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REPORTS FROM THE 18TH BIENNIAL ARS CONFERENCE

(From the Range Management Newsletter 15/2 )


Report from the Organising Committee

Pieter Conradie, Chair.  Email:  pieter.conradie@nt.gov.au

The decision to postpone the 18th Biennial Conference of the Australian Rangeland Society by six months, pushing it into the next year, paid off with more than 300 delegates travelling to Alice Springs for the conference held from 12 – 16 April 2015.

Whether it was the opportunity to visit the iconic centre of the Outback, the time of the year just after Easter, a well-run advertising campaign or the exciting program is open for discussion, but after a modest start the registrations eventually exceeded our wildest expectations.

A dedicated organising committee with extensive experience helped: three members were involved in organising the 2004 conference in Alice Springs. This experience was well complemented with youthful enthusiasm with the result being a balanced and innovative program. The theme of the conference, ‘Innovation in the Rangelands’ was not only expressed in the program, but also in the overall way the conference was conducted. Social media such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter were put to good use with the conference being the second most hash tagged event in Australia on day two. Twenty three presentations were recorded live and made available on the ARS website to actively involve a much wider audience than the actual attendees.

After a warm welcome by the Mayor of Alice Springs and Atweme drummers on the Sunday night, the official opening was fittingly performed by Mrs Patricia Miller, Deputy Administrator of the Northern Territory, who was born and bred on this land and has a strong association with the rangelands.  Having dignitaries such as the Hon Fred Chaney, Clare Martin and Professor Stuart Bunn as well as other acclaimed speakers at the conference made for lively discussion on policy issues with a common understanding that the rangelands or outback should be recognised as a unique and essential part of the ‘social fibre’ of Australian society and managed and supported accordingly by territory, state and federal governments.

 

ARS Conference 2015 Drum Atwerne 

Photo 1.  Drum Atwerne perform at the welcome barbecue at the Alice Springs Council Chambers.  Photo courtesy of Carolyn Ireland

 

The program was well constructed with a total of 52 platform and 57 poster presentations being delivered. Themes included leadership and relationships, pastoral management, water sharing, communication, adaptation and resilience, mining and energy, natural resource management and policy direction. Poster presentations were coordinated and many ‘hidden gems’ were discovered during these well attended sessions. The program succeeded in attracting a considerable number of contributions from indigenous presenters which was the result of a long term working relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous organisations and individuals. An asserted effort was made to attract students and even though the proposed student forum did not eventuate due to insufficient numbers, the financial support provided for students to present was a great stimulus with the people’s choice award for the best platform presentation eventually going to a student presenter.  

 

2015 ARS Conference

Photo 2.  An enthusiastic audience listen to presentations in the main conference room.  Photo courtesy of the Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries, Northern Territory Government.

 

2015 ARS Conference 

Photo 3.  Poster presentations were well attended during the conference.  Photo courtesy of the Dept of Primary Industries and Fisheries, Northern Territory Government

 

Four pre conference field trips were arranged to provide a taste of the scenery, land systems, lifestyle and economic activity in and around the Alice. The social program was well attended and the gala dinner at The Quarry provided a suitable finish to a very successful conference. The few drops of rain and whirly-wind at the start of the dinner provided an appropriate reminder of the unpredictability of the environment we live in. 

2015 ARS Conference date tasting

Photo 4.  Date tasting at the Arid Zone Research Institute was highlight of field trip A.   Photo courtesy of the Dept of Primary Industries and Fisheries, Northern Territory Government.

 

2015 ARS Conference Bush tomatoes 

Photo 5.  Demonstration of bush tomato growing at the Arid Zone Research Institute during field trip A.  Photo courtesy of the Dept of Primary Industries and Fisheries, Northern Territory Government.

 

2015 ARS Conference Wallace Rockhole 

Photo 6.   One of the highlights of field trip B was a visit to Wallace Rockhole.  Photo courtesy of Carolyn Ireland.

 

Judging by the post conference feedback, this conference met delegate expectations which means that the organisers of future conferences can continue to build on the current format while developing their own forms of innovation.

This conference was made possible through the dedicated efforts of a passionate organizing and program committee, an exceptional PCO, and strong support from the ARS council, especially John Taylor. Although each conference develops its own life, much has been learnt from the experiences of past committees and I would advise the next committee also to consider our recommendations.

Lastly, a great thank you to all those who took the trouble to travel to the Red Centre and contributed – we hope to meet up with you again at the next conference. 

 

Report from the Conference Summarisers

Andrew Ash - CSIRO EcoSciences. Dutton Park  QLD  4102.  Email: andrew.ash@csiro.au

Kate Forrest - Rangeland NRM Alliance Coordinator, Desert Channels Group.  Email:  kate.forrest@dcq.org.au

 

The 2015 ARS Biennial Conference saw over 300 delegates gather in Alice Springs to share thoughts, challenges, solutions and hopes on innovation in the rangelands and how as a profession we can make a noticeable difference to people whose livelihoods are tied to the rangelands. Social media as an innovation was on display at the conference with the conference twitter exchanges #ARS2015 producing 1000 tweets from Alice and all over Australia - these tweets were read almost 900,000 times across the world. On the Tuesday the Conference twitter hashtag was more used than the Sydney Fashion Festival. The map below shows where the concentration of twitter activity was occurring across Australia.

 2015 ARS Conference twitter map

Figure 1.  Concentration of twitter activity occurring across Australia on Tuesday 14 April, 2015

 

The conference was rich both in its depth of content and the diversity of issues discussed. We have drawn these different threads together in eight themes.

1. Nudging

In Fred Chaney’s persuasive and passionate open plenary he talked about the value of nudging – how working away on an issue with lots of positive nudges can ultimately trigger a transformational change. Throughout the conference we saw ample evidence of this nudging process. The many papers on pastoral management exemplified how nudging over many years has led to some real gains for the pastoral industry and we also saw this in action at the field days at Old Man Plains and Cadzow’s.

Nudging also takes tenacity and a lot of passionate input. The early days of remote sensing provided us with lots of interesting images but through continually pushing the technology boundaries we now see it being used to make important decisions in management and policy. And nudging can be full of surprises and result in great things – for example, the Martu fire video being taken up by SBS and now international distributors.

2. Partnerships

The need for effective collaboration and strong partnerships to achieve real impact in the rangelands has been advocated for many years now. Partnerships have grown from awkward first dates to marriages of convenience to deep, and long-lasting collaborations. This was evident in nearly all the presentations and papers at the conference which featured multiple partners.

These partnerships take many forms - physical partnerships, partnerships of information, partnerships of different industries. These all have a common thread that you can’t just knock up a partnership – it takes time, effort and commitment. We saw this in a variety of areas at the conference whether it be management of wild dogs, water sharing in the Lake Eyre Basin, indigenous pastoral management, managing competing goals in mining, or conservation management. Partnerships are also important in the way we learn whether this be by e-learning or on-ground interactions. However, a challenge remains in how to build more effective and enduring partnerships in the policy realm.

3. Research

Research has been a strong and enduring component of both the biennial conferences and in fostering innovation in rangeland management, community development and policies. This research has evolved from single disciplinary research to multi-disciplinary and more recently trans-disciplinary, inter-disciplinary research. However, this conference has highlighted that we have also now fundamentally altered the way we go about our research engagement. Historically, research tended to be led by research organisations with limited end-user interaction. This then evolved into Participatory Action Research involving researchers and end-users from the outset but still mostly initiated by researchers. But this conference suggested we have now entered a new phase as research capacity in many of the traditional research institutes drops below critical mass. We are now seeing research being led by NRM Groups, industry, and communities with researchers as contributing partners. While this new phase of research is in itself innovative it does raise the question whether there is enough remaining research capacity to develop new concepts and bring new process understanding to tackle unresolved and new challenges for the rangelands.

Another feature of the research on showcase at the conference was that of integration. We saw integration as an outcome not just a process, the need for integration to be planned at the outset of projects and that integration remains a key science challenge.

4. Attitudes and adaptive capacity

One of the defining features of ARS conferences is a strong focus on people in the rangelands. One of the key challenges for accelerating innovation is to more rapidly lift adaptive capacity and so the ability to make change. This is not just attitudes within the rangelands but also that of people who live distant from the rangelands. This was framed a few times in the conferences as to “how to reach the other 96%”.

This whole area within the conference raised more questions than answers. And that begs another question – do we have enough underpinning social science to get to the nub of these behavioural constraints? The evidence at the conference was that we are not investing heavily enough in this area of innovation.

5. Coping with variability

Managing variability is at the core of the rangelands, both how they function and how we manage them, and it was again a feature at this conference.  Managing boom-bust ecological systems was raised as a key challenge but with a counter-view that this high level of climatic variability can actually confer resilience in the face of management pressures. A key management and policy issue to arise from this theme was how to extract easy to communicate “signals” out of all the biophysical “noise” of variability. There was some good evidence of people working out ways to address this challenge e.g. turning data into information in such a way that managers and policy makers can make decisions which don’t have perverse outcomes in a variety of situations.

6. Monitoring

Monitoring continues to be an important theme in the rangelands. However, it was demonstrated at this conference that monitoring has broadened considerably beyond biophysical aspects such as land condition and biodiversity to include social, economic and cultural dimensions. The many papers on monitoring at the conference gave us confidence that the nudging that has been going on this area for many years is on the brink of transformative change. “Big data” is increasingly being converted into targeted information for decision-making and while there is still a way to go the investment in this area is starting to reap large dividends.  However, there are challenges for the ongoing support of monitoring in the rangelands with large collaborative exercises such as ACRIS having been wound up.

7. Diversification

Diversified use of rangelands has long been seen as a strategy for creating new opportunities and strengthening livelihoods in the rangelands. Interestingly, this theme was not as overt at this conference compared with past conferences. Does this mean that it is has been successfully mainstreamed to the point where it seen as an embedded part of innovative thinking in the rangelands? The evidence we did see at the conference would suggest we still have some way to go. For example, land tenure reform to facilitate diversified land use has been progressed in the Northern Territory but there is still some way to go in other jurisdictions. In terms of on-ground management and practices, we saw examples of how mining and agricultural development could co-exist as well as pastoralism and horticulture near Alice Springs, but these initiatives were still dealing with a variety of practical and policy challenges.  

8. Transformative change

While innovation can take many forms, in recent years there has been much focus on transformative change and this conference also had many references to transformation. It was clear from the various presentations and ensuing discussion that transformation is greater than the sum of the nudges and it is difficult to predict when it will manifest itself. But while transformative change can be elusive, Fred Chaney made it clear that without the pre-cursors of clarity of purpose and shared objectives, desired transformations are unlikely to occur. Visionary leadership coupled with some serendipity and good timing is often needed for transformative change as we have seen in the past with the Landcare initiative and land rights legislation. In a different take on transformation, in the closing plenary of the conference Bruce Walker suggested that disruptive and innovative radicalisation of the rangelands is needed to re-ignite national interest in their long term positive future.

Conclusions

This conference again showed that the way human and ecological systems connect is no more evident than in the rangelands. The increasing amount of study of the way they interface and interconnect is now being seen as vital to management for long term outcomes. However, we underestimate and undervalue the strides that have been made in the rangelands in understanding these whole of system issues. Hiding this increasingly sophisticated knowledge under a bushel is not giving due regard to the rangelands profession or to the people whose livelihoods depend on the outback.

It was another great conference with lots of learning, laughter and networking. The Alice Springs Conference Organising Committee, led by Pieter Conradie, did a magnificent job, not just with the conference program but with a great diversity of field tours and social events that stimulated many a great conversation.

 

2015 ARS Conference people 

Photo 1. The field tours provided opportunities for learning and networking.  Photo courtesy of the Dept of Primary Industries and Fisheries, Northern Territory Government