COMMENT

The time to act to fix two hundred years of land mismanagement is now

Mismanagement, a lack of understanding of the uniqueness of the Australian Bush and lack of respect for the traditional owners of the land has led to the current disaster.

Who says we were not warned about the issues with not managing the Australian bush in the manner that our indigenous forefathers have used for over 40,000 years? The practice of Prescribed Burning is much like the Indigenous traditional method of managing the Australian bush. This method reduces the amount of ground vegetation during cooler months therefore decreasing the risk of bushfires. Prescribed Burning also helps to maintain biodiversity and assists with vegetation management. Many heavily forested areas have today become overgrown and impenetrable due to the lack of regular fire activity and burning practices.

In NSW, policy decisions were made that have had unintended consequences and have now, years on, led to the catastrophic unprecedented conditions Australia now finds itself facing

September 1996 "Forests in NSW" published an update with the following major outcomes: deferral from harvesting of about 816,000 hectares of Interim Deferred Forest Area; 12 new wilderness areas totalling 163,000 hectares; Nine new national parks and a nature reserve in the north-east of NSW and additions to the South-east Forests National Park, together with dedications of wilderness areas, resulting in the revocation of 240,000 hectares across NSW for National Park.

In 2015 at, the "21st Century Wilderness" Symposium, The Honourable Bob Carr was the Keynote speaker. In this he stated. "To protect the long-term ecological integrity of natural areas that are undisturbed by significant human activity, free of modern infrastructure and where natural forces and processes predominate, so that current and future generations have the opportunity to experience such areas."

This, with the increased number of State Forests and National Parks, led to the accumulation of fuel on the immense forest floors. Which in turn has increased the ferocity and devastation of these catastrophic fires that Australia is experiencing. A question to ask is "What infrastructure and planning was put in place to support the management of these new and increased wilderness areas was made?"

This policy along with a decrease in staff meant that fire trails into National Parks and State Forests were neglected and became overgrown.

This made access to wilderness areas to fight these fires extremely difficult, indeed, almost impossible.

The Indigenous method of managing the land in a traditional way was not included in the policy that was developed. The lack of this type of management for both the State Forests and National Parks led to an unprecedented amount of fuel on the forest floors, which in turn led to the current destruction.

Research has been completed over decades regarding the management of bushfires. Numerous bodies have supported using Prescribed Burning as a management tool in the Australian bushland.

Bushfire research scientist Neil Burrows, who has been working in the WA bushfire scene since the 1970s, states that "Bushfires get their severity, or their intensity, or their killing power from how much fuel they burn. Prescribed burning removes some of that [fuel]," Dr Burrows said.

Current Issues Brief no. 8 2002-03: Is Fuel Reduction Burning the Answer? was compiled by Bill McCormick in 2002, as a Federal Government Initiative. The study showed that "Since the available forest fuel determines the amount of heat that potentially can be released in a bushfire, low intensity burns to reduce the fuel loading in a forest (fuel reduction burning) is one component that can be modified by land managers to reduce fire risk." He also affirms that "Fuel reduction burning can reduce the hazard of spotting from eucalyptus bark, in some cases for up to seven to ten years."

The brief further states "It is absolutely essential that all land managers (public and private) are obliged to design and implement their fuel reduction programs to protect life and property within and beyond their land boundaries."

In 2014 the National Bushfire Management: Policy Statement for Forests and Rangelands maintain "Where relevant to Indigenous people, and appropriate, further integrate traditional burning practices and fire regimes with current practices and technologies to enhance bushfire mitigation and management in Australian landscapes

The National Position on Prescribed Burning in 2016 that was initiated by the Federal Government asserts that "Much of the Australian landscape has evolved with fire. Fire events are a certainty and necessary for the continued survival of fire dependent species and ecosystems. Indigenous Australians understood this relationship and effectively used fire to manage landscapes for multiple purposes. Well planned and implemented prescribed burning is an essential, practical and cost-effective tool for reducing risk to life, property and the environment (AFAC, 2015b)." The paper also proffers that reduced fuel hazards will support the success of first attack efforts and reduce the intensity, extent and impacts of subsequent bushfires. It says that the knowledge of Traditional Owners will allow communities and managers to respect fire as a tool.

In an article on the ABC in 2018, Oral McGuire, a Noongar man from the south-west of Western Australia, told of traditional burning practices being the first form of prescribed burning. Like present prescribed burning practices, traditional burning was carried out based upon parameters and perimeters. The balance was about the biodiversity, the ecology, the environmental make-up of the systems and ecosystems that existed. Initially, people used fire for hunting but eventually the process evolved into maintaining native grasslands.

The Prescribed Burning Conference held in Perth in 2019 has highlighted issues regarding the consequences of not using prescribed burning. Aboriginal people maintained the landscape prior to European settlement. They had spent tens-of-thousands of years getting it to an optimal state.

Today we find ourselves in a different situation, we must overcome 200 years of land management practices that have been more suited to European landscapes to try and return the land to a point where it has a natural environmental and ecological balance.

Ngadju Conservation Aboriginal Corporation explained the need for burning to propagate many Australian native plants. "The more you burn that country; the better things grow. You take all the trees down south - like the black boys, jarrah trees - they won't grow without fire. But here, bad fire goes through here - it takes years for it to come back. You burn these gimlets in the Great Western Woodlands, or in the salmon gums - it takes thousands of years to come back." .

The Greens NSW, in their Bushfire Risk Policy, maintain that hazard reduction, including manual, mechanical and hazard reduction burning activities should be strategically planned to protect the community and vulnerable assets while minimising the adverse impacts of these activities on the environment and that bush fire risk management should be informed by the knowledge of Indigenous Australians.

The South Australian Government declares that Prescribed Burning may be used for: "reducing fuel loads and by doing so reducing the intensity and rates of spread of bushfires, reducing the impact of bushfire on properties; reducing the impact of large bushfires on biodiversity, enhancing biodiversity by modifying or maintaining vegetation communities for specific plant or animal species."

All this information raises some difficult questions, very heartbreaking questions. We can't change what has happened, but we better learn from it. This is an unbearable lesson to learn. So, let's get it right and develop appropriate methods of managing our bushland.

The research completed is abundant, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Use the experts and their analysis to develop a Prescribed Burning Plan for Australia. Another Royal Commission would be a waste of money and time.

The time to act is now, not in years when the Royal Commission has returned its findings.

Now it is up tour National Leadership to draw together the comprehensive reports and ideas into a concrete plan of action that ensures better management of forest bushland and protection of our assets utilising the expertise of Fire Fighters, Indigenous Leaders and other experts in this field.

We need the Prime Minister, Scott Morris, to make better decisions for Australia.