David Phelps, ARS President and Director, DAF Office Landsborough Hwy Longreach Qld 4730.  Email: president@austrangesoc.com.au


Over the past six years I have sought to write about issues that are important to all of us who are passionate about the rangelands. In this, my final column as President of the Australian Rangeland Society, I seek to recap and build on the many themes that I have presented over the last six years, as one way to proactively shape our future.


We are all passionate about the rangelands

One of the many things that unites all members of the Australian Rangeland Society is our passion for the diverse landscapes, people, plants, animals and industries spread across this vast area of the nation. There are 1,000s of rangeland residents, tourists and workers who are equally as passionate, and have much to offer through lived experience. I believe that it will be increasingly vital to unite our research and management efforts across disciplines and experiences to protect the features that make our rangelands so special.

This will require excellent communication, so that we can reach shared visions for the future. Whilst I am confident that we share the vision of sustainable rangelands for the future, our vision of how we seek to achieve this will differ based on our own values, disciplines, experiences and regions. I propose that we seek to better understand the values, needs and aspirations of all of us who share this passion and to build a set of shared visions of how we can promote resilience, climate adaptation, sustainable industries, conservation, services and livelihoods.


Communication and conversations

Providing forums for effective communication and respectful conversations were two key reasons that the Australian Rangeland Society was established. In 1976, founding President David Wilcox wrote in the first Range Management Newsletter of the ‘need for communication between operators, administrators, researchers and extension workers.’ In the complex globalised world of today, this need is even stronger.

As a science based organisation, the ARS strives to provide forums for the free exchange of ideas and information, platforms for providing new knowledge and for safe discussions about a range of topics where evidence or points of view may differ. We do this through freely available social media, the open-access Range Management Newsletter, biennial conferences, and the subscription based Rangeland Journal. Our reach is global, and 1,000s of academics, land managers, policy makers, students and more are engaging through one or more of these mediums.

Our social media channels provide the opportunity for everyone to engage through on-line conversations, and to highlight important issues and work that is happening around the country.

In December 2020 we made the Range Management Newsletter available to every interested reader in Australia and globally. This will help promote the research, extension, policies, and on-ground management of the rangelands to a broad audience, and help create linkages for people involved in each of these important activities. Every edition since 1974 is available from the ARS website at https://austrangesoc.com.au/resources/range-management-newsletter-archiverange-management-newsletter-archive/

ARS conferences continue to provide great networking opportunities, ways to learn about the latest research and on-ground management, and opportunities for us all to form new collaborative and cross-disciplinary partnerships.

The Rangeland Journal is one of few international peer-reviewed publications that specifically focusses on the rangelands. It is available to ARS members, and through library services throughout the world.

Ultimately, the ARS exists to “promote the advancement of the science and art of using Australia’s rangeland resources for all purposes commensurate with their continued productivity and stability”.

This is best achieved through collaboration, cooperation and respectful communication between all of us who share a passion for the rangelands. If we can achieve this, then we will collectively leave the rangelands with a secure future.

Communication will remain as important as ever into the future. Excellent communication will be vital to create shared visions for the future.


Resilient landscapes, industries and communities

Resilience has emerged as a strong theme in the last few years. I have previously written that we need to manage for resilience in our landscapes and also our socioeconomic systems, to ‘adapt to both extraneous and intrinsic shocks, such as increased climatic variability, global market forces, the substitution of both skilled and unskilled labour through robotics and artificial intelligence, shrinking resident populations and destabilised communities’. The number of journal papers focussing on resilience has increased, and the theme of the 2019 conference was ‘Resilient future rangelands: integrating environment and livelihoods’.

Resilience is not always clearly defined. Some define it as ‘snapping back’ to how things were before the disruption, but to me that falls short of its true meaning. To me, it is about a system’s ability to reorganise and function after a disruption in ways that are ‘ready’ for the next disruption. The system may well ‘snap back’ to pre-disturbance form and function, but it may also reorganise. This could be ecosystems responding to major flooding, fires or drought, industries responding to a sudden loss of market access, or social systems responding to a natural disaster. It is an expansion of the concept of sustainability that incorporates external, often unknowable, disruptions.

Resilience is likely to become increasingly important as we learn to adapt to uncertain futures. Collaborative efforts that bring together local knowledge and wisdom with external research and resources will help to build this resilience.


Climate change, drought and adaptation

The evidence is clear for many aspects of climate change such as increasing CO2 levels, temperatures and evaporation. Unfortunately, there is less certainty for future rainfall patterns. Whilst much evidence points towards increasingly variable rainfall across most rangeland regions, there is still a wide range of possibilities for annual totals and patterns. For natural systems that are generally limited by water, this presents a key challenge into the future.

Drought will continue to be a crucial factor, and I have previously written about the complexities of the impacts of drought, and the complexities of defining drought. Drought policy has been changing over the last 20-30 years, and good evidence as well as robust discussion will both be important to address the management, responses and mitigating the risks associated with drought. One thing is for certain, is that drought will remain a constant feature of a continent that is dominated by highly variable arid and semi-arid rainfall systems.

There are more carbon projects, and greater amounts of carbon sequestered within the rangelands than across the rest of Australia. The mulga lands of western NSW and south-western Queensland in particular are making a major contribution to carbon sequestration through avoided deforestation projects. More philanthropic and private organisations are seeking to utilise the potential to increase soil organic carbon as a means to sequester carbon, and it will be important to improve our knowledge of key aspects such as rangeland carbon cycles, plant rooting behaviour and soil biota.

Renewable energy generation will become increasingly important in the rangelands – especially as the efficiency of capturing solar energy become more prominent. The highest solar energy yield in Australia follows the Tropic of Capricorn, and is best where the lowest number of cloudy days occur. Whilst voltaics and the generation of power are not really research topics for rangeland science, the application of cheap renewable energy and remote power sources offers many opportunities for further investigation.


The importance of the rangelands to our nation

Many people have discovered the pleasure of living and working in smaller towns where community spirit is still strong during 2020, and many companies have become more open to telecommuting.

Overall, the rangelands contribute to the nation’s wealth through agriculture, forestry and fisheries, mining, tourism, renewable energy, carbon sequestration and more. Many urban based industries—such as those that support the mining industry—are only possible through the activities conducted in the rangelands.

Beyond the economic contribution, is the less tangible contribution that the outback has made to Australia’s identity, culture and society. The Australian Labor Party and the Union movement was born under Barcaldine’s Tree of Knowledge, ‘Waltzing Matilda’ originated at Winton and Combo waterhole near Kynuna. Qantas, the Royal Flying Doctor Service and the original distance education (the School of the Air) were all founded in our rangelands.

Indigenous Australians have lived in the rangelands for some 60,000 years, and the rest of our nation is yet to learn from the traditional knowledge and wisdom that such an enduring connection to country offers.

It is crucial for Australia’s future identity to keep a strong connection between urban and rangeland residents, traditions and knowledge. As rangeland residents, professionals and ‘tragics’, it up to us to proactively engage nationally to inspire all Australian’s to make a connection with the rangelands.


Rangeland conferences

Our national conferences have been a recurring theme in my columns – and for good reason. Every second year, more than 200 delegates converge on an outback town to share our passion and knowledge to foster the sustainable management of our rangelands. For myself, they offer the chance to reconnect with my ‘rangeland family’ and I look forward to every conference for the collegiality, comradery, networking and knowledge. Delegate feedback shows that we all enjoy this aspect, as well as presentations on the practical hands-on application of rangeland management. We all also enjoy learning from the more academic presentations that highlight the science, policy and emerging trends relevant to the rangelands.

This year the 21st ARS biennial conference will be hosted in my hometown of Longreach from the 4th to the 8th October. Home to many outback tourist attractions, I would highly recommend spending a few days either side of the conference to take in all that central-western Queensland has to offer. The Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum and Waltzing Matilda Centre at Winton, Qantas Founders Museum and Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame at Longreach have each been updated recently. Each one of these attractions are world-class, and all have won tourism awards. Conference delegates will be able to experience a sampling of art and culture, ranging from indigenous art and cultural activities, local sculpture trails, and numerous locally run craft shops.

A bit further out is the magic of the channel country, with the promise of a camel pie at Birdsville, or exploring the Min Min Centre at Boulia. On the way is the fabulous Cosmos Centre and Observatory at Charleville, not to mention the top-secret WWII airbase, the Royal Flying Doctor Service visitor centre, and the Bilby Experience. For any parents and grand-parents, no trip to western Queensland is complete unless you drop into Tambo Teddies to hear the story of how these fabulous soft toys were one way of addressing the downturn in wool prices in the early 1990s.

The conference is being co-hosted with Desert Channels Queensland, who have been implementing many programs over the last two decades to improve the sustainable management of the Queensland section of the Lake Eyre Basin. At the top of their list is eradicating Prickly Acacia which has invaded more than 6.6 million ha of Queensland’s Mitchell grass country. Ironically, the tree was first introduced to provide shade and fodder to the naturally open Mitchell grasslands. DCQ have used a number of innovations to address this weed of national significance, including drone and remote sensing technology, and sub-catchment group approaches to build partnerships.

The theme of this year’s conference is ‘Shaping our Future’ and I extend the invitation to everyone with an interest in the rangelands to come and join the conversation, to submit a presentation on your area of interest and to enjoy our hospitality. We hope you are all able to participate, to help build on the previous conference themes of ‘Innovation in the Rangelands’, ‘Transition to Transformation’ and ‘Resilient future rangelands’.

International conferences have also featured in my columns. A large number of Australians attended the International Rangeland Congress (IRC) held in Saskatoon, Canada, in 2016. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has postponed the IRC in Nairobi, Kenya, from 2020 to 2021. Please keep an eye on announcements for in-person and on-line options. The 2025 IRC will be held in Adelaide, and a dedicated committee is working to ensure this will be a success. More volunteers will be required as planning and activities ramp up, so please consider the contribution that you could make to this important event.

In 2016 I reported that the ARS is supporting a bid from the international rangelands community to designate 2021 as the International Year of Rangelands and Pastoralists – whilst the target year has passed, global support has gained momentum behind a bid led by Mongolia. The Australian Government, ARS and industry groups have provided letters of support. The bid was supported at a crucial FAO meeting during 2020, and final approval will be voted on at a UN assembly this year.


It has been an honour

ARS Council members can serve a maximum of two consecutive 4-year terms, and my 8-year term finishes at the AGM in May. It has been an honour to be a member of the Council, surrounded by extremely capable and passionate people. Most of all, it has been an honour and a pleasure to discuss what makes the rangelands special to ARS members, to discuss the future services that the ARS can offer, and the direction that you would like to see it take.

I recommended to every current or prospective member of the ARS to consider a position on Council, or in any other voluntary role. The experience that comes from the wide array of challenges and successes through roles with a national body such as the ARS is invaluable and rewarding.