The Special Issue (SI) of The Rangeland Journal (TRJ) highlighting papers and presentations from the 2017 ARS Conference in Port Augusta has recently been published (TRJ, Vol. 41, Issue 3, 2019).  The SI was ably handled by Russ Sinclair and Martin Andrew, and they deserve special thanks for the way they carried out the normal role of Guest Editors, that of herding authors, the literary equivalent of feral cats, to actually provide the necessary papers.

The full papers from the Conference and the abstracts/outlines for all the papers and posters are available on the ARS website ( under ‘Conferences’.  The overarching paper by Russ and Martin “Rangelands in Transition” (pp. 161-163 in the SI) gives a good outline of the Conference, the background, the way it was structured and various interesting aspects of the presentations and other activities.

The theme for the conference was  “Transition to Transformation”, recognising that several external factors are driving significant change across the rangelands as technology advances, new and alternative social dynamics, and the impact of climate change become apparent. The Conference and its theme attracted a diversity of presenters, including landholders, Indigenous communities, scientists, NRM people and others, and involved around 220 participants from a mix of backgrounds from across Australia.  The Conference presentations and the SI provide interesting aspects of this.

Many delegates commented on the importance of narratives in rangeland management; that is, on how situations are framed, presented and discussed. Dr Mark Stafford Smith explored this in his Conference keynote address and stressed the importance of sharing experiences. Mark’s thoughts have been incorporated into the review paper in the SI (Foran et alAustralian rangeland futures: time now for systemic responses to interconnected challenges”, pp. 271-292).

Port Augusta also had been the host of the 1996 Biennial Conference. An interesting aspect of that conference had been a Foresighting exercise to examine possible futures for the Australian rangelands (Blesing et al. 1996). The South Australians did it again at the 14th ARS Biennial Conference held in Renmark, SA (Foran 2007) when these futures were examined.  Now, a further 12 years on, the changes have been examined in a review paper in the SI by a group comprising many of those involved in the original 1996 publication (see Foran et al. referenced above).

Building on the previous ARS conference themes involving innovation, the 2017 Conference was developed to encompass the breadth of industries and enterprises involved in the current rangelands transformation. The SI and the papers from the Conference in general reflect the opportunity provided by the Conference to consider an increased participation of the social sciences and alternative industries relevant to rangeland management.  It was hoped this would attract a wider range of participants than previous conferences, and indeed it did.

Transformation of the pastoral industry has been significant in Australia’s rangelands over the last decades, particularly the southern pastoral regions of South Australia, New South Wales and Western Australia. The incorporation of tourism enterprises into pastoral operations, property purchase for conservation or lifestyle purposes, grazing different kinds of domestic livestock from previous times, new systems of grazing management, changes in social dynamics reducing available labour and the simultaneous developments in digital technology that compensate for this, and the recognition of Indigenous cultural values were all reflected in the Conference presentations, and if you have not had a chance to scroll through the papers presented at the Conference, doing so in conjunction with the papers in the SI is a good move.  The greater depth of the papers in the SI substantially enhance thinking on some of these topics.

Three sub-themes emerged from the conference presentations, posters and discussions, and are reflected in the papers in the SI.  Firstly, the Inevitability of Change in the rangelands as elsewheresecondly, the Importance of Narrative and thirdly, Inclusivity.  Taken together, these three themes and their respective papers provide an interesting consideration of ‘transitional thinking’, as well as more standard topics.

Climate change, understanding it, confronting it, dealing with it, was a common topic at the Conference and is reflected in the papers in the SI by Duc-Anh An-Vo and colleagues (pp. 165-75), Kate Munden-Dixon and colleagues (pp. 189-196), Emily Berry and colleagues (pp. 197-210), Grant. Stone (pp. 225-232) and Dana Kelly and David Phelps (pp. 233-250).  The need for good basic but scientifically precise information on both climate forecasting and climate change was stressed, along with a clear understanding that climate change was not only affecting rangeland ecology but also rangeland businesses and communities, and that all aspects (ecological, financial and social) needed to be considered, as did the roles of the multitude of players the papers identified.  While not in the SI, but available on the ARS website, is the paper by Mark Howden (“Living with Climate Change”).  Mark’s perspectives on climate change, given the role he plays in the current climate change discussion, is certainly worth a read if you have not, as yet, done so.

One paper in the SI that stemmed from a presentation that engendered considerable discussion was the Phelps and Kelly paper titled “Overcoming drought vulnerability in rangeland communities: lessons from central-western Queensland” (pp. 251-270 in the SI), dealing with the impact of drought on businesses and communities in small towns in rangeland areas. This is one of the few times that such interactions between town and farm have been dealt with in an ARS conference, while current discussions at both the federal and State/Territory level make this paper most relevant.

The transition to both different enterprises and a different perspective on rangeland use and management was evident at the Conference and in the papers published in the SI.  The paper by Geoff Cockfield and his colleagues (“Evaluating the potential financial contributions of carbon farming to grazing enterprises in Western NSW” pp. 211-223) addressed a clear alternative to traditional rangeland enterprises and provided both useful information and broad perspectives.   Equally, the paper by Leah Feuerherdt and her colleagues (“Social return on investment: application for an Indigenous rangelands context” pp. 177-183) considers a social return on Investment approach to program investment can deliver leveraged and ongoing public and private good benefits in Indigenous rangelands.

The Northern Rangelands of Australia received less attention at the conference, and hence in the SI, than other areas of Australia – perhaps not surprising given the conference’s location in the very south of the southern rangelands.  However, as a reminder, the Australia’s northern rangelands were themselves the topic of another Rangeland Journal SI (Vol. 40, Issue 4, 2018).  If you haven’t seen it, and have an interest in a raft of issues confronting the northern rangelands, it’s well worth a read.  This northern Australia SI includes a paper by John Brisbin entitled “Plans are useless: But planning is essential” (Vol. 40, pp 401-414), which was based on a presentation John made at the Port Augusta Conference.

The 2017 conference was rich and diverse in content and attendees, and generated lively and thoughtful discussions. This is reflected in the contents of the SI.  It contains a lot of interesting reading.  And remember, all presentations at the Conference are readily available to all on the ARS website.


Blesing, D., Andrew, M., Foran, B., Abel, N. and Bourne, J. (1996). Looking out or looking in: Two ways ahead for Australia’s rangelands. In: ‘Sustainable Habitation in the Rangelands.’ (Eds. N. Abel and S. Ryan.) Proceedings of the Fenner Conference on the Environment, 29-30 October 1996, 156pp. (CSIRO: Canberra, Australia.) ISBN 0 0643 063277

Foran, B.D. (2007). Sifting the future from the past: A personal assessment of trends impacting the Australia rangelands. The Rangeland Journal 29, 3-11