Reigniting a land of extinction

Catastrophic fires in Tasmania’s wilderness in 2019 sparked calls for a return to Indigenous burning practices — but the path to cultural recovery is not so straightforward. Jess Cockerill reports.

Walkley Foundation
Jan 8, 2020 · 13 min read
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A controlled burn on private land. Photo: Jess Cockerill.

he Central Highlands is not the kind of ‘wilderness’ you see depicted on Tasmania’s postcards: no emerald boughs or dripping tree ferns. It’s mostly open country, used for grazing and popular with fishers and hunters. It’s also the site of one of the state’s catastrophic bushfires in January 2019. I drove several hours up through the browned pastoral fields, via the Highlands Lakes Road and through Bothwell, where the service station has trophy deer hanging on the wall and a gun shop out the back. I wanted to find the edge of the bushfire named after Great Pine Tier, which had burnt more than 10,000 hectares of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (TWWHA) in 2019.

Great Pine Tier was just one of many serious fires that razed the TWHAA in the 2018–19 summer: in total, 95,430 hectares, almost 1000 square kilometres, of the World Heritage Area were scorched. Mostly, they were started by dry lightning strikes: electricity without rain. These strikes, experts say, are on the rise in Tasmania.

More than 2000 strikes hit during a front on January 15. The drying vegetation of the TWWHA is simultaneously becoming more flammable. Like many Australians, I watched the fires on my laptop from my home in Melbourne. As I saw the emergency responses and reports unfold in the news, another kind of fire raged online in the comments section of Facebook. In one wing, conservationists and activists lamented the vulnerability of the TWWHA. This, they said, was a local reminder that climate change was upon us. Many regional Tasmanians, however, also blamed a lack of fuel-reduction burns in and around the parks, and a bureaucracy they felt was getting in the way. Fire, they said, had always been a part of the landscape, and without the kind of controlled burns Aboriginal people once performed, the dry bush was getting out of control.

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Andry Sculthorp from the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre at piyura katana/Risdon Cove, where cultural burning regimes are being revived. Photo: Jess Cockerill

Mainlanders generally think of Tasmania as a damp haven from the heat and fire, so much so that the myth about Tasmanian Aboriginal people never having used fire continues to prevail, despite oral histories, scientific research and even documentation by first-contact colonisers to the contrary.

In 2017, University of Tasmania (UTas) researchers and the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC) collaborated to carbon-date a core sample collected from Clarke Island, in Bass Strait, which revealed at least 41,000 years of indigenous fire management.

Andry Sculthorpe, an Aboriginal Tasmanian, acted as the heritage officer on the project. I met Sculthorpe at piyura kitina, also known as Risdon Cove, near Hobart. This property, one of the oldest white settlements in Australia, was established in 1803, a year before an unrecorded number of Aboriginal Tasmanians were massacred there. It was returned to Aboriginal ownership in 1995, and is now managed by the TAC, for whom Sculthorpe has worked for almost twenty years. It is one of the few places in Tasmania where cultural burning has been revived.

“People have been removed from land, and cultural practices have stopped,” Sculthorpe said. “But the knowledge of that connection has remained, and in some cases the maintenance of that has been able to continue.”

This occurred on the Bass Strait islands, where Aboriginal Tasmanians were exiled in 1830, during the Black War. Though physically displaced, these people could keep up generational knowledge-sharing, unlike in other areas of Tasmania where the culture was forcefully disrupted.

Sculthorpe’s family, for instance, lived in north-eastern Tasmania before the European invasion. He told me his grandmother was kidnapped by sealers, who in the early 1800s took many of the women in this area from their families and kept them as slaves on the Bass Strait Islands. Part-time missionary George Augustus Robinson recounted in his journal the fallout of the sealers’ abductions, and the small solace that fire offered these broken families:

2 November 1830

…upon its apex they kindle a fire the smoke of which is a signal to the female aborigines which had been torn from them by merciless sealers, the wife from the fond embrace of her husband, the daughter from her parent, the sister from her brother…. The females at the island made smoke in answer to the men, and they also dance on these hills and sing an Aboriginal song which is a relation of love complaints.

In 1847 Sculthorpe’s grandmother, along with 46 other Aboriginal people, was moved yet again by the government, from their incarceration at Flinders Island to Oyster Cove, just south of Hobart. This upheaving of the few survivors of the European invasion of Tasmania meant cultural fire practices on the mainland were discontinued.

Sculthorpe is working to restore them. As a fire practitioner for the TAC, he has been working with community on TAC land to revive the practice for over five years. He has also collaborated with UTas scientists and grazier Julian Von Bibra, to bring traditional fire practices back to a Central Highlands property just out of Ross. This property isn’t far from the Great Pine Tier fire in the TWHHA. I asked Sculthorpe how he felt about the quest for more scientific data, as if Aboriginal knowledge and oral histories weren’t quite enough to convince whitefellas of fire’s merits. He laughed and said the research confirmed things he already knew, but it gave the scientists a nice picture to point to.

“We were engaged to do the fire, as contractors basically,” he explained. “We haven’t done that before; that was the first time we’d offered our services.”

Sculthorpe sees a potential for Aboriginal people to run businesses based on cultural burning — he believes this practice should be owned by the community, not the state. Meanwhile, the Liberal state government has also set out to build capacity in this area, as part of the controlled burns already done by the Parks and Wildlife Service (PWS). But Andry is not sure the government can be trusted to do cultural burns “the right way”.

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Academic and Trawlwulwuy woman Emma Lee, wearing a traditional marineer shell necklace representative of womens’ governance. Photo: Jess Cockerill.

Two years prior to these 2019 fires, I met Emma Lee, a Trawlwulwuy woman and academic. At the time I had sought her out to discuss how climate change was affecting Aboriginal land and sea management, and her comments came back to me as the TWWHA burnt in 2019.

“I despise that term, wilderness. I despise it with a passion,” she told me when we first met. “Pristine. Hasn’t been touched by white people, basically… when they say this they cut out our agency, they cut out our ability to be a stakeholder.”

By ‘they’, Lee meant environmental groups in Tasmania: the Wilderness Society, The Greens, The Bob Brown Foundation. There is an assumption that environmentalism and Indigenous activism go hand-in-hand, and in some cases this has been possible — anti-fracking efforts in the Northern Territory, the Djab Wurrung sacred trees ‘embassy’ in Victoria. But, according to Lee, who I met again after the 2019 bushfires, environmental politics have not played out so clearly in Tasmania.

“I think what environmental groups did to protect TWWHA country is immense [but] you know, that belongs in the 80s, when we were still ‘extinct’ people,” she said. “New knowledge brings change, and changed management, [yet] those groups are still self-representing as the only legitimate voice for country. And I dispute that.”

The TWWHA was recognised by UNESCO in 1982, in the midst of the Tasmanian forest wars. This era of intense conflict between environmentalists and forestry workers gave rise to the Greens party and the Wilderness Society. The TWWHA now covers more than 20 percent of Tasmania’s land mass, and it’s all managed by the government’s PWS.

But, as Lee said, Australian conservation in 1982 was adapted from the American parks model and was about restoring nature by keeping people out. “You get Western conservation agendas saying, this is wilderness, it’s untouched… and so you put up a fence around it.” According to Lee, this ‘fences and fines’ approach is at odds with Aboriginal understandings of the land.

“The Australian national fear of fire came out of the Sydney colony. Of course fire could be used as a weapon, burn you out, burn you off country, and so within only a couple of years of that colony being established in Sydney, any blackfella being caught with a fire stick was punished,” she said. “And so this fear of fire in Australia is deeply linked to colonisation and fear of Indigenous peoples.”

Among the grazing properties bordering that TWWHA ‘fence’ are those of the Glover and Downie families. Both have been vocal about the importance of controlled burns in the Central Highlands, not only for farming and land management, but as part of family traditions. Without frequent controlled burns, the farmers have noticed highly flammable shrubs they call kerosene bush flourishing in their once-grassy pastures. Speaking to the ABC, grazier James Downie said he felt the state government had limited their ability to do controlled burns in spring, when the frost and snow have subsided, for fear they might escape into the TWWHA. Ironically, in 2019 the blaze spread from within the protected area onto his property.

The ABC also spoke with grazier Irene Glover, who recalled lighting fires on the plains as a young girl.

“Dad would give us a box of matches every spring and say, ‘Go and burn that marsh, and that marsh, and don’t come back till you light all the matches’,” she told the ABC. This practice, she said, had been adapted from Aboriginal burns witnessed by settlers and was crucial for avoiding the kind of large-scale, uncontrolled fires that spread onto her property last summer.

“You’ve got to think the Central Highlands were prime massacre grounds,” Emma Lee told me. “Those generational farms came out of genocide. They learnt from our people how to do this. But I’m actually more with land managers than I am with environmentalists, in that fire is a management tool. They actually do have a better perspective on what fire is; it’s not a danger, it’s an ability to care for country.

“We come at it from different ends, and we’ve got common goals as opposed to shared reasons.”

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Scientists Thomas Guy and Calum Cunningham survey Silver Plains. Photo: Jess Cockerill.

By the time I made it out to the Central Highlands, it was winter. The smoke had settled, the charcoal cooled. Some was even wrapped in snow. These extremes are familiar to the people here, although they agree that fires have never been so large in scale as those in recent years. I was tailing scientists from the University of Tasmania — Tom Guy, an environmental geologist, and his assistant Calum Cunningham, who usually works with Tasmanian devils — who were conducting experiments on conservation reserves in the area.

We drove to the border of Lake Sorrell and the aptly-name Silver Plains, a Tasmanian Land Conservancy property. It was the wettest time of year and yet the landscape was all tonal, gold and silver, grey, blue and rich yellow-greens. The scientists’ trendy haircuts and Kathmandu puffer jackets notwithstanding, they appeared in the field as if in a John Glover painting. (Glover, incidentally, was painting Van Diemen’s Land from his arrival in 1831, first in Hobart and then in the highlands. One of his most famous works, Natives on the Ouse River, is perceivably set somewhere quite close to Silver Plains, and certainly within range of last summer’s fires.)

Between the dry Eucalypts at Silver Plains ran broad gashes of native grassland, which Guy said was indicative of historic Aboriginal burning. While we walked around the plains it became apparent that if you did want to hunt marsupials, this was ideal country — we had the advantage over deer, pademelons, wallabies and wombats. John Glover put it this way: “There is a remarkable peculiarity in the trees of this country; however numerous they rarely prevent you tracing through them the whole distant country.” Or as Emma paraphrased, her voice taking on the mock accent of a British explorer: “It’s almost as if people were managing this land!”

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Natives on the Ouse River, Van Diemen’s Land. by John Glover, 1838. Image: Art Gallery of New South Wales.

I thought about fences and fines as I followed the scientists around Silver Plains, and on to another Central Highlands site, Five Rivers, where the fire had run right through the property. Five Rivers, which is within the TWWHA, was dramatically monochrome in contrast to the hues of Silver Plains, having been burnt to black and then whitewashed with snow. I watched as the scientists turned the landscape into a grid of quadrats, or one-metre squares, marked with stakes. Around the quadrats — which themselves were divided into smaller squares, for Guy to convert into percentages — would be a three-metre square, this one fenced. The fence would form a so-called ‘exclosure’, to keep herbivores out. There were two types of exclosures — one kept absolutely everything out, so that the trees within would be able to grow without being trodden on, rubbed against or chewed. The other was designed to keep out feral deer, allowing only native mammals (wombats, possums, devils, quolls, wallabies) to enter. In this way Guy hoped to delineate and understand the impact of various factors on the plants’ development.

In a way, the TWWHA is a giant exclosure. And the exclusion of traditional-style burning — which was previously done more intuitively, more widely, and perhaps more hazardously than could ever be truly recreated by a Western bureaucracy — is ultimately experimental. Just as trees rely on animals for seed dispersal and are impacted by trampling, grazing and disturbance, they also interact with and may indeed rely on people, and the fires they light.

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New growth emerges from a burnt tree in the Central Highlands. Photo by Jess Cockerill.

Tasmanian premier Will Hodgman and his Liberal government have claimed reconciliation windfalls in recent years. Their major boasts are the ‘Reset the Relationship’ mandate, and a TWWHA management plan. Emma Lee was a key contributor to this plan, which came out of a 2015 reactive monitoring mission from the World Heritage Committee. The committee found management of the TWWHA lacked a focus on cultural values and Aboriginal consultation, and the Hodgman government seized on the opportunity to one-up the previous Labor/Greens government. They also introduced a ‘Working on Country’ trainee Aboriginal ranger program through PWS, with the intent that these rangers would become fully-qualified firefighters.

“It’s surprising to a lot of people: ‘Oh my goodness, the Liberals were the first to bring in joint management of a protected area in Tasmania?’’’ Lee said. “The previous government, I think, they just got lost in it all. It was more about reinforcing … a white [idea of] wilderness: pristine, more fences, more fines. And they lost sight.”

But Andry Sculthorpe is skeptical: he believes ownership of fire practices should be vested in the Aboriginal community, not government departments.

“They can go out and find Aboriginal people to pay to be involved. And it’s what they’ve done with this Reset the Relationship stuff,” Sculthorpe said. “They’d be more likely to develop their own internal program and hire a bunch of Aboriginal people and say it’s an Aboriginal cultural program … We [the TAC] will be the last people to be invited to participate. Because they know if they speak to us, we’ll have expectations that they refuse to meet.”

Money for controlled burns and cultural projects within the TWWHA remains limited. The Hodgman government has allocated $500,000 — less than 5 percent of the total TWWHA budget — to fire planning and mitigation. This is less than was allocated in 2010, when the TWWHA was 172,500 hectares smaller (and the Labor/Greens government was in power). The budget for Aboriginal joint management of the TWWHA — which includes a working group and the trainee ranger program, which engages six individuals for six months of the year — receives just $200,000 per annum.

Despite their political differences, both Sculthorpe and Lee ultimately agree that returning Aboriginal-style fire regimes to the TWWHA may help reduce the impact of the large-scale, months-long wildfires Tasmania experienced last summer, even — or especially — in the face of human-induced climate change.

As Lee told me back in 2017, “There’s not an Indigenous mob on the face of this earth that hasn’t gone through massive climate change.”

“The kind of traditional management that brings balance and diversity into the landscape can clearly buffer — to some extent — against wild bushfires,” Sculthorpe said. “But when you factor that in now with climate change, it seems the place is getting drier. And so those areas that were already at risk [are] doubly at risk.”

But he cautions against an approach to controlled burning that is ‘industrial’, given that politicians will more readily endorse fuel reduction burns than act on climate change. While cooler, controlled cultural burns may help protect against the immense carbon emissions produced by catastrophic wildfire, they are not a cure-all.

“We don’t want to just see things getting burnt just for the sake of getting rid of stuff,” Sculthorpe said. “There needs to be an approach that actually prioritises the wellbeing of those living systems.”

Lee, however, regards the state of the environment, including climate change, as a symptom of even deeper ills. “The alarm’s gone off,” she told me. “I see these recent fires as sickness fires. [They] represent pain of country, the pain of people not being able to connect, the pain of colonisation and dispossession, the pain of us being denied … our cultural rights to fire.”

Her prognosis, it has to be said, appears grimly realistic. “I mean, we’re going to have to learn how to grieve. We’re going to lose those some of those places.”

Jess Cockerill is a freelance journalist based in Melbourne.

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This reporting was funded by the Walkley Public Fund and the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas through a Walkley Grant for Freelance Journalism.

Stories and projects funded by the Walkley Grants for Freelance Journalism are published under Creative Commons. This is reporting in the public interest, so we want the stories and projects to reach as wide an audience as possible — so we welcome media organisations to republish these articles for free, so long as they are attributed and not edited. See our republishing guidelines.

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