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Welcome to this blog, the story of a great big Australian adventure. It documents my travels, life in Australia, and a subject close to my heart – environmental conservation. 

Protecting the Bush

Protecting the Bush

When recounting Australian experiences, I glibly and liberally throw in the term 'Bush'. It's a term used in other countries, but to me, it says 'Australia'. It basically means any sparsely populated area, no matter what the vegetation cover; but it also includes towns well away from large metropolitan centres, including quite large mining centres in remote areas, such as Mount Isa, which I recently rejected from our next Outback itinerary on account of its size; but that's by the by. The Bush – which doesn't always take an initial cap – has its own culture: music, communal activities, clothes, vocabulary. Millions of words have been written about its unforgiving landscape and climate; hardship and knuckling down; beasties; and the stuff of folklore that has no rational explanation. Despite deeply disturbing films about hapless travellers that fall prey to bushmen too long without civilisation, the Bush has a draw I succumbed to the moment I left Sydney the first time.

The Bush begins five minutes after you leave the big city, and extends for hours of driving until it becomes the Outback. I use capital letters out of profound respect for concepts and realities that never fail to excite me. I have no idea where the Bush becomes the Outback: some regions are both, but it's of no import. The Bush can be green and lush or dry as a bone. You can travel for days and not see much sign of life at all. Mad axemen in the movies excepted, fellow travellers will always help out should you get into trouble.

 

Mt Coot-tha near Brisbane

 

Outback near Windorah, Far West Queensland

Millions of Australians go bushwalking, which is more like hiking than a stroll in the park. Such a pastime isn't to be treated lightly: don't wear flip flops – unless you want to look like a complete prat; always overestimate the water you'll need to carry with you, especially in summer; and take alternative-weather gear, insect repellent, sunscreen, hat and a basic first aid kit. If you 'go bush', you desert the comforts of life in urban world and run wild a bit. But I digress (again).

Eons ago, on my first visit to this continent, I visited Simpsons Gap in The West Macs (the West MacDonnell Ranges west of Alice Springs). I observed a creek – or chain of ponds – and its statuesque Ghost Gums: there was an intense blue sky and the buzz of heat and insects; and I appreciated for the first of many times that I was gazing at an iconic landscape. With time, you recognise distinctive bird calls and typical vegetation, although I am a slow learner when it comes to Aussie trees: if in doubt, assume it's a gum.

There's a rough-and-readiness to the Bush: it's not always pretty and people often take advantage. They grub up trees to create new pasture; they clear it and divert its precious water channels to build new houses; they disturb its tranquility and wildlife by constructing recreational experiences such as zip lines and off-roading trails; they crisscross it with roads and pipelines; and they obliterate it completely by excavating massive pits for mineral extraction. Australia is such a vast country, you see: there's room for everyone to do what they want. I believe that's how the thinking goes.

A couple of weeks ago I attended a public forum at the Botanic Gardens at Mt Coot-tha. Hosted by Protect the Bush Alliance, it posed the question: do species surveys make a difference to conservation? This question is pertinent because:

Queensland is grappling with a major extinction crisis, exacerbated by unchecked resource extraction in parts [of the state] that are largely out of sight and out of mind. By conducting flora and fauna surveys, the Protect the Bush Alliance aims to highlight the cumulative impact of these threat to Queensland's unique plants and animals.

The Alliance's member organisations range from Birds Queensland to Bat Conservation & Rescue; from the National Parks Association of Queensland to The Wilderness Society; from Householders' Options to Protect the Environment to the Lock the Gate Alliance; from the Northern Queensland Conservation Council to the Friends of Stradbroke Island; and from Bimblebox Nature Refuge to The Grass Routes (which strives to conserve bush corridors such as stock routes).

The PTBA conducts flora and fauna surveys in areas of high conservation value, with a view to that information being used to make the case for protection and conservation of those areas. Findings are submitted to the Department of Environment's Wildnet database, but are also made available to the public, landholders, community groups, conservationists, lawyers and those making submissions to government. The Alliance carried out 15 surveys in the last 12 months, mostly in areas at threat from mining, but also tourism, recreational and infrastructure development. This involved 3000 hours of work during which 15 threatened species were identified across 12 properties. From the range of skills offered by Alliance members, PTBA has to coordinate volunteer specialists such as botanists, ornithologists, zoologists and field-based ecologists as well as dedicated and experienced birders and wildlife watchers.

Australian Bustard near Bimblebox Nature Refuge, near Alpha, Central Queensland

The question asked at the forum may have an obvious answer, but it's slightly more complicated than that. In May, PTBA conducted surveys on properties that will be affected by plans for the recently declared Galilee Basin State Development Area, which includes two rail corridors serving the proposed large mines. An SDA does not require an Environmental Impact Statement, so there is less opportunity for interested parties to assess development or register objections. Both the Federal and State governments' preference for a 'one-stop' approval process has the same effect. Landowners must negotiate with the resource companies directly and they may lack detailed information about the biodiversity of their region, which also has ramifications for offsetting management planning. There are few if any cumulative impacts studies across larger areas, of bioregion corridors, for example. And there is a conflict of interest for a state government favouring development but lacking a higher level of accountability in Canberra.

Targeted species surveys have a role to play in the provision of adequate baseline studies prior to Environmental Impact Statements; contributing to supplementary or new EISs when necessary; providing information for all interested stakeholders in developments; supplying data for expert witness reports; investigating new acquisitions for proposed National Parks and other protected areas; adding depth to scientific study; identifying and monitoring at-risk species. Once information has been collected, it needs to be shared with collaborating organisations, added to data banks and used for lobbying developers and ministers. Surveys need funds and decision makers need open minds.

Find out more about the good works of Protect the Bush Alliance here

 

Bimble Box trees, Desert Uplands of Central Queensland

 

This post was last edited on 8 November 2016

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