Wilderness and land degradation

By Antonia Feitz
web posted November 20, 2000

There is nothing wrong with the concept of national parks. It's a public good when governments reserve and properly manage some particularly scenic land and ocean frontages for the enjoyment of future generations. Of people I mean. But the idea of 'wilderness' is junk science. In this article I hope to show that returning land to so-called wilderness degrades it and reduces bio-diversity.

Of course encouraged by the likes of people-hating Al Gore, ignorant Greens abhor the idea of man's stewardship of the earth. Most of them have been brainwashed into believing that land can only benefit from human exclusion.

That's why they demand national parks be declared wilderness areas. They claim that locking away land from humans will restore it to its 'natural' state and that bio-diversity will be preserved.

It's all hogwash, and potentially disastrous hogwash at that.

Plain common sense would indicate that it's in the best interests of people who live on the land to care for it. If they don't, they put their livelihoods at risk - it's as simple as that. Unfortunately, plain common sense has all but disappeared in our increasingly ill-educated population, infantilely preoccupied with their 'rights'. Never taught to think critically, they are suckers for the highly emotional Green propaganda about the necessity for wilderness to "save the planet".

But now the evidence is definitely in that under government management, declared wilderness areas which were once good, productive land have become degraded. The intensity and size of the bushfires in the US earlier this year, and recently in my state of New South Wales in Australia, weren't accidental. In Australia at least, local farmers knew that under current government land management practices in the parks and wilderness areas, such disastrous fires were just a matter of time.

Apart from the increased fire risk, land declared 'wilderness' suffers from explosions in noxious weed growth and feral animal populations with devastating effects on bio-diversity and land condition. As an example, a local man whose family held grazing leases over country that was declared 'wilderness' ten years ago, told me he remembered his family's land was "a beautiful stretch of weed-free country with open flats, rainforest, bush and clear water". And now?

In a local paper on November 6th this year he wrote, "I returned to this stretch of country at Christmas last year, now declared a wilderness, so no-one is allowed to ride in there. There is about three times as many cattle running there than we ran when we owned it, no one keeps up the breaks so any cattle can come in.

"The brumby [wild horse] population has exploded, no one bothers to cull, too much fun to be had from a helicopter in the future. [explained below]

"The lantana and prickly pear [weeds] now cover thousands of acres, no one pulls out any weeds, that's too hard to do from a helicopter and the whole area is infested with feral pigs. The National Parks must be so happy that this area has been declared a wilderness - no one can go in there, and no one knows how much it has deteriorated since they took over."

This degradation of once good land has come about as the direct result of declaring the area 'wilderness' and limiting human access. Before such land was declared wilderness, farmers, hunters, prospectors and fossickers along with bushwalkers, campers and recreational horse riders all did their bit to cull the feral animals and even to weed. Blackberry stands as big as a house are a nuisance to everybody. Consequently any farmer, hunter, camper or rider who spotted a bit starting up somewhere was motivated by a genuine love of the land to weed it . Now with no humans on the ground the weeds are rampant. The native flora can't compete.

My informant made some sensible suggestions on how to start restoring the land to good health but he'll be ignored because his suggestions would involve human 'interference'. This would outrage the ignorant Greens whose support mainly comes from pig-ignorant, touchy-feely, warm and fuzzy, city-based, armchair conservationists. It's interesting to note their psychological self-hatred: in such people's fantasies, 'wilderness' is the Garden of Eden.

He also suggested that some of the money spent by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) on flying around in helicopters admiring the view would be better spent funding rangers on horseback. They could shift stray cattle, cull the horses humanely, deal with feral pigs, maybe even weed.

And - shock horror! - do some burning in winter to reduce fuel build-up.

Because there has been an explosion in the brumby population, the NPWS did a cull of them a few weeks ago in the Guy Fawkes National Park. While it's an emotionally unpleasant thought, there's nothing wrong with culling as a national park management practice as long as it is done humanely.

But theirs wasn't a humane cull. Over 600 brumbies were shot by trained marksmen from helicopters. A man who subsequently entered the park to see for himself what had happened, described the cull as 'bloody murder'. And he didn't think much of the 'trained marksmen' either: horses had been shot through the body, through the jaw, through the leg, you name it. In terror of the helicopters, they had tripped over and got themselves tangled up.

Needless to say there was a public outcry over the cull, but far from apologizing the NPWS went on the offensive. They claimed that the Australian Veterinary Association guidelines permitted culling from the air. But a spokesman for the AVA contradicted them saying such a method of culling was approved only in open and arid country where there was a good line of sight. Using 'trained marksmen' in helicopters in rugged, heavily timbered, mountainous country clearly was in breach of the guidelines.

But it's not just returning land to supposed wilderness that is degrading it. Land management practices of national parks authorities have also been corrupted by the deep green philosophy that the less human 'interference' the better. It really is junk science, especially for Australia, as will shortly be explained.

Some NPWS officers blamed the fires on land holders who'd 'recklessly' undertaken fuel hazard reduction burns. Naturally this outraged the land holders, many of whom have been farming the land for generations. Tempers were so hot that the Director of the state NPWS came to listen to the farmers' concerns at a meeting in Armidale NSW on Wednesday 8th November 2000.

Well the Director might have listened all right, but it's doubtful he heard what the farmers were saying. After every speaker, his invariable response was to agree, to promise to do something about rude staff, and to refuse to reconsider the aims and methods current policies - despite the majority of farmers telling him they were wrong.

The farmers attending the meeting said that the policy of minimal interference in the national parks was proving not only dangerous, but potentially devastating for the very ecology the government wishes to preserve.

One man whose family has held grazing leases for three generations in what's now a national park said his family had NEVER experienced such destructive hot fires as have now happened twice since the adjoining land was proclaimed national park. Another man who shares a 24k boundary with a national park agreed. He said his family have always used a burning rotation as part of their land management. He likes to have a one year burnt area, a two-year burnt area etc. That way he manages excessive rubbishy fuel growth and gets sweet grass for his cattle. The fires he lights are cool enough not to damage the fauna and flora.

Another farmer reminded the Director that Captain Cook noted fires all along the eastern coast of Australia as he sailed north in 1770. The fires were lit by the Aborigines. Anthropologists have described the Aborigines' propensity to leave fires behind them as 'fire-stick farming'. One early explorer called Aborigines 'the sons of Prometheus' for their incendiary habits. The point of this information is to show that fire is a natural part of the Australian ecology. Believe it or not, the seeds of many Australian plants won't germinate without fire! But the required fire is a 'cool fire'. It cleans out the undergrowth, but just scorches the trees which miraculously recover in no time.

But as the Aborigines no longer wander over their nomadic ancestral trails leaving a mosaic of 'cool fire' burnt land, the fuel builds up. The inevitable result is a devastating hot fire that completely destroys the fauna and flora, sometimes along with the trees themselves.

The early white settlers must have quickly cottoned on to the necessity of winter burn-offs for they have been a standard land management practice in many parts of the country. The National Parks and Wildlife people used to burn off too, but now they know better than to 'interfere' with the forests.

As a result, the country is literally going to the (feral) dogs.

And feral cats, rabbits, foxes, pigs, goats, horses, cows and even camels. Needless to say, the native flora and fauna are put under enormous pressure to survive. So much for preserving bio-diversity.

Australia's Antonia Feitz is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right.

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