Australian Rangeland Society

 

David Phelps, Conference Co-Chair, Department of and Fisheries, Landsborough Hwy, Longreach Qld 4730.  Email: David.Phelps@daf.qld.gov.au

 

The 21st biennial rangelands conference was held from 5 – 8 October 2021, in-person and on-line from the Longreach Civic & Cultural Centre in the heart of Queensland’s rangelands. Longreach had also hosted the 5th conference in 1988. This time, it was co-hosted with Desert Channels Queensland, the not-for-profit NRM group responsible for representing community interests and delivering a range of sustainability initiatives across the Queensland section of the Lake Eyre Basin. To reflect this partnership, the conference was badged as the ‘NRM in the Rangelands Conference’, with the theme ‘Shaping our Future’.

The Keynote addresses for the conference were:
●      Professor Ross Garnaut – ‘The rangelands renewables renaissance’
●      Tony Hill – ‘Success and challenges for the rangelands’
●      Dalene Wray – ‘Are clean green rangelands enough?’
●      Josh Gorringe – ‘Reconnecting with country through traditional knowledge and science’.

A total of 119 submissions for oral presentations, lightning talks and posters were received across the conference topics of:
●      Climate variability & resilience
●      NRM in focus
●      On-ground management
●      Healthy rangelands
●      Productive Rangelands
●      Environment & conservation
●      Applied technology
●      Traditional knowledge
●      Community

It was the first Rangeland conference to have the somewhat dubious record of being held during a global pandemic, with much uncertainty over border closures, lockdowns and risks associated with the potential spread of COVID-19. From the moment of conception, the COVID-19 situation was monitored and in August 2021 the committee made the decision to move from a full face to face conference to a virtual conference with a networking and social hub in Longreach. COVID-safe plans were put in place for the in-person hub, and adjusted based on health advice and regulations. All content was delivered on-line with presentations a mix of pre-recordings, live presentations from remote locations and live presentations from Longreach.

 

Photo 1.  The Longreach conference hub, live and in-action

 

The technical expertise of the virtual conference platform providers (EventsAIR) minimised technical problems during the conference. Wonderful Longreach local and ex-ABC presenter Nicole Bond was the dynamic and adaptable MC for the three days. However, not all of the technical issues could have been predicted. Adaptability and technical skills were both essential during the occasional internet drop-out from Longreach, a region-wide power outage, and the conference centre server room catching on fire. We suspect this was the first time that an Australian virtual conference needed to pause mid-event for the offices next to the server room to be evacuated, and essential components be hurriedly replaced to bring the event back on-line.

 

Photo 2.  The webcasting studio in action – Tony Weldon giving the acknowledgment of country

 

Photo 3.  The Longreach conference with the dynamic Nicole Bond live on-screen

 

 

Post-conference delegate feedback was overwhelmingly positive, with most on-line attendees not even aware of ‘minor hiccups’ like server fires! Delegates found the presentations to be of a high standard with relevant and informative content. Comments included:
“Under COVID-19 circumstances I thought the organisers did a terrific job and the conference was a great success, with a good look at what is happening in Queensland and elsewhere.”
“Great conference under challenging times. Well done to all the organising team and the support they had from their respective organisations. It came together well, and I know there would have been a lot of busy work behind the scenes. Credit to all.”

On-line delegates did find it more difficult to effectively network than in-person attendees, even though the conference platform and app both had some very intuitive and useful ways to network and connect. These included the capacity to connect with other delegates via video calls, text chats or meeting rooms. We anticipate that these types of tools will be used more often as they become common during future conferences.

In-person delegates were treated to local hospitality and outback tourism, including: an outdoor welcome function at ‘the Branch’ cafe featuring local lamb; an on-site canteen run by local catering company ‘Darcy’s Diner’, for on-demand coffee, free water and a range of meals; the conference dinner under the stars at Outback Aussie Tours’ ‘Smithys’ on the Thomson River; a Thursday night end-of-conference community party with the locals at the ‘Eat Street’, including locally produced OBE Organic beef burgers cooked by the local Rotary club; and Friday tours to local property Leander with dinner in the woolshed at Camden Park farm tourism venture.

 

Photo 4.  Delegates mingle at the conference welcome function held at the Branch Café

 

Photo 5.  The Conference dinner under the stars at  ‘Smithys’ on the Thomson River

 

 

The Longreach conference achieved one of the highest levels of sponsorship, coming close to topping $100,000, which is testimony to the dedication of ARS and DCQ committee members under challenging circumstances. The conference committee wish to thank the sponsors, including: the Presenting Partner, reen Collar; Gold Sponsors, the National Recovery & Resilience Agency, and the Western Queensland Drought Committee via a Queensland Government community drought grant; Bronze Sponsors, Longreach Regional Council, Rangeland NRM Alliance, Bayer,, NRM Regions Queensland, Queensland Water and Land Carers, Westpac, Meat & Livestock Australia, Kangaroo Management Task Force, the Central Western Queensland Remote Area Planning and Development Board, Resource Consulting Services, Kangaroo Industries Assoc. Australia, University of Southern Queensland, Pew Trusts, Brook Pastoral and NBN Local.

 

Photo 6.  Special thanks go to the Presenting Partner sponsors, Green Collar – (from left to right) Jamie Dennison, Callum Howell, Mike Berwick and Jane Lincoln

 

A total of 316 delegates attended, with approximately 110 in person at Longreach. On-line participants were spread across Australia, including Victoria, the ACT and NSW delegates who were not permitted into Queensland under the COVID-19 health measures of the time. These included undergraduate and postgraduate students and their lecturers from ANU, with a special session arranged for students to interact with early-career professionals to discuss job opportunities in the rangelands, and with pastoralists to learn more about the practical aspects of rangeland management. The feedback from students and their lecturers was that this was a very beneficial opportunity that is worth continuing in future conferences. This opportunity was only possible through the on-line format. About 10 delegates attended from international locations.

Overall, the conference was considered successful due to a record number of delegate registrations and the fact the committee were able to adapt and present the conference through such uncertain times. Longreach based Prue Button (iButton events) went well above and beyond as the PCO to deliver a successful conference, as did Leanne Kohler (co-chair) and the DCQ team, and the ARS program and publications sub-committee with major contributions from long-term ARS member, Paul Jones who has also taken on the guest editor’s role to produce the conference Special Issue of The Rangeland Journal.

 

Photo 7.  Professional Conference Organiser Prue Button (iButton events) and conference co-chair David Phelps

 

Photo 8.  The main crew from Desert Channels Queensland that helped at the conference – (from left to right) Roelie Hartwig, Kate Paterson, Leanne Kohler, Joanne Naumann, Nina Groves.

 

We wish the Western Australian committee for the 2023 conference success within (hopefully) more certain times.