The Australian Wildlife Conservancy
The Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC), established over 10 years ago manages approximately 3-4 million hectares of land via restoring species rich and fire adapted ecosystems, controlling feral animals, and eradicating weeds. This land is leased from the government which provides guidelines for land usage for periods of time ranging from 50-99 years. Currently, over 1,700 species are at risk of extinction. However, Tim White, a ranger working for the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, stated that 80% of his work involves managing fire and working with professionals like ecologists and biologists to ensure the health of the landscape and species that rely on ecosystem services that the habitat provides. Suppressing fire has greatly decreased rainforest quality in terms of diversity and structure. For example, the cockatoo grass is a keystone species the conservancy is attempting to restore. This grass provides food for seed-eating birds and small mammals. Specifically, it provides fungus which in turn provides food for species like the kangaroo rats. Fire benefits this species by killing overgrown weeds as well as other grasses that may grow in the area, allowing it to compete with more vigorous species of grasses. The intensity, location, and time periods of fires are factors that all must be prioritized when managing controlled burns in Australia. Smaller, more frequent fires in the earlier and dryer seasons tend to be more effective. Generally, the fire will only burn grass that is around 3 years old versus 1-2 year old grass, which has a less dense understory. Fires are burned in a mosaic method, meaning that the fire is released in patches to target various aged grass, resulting in a more diverse species ecosystem. Different types of species thrive on each patch of land as well as benefit off of open land with sun exposure. Depending on the desired intensity, the frequency with which they throw matches out of a moving car or off a helicopter will vary. One method used for the controlled fire was with a small ping-pong type ball filled with potassium permanganate crystals and added glycol poison which creates a chemical reaction, causing a delayed fire to begin. The type of fire method used depends on the knowledge of the Rangers at hand of intensive fire history as well as the type of systems and landscapes targeted. Typically, less humidity, less wind and less morning dew provide for a better fire. The AWC successfully uses a landscape level approach for the conservation of endangered species and species diversity.
Fire at Paluma Range National Park
The Paluma Range National Park is a 220,000 acre area registered as a world heritage site for its vast diversity of ecosystems. The Paluma Range National Park is home to approximately 30% of Australia’s marsupial species, 60% of Australia’s bat species, 50% of Australia’s bird species, and 25% of Australia’s frog species. 390 of the species that live in the park are considered rare. With this great range and diversity of animals, the park is a crucial environment for the sustenance of specie richness. The area is relatively free from obvious human development besides a few roads and trails for admiring waterfalls and breathtaking views; however the environment has been extremely impacted and altered due to a social conception: that forest fires were solely negative.
European settlement in the late 1700’s came with different environmental practices then previous aboriginal tribes who maintained the land. Among those aboriginal groups were the Nywagi clan, who were dislocated from the Paluma Range area. They previously allowed forest fires, as they maintained natural cycles and were intact with cultural values. However, European domination of the area came with new development, animal grazing, and agriculture. Fires challenged the productivity and safety of the new European interests and were then considered negative and destructive. With these ideas, forest fires were suppressed, and mesophycation took place and changed parts of the Paluma Range’s ecosystem dramatically. After years without fire, previous fire-maintained areas near rainforests began to be encroached by dense growth of saplings and rainforest plants. The ecological composition and structure of areas near the rainforest changed from wet sclerophyll forests composed of tall Eucalyptus variety trees with grassy understory, to dense tree and canopy cover with low-light plants. This changed the environment’s conditions, as the previously dry and hot areas began to hold moisture and cooler temperatures. Areas farther away from rainforests grew up with thicker saplings and shrubs without fires to control growth, but still not as dense as the areas near the rainforest. This growth created a mosaic of different environments with an overall reduction of the previous grassy understory environment.
Variation of forest type from dry less dense trees with grassy understory, to slightly denser forest with sapling and bush growth, to moist dense rainforest growth.
Fire management conceptions have since changed, and park rangers now realize the importance of forest fires in preserving and maintaining ecosystem diversity and specie richness. Park rangers in the park now burn to protect diversity of life, ecological habitats, to control weeds, and to maintain cultural resources. Today, a large stimulus for burning in the park is for a critically endangered species called the Mahogany Glider. The Mahogany Glider traditionally lived in the fire-adapted, less dense forest with grassy understory and relied on fires to keep the ecological structure adequate for it’s movement through trees. The fire-free environment with thick canopy stopped the animal from moving through the trees as it previously had, and therefore the population declined critically. The park rangers are now recovering the traditional habitat for the Mahogony Glider through burning. The primary burning technique used in the park is called ‘mosaic burning.’ Mosaic burning focuses on controlled and planned burns of only some portions of the park. This maximizes habitat conditions for both the open woodland/grassy understory ecosystems and thick-canopy rainforest type ecosystems. Mosaic burning is also important because it avoids burning the areas most heavily dominated by the rainforest plants and trees, as those are less likely to naturally return to spacious forests with grassy understory. The mosaic pattern can be seen in the forest, as some patches are darker and thicker being the rainforest type environment, and the lighter areas being grassy understory forests and periodically burned areas.
Mosaic burning patterns can be seen with darker and lighter wooded areas
Nywaigi Fire Management
The Nywaigi people of North Queensland have lived in harmony with the environment for thousands of years, and their deep respect for nature is exemplified by the saying, “Sick country, sick people.” They have also long recognized the importance of fire as a means for rejuvenating the environment around them. Fire served a variety of functions in Nywaigi culture. It was often used for social and religious settings, and played roles in ceremonies and stories. Fire was also an important method for signaling to other Nywaigi or to neighboring tribes. Hunting was also facilitated by fire. Hunters would set fires to drive animals out of their shelters and herd them into open areas where they then became easy targets for other hunters. Regular burning also facilitated regrowth of certain plants that were important for food or construction. Finally, fire was used to facilitate movement. Areas of land were burned so that the Nywaigi could move more easily and have improved visibility through the forests and grasses.
Today, Paluma Range National Park covers much of the area traditionally owned by the Nywaigi. In recognition of the land’s rich history, the forest rangers managing the area have integrated the Nywaigi people and their cultural values into the park’s management practices, especially when it comes to fire management strategies. The park’s three main reasons for burning are to protect life and property, maintain habitats, and maintain cultural resources and practices. Forest rangers use both traditional and modern methods of fire management, and they have taught traditional peoples the skills needed to practice modern methods of fire management. Their goal is to bring the Nywaigi people to the same skill level the forest rangers are at. Fires are also started with an awareness of important traditional sites, such as those with rock paintings or those that have served as historic places of gathering. For instance, to burn an area around a rock with culturally significant paintings on it, rangers may start the fire at the rock with careful monitoring and then allow the fire to move away from the rock, rather than starting a fire somewhere nearby and letting the fire haphazardly burn towards the rock. The Nywaigi people are also involved at each step of the process, ensuring that all the proper sites are protected and that the fire management practices are conducted with respect for the land and traditions. In addition to direct consultation with the Nywaigi people, the park service also collaborates with Girringun Aboriginal Corporation, an organization that represents nine different indigenous groups and their interests in national parks. Finally, forest rangers and Nywaigi representatives collaborate on the education of outside groups. Nonindigenous visitors are educated on important cultural sites and traditions. Outside forest management groups are also educated on ways that indigenous groups can be best integrated into land management practices. Several park rangers also serve as mentors to indigenous students at colleges to encourage them to become the next generation of park rangers and to take ownership for their country and identity.
The Nywaigi people have used fire for thousands of years for everything from hunting to signaling. Through a collaboration with Paluma Range National Park forest rangers, the Nywaigi continue to protect the land that they have had such deep ties to and preserve culturally significant sites. Their traditional fire management strategies live on and have been adapted to meet the challenges posed by a national park setting.