These historic grasslands are becoming a weed-choked waste. It could be one of the world’s great parks



Adrian Marshall, Author provided

Adrian Marshall, University of Melbourne

Volcanic plains stretching from Melbourne’s west to the South Australian border were once home to native grasslands strewn with wildflowers and a vast diversity of animals. Today, this grassland ecosystem is critically endangered.

To protect the last remaining large-scale patch, the Victorian government proposed the “Western Grassland Reserve”. But in June, a damning Auditor General’s report revealed this plan has fallen flat.




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With weeds choking the native grasses and many animals now locally extinct, the deteriorating reserve represents a failure of imagination.

Debate has raged about funding, timelines and bureaucratic processes. But what the debate is missing is a new vision, with funding and management models, for the Western Grassland Reserve, that recognises its deep culture and history, and its potential to be one of the great parks of the world.

Failing our flora and fauna

The Victorian government’s plan was to acquire 15,000 hectares of mostly farmland beyond Melbourne’s outer limit between 2010 and 2020. The money is coming from offsets, where developers are, in effect, charged a fee to be allowed to destroy federally protected remnant grassland within the urban growth boundary.

But the Auditor General’s report found a scant 10% of Western Grassland Reserve land has been purchased, with little offset money remaining for further purchases.

In addition, delays in purchasing land are costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars because of rising land prices. A predicted substantial downturn in development further exposes the flaws of a funding model inadequate to its conservation task.




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We urgently need to investigate new funding and management models that embrace the reserve as a cultural landscape for people.

A quintessential Australian experience

As a patchwork of farms overlaid on traditional Wathaurong land, the Western Grassland Reserve could be shaped into one of the greatest large parks of the world – a cultural landscape capturing a quintessential Australian experience, speaking of Indigenous culture, our colonial past, and who we are today.

A well-designed reserve could show us the history of grassland pastoralism that gave rise to the saying “Australia rides on the sheep’s back”. It could immerse us in Dorothea MacKellar’s “land of sweeping plains”. It can give us back the immense flowered landscape that so stunned the explorer Thomas Mitchell, he coined the phrase “Australia Felix”, which means “happy Australia”.

And it could show us something of the profound knowledge Indigenous people hold. Few know this, but the Wurdi Youang stone circle near Little River – though as yet undated – may well be one of the oldest known astronomical structures in the world, far predating Stonehenge or the pyramids.

Dark boulders on grasslands represent the Wurdi Youang stone circle
Part of the Wurdi Youang stone circle, that may be one of the oldest astronomical structures in the world.
Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Imagine its potential

Imagine a picnic under a spreading gum beside an old farm dam. There’s a bluestone dairy repurposed to fine dining, a grand farmhouse for overnight stays, bike trails, and a series of regional playgrounds emphasising natureplay and adventure for all abilities.

With the right conservation, ephemeral wetlands and creeklines could be bursting with birdlife and ready to explore, and even working farms retained for school visits.

Nearby, at Mount Rothwell, a fenced conservation area contains almost extinct small marsupials – bandicoots, potoroos and apex predator quolls. These were once commonplace, and still a night visit is an unforgettable experience, yet one few Melburnians have enjoyed.

A small brown bird with a spotted neck walks on the ground
The critically endangered plains wanderer, the world’s most unique bird, once lived in these grasslands.
Shutterstock

Innovation in management

Part of a bigger picture for the Western Grassland Reserve is a new management model beyond a poorly-funded Parks Victoria asset being managed solely for environmental values.

Options abound for innovation and leadership here. We can create a well-coordinated network of different management approaches and protection levels with traditional publicly owned national parks, conservation reserves, private land covenants, private protected areas and Indigenous protected areas.

Funding for management also needs rethinking. Market-driven models can ensure performance-based outcomes. For example, farmers can be paid to graze sustainably. And a new model leveraging resources and expertise could encourage the involvement of NGOs, traditional owners and community groups, species-specific teams, the Royal Botanic Gardens, with research input by universities.

Built-in commercial seed production, which is fundamental to restoring degraded areas, can kick-start the native seed industry in a win–win for commerce and the environment.

These sorts of alternative management and funding have been achieved in the south of France, within the Carmague and the stony plains of Le Crau. There, 10,000 hectares of grassland and wetland complexes are managed by broad alliance of NGOs and conservation agencies across defence land, national parks and private protected areas.

And in the USA, the largest tallgrass prairie in the country is managed by Kansas State University and the Nature Conservancy, with federal and philanthropic input. It also has an educational program that brings in more than 100 school and public events a year.

So what are we waiting for? The Great Ocean Road was built during the Great Depression, let the Western Grassland Reserve be a visionary project for these difficult times under COVID-19.The Conversation

Adrian Marshall, Academic, Landscape Architecture and Urban Ecology, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

This rainforest was once a grassland savanna maintained by Aboriginal people – until colonisation



John Glover’s paintings show open savannahs and grasslands in Tasmania. (1838)
Art Gallery of NSW

Michael-Shawn Fletcher, University of Melbourne

If you go to the Surrey Hills of northwest Tasmania, you’ll see a temperate rainforest dominated by sprawling trees with genetic links going back millions of years.

It’s a forest type many consider to be ancient “wilderness”. But this landscape once looked very different.

The only hints are a handful of small grassy plains dotting the estate and the occasional giant eucalypt with broad-branching limbs. This is an architecture that can only form in open paddock-like environments – now swarmed by rainforest trees.

These remnant grasslands are of immense conservation value, as they represent the last vestiges of a once more widespread subalpine “poa tussock” grassland ecosystem.

The temperate rainforest in Tasmania’s Surrey Hills are a legacy of colonialism.
Author provided

Our new research shows these grasslands were the result of Palawa people who, for generation upon generation, actively and intelligently manicured this landscape against the ever-present tide of the rainforest expansion we see today.

This purposeful intervention demonstrates land ownership. It was their property. Their estate. Two hundred years of forced dispossession cannot erase millennia of land ownership and connection to country.




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Myths of “wilderness” have no place on this continent when much of the land in Australia is culturally formed, created by millennia of Aboriginal burning – even the world renowned Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.

British impressions

Today, the Surrey Hills hosts a vast 60,000-hectare timber plantation. Areas outside the modern plantations on the Surrey Hills are home to rainforest.

On first seeing the Surrey Hills from atop St Valentine’s Peak in 1827, Henry Hellyer – surveyor for the Van Diemen’s Land company – extolled the splendour of the vista before him:

an excellent country, consisting of gently rising, dry, grassy hills […] They resemble English enclosures in many respects, being bounded by brooks between each, with belts of beautiful shrubs in every vale.

It will not in general average ten trees on an acre. There are many plains of several square miles without a single tree.

And when first setting food on the estate:

The kangaroo stood gazing at us like fawns, and in some instances came bounding towards us.

He went on to note how the landscape was recently burnt, “looking fresh and green in those places”.

It is possible that the natives by burning only one set of plains are enabled to keep the kangaroos more concentrated for their use, and I can in no way account for their burning only in this place, unless it is to serve them as a hunting place.

The landscape Hellyer described was one deliberately managed and maintained by Aboriginal people with fire. The familiarity of the kangaroo to humans, and the clear and abundant evidence of Aboriginal occupation in the area, implies these animals were more akin to livestock than “wild” animals.

A debated legacy

Critically, Hellyer’s accounts of this landscape were challenged later in the same year in a scathing report by Edward Curr, manager of the Van Diemen’s Land company and, later, a politician.

Curr criticised Hellyer for overstating the potential of the area to curry favour with his employers, for whom Hellyer was searching for sheep pasture in the new colony.




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These contrasting perceptions are an historical echo of a debate at the centre of Aboriginal-settler relations today.

Authors such as Bruce Pascoe (Dark Emu) and Bill Gammage (The Biggest Estate on Earth) have been challenged, ridiculed and vilified for over-stating the agency and role of Aboriginal Australians in modifying and shaping the Australian landscape.

These ideas are criticised by those who either genuinely believe Aboriginal people merely subsisted on what was “naturally” available to them, or by those with other agendas aimed at denying how First Nations people owned, occupied and shaped Australia.

New research backs up Hellyer

We sought to directly test the observations of Hellyer in the Surrey Hills, using the remains of plants and fire (charcoal) stored in soils beneath the modern day rainforest.

Drilling in to the earth beneath modern rainforest, we found the deeper soils were full of the remains of grass, eucalypts and charcoal, while the upper more recent soil was dominated by rainforest and no charcoal.


Author provided

We drilled into more than 70 rainforest trees across two study sites, targeting two species that can live for more than 500 years: Myrtle Beech (Nothofagus cunninghami) and Celery-top Pine (Phyllocladus aspleniifolius).

None of the trees we measured were older than 180 years (from 1840). That’s just over a decade following Hellyer’s first glimpse of the Surrey Hills.

Our data unequivocally proves the landscape of the Surrey Hills was an open grassy eucalypt-savanna with regular fire under Aboriginal management prior to 1827.




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Importantly, the speed at which rainforest invaded and captured this Indigenous constructed landscape shows the enormous workload Aboriginal people invested in holding back rainforest. For millennia, they used cultural burning to maintain a 60,000-hectare grassland.

Learning from the past

Our research challenges the central tenet underpinning the concept of terra nullius (vacant land) on which the tenuous and uneasy claims of sovereignty of white Australia over Aboriginal lands rests.

Our research drilled into the soil to learn what the landscape looked like before British invasion.
Author provided

More than the political implications, this data reveals another impact of dispossession and denial of Indigenous agency in the creation of the Australian landscape.

Left unburnt, grassy ecosystems constructed by Indigenous people accumulate woody fuels, in Australia and elsewhere.

Forest has far more fuel than grassland and savanna ecosystems. Under the right set of climatic conditions, any fuel will burn and increasing fuel loads dramatically increases the potential for catastrophic bushfire.

That’s why Indigenous fire management could help save Australia from devastating disasters like the recent Black Summer.




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The Conversation


Michael-Shawn Fletcher, Associate Professor in Biogeography, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Invasive grasses are fueling wildfires across the US



Burning invasive, nonnative grasses on federal land at Lower Table Rock, Oregon.
BLM, CC BY

Emily Fusco, University of Massachusetts Amherst

The Santa Ana winds that help drive fall and winter wildfires in California have died down, providing welcome relief for residents. But other ecological factors contribute to fires in ways that scientists are still discovering.

I study how human actions affect fire regimes – the patterns through which fires occur in a particular place over a specific time period. People alter these patterns by adding ignition sources, such as campfires or sparking power lines; suppressing fires when they develop; and introducing nonnative invasive plants.

My research suggests that nonnative invasive grasses may be fueling wildfires across the United States. Some fires are occurring in areas that rarely burn, like the Sonoran Desert and the semiarid shrublands of the Great Basin, which covers most of Nevada and parts of five surrounding states. In the coming months, some of the grasses that help feed these blazes will germinate, producing tinder for future fires.

The Great Basin.
KMusser/Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

In a recent study, I worked with colleagues at the University of Massachusetts and the University of Colorado to investigate how 12 nonnative invasive grass species may be affecting regional fire regimes across the U.S. We found that eight species could be increasing fire in ecosystems across the country.

Altering historical fire patterns

A fire regime is a way to describe fire over space and time or to characterize fire patterns. Understanding fire regimes can help make clear that fire is a natural and integral component of many ecosystems. Knowing historical fire patterns also enables scientists to begin to understand when new or different patterns emerge.

The link between invasive grass and fire is well established. Invasive grasses are novel fuels that can act as kindling in an ecosystem where readily flammable material might not otherwise be present. They can catch a spark that might otherwise have been inconsequential.

For example, in August 2019 the Mercer Fire burned 25 acres in Arizona, scorching native desert plants, including iconic saguaro cacti. A much larger event, the 435,000-acre Martin Fire, destroyed native sagebrush ecosystems in Nevada in July 2018. Invasive grasses helped fuel both fires.

Cheatgrass, which fueled the Martin Fire, is a well-studied invasive grass known to promote fire. But many other invasive grass species have similar potential, and their roles in promoting fire have not been assessed at large scales.

How land managers are fighting invasive grasses across the Great Basin region of the West.

Introducing the suspects

Researchers describe fire regimes in many ways. Our study focused on fire occurrence (whether or not fire occurred), frequency (how many times fires occurred) and size (the largest fire associated with a place) in 29 ecological regions across the U.S. For each location we tested whether invasive grasses were associated with differences in fire occurrence, frequency or size.

A nonnative invasive species typically comes from another continent, has become established, is spreading and has negative impacts. We used an online Invasive Plant Atlas of the United States as a starting point to determine which invasive grass species to investigate.

Next, we searched the scientific literature and the U.S. Forest Service’s Fire Effects Information System to see whether there was reason to believe that any of the invasive grass species promoted fire. This process helped narrow our scope from 176 species to 12 that were suitable for our analysis.

Who are these “dirty dozen,” and how did they get here? Buffelgrass is native to Africa and was intentionally introduced to Arizona in the 1930s, probably for erosion control and forage. Japanese stiltgrass and cogongrass are native to much of Asia and were introduced to the southeastern U.S. in the early 1900s, in some instances as packing material. Medusahead, which comes from Eurasia, was introduced to the western U.S. in the late 1800s, probably by accident as a contaminant in seed shipments.

The remaining eight species – giant reed, common reed, silk reed, red brome, cheatgrass, Chinese silvergrass, Arabian schismus and common Mediterranean grass – have similar stories. People introduced them, sometimes accidentally and at other times intentionally, without an understanding of how they could impact their new settings.

Cogongrass, which is invasive in the U.S. Southeast, may burn hot enough to kill native fire-adapted tree species.
Alabama Cooperative Extension System, CC BY-ND

Big data for big questions

Understanding how multiple species influence fire over many years at a national scale requires using big data. One person could not collect information on this scale working alone.

We relied on composite data sets that provided thousands of records of invasive grass occurrence and abundance across the country. Combining these records with agency and satellite fire records helped us determine whether fire occurrence, frequency or size were different in places with and without grass invasions.

We also used statistical models to assess whether human activities and ecological features could be driving observed differences between invaded and uninvaded areas. For example, it was possible that grass invasions were happening near roads, which are also linked with fire ignitions. By including roads with grass invasion in our statistical models, we can be more confident in the role invasive grasses could play in altering fire regimes.

Our results show that eight of the species we studied are associated with increases in fire occurrence. Six of these species are also linked to increases in fire frequency. Invasions seem to be affecting a variety of ecosystems, ranging from buffelgrass in the Sonoran Desert to Japanese stiltgrass in eastern U.S. forests to cogongrass in southeastern pine systems.

Our statistical models suggest that grass invasion, along with human activities, are likely affecting fire patterns in these ecosystems.

Surprisingly, none of the invasive grass species analyzed appeared to influence fire size. We interpret this result to mean that the areas we studied are seeing more of the same types of fires that already occur there, at least in terms of size.

Dispersing seeds over a burned area of the 2015 Soda Fire in southwest Idaho to help stabilize soils and combat invasive weeds such as cheatgrass.
BLM via AP

Factoring invasive grasses into fire planning

People start an estimated 84% of wildfires in the U.S., with the rest ignited by lightning strikes. Studies show that climate change is increasing wildfire activity.

With an understanding of interactions between invasive grasses and fire, agencies that handle either fire or invasive species may find opportunities to work together to control invasions that can lead to more frequent burns. Our research can also strengthen predictions of future fire risk by incorporating the presence of invasive grasses into fire risk models.

Although it sometimes may feel as though the world is on fire, this information can provide potential for remediation, and may help communities prepare more effectively for future wildfires.

[ Like what you’ve read? Want more? Sign up for The Conversation’s daily newsletter. ]The Conversation

Emily Fusco, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Massachusetts Amherst

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

What are native grasslands, and why do they matter?



The Southern Tablelands contain rare native grasslands.
Tim J Keegan/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Mike Letnic, UNSW

Coalition minister Angus Taylor is under scrutiny for possibly intervening in the clearing of grasslands in the southern highlands of New South Wales. Leaving aside the political dimensions, it’s worth asking: why do these grasslands matter?




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The grasslands in much of eastern Australia are the result of forests and woodlands cleared to “improve” the landscape (from a grazier’s point of view) to make it suitable for grazing livestock.

The “improvment” typically entails cutting trees, burning the felled timber and uprooting tree stumps, followed by ploughing, fertilising and sowing introduced grasses that are more palatable to livestock than many native grasses.

However, largely treeless native grasslands once occurred at high elevations across much of the Monaro tableland, in the area stretching between Canberra and Bombala.

The Monaro grasslands (or in scientific speak, the natural temperate grassland of the Southern Tablelands) are in relatively dry and cold areas, particularly in upland valleys or frost hollows where cold air descends at night.

The combination of dry climate and cold restricts tree growth and instead has encouraged grasses and herbs. Native grasses such as kangaroo grass and poa tussock dominate the grasslands, but there are many other unique plants. A typical undisturbed grassland area will support 10-20 species of native grasses and 40 or more non-grass species.




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The grassy plains are also home to unique cold-adapted reptiles such as the grass-land earless dragon, little whip snake, pink-tailed worm lizard and striped legless lizards. This combination of plants and animals create a unique ecological community.

Striped legless lizards may resemble a snake, but most of its body is actually tail. It has vestigial limbs and a non-forked tongue.
Benjamint444/Wikipedia, CC BY-NC-SA

A fraction remain

It is estimated only 0.5% of the area that would once have been natural temperate grasslands in the Southern Tablelands remains. The rest has been gradually “improved” since the mid-nineteenth century to make them more productive for livestock grazing.

Livestock dramatically change the composition of grasslands, as animals remove palatable plants and compact the soil under their weight. Disturbed soil and the livestock also help to spread non-native weeds.

However, most native grasslands have not just been modified by grazing but completely replaced by man-made pastures. That is, the land has been ploughed, fertilised and the seeds of introduced grasses have been planted.




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These changes to the landscape mean much of the landscape is dominated by introduced plants and is now unsuitable for many of the native plants and animals that once lived and grew there.

Because the Natural Temperate Grassland of the Southern Tablelands is now so rare it is classified as critically endangered and federally protected. Furthermore, many of the distinct plants and animals that still live in these grasslands are classified as vulnerable or endangered.

The pink-tailed worm lizard is one of the rare species living in the native grasslands of the Southern Tablelands.
Matt Clancy/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Some of the best remaining examples of the Monaro grasslands can be found in old cemeteries and in areas set aside as public livestock grazing areas. These areas of public land have often been spared from pasture improvement or only lightly grazed, and thus now support relatively intact native grassland ecosystems.




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While, to the untrained eye the Monaro grasslands may seem unremarkable and difficult to distinguish from grazing pastures, they are deeply important. They show us what Australia once looked like, and act as a haven for native biodiversity.

Indeed, what remains of the natural grasslands is now so disturbed by agriculture there is a real threat this distinctive ecological community and many of the species it contains may disappear altogether, if they are not protected from excessive grazing, fertilisers and the plough.The Conversation

Mike Letnic, Professor, Centre for Ecosystem Science, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.