The Outback: in need of the human touch

We’re often told humans are bad for the planet. But Australia has found that the Outback is suffering without us.

Given humanity is happily multiplying, this story about the Australian Outback is remarkable. Apparently it’s suffering from a lack of us.

“Substantial parts of the Outback in fact need more people, not fewer, living in and actively managing the land,” writes Barry Traill, a director of the Pew’s Outback Australia programme.

Leaving wilderness wild it would seem, is not straightforward. Before Europeans arrived in Australia the Aboriginal people had a living, breathing connection with the land for at least 50,000 years.

They managed their environment – chiefly through carefully orchestrated fires, which regenerated growth.

But the old ways are gone – as are many of the tribes – and the fires burn big and loose, threaten populated areas, and are radically changing the environment.

Throw in feral cats, pigs, donkeys, camels and toads, to say nothing of invasive plants, and you’ve got well-armed enemy gaining territory. 

Mentioning the “Outback” conjures an image of red desolation, Uluru and blistering sun. In fact, the 73 percent of Australia classed as Outback also includes vast areas of savannah, rainforests and wetlands.

The wilderness needs management and that’s just a fact of our modern world. Emma Marris writes of a paradigm shift roiling the environmental world in her book, The Rambunctious Garden. She argues that there is no pristine wilderness left on the planet  – mankind has touched everything. 

“We’ve been changing the landscape we inhabit for millennia,” she says. “We must temper our romantic notion of untrammeled wilderness and find room next to it for the more nuanced notion of a global, half-wild rambunctious garden, tended by us.”

This week, the Outback Papers are being launched in Canberra – a 10-year project putting forward a means to conserve and develop the area.

It’s a strategy of more indigenous land care and ranger programmes, so creating jobs and enabling people to live where they can actively care for the land. 

What’s the alternative? As the authors say – the loss of an irreplaceable natural heritage.

Follow Nick Clark on Twitter @NickClarkAlJaz

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