Eco-activists love to squawk that it’s people who ‘ruin the land.’ But one of the largest expanses of undeveloped land around needs more people — and a lot fewer animals — if it’s to survive.
Ask the proverbial “person in the street” to name the largest “wild,” undeveloped stretch of land on Earth, and most people would probably choose one of several well-known areas: Siberia, the Amazon rainforest, or maybe the Sahara Desert.
All of those places are indeed sizable, and in many areas, far from civilized.
But few people would automatically pick the place that is arguably the greatest stretch of under-inhabited, largely undeveloped land in the world: the Australian Outback.
We know it as the name of a popular steakhouse chain, or we might have an idea of its idyllic but isolated landscape from various movies and documentaries from Down Under. We recognize Uluru (formerly Ayers Rock), the gigantic sandstone formation that rises above the desert floor; the spectacular King’s Canyon, a sacred Aboriginal site; and the swampy, forbidding habitat of saltwater crocodiles in the far Northern Territory.
Geographers reckon that the Outback comprises more than 2.1 million square miles of everything from barren deserts to savannah-like rangelands to tropical rainforests, and its entire population is only slightly more than 1.2 million people — most of them concentrated in the few towns and cities sprinkled across the map of central and western Australia.
That’s less than two people per square mile. In contrast, New Jersey averages more than a thousand people per square mile.
Despite its vast and varied topography, climate zones and ecosystems, the Outback is in trouble, environmentally speaking. And the reason is totally opposite from the usual eco-activist analysis: The problem is too many animals and not enough people.
That’s right. According to a 2015 report from the Pew Charitable Trusts, which funds the Outback Australia environmental program, “The Outback’s intact nature and low population hide an apparently perverse problem. One of the greatest threats to its nature is not too many people, but not enough people living on the land and actively managing it.”
The people problem began in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Pew report diplomatically noted that “the Aboriginal peoples of the desert [areas] left their country, moving to settlements on the desert fringes, to cattle stations and to the missions.”
In reality, the Aboriginals were forced out by settlers authorized by government decree to simply occupy habitable areas. It was a process similar to what happened across the Great Plains here during roughly the same time frame, only without the bloody battles that marked the Native American experience.
A disastrous side effect of the disappearance of the Aboriginal people was that they no longer set the controlled brushfires that once provided the botanical diversity essential to dozens of animal species. Without the regular burning, the occasional wildfires became much larger and more destructive. A hundred years ago, the average controlled brushfire burned only about 100 to 150 acres. Now, without such “management,” wildfires typically roar across hundreds of thousands of acres, destroying plants and animals.
No peaceable animal kingdom
Even worse, some ecologists argue, is the impact of millions of feral animals not native to the Outback. Several species of domesticated animals have gone wild: water buffaloes, pigs, donkeys, horses, goat, cats, foxes and rabbits.
In fact, there are more than 300,000 feral camels roaming across the Outback, and if nothing else, they represent serious competition with cattle and sheep for the regions’ scarce range and water resources.
Without Aboriginal hunters, who traditionally preyed on feral livestock, these non-indigenous populations explode, causing serious damage to riparian areas, destroying native grasslands and in the case of feral cats and other predators, devastating the native fauna.
Feral animals, in particular, are a huge threat to Australia’s livestock industry. Unlike many areas of the Midwestern and Northern Tier states here in the USA, prime rangelands are scarce in the Australian interior. Cattle stations often encompass thousands of square miles, as herds must roam long distances to find sufficient forage. When that scare resource is wiped out by wild horses, donkeys and camels, it can severely impact ranchers’ bottom lines.
As the Pew Trust report documented, “In substantial parts of the Outback, some pastoral leases — for grazing enterprises on state lands held by private individuals and companies — are no longer commercially viable.”
Some of that acreage is being re-purposed for so-called carbon sequestration activities, dryland farming and conservation efforts and even for tourism.
Elsewhere, there are efforts to return Aboriginal people to their native homelands, and support efforts to re-establish traditional hunting and land management practices.
Unless the population of animals can be reduced, and the numbers of people increased, the neglect and deterioration of the Outback will continue unchecked, the Pew report concluded.
I’d love to hear how the activist fantasy of “just leave the animals alone” aligns with the Outback’s dilemma.
Short answer: It doesn’t. Never did; never will.
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator