In Australia’s Outback, Pew Works to Protect Land and a Way of Life

Country director Barry Traill reveals the challenges and satisfaction of striving for balance in a wild place

In Australia’s Outback, Pew Works to Protect Land and a Way of Life
Barry Traill

A well-managed Outback will support a range of industries and put people in jobs, including in land management. But this special place will lose its ecological health if it succumbs to the threats it faces.

© The Pew Charitable Trusts

Since 2008, The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Australia team has been at the forefront of protecting the vast remote lands of Australia known as the Outback. Working with Indigenous people, Outback-based businesses, and Australian lawmakers, Pew has helped protect tens of millions of hectares of critical wildlife habitat and fostered a broader appreciation for the region.

Pew’s Australia director, Dr. Barry Traill, a renowned conservationist and zoologist by training, has played a central role in that work. Here, he shares his insight on why the Outback is a surprising place, its importance to the world, and the power of working with Australians from various segments of society to advance smart conservation and economic development policy for this special place. 

Q: What shocks people most about the Australian Outback?

A: The scale. The size of it is very hard for many—including a lot of Australians—to grasp. It’s the same size as the United States’ West and Midwest combined. The diversity is difficult to comprehend as well. Sure, it has the famous red rock and sand, which is what many people know about, but it also has rainforests, great green rolling plains, the world’s largest tropical savanna, and a desert country full of plants and wildlife, with thousands of species found nowhere else on Earth.

Q: But human life there is scarce.

A: True. Most Australians live in cities on the coast in the southeast of the continent—in Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne. The Outback, an area that’s as big as two-thirds of the lower 48 of the U.S., has a population not much larger than the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Outside Antarctica, Australia has the lowest population density of any continent.

Q: Why focus time and resources on an area where so few people live?

A: Like the Amazon and Canada’s boreal forests, the Outback is one of the very few wild, natural places remaining on a planet that is very crowded, with more than 7 billion people. The Outback is also one of the largest and most natural of those wild systems. Australians sometimes don’t view it as a distinct and singular region, but it is—and it takes up more than 70 percent of the continent. Here, the land has been cared for by Indigenous Australians for some 50,000 years. In the Outback, people and the land are inextricably connected.

Q: What are the benefits of protecting the Outback?

A: If the landscape is in good shape, conserving it helps attract people to the region and supports healthy communities. A well-managed Outback will support a range of industries and put people in jobs, including in land management. But this special place will lose its ecological health if it succumbs to the threats it faces.

Australian Outback

Working with Indigenous people, Outback-based businesses, and Australian lawmakers, Pew has helped protect tens of millions of hectares of critical wildlife habitat and fostered a broader appreciation for the region.

© The Pew Charitable Trusts

Q: What is threatening such a remote place?

A: For one, many species have been brought into Australia. European settlers introduced all manner of animals, from feral cats, foxes, and other small mammals to cows, goats, water buffalo, pigs, and camels. These invasive species eat Australian plants, and native animals haven’t adapted to compete well with the newer arrivals. Also, native and invasive species combined have put extra pressure on nature that wasn’t there 250 years ago. Other threats to the health of the land include invasive noxious weeds and wildfires.

Q: What are some ways to manage invasive animals?

A: When the feral cats and foxes were introduced, for example, we began to lose small native mammals, wonderful species such as pademelons [a very small kangaroo], quolls, and bandicoots. Researchers have found that retaining dingoes [Australian native dogs] in an area can keep cat and fox populations in check, because dingoes are apex predators. They’re about the size of a lean Labrador but are so fierce that they’ve kept rampaging feral pigs and goats in check, and stopped our native kangaroos from overpopulating.

It’s a bit like the American experience with wolves in Yellowstone National Park. Historically, wolves kept the elk population in balance. But when the wolves were eliminated, the elk population exploded and overgrazed the landscape, causing other species to disappear. When the wolves were reintroduced, the ecosystem began to regain its balance. Dingoes are one way to keep the Australian landscape healthy. 

But that’s just one approach. It’s not a cure-all. Humane baiting and trapping programs, run by Indigenous Rangers and other land managers throughout the Outback, also help control invasive pests.

Q: How are Outback residents dealing with invasive plants?

A: Invasive plants—not just the kinds of weeds that give you trouble in your garden—are a huge problem. Some can take over and destroy an ecosystem. West African gamba grass, for example, grows 3 to 4 meters tall. Where it is uncontrolled, it overwhelms our diverse northern savannas of eucalypts and native grasses, turning those areas into monocultures of gamba grass. But if a ranger is there, he or she can recognize it and kill it. Much of the work with invasive species is about getting on top of the situation quickly to prevent it from worsening.

Q: And the wildfires?

A: Australia is very fire-prone because parts of it are so dry. Just as in California, people need to be proactive. Here, Aboriginal people have managed fires in different ways for many thousands of years.

However, in large areas of the Outback where no resident managers live, large, fierce, uncontrolled wildfires are a major threat to nature. Much of our work involves getting a foundation of support for Indigenous Rangers to get back on their land so they can actively manage fire. This is often done by lighting smaller, less intense flames in the cooler or wetter seasons, which thins out the available fuel and helps slow and stop the big fires. Controlled burns can also create a mosaic of areas of bush that are different ages, which helps support a variety of more plant and animal habitats.

Q: The people of the Outback are part of the solution to protect it, then.

A: Yes, and that’s one of the conundrums we have. It’s a general truth that if you have too many people in a spot, they will compete with wildlife for water or land, and nature will lose out. But we have the opposite problem in many parts of Australia: too few people on the land, and therefore not enough people to look after the country. In many parts of the Outback, we have fewer people managing the country than any time in the last 50,000 years. That matters because we need to deal with fire and invasive species. 

Q: How does Pew protect the land and support the Indigenous people who live there?   

A: We have helped advocate for consistent federal and state government funding to support the creation of Indigenous Protected Areas, and pay the Indigenous Rangers who will manage them. Indigenous Protected Areas are created through an agreement between Aboriginal landholders and the Australian government and have been a great success story of conservation here.

Now, 63 Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs) cover more than 150 million acres of the continent, an area larger than the state of California. In addition, nearly 800 Indigenous Rangers use a combination of traditional cultural knowledge and science-based techniques to manage these lands, which have been in their families for more than 50,000 years. These are hard jobs in often very remote places. But for the rangers, this is home. This is their culture. Other countries, including Canada, are beginning to emulate this program.

But while we need these new protected areas, we also need to create a vibrant economy in the Outback to support people who can manage the threats. One of the fundamental challenges is maintaining communities both socially and economically. Without additional money and resources, we’ll just have parks on paper. Conservation here in Australia is about the interaction between land managers and the country—it’s completely intertwined.

Q: Does the ranger program have longevity?

A: Some of the older people who grew up living a traditional life in the bush were teenagers before they even met a white Australian. Those who grew up in the bush developed extraordinarily detailed knowledge of the land and have an especially acute eye for wildlife and the landscape. This is hard-won knowledge earned by making a living, every day, in often harsh country. Part of the job of the ranger programs is to pass this knowledge on to the younger rangers who have grown up in modern Australia and spent much of their lives at school or in small towns.

Q: How is land that’s being used for grazing faring?

A: Separate from the land that is fully Indigenous-owned, about 40 percent of Australian land is under lease, similar to the way the Bureau of Land Management operates in the American West. Some of these areas are no longer commercially viable for ranching sheep, goats, and cattle—millions of acres are trending out of grazing—but there are restrictions on what alternative enterprises are possible. We need to encourage new enterprises that will bring dollars, jobs, stronger communities, and better land management back into many districts.

With many graziers [the Australian name for ranchers], we are campaigning for diversification of enterprises so that people who work the land may have additional sources of income, such as tourism or carbon farming. 

Q: How does carbon farming work?

A: Bushland, degraded by grazing, is managed to help it recover its full thickness and density. It then can absorb greenhouse gas pollution that would otherwise contribute to climate change. 

Q: Is there enough infrastructure to support a vibrant tourism industry in the Outback?

A: There is a thin web of settlements and roads across the Outback. And the more popular tourism destinations like Uluru [Ayers Rock] and Kakadu have extensive and modern tourism facilities. We are also very lucky to have services similar to those in a modern state but modified for remote living. If you have an accident, for example, we have a flying doctor service available for emergency ambulance calls. But we also have desert areas covering tens of millions of acres with literally no residents. To access those—for example, for camping, ranger programs, or adventure tourism—you need a good four-wheel drive and enough supplies for a week or two. 

Q: Do Australians who don’t live in the Outback visit the area?

A: Generally, yes, at some point in their lifetime. One feature of Australian life is the “gray nomads”—older people who caravan around Australia. It’s part of the ethos of Australia to travel around the country.

Q: You’ve worked with Indigenous communities in Canada and government officials, sharing your experience in establishing the groundbreaking network of Australia’s Indigenous Protected Areas in hopes that might help the Canadians as they manage another global treasure: their country’s boreal forest. What have you learned from each other?

A: Australia and Canada have very different climates, but the fundamental geography and political systems are similar—both countries have huge landscapes where the strong Indigenous communities are distant from the centers of population and power. We also both have a Westminster system of government, where land management issues are mostly vested with provincial governments. We’ve experienced some wonderful two-way learning. Pew and others have helped facilitate study trips for aboriginal leaders between both countries. Canada’s land-use planning is in many ways more advanced than Australia’s, while our Indigenous Protected Areas approach—parks on aboriginal-owned lands, and federally funded ranger programs—are new to Canadian leaders. Hopefully, the Canadian government will create a similar program for “Indigenous Guardians” in Canada.

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