Australian Rangeland Society

David Phelps, ARS President and Director, DAF Office Landsborough Hwy Longreach Qld 4730.   Email: president@austrangesoc.com.au

Resilient rangelands are the key to our future. With over 70% of Australia’s landmass being rangelands, it is crucial that these landscapes are able to adapt to global changes. The landscapes provide habitat for a diverse array of plants and animals, and offers refuge for once-thought extinct species such as the night parrot. The landscapes are rich in visual beauty, providing the foundation for a rapidly growing tourism industry. Outback Queensland visitation has grown by 10% over the last two years, comparing favourably to seaside meccas such as the Gold Coast. The landscapes overlay a diversity in geology, providing not only mineral wealth but also intrigue—such as tantalising stories of blind fish emerging from newly drilled artesian aquifers, or the possibility that the headwaters of the Diamantina River trace an ancient impact crater larger than any previously discovered. The landscapes support diverse cultures. Some 400-500 first nations thrived within the rangelands, and the history of European settlement includes English, Irish, Scottish, Chinese, Greek, Afghani, Polish and German nationals to name just a few. The landscapes support nationally significant beef, wool and mining industries, and infrastructure networks that the 96% of Australians not resident in the rangelands depend upon. The landscapes are supporting new industries such as carbon sequestration and solar power generation. To the 4% of us that live and/or work in the rangelands, all of this is obvious. There is another proportion who have connections with our rangelands through family, previous careers, or perhaps having visited long enough or read broadly enough to appreciate what’s out here.

Resilient rangelands will adapt to both extraneous and intrinsic shocks, such as increased climatic variability, global market forces, the substitution of both skilled and unskilled labour through robotics and artificial intelligence, shrinking resident populations and destabilised communities. Resilience will be built through: maintaining land in good condition and reclaiming degraded lands, such as prickly acacia infested Mitchell grasslands and eroded Georgetown granites; diversifying industries to reduce exposure to the risk of drought and volatile markets; creating new jobs within emerging technologies; and building strongly networked social capital.

Rangeland communities generally lack the resourcing to achieve this alone. Jarrod Diamond, in his exploration of the rise and fall of cultures, ‘Collapse’ posits that cultures adapt and survive when top-down and bottom-up approaches support each other. In the context of rangelands, this would mean State and Australian government policies support the actions and governance at local and regional levels across the rangelands. Examples exist, such as carbon trading methodologies which are benefitting landholders in western NSW, or government investment in wild-dog exclusion fencing in outback Queensland to re-establish a Merino wool industry. These will be most successful when the wealth is retained in the regions—such as a wool industry which maximises the capture of the supply chain value, or a carbon industry where brokered wealth is not diverted to capital cities. Strong government policies would rely on local and regional knowledge to invest in wealth generation for the longer term, attracting both investment and investors into the rangelands. The Cooperative Research Centre for North Australian Development could be an example of well-considered policy, as could the push for re-locating government agencies into rural cities. The ultimate success will be in the collaboration with local government and the community.

The continued public position of the Australian Government is to invest in the growth of regional Australia. However, not all policy implementation appear to take a considered approach in support of this ideal. Rangeland-based NRM groups are currently expressing strong concerns of possible perverse outcomes of the new Australian Government tender process, which has embedded 12-month funding to address long-term problems such as soil erosion, weed infestation and threatened species protection. The process, coupled with generally inadequate resourcing, also seems to be pushing some rangeland NRM groups in Queensland to consider merging with better resourced groups. Given rangeland NRM groups are poorly resourced relative to their more urban-based counterparts, it seems reasonable that mergers will occur between rangeland and urban NRM groups. This could dilute the resourcing of rangeland issues and depth of community engagement, potentially reduce employment opportunities within rangeland towns and contribute to the erosion of social capital. There appears to be a risk of reduced rangeland resilience through the current resourcing and funding model for NRM groups—an outcome which would be both ironic and perverse. Greater collaboration in policy implementation would reduce the risk of negative outcomes.

The Australian Rangeland Society is working towards our next national biennial conference to be held in Canberra in 2019. By holding the conference in the national capital, we hope this will help place rangeland landscapes, industries and communities on the agenda towards achieving resilient rangelands for the future.

Administratively, the Society is financially sound and has stabilised at approximately 220 individual members. The new three-year membership category is proving popular. Council held five general meetings during 2017, as well as the AGM and a General Meeting at the Port Augusta conference which was open to all members. The Rangeland Journalcontinues to grow its impact factor and readership, and 90 institutions (e.g. University libraries) from around the world subscribe. We are looking at ways to make the Range Management Newsletter even more relevant to in-the-field rangelands practitioners and available to a wider audience. I look forward to the ARS providing everyone with a useful platform to communicate rangeland issues, practice and science through the journal, newsletter and social media.