The Australian Outback has always demanded a lot from its inhabitants—durability, persistence, ingenuity, and adaptability. And since people first settled there tens of thousands of years ago, they have met the challenges of this vast and varied region. But over the past 150 years, the Outback has been left with fewer permanent residents to manage the land than ever before.
That trend may soon be reversing, thanks to the Australian government’s decision in May to create five additional Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs) in the Outback, on the lands of the Ngururrpa, Ngadju, Spinifex Pilki, Olkola, and Crocodile Islands Traditional Owner groups. Where once the government forcibly moved these people out of the region, the new areas now will provide opportunities for them to stay, protecting and conserving their land. The areas are expected to cover around 54,000 square miles—about the size of North Carolina—and increase the total area of IPAs to roughly 309,000 square miles, or nearly half the size of Alaska.
These protected areas are akin to national parks, but they are managed by local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, who use a combination of traditional methods, local knowledge, and modern science to safeguard their land and culture. The expansion of these areas over the past 20 years under the IPA program, and its benefit to the environment and local communities, has been one of remote Australia’s success stories.
The Outback is one of only a small number of extensive natural landscapes remaining on Earth—places where ecosystems function and wildlife move as they have for centuries. The region has the planet’s largest intact tropical savanna, covering nearly 770,000 square miles across northern Australia, along with more than 1.1 million square miles of largely undisturbed desert and the 61,775-square-mile Great Western Woodlands, the largest remaining woodland habitat in the world’s temperate Mediterranean climate zones.
The Outback also has an ancient cultural history that remains vibrant today. It has been home to Aboriginal Australians for over 50,000 years, and through this period these Traditional Owners of the land have shaped and nurtured the landscape. The land has reciprocated by sustaining people, helping them to forge and strengthen a unique sense of identity and culture.
But the long-term health of the Outback is under threat. Its population is at the lowest point in its history. This has led to the uncontrolled spread of feral animals, noxious weeds, and wildfires that unless addressed will further degrade a region known as the heart of Australia.
For years, Pew has been working in the Outback—in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups, conservationists, graziers, industry groups, and the federal and state governments—to protect and manage this remarkable region through three broad goals: enabling more people to manage the land, reforming outdated laws that stifle innovation, and supporting Aboriginal-led conservation.
These goals are especially relevant now: Federal and state policies are geared largely toward the 97 percent of Australians who live in population-dense areas and don’t address how those who live in the Outback are modernizing land management.
Today, graziers and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Indigenous Rangers use helicopters to conduct controlled burns, laptops and satellites to monitor distant paddocks, and drones to combat noxious weeds in otherwise inaccessible country. Many Outback sheep or cattle stations—large properties similar to ranches in the United States—supplement their income by attracting tourists or through carbon farming programs, which reduce greenhouse gas emissions or capture and hold carbon in native vegetation and soils.
With these changes come new challenges, and addressing those will require laws specifically tailored to these remote areas. Even with new policies, the fate of this large, natural ecosystem lies with the people who live on, know, respect, and manage the land. Without people, the toll on nature will continue to rise.
By funding the five new areas, the government is investing in the success of locally driven Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organizations, which are managing their traditional lands and protecting nature and culture. There is widespread support for the Indigenous Protected Areas program by Traditional Owners, and political and public backing generated through the Country Needs People alliance—a growing group of individuals and Indigenous local organizations in Australia seeking, among other things, to increase growth and security of Indigenous land and sea management jobs.
The alliance is asking the government to double—from 2,500 to 5,000—the number of positions available to Traditional Owners for land and sea management. It also wants the government to double funding for the work.
Pew is a supporting partner of the alliance, which has worked to show policymakers and the public how IPAs and Indigenous Rangers benefit all Australians.
“This expansion is the result of a lot of hard work by Traditional Owners and local organizations over many years,” says Barry Traill, who directs Pew’s work in Australia. “We’re proud to be a part of the Country Needs People alliance and to work with each of these five groups, and we’re confident that they will successfully manage their new Indigenous Protected Areas.”
Protecting these areas is essential to the nation’s nearly 580,000-square-mile National Reserve System—a network of formally recognized parks, reserves, and protected areas. After the expansion is complete, Australia will have 80 dedicated IPAs accounting for more than 49 percent of the system’s total area.
Melissa Price, the country’s assistant minister for the environment, calls the new protected areas “a significant expansion [that] will deliver important biodiversity benefits, including protecting habitat, managing feral pests, and providing connectivity and linkages at the local and landscape scale.”
Indigenous Australians have worked their country for tens of thousands of years, and more recently many Traditional Owner groups have established a strong record of working with government and other stakeholders to manage traditional lands for conservation and to address local cultural, social, and economic priorities.
“We need to show our younger people how to look after the land. We want to have rangers so we can look after the country,” says Katherine Njamme, one of the Traditional Owners of the proposed Ngururrpa IPA. “I felt happy when I heard about the Indigenous Protected Areas, because we want to take our young people out there and show them where their grandparents and great-grandparents walked the country, keep them out of trouble in town, get them working hard on country, both young men and young ladies.”
John Briley is a Trust staff writer.