Book Review: A Million Wild Acres – Eric Rolls

Erica Nash, NPA Environmental Book Club Member

“A story of men and their passion for land; for occupation and settlement; of destruction and growth.”

The Pilliga Forest lies between the Warrumbungle Dark Sky National Park and the Nandewar Ranges and covers about 500,000 hectares. It constitutes the largest surviving stand of remnant native forest in what is known as the Brigalow Belt South Bioregion. It is also a Key Biodiversity Area (KBA) for birds such as the Grey Crowned Babbler and the critically endangered Swift Parrot and Regent Honeyeater to name but a few (NPA 2020).

Rolls published “A Million Wild Acres” in 1981 and at the time his thoughts were regarded as being contentious by many other historians, ecologists and environmentalists because he challenged the notion that much of northern NSW was originally covered in dense eucalypt forest which needed to be cleared for grazing. Rolls argued that the forests developed as a result of land mismanagement by the early settlers. Book club members felt that it was worthwhile to compare Rolls’ ideas to that of Bill Gamage’s  book “ The Biggest Estate on Earth” and more recently to the writings of Bruce Pascoe in  “Dark Emu” which for some, explained early settler history better than Rolls’ account of the opening up of the country.

The central story of “A Million Wild Acres’ is about the growing of a forest. Where once the landscape consisted of expansive grasslands giving it a parklike appearance thanks to Aboriginal burning practices and also grazing by bettongs, now we see much of the land heavily vegetated, and more so since the coming of European settlement and grazing. As a result, landscapes changed together with the fire regimes. Without regular burning patterns, undergrowth appeared, thus impacting greatly on the forest as a whole, so that when a large bushfire swept through, it not only burnt the understorey but also the canopy (Griffiths 2016).

Remember too that when Rolls wrote the book, there were conservation issues being fought for places like Terania Creek in Northern NSW and with wood chipping which highlighted the effects of indiscriminate clearing of the forests.

One of Rolls’ “heroes” in the book is the white cypress pine (Callitris) which is part of the conifer family and is found in a wide variety of climates ranging from 0°C to greater than 40°C in flat to undulating sandy country. Callitris has mycorrhiza- mutually beneficial associations between the roots and fungus- which enhances the tree’s uptake of nutrients from the soil, especially phosphorus, and the carbohydrates from the tree’s roots assist the fungi (BRS 2008)

It could be said that the book is as much about the forest and the opening up of the land as it is about “the social interactions between people and how this has changed over the last 200 years” such as  the rise of “larrikinism”, and other arrogant tough individuals who we still encounter today.

One member who knew the Pilliga area shared some insights:

Chiefly, Rolls’ book was “ stunningly ground breaking for its time, for making people/ readers aware of the ecology of the area and raising awareness of same; He was a great storyteller and this is something which country people enjoy and how they like to learn about people and place.” “Eric acknowledged the Aboriginal people and the 200 years of man and forest.”

Also mentioned is the work of the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) which has approximately 36,000 ha of land in the Gilgai area of the Pilliga State Forest which is being managed under a partnership agreement with NSW NPWS. As part of the NSW Government’s Saving Our Species Program, 5,600 ha is now protected with a feral proof conservation fence to commence a rewilding program for animals such as the Greater Bilby and the Brush-tailed Bettong (AWC 2021). Unfortunately, in order to facilitate the building of this structure, a huge area was cleared including the felling of 800 mature trees.

 However the greatest concern about the future of the Pilliga State Forest is due to the effects of the  “SANTOS coal seam gas and Whitehaven long-wall coal mining operations” which not only will destroy large patches directly, but also via their toxic by-products spilling into the landscape. There are concerns too surrounding depletion of groundwater and poisoning of the aquifers associated with the Great Artesian Basin and if that is not enough, the Narrabri Gas Project plans to establish 850 new wells.  (Lynne Hosking 2020).

In summary, members agreed that they were grateful to have Eric’s book, sharing “it’s a classic and the fact is people read the book, and it is still being read by people of all ages and backgrounds.” “It is so important to preserve the book together with Rolls’ descriptions of the breadth and depth of all the biodiversity, the history and the relationship between men and the bush, trees, insects, stygafauna, aquifers and even butterfly species existing high up in the canopy”.


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