ABC Television program Catalyst ran a story last night featuring the work of botanist Rod Fensham. Fensham has done some great research work on Queensland’s rangelands. But the program, by putting a popularist spin on it all, did our rangelands and Fensham no favours.
Catalyst started off by suggesting most of Queensland’s old growth forest had been cleared by graziers and then went on to explain how vegetation thickening is real. An overriding theme was that the bans on broad scale tree clearing are good and that current thickening is natural and a consequence of higher rainfall over the second half of the last century. Furthermore drought, not land clearing or fire, should be left to maintain the balance of nature.
I was left wondering what they meant by old growth forest, and how the old growth forest had survived the terrible drought to be destroyed by graziers. And wasn’t it generally acknowledged that these areas have been a fire mediated sub-climax ecosystem as in South Africa and the southern USA?
The following comment as part of the voice over was interesting:
But seeing the timbers dying in all districts of western Queensland it would seem not unreasonable to conclude that drought was the cause of thousands of miles of country in the never never to be denuded of scrub. …So there it was, proof that the climate had caused tree death and thinning.
The full transcript can be read at
I used to have a beer with Fensham and other Brisbane-based botanists and entomologists on a Friday afternoon at the St Lucia golf links in the early to mid 1990s.
The Catalyst program suggested that Fensham was against the use of fire, as well as broad scale tree clearing. It didn’t ring true to me.
A link to a piece by him at the bottom of the Catalyst webpage also suggests otherwise.
In this piece titled ‘Trial by fire’ Fensham makes the following points:
1. The role of climate in shaping vegetation patterns should not be ignored in a land of notorious climatic extremes.
2. The structure and density of eucalypt woodlands in the Queensland pastoral zone is influenced by management (fire), land use (grazing) and climate (especially drought).
3. Appropriate burning regimes may offer Queensland pastoralists a management option that maintains productivity and is less devastating for biodiversity than tree clearing.
Read the complete article here
Earlier in the week I was sent this link
It came with the note, “An interesting rewrite of history – a negative reality inversion.”
The link is to an announcement titled ‘Research that shaped new bush clearing laws’ and is about how Fensham has won the Eureka prize for Environmental research and includes the following text:
The recent debate on land clearing in Queensland was fierce, with the arguments often unsupported by clear scientific evidence. Dr Rod Fensham and Russell Fairfax changed that. Over ten years, these two scientists from the Queensland Herbarium have methodically developed a scientific foundation to measure and understand the fate of Queensland’s native rangelands. Their research, and their science advocacy, gave the Queensland Government the information it needed to create stronger laws on land clearing. Their work now earns them the $10,000 Sherman Eureka Prize for Environmental Research.
I observed at close range the politics that drove the bans on broad scale tree clearing in Queensland including as a member of the Ministerial Advisory Council – Vegetation Management (MAC-VM). Fensham’s work didn’t enter this policy debate which was driven almost exclusively by very dumb (but effective) campaigning by a coalition of environment groups spearheaded by the Wilderness Society and Queensland Conservation Council and supported by a Queensland University Professor.
Had Fensham’s work been influential, the clearing laws may have turned out at least half reasonable.
Following discussions with Rod I have the following additional comment, and I hope Rod might do a guest post for me/us:
The Eureka Award was in recognition of Rod’s contribution to our understanding of regional ecosystems and how they can be mapped. This mapping work occurred independently of the campaigning by the Wilderness Society and the mapping is critical to the current legislation and important if the current legislation is to ever deliver reasonable rangeland protection and management.
I have also updated the title for this post from ‘ABC TV and Eureka Awards Got it Wrong on Fensham’ to ‘ABC TV Got it Half Right on Rangeland Management’.
jennifer marohasy says
I’ll make the following observations:-
-the Pilliga Scrub wasn’t there about 1860 and was by about 1890 (Eric Rolls “A Million Wild Acres”)
– there was a Royal Commission on woody species thickening in the Cobar-Byrock area of NSW in 1901
– this thickening wasn’t fixed by the 1902 drought (or any subsequent one)
– for this area local history says that DT Leadbetter surrended the lease of Bonus Downs about 1870 because he recognized the onset of woody increase
– the 1902 drought didn’t stop that process (information from the current owners Lyle and Madonna Connolly)
– the current drought
jennifer marohasy says
Thanks for the paper. The conclusions fly in the face of Australian and world literature (highlighted in Steve’s web site as well as his seminal review with Bob Scholes in Ann. Rev. Ecol & Systematics) which clearly identify changed fire regimes and grazing interactions as the proximate causes of the world wide tree thickening phenomenon, unless you reduce Fensham’s findings to the earth shattering observation that trees need rain to grow. Rod is too young to have gone to our biometrics lectures of course – but if he did he would recall how we were warned about the dangers of false correlations. e.g. the number of Methodist clergy in a town/city being highly correlated with the number of drunks!
The gidgee work (Krull et al.) and the paleoecological studies at Lake Dunn mentioned in the review for this years PRA conference have obviously been ignored by Fensham’s Eureka prize assessors. If rainfall was the prime driver for veg thickening there would be evidence of previous change in the Mitchell grasslands unless the rainfall in the 1950’s/’70s is the only time in the past millenium that rainfall has been above average! The Lake Dunn study only went back 120 years (using Pb isotope dating) but there is no evidence of a previous eucalypt thickening in the Desert Uplands in the 100 years prior to 1950. Must have been another 100 year drought? – but then the 1890’s stuff that of course!!
The C13/C12 ratio study of random sites in the Burdekin-Belyando catchment is now well into analyses. As you would expect in euc woodlands there is more noise in these data than the gidgee study but more than half are showing evidence of a switch to more trees (thickening). Unfortunately there are no funds for C14 dating of the timing of these changes (I’m sure Evelyn Krull still retains the samples if the opportunity arises in the future), but I have no doubt that there would be no evidence of similar switches in the previous few centuries when the dating is eventually done. Simply put if Fensham’s conclusions were tenable there would be ready evidence of previous thickening waves and contractions to match past (prior to the 1950’s) rainfall variation but the C isotope analyses done so far both here and overseas doesn’t support it.
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