Reversing the thinking on Conservation – Less is More


Minister McTiernan has rightly pointed out that I am free with my advice on what the government should be doing to improve outcomes in the regions. But this time I’m not going to direct my advice to her or the Labor party, as I don’t believe that there is any chance that a political party so dependent on Green preferences will even begin to consider what I am about to propose even though the environmental outcomes would be far better than those being achieved under the current approach to land management.

Western Australia is a big state and all governments seem to come to power with a policy of establishing ever more conservation reserves, because voters have been convinced that we need more state parks to protect the environment. And to make it easy for us, some unelected international United Nations body has come up with the magic figure of 15% of all lands as the bench mark to be set aside for conservation reserves.

In their desire to signal subservience to the UN and its global goals, our political leaders have over the past thirty years been buying up pastoral stations and turning them into crown reserves. The biggest rush of buying happened under the Gallop government in the early 2000s with over 50 stations being purchased across the Gascoyne and Murchison. Much self-congratulation occurred at the time and Ministers were photographed in front of large maps pointing to their growing empire of green.

This rush of purchases subsequently lead to an animal welfare disaster as stray stock and native animals died in droves. Then the following summer vast numbers of water points were suddenly turned off. No funds had been allocated to clean up old asbestos ridden homesteads, the wild dog problem exploded as neighbours departed, and dog control collapsed. Highly prospective lands had to be passed over during the coming mining boom which could have generated millions in royalties. But I digress.

Around 10 million acres were locked up by that virtue signalling policy and the environmental outcomes in terms of slowing down the extinction of our small marsupials or the control of evasive weeds such as cacti has continued at a relentless speed. With dogs and cats hunting and killing, feral camels and pigs destroying, and the nasty weeds growing, it’s the law of the jungle out there.

If the government was serious about the environment they would stop worrying about what the UN thinks is an appropriate percentage of the land mass to paint green. It would ignore demands to shut down the economy to reduce a minuscule percentage of global carbon emissions and instead focus on real conservation at a local level. As they say, all politics is local particularly if you are a bilby being hunted by a feral cat – you have only one thing on your mind. So killing the big feral herbivores, the small feral carnivores and the weeds in highly valued local environments is all about giving our native plants and animals half a chance.

How to do this and more importantly how to pay for it is simple. First we reverse the policy of mindlessly buying pastoral stations. We don’t need swags of unmanaged crown land which is a haven for every feral known to Australia including some of the two legged variety.

Instead we do an audit of those stations purchased over the last 30 years and carve out the high value eco zones. It’s usually not that hard to do, it’s the bits with rocks leaping out of the ground, the banded iron formations, the granite outcrops, the stuff that attracted the attention of indigenous people and the early geologists. The bits with water and different micro eco systems. That’s the start of the really good stuff that we should be going all out to protect.

And protect it we should. But not by using lines on maps but by using fences, traps, guns, poison, and chemicals to take out the weeds. Doing it properly means there will not be a cat or a cactus plant anywhere to be seen. Hundreds of kilometres of cat proof fencing will need to be built and maintained, creek lines swept for feral weeds. This is not a small job but a massive intensive conservation effort at a micro scale. Let’s be honest – to save the environment you have to undertake a war of extermination on the enemy and that takes a costly army of people and resources.

The first round of funds would come from releasing the old pastoral leases minus the 10% hived off on a real protection zone that’s 1million acres out of 10 million. The 9 million goes back into production, it becomes a renewable source of income from pastoral lease fees that can be directly targeted at local land management of the highly protected zone. It won’t be a lot but it will signal a new way of doing things with leases that stipulate a high degree of feral animal control.

Then the government allocates the royalty stream from any mining operations that occur across the 9 million acres to high intensity land conservation. In fact they should be allocating 10% of all royalties to flora and fauna conservation.

It’s a direct trade off, using the low value land for pastoralism and mining to generate the resources to really properly protect the high value land. This will not come cheap; it cost the state government millions to hunt down every last cat and fence off Peron station on the Shark Bay Peninsula.

I‘m talking about doubling the Department of Environment’s budget from $ to $ and putting the funds not into more staff at their offices next to the Royal Perth Yacht Club but into the boots and guns on the ground. On top of that you mobilise the army of grey nomads to be the home guard working on the hunt to find the infiltrators behind the front line of fences.

As I stated at the start this is not a policy for the McGowan government, as it would tie the Greens in knots to be seen to trade a large amount of light green on a map for a small amount of dark green funded by the pastoralists and miners. When it comes to a trade-off between the possums and idealism, for the Greens, idealism will always win. But if we are really interested in protecting the Bilbys and the Numbats and the spider orchids and the ……. we need to forget the idealism and focus on the practical.

Good policy comes from coming up with new ways to solve old problems, not chasing idealistic targets like 15% of the state locked up in conservation zones. This is a policy that Liza Harvey and the Liberals could take to the next election as long as all members of her party are prepared to challenge their old way of thinking.


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