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’.