Fragile Western Landscapes – getting it right this time?

Dr Peter Mitchell OAM, Environmental scientist

As a participant in the recent forum ‘Safeguarding our Crown Lands’ organized by the Central Western Environment Council a sense of déjà vu set in when I considered the Western Division. This covers 40% of the State and is held in Crown leases. Mining generates twice as much money as agriculture and about as much as tourism. More money is spent in Government services than agriculture produces, and grazing generates the least benefit for the smallest number of families although it utilises the greatest area of land.

Droughts, inquiries and grazing impacts

Arguably the most important inquiry into NSW arid rangelands was the 1901 Royal Commission that was driven by the social and environmental conditions faced by Crown tenants experiencing the ‘Federation Drought’. Stock numbers fell from 15.4 million (sheep equivalent) in 1891 to 3.5 million in 1902 and have never recovered.

Land degradation started after one generation of white occupation, as seen by Dixon (1892):

‘… after 30 years of settlement … in the Riverina and (to) Northern South Australia, the injury to the original vegetation by overstocking has assumed such a great magnitude as to entail a national loss.’ (p202)

Hungry mouths deplete the vegetation, soil is exposed to wind and rain, and vegetation composition shifts from valued fodder to unpalatable native and exotic weeds. Add rabbits and goats and the landscapes decline into self-sustaining degrade cycles.

Graziers know what is wrong and a majority acknowledge serious management problems including; soil erosion, pest animals, excessive total grazing pressure, indigenous shrub invasion, low ground cover, and poor access to water (Western Local Land Services 2016). Plus other issues such as small property size, high fuel and labour costs, poor communications, distances to service centres, and ever expanding regulation.

The 1901 Commission changed land tenure and established the Western Lands Board. The State’s objective was to put as many family groups on the range as possible. But a sustainable property size depends on productivity and dollar returns and Home Maintenance Areas were too small. The Board was poorly funded, and after two more Royal Commissions was replaced by a Western Lands Commissioner. Rural land management prospects improved with the creation of the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) but WWII stopped progress until after the next serious drought (1937-1947) and a second phase of soldier settlement.

Stocking rates were set to aid vegetation recovery

In the 1970s the SCS mapped vegetation on the western leases and collated the data in Land System maps that still provide some of the best information across the Division. Between 1970 and 1990 the SCS focused on research and providing extension advice but after their 50th Anniversary in 1988 their government funding was cut back.

Reviews never seem to stop, all recommend changes in legislation, little of which is implemented. Today we have another round; Regulations and Codes for the Biodiversity Conservation Act and the Local Land Services Act, the Crown Land Management Review (regulations yet to be drafted), and the Review of Travelling Stock Reserves (TSRs). Words are overwhelming but don’t move rangeland management toward sustainability. My 1980’s optimism has morphed to pessimism. Is the hidden agenda for the State to shed more responsibility?

We know how to improve management, we have decades of research and numerous demonstration areas, what holds us back?

  • Seasonal conditions, but that’s a normal condition.
  • Vertebrate pests. Used as an excuse whilst failing to acknowledge that feral goats keep many properties afloat. In 2015/16 about 800,000 goats were taken from western NSW at a price competitive with sheep.
  • Graziers are asset rich and income poor. Their average age is increasing faster than the general population, the older generation tends to be less well educated than their peers elsewhere, and the younger generation sees greener pasture in the city.
  • Stock and wool prices have never held their own against labour and fuel costs, and returns on capital are abysmal.
  • Government agencies, which previously provided research services and management advice, have been dismembered.

Western graziers know what needs to be done about their range condition, but they are locked into an impossible position where they cannot afford to undertake the work and there is less assistance available despite the fact that we all benefited from many generations of ‘riding on the sheep’s back’. It’s time we paid some debts.

So will the latest changes to Crown Lands address the issues?

I am doubtful. The Crown Lands Management Act 2016 has already passed without any mention of the principles of ecologically sustainable development, or the desirability of assessing and valuing ecological services provided by Crown Lands. These points may be addressed in the coming regulations, but …

Many TSRs are no longer needed for their original purpose and can be valued differently. Where the system is still intact their greatest value is in their connectivity, which makes TSRs invaluable as a reference network. This may be exactly what we need to assess and buffer changes driven by future climate. We need to rethink TSRs as Heritage Landscapes and see them as a new form of National Reserve that should be managed in perpetuity for all Australians. It is public land, let’s keep it that way and create a different kind of reserve in which some of the original uses, such as infrequent grazing, can remain, but controlled by sound management principles under a single authority.

With a little imagination this could be achieved, but there are two serious impediments. Management of such a reserve network cannot be divided among local agencies, and it can never be ‘cost neutral’, which is one of the declared aims of the present Review.

Is the Government big enough to try it on? Or is the Western Division still just too far from Macquarie Street for anyone in power to take a real interest?


  1. Dixon S. 1892. The effects of settlement and pastoral occupation in Australia upon the indigenous vegetation. Tran. Roy. Soc. S.A. 15: 195-206
  2. Western Local Land Services 2016. Western Local Strategic Plan 2016-2021.

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