 18, 2011 at 2:10 pm #

    S.D. Regarding the SMH article.

    The mountains here in East Victoria provide little depositional oppurtunities for such sediments over the long period. The ground is constantly eroding and relatively shallow, with bedrock often not far down. Charcoal would wash down hillsides and break up in short time I would think. I thought it might be different on the lowlands though.

    In 1999 I rang a number of departments trying to see if anybody has or would to sediment core samples down in Lakes Entrance, Victoria, to ascertain fire frequency through sedimentation analysis. It is into these lakes that a number of major rivers (the Macalister, Thomson, Aberfeldy, Nicholson, Mitchel, Dargo, Wonnangatta, Wongungurra, Tambo, Timbarra rivers) drain, most of which go from the alps/high plains down through some of the worlds most fire prone forests, into the lakes.

    Nobody seemed to be interested at all. Not the CSIRO, the Arthur Ryahl Institute, Parks Victoria, DSE. Even rang green groups. They were all to busy putting up ‘Special Protection Zone’ signs, as a sign of their ‘special’ management.

    Google reveals Dr. Mooney has authored a few reports on fire. I note he is keenly interested in climate and fire. One report, ‘ Clues to the ‘burning question’: Pre-European fire in the Sydney coastal region from sedimentary charcoal and palynology. Mooney, Radford, Hancock.’ It states,

    ‘Recent fire events were not always reflected in the charcoal results. Nonetheless it can be concluded that since about AD 1930 the area has been characterized by a relatively high frequency of fires.’

    ‘How Aboriginal people used fire in this landscape is still uncertain. However, it is possible that they did not regularly burn the landscape, or if they did, it was in such a way that the delivery of charcoal to the lagoon was minimal.’

    Are these ‘expert’ opinions?? They’re all over the place. A bet each way. I don’t think they really have a clue and I bet they’re looking in the wrong places anyway. Accidently, of course. The words ambiguous, ommission and politics come to mind when I read such reports. It has not changed since the 1970’s except that they hide the reports behind firewalls now. The pseudo experts of the 1980’s have obviously been cloned.

  80. kuhnkat November 18, 2011 at 2:43 pm #


    do tell us about the aborigines connection to the land and how it impacts this discussion.

    Oh, and how this spiritual connection just happens to allow them to exist more effectively than otherwise with their otherwise limited technology.

    Unless you can come up with a convincing something out there for them to connect to it is all in their heads just like Zeus and Thor and Amen Ra…

  81. RWFOH November 18, 2011 at 3:40 pm #

    Stewie, I seem to recall a paper on some cores taken from a swamp on the Delegate River near Bendoc in E Gippy. I think one of the authors was Peter Gell and the title was something like “Past Fire Regimes in the Upper Delegate River Valley”.

    This might be it:

    kuhnkat, “do tell us about the aborigines connection to the land and how it impacts this discussion.”

    Can you hear that? You might be some distance away but the sound is crickets chirping. I’m just going to pick up my jaw from the floor. I may be gone for some time.

  82. cohenite November 18, 2011 at 3:49 pm #

    There’s no doubt you are condescending RW; the question about ‘spirituality’ is to the point; I mean, what is a “spiritual connection to the land”? Is is the “gaia” concept purified; are the aborigines the source of the AGW concept; and if aborigines have this “spiritual” connection how can we prove it scientifically? Are we left with just accepting what we are told by the likes of you?

    Come to think about it it’s just like AGW.

  83. RWFOH November 18, 2011 at 3:57 pm #

    More crickets cohenite…..

  84. cohenite November 18, 2011 at 4:27 pm #

    You may be knowledgeable RW but increasingly your responses are troll-like; that is you divert, ignore and insult.

    Kuhnkat asked a perfectly reasonable question about aboriginal “connection” to the land; you derided him; I ask about a “spiritual connection” which is wheeled out everytime the issue of aboriginal culture is discussed and you still play silly buggars.

    So be it; actually I think this discussion is the one that should be occurring instead of the phony scam of AGW; that is, what is humankind’s relationship with our enevironment and how should we manage it; the experience of the aboriginals is part of that discussion but as usual it is subverted by ideological perspectives; that’s where you come in Mr Closed Mind.

  85. Stewie November 18, 2011 at 4:41 pm #

    RW your suggested link reveals another problem in the process, lack of transparency in the scientific process. Reports are hidden behind fire walls. Of course the teaser title and an abstract is available. The title I found on many occassions over state the content. The titles often sound definitive when they’re not. Reports are often instead very simple, with perhaps predictions being made that only complicate otherwise simpler issues. Also to thoroughly understand the content you will often have to read other reports that are referenced (and also behind paywall). Often reports are rehashed older studies with a little extra prediction. I have noticed this a lot with flora and fauna reports.

    Thanks, I’m not risking my money.

  86. el gordo November 18, 2011 at 7:45 pm #

    Does anyone know if this comment is true?

    ‘The mega fauna disappeared because of the burning off of the savannah on which they grazed. Of all the archaeological evidence which is available there is only one instance of mega fauna being cooked and eaten.’

  87. jennifer November 18, 2011 at 10:51 pm #

    Cohenite, RWFOH et. al.

    I think you both, and some others, who have commented at this thread are confounding a few issues. Let’s try and tease some of the issues apart:

    Someone may be a great physicist, but a neglectful husband. And so particular aboriginal tribes/all aboriginal tribes may have abused their women but managed their landscape really well.

    What do we mean by “really well”? There seems to be no agreement at this thread as to what this means, but I for one totally reject Cohenite’s definition that appear to link landscape management to food production.

    Just as there is more to life than eating, there is more to a well managed landscape than food production. I am a great fan of Australian agriculture and science, but neither have all the answers when it comes to landscape management.

    As Stewie suggests, the more time you spend exposing yourself to a landscape the better you might understand it. And spending time in a landscape involves more than driving through it, or ploughing through it. It means honestly observing it over time including understanding the effect of different fire regimes, drought and flood on particular species of plant and animal.

    There is evidence that at least some aborigines spent much time studying the landscape and the “heavens”… some perhaps because they were hungry, others perhaps because they were intrigued by the influence of the moon on weather, the effect of fire on particular species of plant and animal.

    As regards Cohenite’s use of the word “luxury” and query about “what lifestyle we should be aiming for”… I have the luxury of spending most afternoons walking on the beach or in the bush for an hour or two. I really value this aspect of my lifestyle. But I wouldn’t seek to impose it on others. Some of my close friends and relatives apparently feel sorry for me because I don’t have a proper job and am not living in a city with cinemas, theatres and coffee shops… or own an iphone :-).

    I’m a fan of the Greek philosopher Epicurus who suggested we just need three things for a happy life: 1. Friends, 2. Freedom and 3. Time to reflect. I also need my own space.

  88. Farmer Doug 2 November 19, 2011 at 7:16 am #

    Sorry Jen but you (and Epicurus) do have to eat and keep the weather out. Agreed though that friends, freedom and spare time make life much happier.

    Some posts back RW wrote “biologically richer 200 years ago”. The definition of “richer” might get to the heart of this debate.


  89. cohenite November 19, 2011 at 8:36 am #

    Jennifer. I think you have hit the nail on the head, although you have misrepresented me to a certain extent when you say this:

    “but I for one totally reject Cohenite’s definition that appear to link landscape management to food production.”

    I accept that such cultural attributes as cave painting and the Dream-time exposition showed that aboriginals were not hunting/gathering/surviving 24/7 but still my point is that the exigencies of survival meant that aspect of aboriginal culture dominated to an extent unrecognisable to Western culture.

    Your main point about what you find agreeable and enriching however, really distinguishes aboriginal and Western culture; that is individuality; aboriginal culture was and still is highly tribalised; that tribal basis of their culture goes beyond the fact that Western culture offers vastly more roles, positions and opportunities for individual expression than aboriginal culture [despite RW’s disparaging 9 to 5, working for the man diatribe]; Western culture is based on individuality with groupings which do occur based on individuals joining other individuals not individuality lost to a tribal or group identity. It is this aspect which I believe is responsible for most of the ‘clashes’ between aboriginal law [sic] and Western law; it is also an area of confrontation between other cultures, predominantly Islam, and the West.

    As for personal choice; I grew up on a farm and found it desolate; I can still remember walking in the out paddocks, by a stream on a clear winter’s day with the westerly blowing through the Sheoaks; listening to that eerie sound I could well understand how many early settlers went bush mad as Lawson noted:

    I’m a city boy; as I have said before I think cities, Western cities are magnificent and are testimony to humankind’s ability to conquer some of nature’s misery; all the facilities, amenities, accoutrements of the modern lifestyle [and it is surely one of the great ironies that 99% of green voters live in cities not the bush] which are present in cities only exist because nature has been held at bay.

    What Gammage seems to be saying is that the aborigines conquered nature and forced the natural landscape to their bidding and desired lifestyle; I think that is demonstrably wrong; I think aboriginal culture was of nature and determined by nature whereas Western culture is not; as I say a natural lifestyle requires tribalism because individuals cannot survive as a species by themselves living according to natural dictates. People who go bush and then advocate a natural lifestyle ignore that ineluctable fact.

  90. debbie November 19, 2011 at 9:19 am #

    Gotta agree with farmer Doug Jen,
    First and foremost we need to have water, food and shelter. Very close behind that we need to ensure the safety of our children.
    When those are taken care of, mankind has the abiltity to create, produce, manage, philosophise etc etc….ususally to the benefit of securing and advancing civilization.
    As always, when the ability to create a lifestyle that involves those 3 basics at its core is threatened, opposition and rebellion is following close behind.
    Check our human history, particularly the rise and fall of civilizations.
    When our first Australians were faced with plenty, they too had the opprtunity to consider ways to improve their environment.
    It is in all human nature to do that.
    I sit on the fence betwen you and Cohenite.
    I would NEVER give up my connection to the bush, I adore both the native fauna and flora as well as the amazing enhancements we have achieved in our patch of the bush.
    I also recognise the remarkable achievements of urbanisation and the rich cultural enhancements and extra security that cities provide. I love to immerse myself in that too but I have to admit that I prefer the peace and quiet of the bush.
    They both have their place and they are both testaments to human nature and human culture.
    People like RWFOH who make value judgements and try to scientifically complicate very basic concepts in an effort to make themselves sound superior to the rest of us mere mortals just make me laugh.
    Of course we don’t know what we don’t know RWOH….what a blatantly stupid and pointless comment.
    Maybe you should point that out to the AGW crowd who still think they can predict the future.
    It’s our search for knowledge and understanding that makes humans such an interesting and largely successful species.
    It is highly opinionated, highly negative and and highly critical people like you who actually obstruct that continual search and the advantages we can reap from that.
    The fact that you pretend you are being so obstructive for some nefarious, noble (but largely un named cause) is truly absurdly hilarious.
    Chill out a bit RWFOH and pay some attention to the amazing achievements and WHY we have all inherited the benefits of those.

  91. RWFOH November 19, 2011 at 9:33 am #

    I haven’t read the book and doubt that anyone here has? I did listen to a radio interview and the central premise seemed to be that landscapes were consciously “managed” and that some modern attempts at “conservation” were misguided and ecologically destructive. (That should win him a few fans here but in the stampede to disparage Aboriginal culture that point was overlooked)

    In an attempt to reconstruct how the landscape was modified by Aborigines use of fire I would try to identify ways in which it could have been used.

    To control (encourage/discourage) particular plant and animal species.

    As a hunting tool.

    To maintain fire refuges for humans (and animals – as a food source).

    To remove threat from some areas.

    Offensively/defensively in conflict.


    Fire may also have been used (or not used) at certain places for spirtual/cultural reasons. The lore/law may have dictated such things through “dreamtime stories” long after any practical rationale was lost.

    The problem I see with us trying to approximate and reintroduce fire regimes similar to those around in Aboriginal times is that we lack information. Despite all the bluff and bluster about greenies wanting to exclude fire entirely, I challenge anyone to find someone who promotes that view. If you can find one I could find a hundred who don’t support that view and are more concerned about having the appropriate fire regimes in place.

    My fear is that injudicious use of fire, masquerading behind “Western science” that owes more to politics than scientific method, will do more harm than good to Australian ecology. Fire is a powerful evolutionary mechanism, we play with it at our, and Nature’s, peril. “Watch me pull a cane toad out of my hat”.

  92. cohenite November 19, 2011 at 10:12 am #

    “Despite all the bluff and bluster about greenies wanting to exclude fire entirely, I challenge anyone to find someone who promotes that view.”

    We have gone down this path with you before RW:

    As for green policies and bushfire management, consistent with aboriginal practice or otherwise, this:

    And this:

  93. Stewie November 19, 2011 at 10:24 am #

    If I tried to see it from an aboriginals point of view, from the places I’m familiar with, I’d say,
    Fire – Practical (Survival depends on this bit).
    Food gathering tool (aids ambush strategies both with live fire [flush out or towards], using green pick as lure [ambush from flanks using vegetation or other cover working in teams using gullies or spurs to gain position), weapon (defence & offence), forward motion clearing tool (going to see the neighbours, exploration in the early years of aboriginal settlement, going to ceremonial/novel events), static area (campsites) fuel clearing tool (for surveilance and defence strategies, protection from bushfire.),

    Fire – managed?
    Surely the answer is a solid yes and no, with variations on fire model but it’s the no you want I’d be most concerned about.
    We have escaped fires and lightning strikes. Undoubtedly, especially when you consider particular environmental features, fire must have got away from the aboriginals. I think on many occasions they would not of cared less. If it did and it moved into foothill/mountain terrain, there is every chance it quickly becomes something unstoppable. Fires could have burnt for months at a time, even years.
    Nonetheless, their skills and knowledge of fire behaviour must have become profound/ significant through exposure. I am sure it started for practical reasons and not as a scientific experiment or spiritual obsession. These two things may have had influence later on but really were always along for the ride. Ultimately what is, is. Fire in skilled hands would be a powerful survival tool and they could experiment with it/use it however they liked. The fact they were on foot was an overwhelming consideration. We know that, for a number of reasons, burnt country is so much easier to walk through than heavily vegetated country. Simple as that. There’s a huge difference.

    Spiritual – Often impractical but unavoidable.
    Opening a can of witchety grubs here. I think for sure you can claim spiritual connection to land. How deep do you want to go, whats your exposure to a given topic (direct experience) and what is the point trying to be made/proven and etc.? Survival instinct to me is an attempt to balance the spiritual with the practical but starts with the practical. I know a fire won’t give a damn about your spirit. Try knealing in front of a fire and praying for it to stop. Do you believe in rain dancers? Do you believe lizard spirits formed lakes? Good diversion from reality. Good diversion for politicians (especially those who don’t have practical experience.)

  94. Bill Burrows November 19, 2011 at 10:34 am #

    Gee Cohenite I’m sorry for you. To take the boy away from the farm, as well as the farm away from the boy is a deep loss. Hopefully now that you are a dyed in the wool city slicker you haven’t also fallen for that Punch line “Who needs farmers? You can buy all the food you need in the Supermarket anyway”!
    As one ‘born in the bush’ and who has stayed with it professionally and emotionally all his life I would also like to see this discussion reduced to one ineluctable fact. This is that our intact grazed woodlands (50+ M ha in Qld alone – an area equivalent to the area of all the rural land in NSW) have now been permanently protected from clearing, on the presumption that they are remnants (representative in composition and structure) of the 1788 vegetation. This is despite all the scientific, historical, photographic, anecdotal etc information that points to this being patently untrue. The green gods worship trees , insectivorous birds and arboreal mammals. Tough titties if you are a granivorous bird, a grass or a ground based marsupial. Recognising biodiversity is helped by only having one eye.
    There was a Royal Commission in NSW in 1901 highlighting these vegetation ‘flips’ to woody plant dominance in the Cobar-Byrock area and seeking to explain the reasons for them. There was not much hard science presented as evidence, but a conga line of landholders, ringers and government officials whose collective ‘memory’ still encompassed the period of domestic livestock introduction more or less told the same story. “Generally speaking the Cobar-Byrock region was open box-forest country, with an occasional cypress pine tree upon it”. However following the arrival of Europeans and their domestic stock there was “a cessation of bush fires that formerly occurred periodically. This afforded the noxious scrub a chance of making headway”. [There was a follow-up Interdepartmental Inquiry into the same area and problems in 1969 – nothing had improved since 1901]. Today this dense shrub-woodland is a distinctive feature in all satellite images of Australia.
    My point is that whether you believe changed fire regimes were the prime cause of the vegetation flips or not, or whether you believe the aborigines actively managed the vegetation to keep it open is moot, compared with the fact that we are legislatively conserving vegetation today on the basis that it allegedly represents the pre-european or pristine remnants. This is a clear delusion. And guess what – Queensland landholders now cannot use fire to manage their land unless they get a CLEARING permit, as well as the normal burning permit. The fines for not getting this clearing permit are not insubstantial. “Hughie” must be trembling on his clouds up high every time He starts a lightning fire on the earth beneath, for fear the Queensland government is going to send Him an invoice for illegal clearing!

    [RWFOH – the Qld EPA set aside Mazeppa National Park in central Qld to preserve the “pristine” brigalow scrub. Over the years all the adjoining landholders told them that they needed to put a control burn through the park so as to minimise its fire risk. The local EPA rangers agreed but all their requests to burn were vetoed by the Brisbane boffins. You guessed it? Yep a couple of years back the ‘pristine’ brigalow ignited in a holocaust. Tat ta the pristine brigalow scub – one community I do agree needed conserving. The fact is that all over this country people are “managing” tracts of land to preserve its pre-european status without any concept that what they are preserving is actually what they claim it is; and without acknowledging the huge array of evidence to guide them how to do it, even if they correctly identified true remnants.]

  95. cohenite November 19, 2011 at 10:48 am #

    “Hopefully now that you are a dyed in the wool city slicker you haven’t also fallen for that Punch line “Who needs farmers? You can buy all the food you need in the Supermarket anyway”!”

    Definitely not!

  96. Stewie November 19, 2011 at 11:08 am #

    Heard an interview on ABC radio with a woman from Australia a couple of months ago. This woman had married into a remote african tribe. She went on to describe how because she has married into this tribe it now meant the tribe considered all australians as relatives/family. She went on to give an example of this new bond by enthusiastically describing the following.

    In brief,
    When the fires were burning here during Black Saturday, she got word of it in the village. The woman had relatives in Victoria who were threatened. When the villagers heard of this, they became frantic and according to their custom in such situations, the idea is to gather as many goats as possible (for the gods). She said she didn’t think to much of it until the next day when they returned with a lot of goats. This time they were even more upset because they didn’t know how to get the goats to Australia.

    Where do you start………..

  97. Stewie November 19, 2011 at 11:32 am #

    Bill Burrows, there is a section of bush out the back of my town which I decided to cross match to an ecological vegetation class map to see what they called it. I knew a particular area to be choked with maneuca and other shrubs (dead and alive). A tangled mess extrordinarily difficult to get through. Each step is a struggle, 5ft. of clearing is a relief and you won’t be coming back the way you came.

    This common scrub you will find in most places.

    On the EVC map, in this location, to the north of town, its labelled ‘ancient scrub’.

    Where do you start…………

  98. Stewie November 19, 2011 at 11:38 am #

    Sorry, ‘ancient scrub’, should be ‘ancient shrub’.

  99. John Sayers November 19, 2011 at 11:45 am #

    I had a series of discussions with an old miner outside of Kunanurra in northern WA. He had been mining there for over 50 years. Directly opposite where we were sitting there was a hillside and we counted the trees on the ridge. There were 6.

    He said when he first came the whole hillside was covered in trees but since the indigenous population were driven off the cattle stations after Whitlam’s equal pay rules in the 70s they had been burning the local area every year, he suggested in defiance!! I can tell you the local Aboriginals had no method or plan for their burning – they just burnt everything, yet because the hillside used to be covered in trees it appears there was a system or some sort of control prior to that time.

  100. RWFOH November 19, 2011 at 12:23 pm #

    Stewie, I forgot mention fire as a tool of egress. Getting back to the Alp migration, I’ve heard the common routes were along ridge lines. Presumably fires would have been on the way up and back but perhaps there would have been more burning on the way out when they were going down hill and the winter was approaching?

    One of the benefits of lighting up the ridge lines is that fires would only trickle downwards toward gullies. This would have allowed gullies to keep closed canopies and remain moist and would have favored rainforest and riparian species that tend to mitigate fire. Therefore, in the event of uncontrolled ignitions like lightning, fires would be less likely to get long runs and become big and dangerous. This relates to fire connectivity on a macro scale. One issue I have is that this version conflicts with the physical evidence of wet, tall forests at elevation that had long intervals between fire. On one level it points to diverse and complex systems and not what appears to be vast tracts of uniform forest to less perceptive eyes.

    Cohenite, your links are to the usual rants from the usual suspects. Nothing new or interesting there. Although I will say Packham perfectly illustrates my concerns about people putting the ideological cart before the scientific horse.

    I heard him on radio the other day singing up the spectre of bushfire as a weapon of terror (presumably Islamic). That ties in with his crap about “eco-terrorists waging a jihad”. We have enough religious nuts and mental cases without a glory seeking has-been stoking the fire all so that he can appear relevant. He and the modern world parted company some time in the first half of last century. He is not a only a disgrace to science but also to human decency.

    Black Saturday showed that you can die in semi-rural and semi-urban environments just as easily as in the bush itself. If people don’t want to face Australia’s cruel reality that’s one thing but after we’ve changed the very nature of the land to accommodate the unrealistic expectations of imbeciles don’t come to me weeping into your hanky about how the Australian landscape has been butchered and simplified into a shadow of its former ecological richness and grandeur. Even then this land will still be burning the naive, ignorant and unwary to death.

  101. kuhnkat November 19, 2011 at 12:24 pm #


    I guess those crickets are walking through your jaw on the floor while you attempt to come up with a cogent explanation of YOUR SPIRITUAL CONNECTION to the land statement.

    By the way, thank you for outing yoursel on the use of out of context quotes to attempt to discredit your opponent. I will make doubly sure I check everything you quote in the future by reading the full thread. Unless you “FORGOT” what you actually wrote??

  102. kuhnkat November 19, 2011 at 12:39 pm #


    on your last statement, thanks for ignoring that radical environmentalists and moron politicians are behind the poor land management causing the destructive fires. What else should we expect from someone like you though??

    By the way, do you have any actual checkable facts or are you all supposition, imagination, and bogosity??

  103. RWFOH November 19, 2011 at 12:48 pm #

    I don’t know what you’re talking about kuhnkat. You’ll need to be less obtuse and more direct.

    You wrote “do tell us about the aborigines connection to the land and how it impacts this discussion.”

    In case you missed it, the title of the article is “How Aborigines Made Australia: Bill Gammage”. If you don’t know anything about Aboriginal culture I suggest you start reading before making stupid statements.

  104. cohenite November 19, 2011 at 1:39 pm #

    Crikey RW, you get into poor old Packham for ranting and then this:

    “If people don’t want to face Australia’s cruel reality that’s one thing but after we’ve changed the very nature of the land to accommodate the unrealistic expectations of imbeciles don’t come to me weeping into your hanky about how the Australian landscape has been butchered and simplified into a shadow of its former ecological richness and grandeur. Even then this land will still be burning the naive, ignorant and unwary to death.”

    What “unrealistic expectations”? It seems to me that you do pontificate from a perspective of what sort of society and lifestyle and population you think appropriate for this country; so how about stopping obfuscating and starting naming names.

  105. Stewie November 19, 2011 at 4:07 pm #

    ‘Presumably fires would have been on the way up…’

    What makes you think that???? The bogong moths head to the alps to escape the heat. This corresponds with a good time to burn. Spring burns.

    ‘One of the benefits of lighting up the ridge lines is that fires would only trickle downwards toward gullies. This would have allowed gullies to keep closed canopies and remain moist and would have favored rainforest and riparian species that tend to mitigate fire.’

    I think you need to speak to somebody re night vs day and fire behaviour. What happens to the air temp in valleys, day vs. night. I believe if done correctly you get a overlapping scallop effect, up and down the slope. The right time of the year and the riparian is to moist. Riparian meaning that which sits on buried alluvial wash full of moisture. Substantial sections of riparian can wash away in floods. Riparian communities often grow back very quickly.

    Oh the rainforest ruse is here to confuse the issue. Ommission, ambiguous and symbolic politics comes to mind. Why do you (and others) refer to high rainfall rainforest so often? Is that where Gaia was born? Concentrate on the forests that need regular burning. There is a lot of that out there, it rapidly fills with fuel. If you don’t your rainforests may get wicked by these neighbouring forests one day. Do you realise what forces were at play in the 1939 fires? It took 2 hours to get from Noojee to Omeo via Mt. Hotham. Have you seen the photos of mown down trees, ridge after ridge. From Hotham Heights, looking west and south after 1939 as far as you can see was wiped.

    ‘……I will say Packham…..’

    RW your confidence is transparent and obvious. It doesn’t match your experience though.
    Would you like to speak to Packham himself? I doubt he would bother but I can try and organise it though. Two words come to mind here. Smack and down. You do have no idea.

    You cannot honestly think terrorism isn’t a problem do you? Wake up to yourself.

    Years ago we had an interview with ex Minister Esplins staff at his Tivoli Court offices. Towards the end we were getting up, pushing the chairs under the desk, and as an afterthought I quickly mentioned the threat of terrorism and forest fire. You should have seen there faces. They went white and their jaws smacked into the floor. They mumbled something along the lines ‘Um, yes, we know that mumble, mumble…….’ We then left.
    The guy I was with said as soon as we got outside, ‘Did you see the look on their faces?’ Sure did.

    ‘Black Saturday showed that you can die in semi-rural and semi-urban environments just as easily as in the bush itself.’

    Ash Wednesday showed that. Catch up RW. And have some respect.

  106. RWFOH November 19, 2011 at 5:27 pm #

    Obviously cohenite, the “unrealistic expectations” belong to those who like the idea of country life but become panic stricken when reality sets in and set about trying to change the environment by cutting, slashing and burning what they supposedly came to enjoy. The fringes of Melbourne are full of these idiots and their actions are dramatically changing these environments. They should just move to some treeless housing estate in a dustbowl where their greatest fear would be losing the remote for the TV.

    Stewie, are you another redneck who has a meltdown when they hear the word “rainforest”? Victoria has about 15,000 ha or rainforest (40,000 ha if you include the ‘ecotone’ which has emergent eucalypts present. The borders of the respective eucalypts and rainforest communities are dynamic). Rainforest stands here are generally linear and are rarely wider than 200m with 50-100m being the norm. As they are comprised mainly of hydrophylic species they are usually wet. This hydrological gradient makes them act as linear buffers against fire spread. In concert with riparian communities on drainage lines (which have similar properties) they mitigate fire over large tracts of land. Every time you log or burn the margins of rainforest you reduce their size and mitigation properties because they are fire sensitive and are easily killed by fire and then replaced by euc dominated communities. Rainforest is also important because it supports many species that can survive in no other community. I hope this explanation helps ease your irrational fear.

    If Aborigines had burned randomly and indiscriminately over Victoria for many thousands of years, I don’t see how rainforest could have survived. I suspect Aborigines actively protected and cultivated them. Of course I have no evidence, only circumstances as explained.

    Could I have made my opinion of Packham any clearer? The man’s a joke and a bad one at that.

    I don’t why you’d exhuast yourself handwringing about “terrorists” when powerlines caused Ash Wednesday and one of the two bad Black Saturday fires. The other Black Saturday fire was allegedly caused by someone with a mental disability or illness. So, your “terrorists” are most probably foreign owned energy distributors with an office in the city. For God’s sake, think of the children and get down there! You might want to keep a close eye on volunteer firefighters while you’re at. They seem to crop up a little too often for comfort.

  107. Bill Burrows November 19, 2011 at 6:36 pm #

    Now that rainforest is getting a mention it is relevant to point out that it is also acting as a good indicator of changed fire regimes. As RWFOH suggests it is quite susceptible to fire, especially at the margins. Yet in far north Queensland rainforest is now actively invading adjacent wet sclerophyll (eucalypt) forest areas. [Harrington, G.N. and Sanderson, K.D. (1994) Recent contraction of wet sclerophyll forest in the wet tropics of Queensland due to invasion by rainforest. Pacific Conservation Biology 1: 319-327.] Analogously we now have 10% more area covered by cypress pine forest in the semi-arid woodlands than was present when the Europeans first displaced the aborigines [Binnington, K. (1997) Australian Forest Profiles 6. White Cypress Pine. (National Forest Inventory – BRS, Canberra).] Cypress pine is very susceptible to fire.
    These examples further emphasise Gammage’s message. There is a consistent pattern throughout the continent that indicates changed fire regimes have contributed to the present composition and structure of our ‘intact’ woodlands and forests. Nevertheless, it was critical to the Australian government’s Kyoto Protocol stance that this “thickening” should (1) not be recognised, and (2) more importantly not be seen to be a result of management decisions. Otherwise we could not utilise Article 3.7 of the Protocol (the “Australia Clause”) to our advantage by pretending that in the Land Use, Land Use Change & Forestry sector in 1990 this sector was a net source of emissions, rather than a net sink [because of the dominance of thickening growth (C sinks) over clearing losses (CO2 sources) at that time]. In simple mathematics, using the LULUC&F sector in Qld as an example, C sinks on 50 M ha far exceeded the C “losses” from 0.5 M ha of clearing. Be assured the Australian Greenhouse Office did a lot of national and international lobbying to worm their way out of that dilemma. Because if they couldn’t, just like the USA, we would never have ratified the Protocol.

  108. Stewie November 19, 2011 at 8:06 pm #

    RW. You have me weally weally wound up. I am not a redneck. Don’t you call me that. Me bogan.

    Rainforest, shmainforest. Please provide clear locations on where your linear rainforest stands are located. Sounds like tricky talk RW. Exaggerations and half truths perhaps?

    I was told, that possibly greenie nutjobs have a dream to replace eucy forests with rainforest. Reverse the trend. Surely this would be a greenies wet dream. All they’d have to do is stop fires. Wedge politics would work fine here.

    Powerlines. I am sure these powerlines were put in before current owners. If our politicians did their job properly, as in planned infrastructure for the country properly, it would have been underground years ago. Can’t help notice powerlines are the perfect scapegoat, in more ways than one, two, three……

    You haven’t been hanging around those nutjobs in Nillimbuk have you.

    Terrorists. Not real you say. Now I know you must be having me on. Have you heard of any Japanese bushfire offensive for Australia in WW2?

    Now RW, I just put me Monaro up for a wager. I say you’re the type that pretends to believe in AGW. Do ya. Huh. Huh. Do ya.

  109. RWFOH November 19, 2011 at 10:19 pm #

    If you think I’m inventing the stuff about rainforest Stewie you’re beyond any help I can offer.

    The powerlines were installed and maintained by the State Electricity Commission. After Kennett broke the SEC up into generators, distributors and retail divisions and sold them into private ownership there isn’t much money left after shareholder returns and executive salaries are skimmed off so the maintenance systems are run on shoe string budgets. The old timers lament the loss of skills, skills training, intellectual capital and economic scales of vertical integration and the reinvestment of capital returns. That’s neo-liberal economics for you.

    I understand the point you’re making Bill Burrows. I know we can’t get the environment back to pre-European condition so we’ll have to prioritise where resources are allocated to achieve the best outcome in terms of conserving biological diversity. For instance, in the situation you describe, I’d be interested to know the current status and representation of wet eucalypt and rainforest compared to 200+ years ago. It might be that, as a proportion of the original, more rainforest has been lost and, in the interests of conserving biodiversity, it may be better to let rainforest expand? It may be the other way round.

    Conservation will compete with economic interests and even other conservation objectives if we want to preserve Australia’s biological heritage.

  110. cohenite November 20, 2011 at 8:38 am #

    “Conservation will compete with economic interests and even other conservation objectives if we want to preserve Australia’s biological heritage.”

    Who would have thought?! I’m shocked!

    In any choice between economic interests and “biological heritage” [what ever that is] I know which side the greens will come down on; that’s green ludditism for you.

  111. Stewie November 20, 2011 at 9:15 am #

    RW. Many of the rainforest attributes you mentioned both at micro/macro level I concur. Fire dampening-obvious you would think. Edge dynamics-forest succession stories are not exclusive to here.

    But where are these strips of rainforest you’re talking about? I am sure they exist. But where? I seems you are inferring a greater effect that rainforest buffer strips have on fire, relative to the overall potential/trouble we have with wildfire, in Victoria.

    Skip this next para if you want, its about me, off-topic, sorry Jennifer,

    ‘If you think I’m inventing the stuff about rainforest Stewie you’re beyond any help I can offer.’

    RW. Can I explain something. I’m not the only one but I have been in the environment a lot. Not a scientist but observant. Like to explore. Almost tri-athlete fit lot of life. Climb like spiderman, love water. Mountains, oceans, etc. That’s me. Rainforest. Yep. Including, lived in Bouganville, 1975, 14 months. 17 years old. Dad engineer, C.R.A. School wasn’t good. Did deal I would repeat HSC when return to Oz in return for free time. The camp we were in, cyclone fence around married and singles quarters. No shops or any other buildings. Smack in middle of jungle. Birempa. Nothing else there. Just surrounded by biodiversity and had 14 months of explore time. What do you reckon I did? Like a pig in poo. Used to dive as much as possible. Used to sneak under spoon drain out back and dissappear into jungle and explore, always. Sometimes with native friends. Explored for old war wreckages. Found planes, tanks, jeeps, shells, grenades, pill boxes. Pig traps, be careful. Learnt to climb paw-paw trees. Yum. Wild peanuts, bananas, mangos. Yum. Had some big tyre tubes and river across road. One day went way up the road jumped in river to float down. Didn’t realise but the river went way inland. Came across a village and played with their kids briefly. Had a ball. They’d never seen a tube I suppose. Left when warrior looking blokes with spears, bows, arrows came out of jungle staring at us, with a look that sent a chill down my spine. Many rapids and small waterfalls later we arrived back at camp. Nearly drowned a couple of times. So did brother. Wild. I’m sure I claim the record for being the first white boy to do that. Army were looking for us. Look out my bedroom window there’s a friggin’ volcano. Smoking!! House used to shake occasionally. I had very tough feet and I was black. Panguna mine is not a pretty sight. Could describe the river that drained the mine but I’ll start using foul language, to express my disgust.

    So I’ve eyeballed real deal native warriors, armed with weapons, while we, white boy strangers on tubes, come out of nowhere, were playing with their kids, miles up a wild river, surrounded by jungle, with my parents not knowing we were up there. I think I knew what those warriors were thinking but I tell you, I’d rather they dealt with me than my mum and dad when I got home.
    Top that.

    Have not lost my sense of adventure since.

    Glad people fight to protect rainforest. Makes me ill seeing it logged.

    Have dealt with many sharks, sea snakes, stone fish, snakes, and much, much more. Dealt with a wildfire as well, very close and personnel, 3 days non-stop. To close. Many times on the edge, in extreme fire conditions. Ever had a tree crown over your head? Used a few of my 9 lives. Sacrificed some of those lives to save other lives.

    Oh. And I have read a lot. There are a lot of bullshit artists in buisness, for sure, but nothing beats environmental buisness in my experience. Suppose it had to happen. Politically we have a mess on our hands.

    What’s some of your experience in the environment? What do you really think you know about it? Hope you do know something about it before you start playing with the fire.

    Gotta go. I’ve got 4oz of beautiful fresh gold nuggets to clean-up and then I’ve got to polish the splats on the monaro.

  112. kuhnkat November 20, 2011 at 11:21 am #


    “I don’t know what you’re talking about kuhnkat. You’ll need to be less obtuse and more direct.

    You wrote “do tell us about the aborigines connection to the land and how it impacts this discussion.””

    No, I wrote:

    “do tell us about the aborigines connection to the land and how it impacts this discussion.

    Oh, and how this spiritual connection just happens to allow them to exist more effectively than otherwise with their otherwise limited technology.

    Unless you can come up with a convincing something out there for them to connect to it is all in their heads just like Zeus and Thor and Amen Ra…”

    Address the whole question and stop trying to imply that what you extracted is all there was. If you wish to throw out the spiritual part then don’t bring it into the discussion. That is, no talk about reverence and that BS unless you wish to discuss how it affects the effectiveness of the skills they developed.

    Additionally you have posted:

    “It’s all a bit too hard for some people to accept that Aborigines developed highly sophisticated fire management skills over 50,000+ years. It just doesn’t fit racial stereotypes does it?”

    “When we look at the ecological health and biodiversity of Australia when Europeans invaded compared to what it is today, I’d say that, at face value, Aborigines must have had far more sophisticated systems and understanding of land management.”

    “We have the Western notion that Aborigines wandered aimlessly around the land in a nomadic “walkabout” lifestyle. These festivals and pilgramages had social, spiritual, cultural and practical function. You could say that they were like Christian and Islamic pilgramages or mass except that they had more practical and less superstitious purpose.”

    “…their business some hundreds of years ago. It’s quite some feat to attribute intents and purposes without being able to refer to a verbatim record in one form or another.”

    “And the idea that they were “busy surviving” doesn’t really stand scrutiny either. I’ve read that it is believed Aborigines spent around 4 hours a day tending to survival needs and the rest of the time was spent on social and cultural matters.”

    And finally after all this, and much more I haven’t copied to save space, you have the unmitigated gall to post:

    “1/ Without any evidence to support their case, people presume to know what Aborigines were doing, how they were doing it and why they were doing it. We can all make wild or educated guesses about these things but I don’t think any of us are definitive authorities on it.”

    Yes, without any evidence you have been haranguing us with suppositions, presumptions, studies by people long dead, and others who presume to have known what the aborigines thought while telling us how little WE know and how WE CAN’T know what they thought!!

    I ask you, how do YOU KNOW any of what you are trying to feed us??

    You don’t. you just want to act like you do know and try to insult and demean others. You know little more than I who addmittedly knows close to nothing about the aborigines, yet, you PRETEND you know because you read and you heard and you may even have talked to an abo. Get over yourself.

    One final question, what does it mean to the Carbon Dating if the Co2 in the atmosphere for the last 50,000 years in Australia AVERAGED around 450ppm??? Then think about how we THINK we know how much CO2 was in the air with proxies such as plant stomata, ocean bottom cores, drips in caves, ice cores…

  113. RWFOH November 20, 2011 at 1:50 pm #

    Kuhnkat, I suggest you enter “Aboriginal spirituality” or “indigenous spirituality” into a search engine (Australian pages) and start reading. You’ll find pages like this:

    You might learn something about Aboriginal spirituality and how it is central to their relationship with the land and informs almost everything they do. Otherwise, you’ll risk coming across as an ignorant, racist turd when you write things like “you may even have talked to an abo”.

    “I ask you, how do YOU KNOW any of what you are trying to feed us??” I’m always trying to learn more about subjects that interest me and discuss these topics with a wide variety of people. I relate what I know (as fact as far as possible) and when I have supposed and speculated I have stated that I’m doing so. If that’s not good enough for you I’ll shout you another layer of tinfoil for your hat.

  114. cohenite November 20, 2011 at 5:25 pm #

    Aboriginal spirituality is animism or a form of religion; as such it is subjective and declaratory and fundamentally unscientific; much like the ideological concept of gaia which philosophically underpins AGW.

    When someone argues to me that a culture has a superior understanding of nature because they believe that all natural things, animate and inanimate, have a spiritual interconnection then I know that no common rational ground for discussion is possible; you either accept their believe or you don’t.

    Fair enough; but what I strongly object to is that policy which affects all of us should then be gnerated on the basis of that spirituality; Australia is a secular society with objective standards of legal process and scientific validation; to give policy form to Dreamtime elelments is the same as giving policy form to Old Testament stories or the elements of any religious form.

    In extracting the worth of aboriginal land practices and incorporating them into a modern system of management I think it is retrograde to filter any discussion and analysis of their land practices through their religious beliefs or spirituality.

  115. el gordo November 20, 2011 at 8:10 pm #

    ‘Otherwise, you’ll risk coming across as an ignorant, racist turd’ in the eyes of the politically correct Thought Police.

    There, fixed it.

    After reading all that has come before, I’ll take the risk and say cohenite wins the debate.

  116. RWFOH November 20, 2011 at 8:36 pm #

    I don’t think the goal here is to replicate Aboriginal culture in its entirety cohenite, just some aspects of their land management practices that have been lost with some negative environmental consequences.

    I challenged statements like “It was MANAGED for the benefit of the ABORIGINALS and not the rest of the biosphere!!”

    If Aborigines themselves identify their spirituality as inextricably linked with the land then I make no apologies for challenging the statement.

    As I pointed out, a simple analysis of outcomes using “objective standards” and “scientific validation” shows that their systems better conserved biological diversity. As they say, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”.

    You can try to quantify and empirically extract any “spiritual” component of their land management practices if you want. While you’re at it, you might also have a look at stripping the 10 Commandments out of our legal statutes if you’re really keen on stripping society of laws or practices perceived to have a spiritual connection or values.

    I don’t hang round churches, synagogues and mosques haranguing believers about what I think are crazy beliefs. Although I do object when they seek to impose those beliefs on me or the beliefs have what I consider to be negative social or environmental impacts. Personally, I don’t see why we shouldn’t try to replicate Aboriginal fire regimes simply because they may have had a spiritual dimension in their culture.

    You can probably guess why I think this issue hits a raw nerve with people.

  117. RWFOH November 20, 2011 at 8:47 pm #

    “in the eyes of the politically correct Thought Police” el gordo? Nah, in the eyes of anyone with half a brain and a shred of decency. You must have missed out on both counts too el.

  118. Neil Hewett November 20, 2011 at 9:20 pm #

    About a month ago, I was getting a courtesy lift to my accommodation house in Alice Springs, by a windscreen repairer. The friendly driver lamented the devastation of the natural environment and the tragic death of such an abundance of old trees. I suggested that electrical storms may have played a part, but she was adamant that arsonists were singularly responsible.

    About a week later, I drove the Sandover Highway from Alice Springs to Lake Nash (638 km) and towards the end of the spectacular run, huge storms developed with lightening bolts striking the landscape all around us. Everywhere the lightening stuck, fires erupted. When we finally made camp, the ominous threat of fire forced us to de-camp and retreat to safer ground.

    Earlier on in our travels, at Nyirripi (in the Tanami Desert), my request for directions to the desert track to Kintore so agitated the resident health-worker (for the apparent irresponsibility of the person who had set ablaze the landscape to the west of the settlement), that she implored me, for the safety of my family, not to proceed.

    Australian landscapes become explosive if they are let alone long enough, and devastated by wildfire, they lose just about everything.

    When Cook arrived and declared the proclaimed lands as ‘unoccupied’, as an international law requirement for establishing sovereignty in the British Crown, the finger of human genius, held sensitively upon the pulse of the natural environment, was ripped asunder and legislated into reserves of exclusionary separation until the bond was irretrievably severed.

    The human presence within the natural environment, at the time of European arrival, epitomised the ultimate instrument of sensitivity for the virtuoso interpretation of the natural environment’s natural resource management requirements.

    Over 2,000 generations of sustainable triumph are testament to the effectiveness of this function. In its severed state, the landscape runs away with fuel loads and then burns to a crisp with the inevitability of lightening strikes.

    Knowing when to burn to avoid this devastation, is entry-level stewardship. Knowing how to perfectly harmonise human frailty into the sustainable management of the natural landscape is the reward for deploying the human instrument to its evolutionary purpose.

  119. jennifer November 20, 2011 at 9:22 pm #

    Remembering what got this thread started, some promo for the book by historian Bill Gammage including the comment:

    “Early Europeans commented again and again that the land [Australia] looked like a park. With extensive grassy patches and pathways, open woodlands and abundant wildlife, it evoked a country estate in England. Bill Gammage has discovered this was because Aboriginal people managed the land in a far more systematic and scientific fashion than we have ever realised.”

    Given the extremely degraded state of some landscapes now, I’m particularly thinking of some Ramsar listed areas and National Parks areas, why shouldn’t we seriously consider restoration… why shouldn’t we seriously consider aboriginal heritage?

    Is there no intrinsic value to a landscape with “abundant wildlife”?

  120. Denis Webb November 20, 2011 at 9:48 pm #

    Some of the posts at Jen’s series on Wilderness ( ) have relevance to this thread. Folllowing Neil Hewett’s comment:

    “For many aboriginal people, wilderness offers no cause for fond nostalgia. Rather, it represents a tract of land without custodians.”
    Martin Thomas, 2003, The Artificial Horizon. pg 29.

  121. cohenite November 20, 2011 at 10:07 pm #

    “Is there no intrinsic value to a landscape with “abundant wildlife”?”

    This is how the debate about human exploitation of nature is often framed. I would take it a step further and ask: Does Earth have any intrinsic value if humans did not exist?

  122. Stewie November 21, 2011 at 7:26 am #

    RW. Big fire comes along. Takes everything you own. Ie. Everything. Includes much family history.

    Did you suffer a spiritual loss? Did you suffer an assets loss? Is any of this important, or is it simply about paperwork (insurance papers).

  123. jennifer November 21, 2011 at 8:33 am #

    Cohenite, I will rephrase what you have written, applying logic (as taught in first year uni):

    If humans exist wildlife has an intrinsic value.
    Humans exist.
    Therefore wildlife has an intrinsic value.

  124. cohenite November 21, 2011 at 10:21 am #

    That’s correct Jennifer and the distinction is important because there is a large section of the green movement who think that the world would be better off without humans; that is, wildlife have an intrinsic value while humans have none.

  125. Stewie November 21, 2011 at 11:09 am #


    Rewind. Ash Wednesday. Rhetorically speaking,

    Why I on earth did Sherbrooke council (full of greens) introduce local native vegetation clearing laws, during a drought, which heavily restricted native veg. clearing, just months prior to Ash Wednesday?

    Are you aware that many long term locals, were very concerned about extreme fires prior to Ash Wednesday? The council not only ignored them but in the weeks leading up to Ash Wednesday, they countered growing concern, by threatening heavy fines for any native veg., including limbs of trees that overhung houses. These were all new laws and they made a strong point they would be strictly applied. This was never on main news bulletins. Meanwhile, a wave of building permits are being signed off by the same council at the same time.

    Why was an experienced local fire captain, replaced with a not so experienced fire captain, who was heavily involved with the unions, just prior to Ash Wednesday?

    Why was the Sherbrooke council shut down after Ash Wednesday, just after the inquiry was also stopped (with no explanation)?

    Coincidently, the the head of the U.S. forest service fire dept. was staying in a house up the road from us when Ash Wednesday hit.

    How can it be, as the fire had just moved up the road, a government worker appears in the middle of this chaos, clean uniform, so well mannered, and with a smile, goes on to try and convince us that fireballs (crowning) wasn’t happening. His version: we are in shock and imagining things. We were shocked but could not have been more alert. What a wanker. We quickly convinced him not to smile at us. Was he controlling/pre-empting future media output? (Lets face it, in the future, this wild crowning behaviour, if taken into account in it’s own right, makes town planning and eco-politics difficult. Fragile environment? People live amongst this environment and don’t remove scrub? That’s like involuntary suicide.)

    Why did the Royal Commission into 2009 fires, as part of its charter, not look specifically at the ecology of fire and those that purport to manage/shape it? Incredible oversight surely.

    Why were the Black Saturday fires unprecedented? They were not unless you talk semantics. Why were residents not properly warned of the extreme fire potential (a.k.a. fireballs and ember storms)? So what is it the authorities learnt so much about from Ash Wednesday that made future fire more manageable?

    What do you think of do-gooders, especially those that come out after an event, who, prior to such event would not give you the time of day to hear your concerns? They in fact often, would just laugh. Followed by attack the messenger.

    In a submision I wrote way back, I suggested that whole towns would dissappear if fuel was not cleared back and buffers created. The buearecrats, with that swarmy, ‘you-can’t –touch- me’ air of confidence were aghast at the suggestion. Repeatedly I was told, “ No, no, you are imaging things. We have a much better grasp on things.” I can now see what they were grasping.

    Rang Yarra valley council years ago (@1995) to express my concern about the estates being built with highly inflammable native shrub filling gardens, bark chip beds (often originating from inflamable trees) and paling fences everywhere. The reason I had rung is because these estates had now come up to the edge of highly inflammable foothill forests. The very ones that exploded in Ash Wednesday. Embers rained down close to these locations back then, when it was still just paddocks. Yarra V council were totally and utterly dismissive. They sounded exactly like Sherbrooke council back in 1982-3.

    Is disaster good for buisness and politicians in anyway?

    These greens back then, had hijacked council(s). Why? Because they could and had. They had/have an agenda showing a complete lack of respect for human life or alternative points of view. That’s my experience thru exposure.

    Round and round we go. Meanwhile, back in the forests, scrub regrowth is extrordinary.

    And there are people who suggest they can control global climate patterns. Ha, ha, ha , ha, ha, ha, ha…….ha.
    No worries mate.

  126. jennifer November 21, 2011 at 11:25 am #


    You must agree then that your argument has been illogical.

    Why didn’t you just agree with me in the first place?

    I’m bothering to keep replying because I think you, and many others at this thread, do yourselves and your cause, a great disservice by appearing anti-environment simply because you are anti-environmentalist.

  127. Stewie November 21, 2011 at 12:14 pm #

    What is better management?

    What is an environmentalist? Who is expert who is not? Who appoints them? Does the media?

    What does the environment mean exactly, legally? It means everything does it not?

    Do I let my kids think carbon is carbon dioxide so they can call themselves an environmentalist one day?

  128. Luke November 21, 2011 at 1:22 pm #

    “because there is a LARGE section of the green movement who think that the world would be better off without humans; that is, wildlife have an intrinsic value while humans have none.’

    fascinating – a most revealing insight

    ability to assess value might require intelligence

  129. cohenite November 21, 2011 at 2:15 pm #

    Jennifer, I do not think my position has been illogical. My argument has been that I do not think aboriginal culture had an overarching management plan for Australia as Gammage is saying; my argument is that aboriginal culture encroached the environment as far as their technology allowed and then by virtue of a very stable geology and climate persisted with that arrangement. The fact a particular ecology developed over the centuries which also brougth with it a particular set of flora and fauna is beside the point.

    Every human interaction with nature will bring about a particular set of flora and fauna and ecology. My position is the defining criteria should be what benefits humans not a concept of pristine nature or wilderness. Some may argue, and I do not disagree in principle but perhaps in degree, that some wilderness is of benefit to humans.

    That is, the arguement for me is the degree of wilderness; in this context environment is DIFFERENT from wilderness. Wilderness has been created by nature; an environment has been affected by humans; in this respect, if Gammage is right there was NO wilderness in Australia when Europeans arrived; or are you saying the aborigines deliberately did not exploit by fire or hunting selected tracts of the Australian continent?

  130. cohenite November 21, 2011 at 2:22 pm #

    “ability to assess value might require intelligence”

    That’s right luke; so the question is, does your ferret assess you or do you assess it?

  131. Luke November 21, 2011 at 3:27 pm #

    So how does a bilby or a bottom-breathing turtle benefit humans really?

    But many of us including farmers themselves enjoy having them around?

    No sense of an aesthetic ? You would like the Blue Mountains cliffs brought to you by MacDonalds? Antarctica by Han Ice ? Surely anything for a quick buck?

    Why does Bush Heritage spend vast amounts of money buying properties? Something real? Authentic?

  132. RWFOH November 21, 2011 at 3:33 pm #

    There appears to general agreement that fire has a critical role in Australian ecology. But it’s not just any fire that’s needed or we’ll risk setting in train processes that threaten to be as problematic as those caused by the absence of fire. How bureaucratic planners on the nth floor in nondescript buildings in capital cities can arbitrarily set targets for scale and location (like Victoria’s new regime) without stuffing things up remains to be seen.

    Any way you look at it, attempting to replicate Aboriginal fire regimes by establishing underpinning science, infrastructure and resources could be a time consuming, laborious and expensive process. We could tap into the interest earned on that Sovereign Wealth Fund for some seed funding … oops, maybe not. Realistically, the best I’d hope for is for the concept to work its way permanently into the management policies and practices of relevant agencies.

    If I was given a choice between what Australia was 200 years ago and what it looks like being 200 years from now if we continue our current trajectory, I know what I’d choose (and, surprisingly cohentite, it doesn’t include eliminating humans from the face of the Earth although I would appreciate it if the Pope advocated birth control in developing countries). Perhaps it’s all comes back to relativity. A desert person is probably attuned to degrees of desert. It might be that Western culture is predisposed to desertification.

    cohenite writes “My position is the defining criteria should be what benefits humans”. I suspect that type of short term thinking might have been the dominant paradigm that shaped the Middle East. That anthropocentric approach hasn’t exactly turned out to be a cracking success. Is it species narcissism? “It’s all about MEEEEeeee!!”? It might also explain why Aborigines had a successful relationship with the land over such a long period. Possibly the oldest surviving (and thereby successful by definition?) human culture on Earth? Is it possible cohenite that what will benefit humans most in the longer term may be, as far as practicable, the restoration and conservation of natural systems?

    Stewie, you’re all over the shop. I’ve got plenty of opinions on what you wrote but I’m conserving limited resources to explore the topic raised at hand.

  133. cohenite November 21, 2011 at 3:57 pm #

    You’re hyperventilating luke; I don’t advocate any species extinction excepts perhaps mosquitoes; and as corporate citizens go, MacDonalds rank reasonably high.

    As for RW; the best social contraception, sans the pernicious affect of religion, is prosperity. The Green movement IS an anti-prosperity movement; explicitly via its phiolosphical spokespersons like Hamilton and through its opposition to cheap energy.

    The great irony of the AGW debate is that the environment does better in advanced Western nations and worse in 3rd world countries.

    Make people prosperous and they will stop breeding and cast their misty, befuddled eyes towards nature.

    If R&D had been directed towards more efficient coal furnances as are being deveoloped in China using Ultra Supercritical technology, and if Thorium had been deveoloped than even if AGW was real, it would be a storm in a tea-cup, solved without the assault on living standards.

    And it is in respect of living standards that the hypocrisy of the greens and AGW alarmists generally are manifest; wowsers to their last person standing they are offended by materialism and the plebs enjoying a good standard of living; why else would they threaten that lifestyle based on regular power and attendant amenities by demanding investment in failed technologies like wind and solar?

  134. RWFOH November 21, 2011 at 3:59 pm #

    You should enjoy this Stewie:

  135. RWFOH November 21, 2011 at 4:11 pm #

    “The Green movement IS an anti-prosperity movement;”

    No-one told me that! And here I was, owner/operator of a small business for 25 years. Sorry team, I didn’t mean to let you down.

    And you accuse Luke of hyperventilating? Is it possible to have a debate here without blowing up hyperbole meters and needing to call in a CAT team?

  136. cohenite November 21, 2011 at 4:19 pm #

    Read what I said RW, which is that the greens are hypocrites as well as being anti-prosperity; and in any event the carbon TAX and other green/AGW ‘solutions’ were not around 25 years ago, were they.

  137. RWFOH November 21, 2011 at 4:44 pm #

    I must confess that I’m not pure cohenite and my business does have a carbon footprint but the impact of the tax is so small it won’t even register unlike the GST. I can’t think of any other “green/AGW ‘solutions’ ” that you might be referring to, can you name some?

    I don’t understand why, on any topic here, people have a pathological need and desire to introduce AGW.

    I wonder if it’s because a good old fashioned rant about AGW has a therapeutic effect for people? Maybe you’re addicted to the endorphin rush you get when you click “submit” and nuke the barbarians? I wonder if I could make a buck offering on-line counselling for the condition? I might even be able to get funding from the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency.

  138. cohenite November 21, 2011 at 5:09 pm #

    “green/AGW solutions”: carbon TAX etc.

    I’ll do anything you ask as long as you stop these dreadful amateur attempts to psycho-analyse the other commentators.

    More generally the issue of aboriginal lifestyle, sustainability and the exigencies of AGW have been joined by other pro-AGW commentators such as Glenn Albrecht and Hamilton; see this, especially the exchange with Albrecht at 7th October 2010:

    Since, as I have argued, one of the pillars of AGW is a change in lifestyle and given the aboriginal culture is referred to as a more natural and sustainable lifestyle I don’t think it is unreasonable to involve AGW in a discussion about aboriginal culture.

  139. Luke November 21, 2011 at 6:35 pm #

    Just waffle Cohenite. You are not advancing any framework or guidance. Merely advocating that humans come first, prosperity is all …. yes, yes yes we know that – boring and zzzzzzzzzzzzz

    “oooo oooo It’s it really not wildnerness” , “greenies won’t let us burn anything” – what indulgent southern Aussie rust belt waffle and filler

    How does this help with an major extinction event across northern Australia on YOUR watch ! (too many late season hot fires, cats, toads)

    Those who are sentient beings, thinking their might be more to life than rooting it, shooting it and chopping it down might care give a shit.

    Coming with a positive decent policy might require something other than negativity. i.e. this is THE new front line for those having a go

    P.S. Just had a cheeseburger myself but don’t want to see a Maccas sign hanging off the Three Sisters ! Something about aesthetic and intrinsic value.

    On a science note I did enjoy this forensic story of fire and land use change in one northern catchment all about manganese and yttrium you see

  140. Luke November 21, 2011 at 6:39 pm #

    “unreasonable to involve AGW in a discussion about aboriginal culture” – indeed AGW “friendly” early season cooler burns – more frequently – less CH4 and NOx – better biodiversity outcomes a win win …. training, jobs, indigenous knowledge and modern science combined. Plus kids get to ride in helicopters lighting fires. Sound fun?

  141. cohenite November 21, 2011 at 6:43 pm #

    “You are not advancing any framework or guidance.”

    Yes I am; charity begins at home; satisfy the natural demands and a moral capacity occurs; go and look at Maslow’s hierarchy.

  142. Mr. S November 21, 2011 at 8:46 pm #

    Bowman, David
    “Bushfires: A Darwinian Perspective”
    free first chapter book–extract, available online, from:


    The, still up-to-date, most–plain–English summary, of the whole Australian fire ecology story.

    Chapter One
    in Geoffrey Cary, David Lindenmayer, Stephen Dovers
    Australia burning: fire ecology, policy and management issues
    CSIRO Publishing. 280 pp.

    Keywords from Wikipedia for using in reading this:
    * The Tertiary is a term for a geologic period 65 million to 1.8 million years ago.

    * The Pleistocene (pronounced /ˈplaɪstəsiːn/) is the epoch from 2.588 million to 12,000 years BC covering the world’s recent period of repeated cycles of glaciations and periods warmer than today.

    * In paleogeography, Gondwana (pronounced /ɡɒndˈwɑːnə/[1][2]), originally Gondwanaland, is the name given to the southernmost of two precursor supercontinents that came about around 200 Mya in the late Mesozoic era as a part of the split of the huge Pangaea supercontinent that is believed to have existed from its formation about 500 Mya[3]. Gondwana is believed to have undergone its final geological suturing to the Pangaea formation between ca. 570 and 510 million years ago (Mya), joining East Gondwana to West Gondwana.[4] It later separated from Laurasia180-200 million years ago during the breakup of the Pangaea supercontinent that existed about 500 to 200 Ma into two large segments, nearly equal in area.[5] While the corresponding northern-hemisphere continent Laurasia moved farther north, Gondwana drifted south. It included most of the landmasses in today’s southern hemisphere, including Antarctica,South America, Africa, Madagascar, Australia-New Guinea, and New Zealand, as well as Arabia and the Indian subcontinent, which have now moved entirely into the Northern Hemisphere.

  143. Luke November 21, 2011 at 9:47 pm #

    Looks like Cohers is stuck on root it, shoot it, chop it down …

  144. cohenite November 21, 2011 at 10:02 pm #

    I like having choices.

  145. el gordo November 22, 2011 at 7:45 am #

    ‘I don’t understand why, on any topic here, people have a pathological need and desire to introduce AGW.’

    Mass delusion is such an important issue that it should be discussed as often as possible.

  146. Phillip Cole November 24, 2011 at 7:59 am #

    I think the whole notion of Aboriginal people being benign ‘custodians’ of the land is exagerated. Many think that the megafauna was made extinct by them and it was merely the fact that their technology was very basic which prevented further environmental damage. Most of the extinctions since white settlement are due to the introduction of feral animals like foxes and cats. Prof. John Walmsley believes that it was the loss of the small animals like Bettongs from feral animal predation which led to the undergrowth problems and thus the more intense destructive fires we have seen in our forests.

  147. el gordo November 25, 2011 at 6:32 pm #

    Some interesting points, Phillip.

    My theory is that the Aborigine wiped out the mega fauna by killing the young, but elsewhere an apologist said that’s wrong. He reckons they became extinct because of grass fires.

    Can you believe it?

    The original inhabitants of this land cleared the area around the camp of dry undergrowth to cook food and keep warm. Over time in the same place they would have had to walk quite a distance to get firewood.

    While on walkabout to other areas for clan gatherings, the same trails used for thousands of years, the undergrowth along the way would have been utilized for the usual purposes. Coincidentally it may have dawned on them that it offered a possible exit strategy in a desperate moment.


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