Australia’s Missing Woodland

Murray River, Australia (Photo Credit - Tim Philips)
Murray River, Australia
(Photo Credit – Tim Philips)

KERANG, Australia – For thousands of years lush wetlands and dense wooded scrub flanked Australia’s greatest river, until it was largely drained and cut away less than two centuries ago. Now the land is changing again and into what, we do not yet know.

On the banks of a major tributary of the great Murray river, Kerang is a small town and like other small towns in Australia, many of its young are leaving. The farming the community thrived on for more than 100 years is getting less profitable. There are better jobs elsewhere.

At the same time, Australia’s greatest river system has become a political hot potato. The combined Murray-Darling river system is the island continent’s greatest watershed, and it is highly sensitive to climate change. Four states with booming populations all want a share of the waters that drain into it. In recent years they have been frequently low or absent.

Theoretically, the area around the Murray should be a wooded landscape. But this is woodland that is mostly missing. At the moment much of it is a patchwork of dried-out wetlands and semi-abandoned land.

To protect what is left in trees and biodiversity and promote carbon sequestration, Victoria’s state government has created financial instruments to encourage farmers to protect and plant native vegetation on private land, and promote other environmental uses. One of these new financial commodities has been given a catchy name: ‘BushTender’.

The question is: Do they make financial sense? If there are better ways to make money, they may not be enticing to the landholders.

I was part of a team that tried to answer this question. Our analysis was clear: without extensive financial support the best option financially will definitely be farming, and the environmental impact may not be good.

Planting trees here may be a nice idea, but it just does not make financial sense.

In 2011 and 2012, when I was a PhD candidate at the Melbourne School of Land and Environment, University of Melbourne, we carried out a study on land between Kerang and nearby Swan Hill. It is around 30,000 hectares in area. Although much of the woodland has been cut, what remains forms a patchwork that provides homes to dozens of endangered plant and animal species, most unique to Australia.

Land here is cheap these days and much of it has been bought by VicSuper, a superannuation fund or pension fund, set up to provide for its members’ retirements when they are old. Like pension funds everywhere, VicSuper needs a profit to benefit its members. Ideally it wants it to be as large as possible. In this area, it operates through a local asset management firm, Kilter Pty Ltd.

These people have choices to make about how they manage their land. They can turn it to environmental uses. They can grow timber on it. They can just carry on using it for agriculture. Or they can do nothing with it — just leave it to go back to nature.

How should they make that choice?

Working with Kilter and other stakeholders, we came up with five different scenarios and looked forward 30 years. We tried to calculate the income generated over that time period. We cannot easily predict the future, so we had to work this out several different ways.

It was clear from our results that activities with a purely financial aim, such as ‘business as usual’ involving annual loss of 0.14 percent of the native vegetation as seen at present, were ultimately far more profitable.

On the other hand, environmental impacts were much better under schemes which promoted environmentally friendly uses, like planting trees and preserving parts of the region for its value in biodiversity. But only in the most favourable of situations could these turn a profit.

Intriguingly, one option — the land abandonment option — came out badly on all counts. Not only did it produce little income, it promoted the spread of weeds and feral animals, most of them not native to Australia.

If nothing else, these results clearly indicate one thing: Doing nothing is definitely a bad option for the land around Australia’s greatest waterway.

Written by: Himlal Baral
Affiliation: Center for International Forestry Research
Country: Indonesia/Australia

This post is entry #21 in the #IUFRO2014 Blog Competition. The most popular entry will receive a certificate and 500 USD. The second and third most popular entries will receive a certificate and copy of the new book, “Forests and Globalization: Challenges and Opportunities for Sustainable Development”.

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