Editorial by Tina de Jong, Executive Officer, Murrumbidgee Landcare Inc
Heard the news this week that the Australian environment is doomed? Wondering is that us, or other places like the Great Barrier Reef? The State of the Environment Report is a gigantic set of reports analysing the latest scientific information about all aspects of the environment. When you read anything about it, you will read many descriptions of poor condition, deteriorating patterns and more endangered plants and animals. There is even a new category of ecosystems that are at risk of collapse. But don’t get an inconsolable case of ‘eco-grief’ just yet (more on that later), for you can also read ‘hope’ and ‘joint efforts’, ‘world class expertise’ and the essential voice of First nations ecological knowledge woven throughout the report. You can even see Landcare mentioned in there as a key driver of necessary change, once or twice, actually heaps of times! (DCCEEW, 2022)
Let me walk you through some of the key findings and how they apply locally. Let’s see what we can all do now the election dust has settled and has just confirmed, indeed, that there is widespread concern and awareness for the state of our planet, and that much more needs to be done now and quite quickly.
First some key high level points from Dr Simon Bradshaw’s review of the report (20 July, 2022). Dr Bradshaw is Research Director of the Climate Council:
- Climate change is affecting all aspects of our environment.
- At least 19 Australian ecosystems have shown signs of collapse or near collapse (that is, the entire community of plants, animals and organisms are at risk of irreversible damage in certain forest, river and sea environments around the country).
- Changes in Country have altered and disrupted First nations peoples’ connection with land, plants and animals and these changes will continue to destroy important places and cultural values.
- A staggering 1,385 plant species and 533 animal species were listed as threatened. This list has actually grown by 8% since 2016 and sadly it represents 21% of Australia’s mammals.
The State of the Environment report is done every five years, and there have been many reports before this one showing a worsening state of our communal habitat (home) and the habitat of all the creatures across the country, as well as here in the Riverina and South West Slopes. This is by far the worst report in the series, as we can now see the evidence of climate change accelerating the damage to plant and animal communities, they are not just predicting it anymore, as previous reports have done.
So what about some of our local vital resources that enable us to actually live here? Do they get a mention? Unfortunately, yes.
The Australian State of the Environment Report recognises the Murray Darling Basin River riverine ecosystem as one of nineteen at risk of collapse. The report that informs this decision does so as these ecosystems show signs of collapse, such as fish kills, amongst other assessment criteria, that were used to make this call. While no one ecosystem (all the parts that make up a system) has ever collapsed in Australia, we can see evidence of partial collapse and potential for it in these nineteen identified areas. Another one close to home is the Snow patch herbfields (Bergstrom et al, 2021).
The Murrumbidgee River ecosystem is of course highly significant to our Wiradjuri First Nations people and is a part of the Murray Darling Basin system, and so the alarm bells ringing in the State of the Environment report are indeed close to home. The authors for the first time also spell out how when our environment is struggling, that our collective well-being and health suffers. The Barka Darling drying up and subsequent fish kills had a profound effect on the communities mental and physical health, and in particular on the First Nations community.
As ecologists, we call this dropping a threshold, when a plant or animal community loses its ability to bounce back from extreme events, like floods, fires and droughts, and it occurs in stages that roughly correspond with the listings in this report, such as healthy animal populations, threatened species, endangered ecological communities and then extinct. This report also discusses all of these extreme events that are certainly relevant locally, and in fact more relevant than most other places, when we get into this next sobering locally applicable issue.
In the Land section, ‘Vegetation extent and condition’ was one of the five themes that scored a concerning ‘poor’ condition. That is, there is not enough of it and it is not in a very good state, and around here it is about as bad as you can get. Firstly the report recognises that in NSW only 33% of bushland and natural areas can support the wildlife living in it fully. So two-thirds of the state does not support the full range of plants and animals that rely on these natural vegetated areas as home. This is largely why we have such a high extinction rate, as we have wiped out so many areas of animals homes and continue to clear it. Clearing of bushland was cited as the biggest factor contributing to most threatened species problems and therefore if we look after bushland and take action to improve the condition of it, then it creates more food and housing niches for a wider variety of species (that includes us).
The Australian State of the Environment Report discusses the large belt that has been cleared for farmland and highlights particularly the areas of vegetation, of certain types, that have been over cleared. It is therefore not surprising in our area, if we drill into the report that informed the above 33% figure, and go to the South West Slopes region, there is only 15% functional area for plants and animals to thrive. It is actually the worst score in the state. The Riverina and Plains vegetation types are at 25%. Around 30% you get the type of massive step that we don’t like these areas to drop below, to consider them healthy. So around here we don’t have much of a buffer to events like wildfire, floods, and drought, where they deplete large areas reserves, or in other words we don’t have much resilience to future threats like climate change (DPIE 2020).
In her address to the National Press Club upon releasing the report, Environment and Water Minister, the Hon Tanya Plibersek highlighted what is common around here for our Box Gum woodlands, that it is a gradual deterioration and simplifying, and the loss of small scale paddock trees and small areas, as well as large scale clearing, that is leading to these continual declines. Most of this clearing is not assessed. And with less trees and without substantial emissions reduction, there is more climate change, more large extreme events, which wipe out more bushland and this is the vicious cycle that is starting to unfold, and be evidenced in these reports. Another local observation from the Australia-wide report is more weather-driven fire days occurring.
Some local observations that support these changes unfolding in our lifetime are former wetlands that have turned into River Red Gum forests in the last two decades, Snow gums that have been burnt too many times for their liking in the 2013 and 2019/20 fires. These areas will likely make way for a different type of vegetation and displace certain plants and animals with nowhere else to go. The restrictions on fishing and lobstering around Wagga that have had to occur due to the depletion of these important Murray Darling Basin River riverine inhabitants have happened in about the same time-frame; warning signs.
Now before panic sets in, don’t be consumed with eco-grief – that feeling of despair and hopelessness some might be experiencing right now, the kind of feeling you might have got in the cloak of Black Summer smoke. The remedy for all of the above and ecological/climate grief is to do the thing that you are good at – to look after the planet, whatever you like, know and do, do it well and share it with your friends. Whether that is recycling, buying less, teaching kids about nature, being a great ‘birdo’ and contributing to citizen science, or just learning any of these things. Take on ground action, come and do a Landcare activity; positive steps like this are a good start. Planting trees, picking up rubbish and contributing to community groups who are taking these steps is known to even further improve hope, and is what is required right now.
The first thing we all need to do is understand the problem and then decide together we are going to change this course. Landcare contributes millions of dollars to our regional economy and has a proven well-being benefit for participants. It helps farmers and urban communities create more ‘resilient’ environments to withstand these future challenges and this in turn benefits the whole community. Anyone can join an activity; it takes all sorts of skillsets to run these incorporated not for profit groups, and anyone is welcome. There are over 30 groups across our whole region that are members of Murrumbidgee Landcare Inc and our staff across the region can put you in touch with the volunteers that are driving these changes, in big and small ways, from the plains to the mountains around here.
As this report highlights we can’t keep up with the changes that are happening, so some bigger resets and resources are required and we welcome more Landcare hands to help do the small bit that we contribute to this big network of people trying to make the necessary changes.
For more information, contact Murrumbidgee Landcare www.mli.org.au or firstname.lastname@example.org
Bergstrom DM, Wienecke BC, van den Hoff J, Hughes L, Lindenmayer DB, Ainsworth TD et al. (2021). Combating ecosystem collapse from the tropics to the Antarctic. Global Change Biology 27(9): 1692–1703
Dr Simon Bradshaw, New State of the Environment report. Email correspondence 20 July, 2022. Climate Council
DCCEEW (Australian Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water) (2022) State of the Environment (SoE) reporting 19 July 2022
DPIE (NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment) (2020). NSW biodiversity outlook report. Results from the Biodiversity Indicator Program: first assessment. DPIE, Sydney