How Aborigines made Australia Reply

by Gregory Volz

Making a choice: controlled burns or bushfires. Photo: nifwiseirff

A prominent historian has called for more burning of our bushland if we want to manage it better. Professor Bill Gammage, of the Australian National University, Canberra, said we can learn much from the Aborigines.

“A fire a day keeps the bushfires away,” he said. “The wilderness in our national parks is a disgrace. It shows just how un-Australian we are in managing the land. I’d like to see more support for burning in national parks.”

Professor Gammage spoke at the Sydney Writers Festival. In his book, The Biggest Estate on Earth, he says that before European settlement, Aborigines managed the continent as a giant estate. They managed the land using fire, creating grassland parks, shepherding animals and keeping raging bushfires at bay.

“National Parks people have a problem,” he said. “They have to relate to the public. The public doesn’t like fires, especially in parks. People get asthma and dirty washing, it doesn’t look nice and it’s bad for bush walking.”

The debate over controlled burning in our national parks is not new. The Victorian Government recently set a target of five per cent for burning on public lands each year.

This is in line with the recommendations from the Black Saturday Royal Commission, set up following the death of 173 people in Victoria three years ago. In New South Wales, hazard reduction activities are being doubled over the next five years.

Not everyone is a fan of a five per cent target. Tim Baker works for a bush regeneration company and was in the audience at Professor Gammage’s talk.

“With fire at the moment, you have the practitioners who are the Rural Fire Service and the Fire Brigade who come at it from a hazard reduction perspective. Then you’ve got ecologists who come at it from an ecological perspective” he said, adding that ecologists were concerned that species could be wiped out easily. “So, it’s not as though you can whack five per cent there and it’s done.”

Doug Benson, Senior Plant Ecologist at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, is uncomfortable with reading too much into the past to guide current land management practices.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to say, Aborigines did this therefore we should do it. We’ve got away from that,” he said. “We use European science and the knowledge of the plants and animals to say, okay we’d like a fire regime such as this.”

The debate extends beyond Australian shores. Harmony Anderson, a tourist from the United States, was also in the audience.

“Well, we’ve had some big forest fires in our national parks. And there is controversy about having controlled burning within the national parks, to keep these big wildfires from going crazy.”

Professor Gammage told the audience he has been working on this book since 1980.

“I used to work on farms when I was at high school and university. At that stage, I got very interested in trees and soil associations, and noticed that they weren’t always where they should have been,” he said.

“I would read in an early account of the Murrumbidgee in which a drover from the 1850s recalled it as lush grass, cattle rolled in fat,” he said. “Now it’s dense forest. So the obvious question to ask is, if it is dense forest now, why wasn’t it then?”

His book, that concludes that Aborigines had been managing the land, is extensively researched, with over 1,500 references and many illustrations. It is one of five nominees for best non-fiction book at the forthcoming Australian Book Fair Awards.

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