The risks in taming the river

 

As we ‘speak’ there are crews of trusties from the gaol in and along the Todd River, slashing the grasses around the base of mature trees. It seems that the message has gotten through that the community wants these trees protected from fire and urgent action is required. But there are other river management issues to consider.

 

KIERAN FINNANE reports.

 

“With trees you can talk of death by fire, but you can also talk of death by mowing.”

The debate around protection of trees in the Todd from fire has expanded to broader river management issues. For instance, why, in the stretch of the Todd between Schwarz Crescent and Wills Terrace, does there appear to be practically no regermination of the river gums? On the eastern bank of the river the natural vegetation has been utterly transformed by the planting of exotic species, mowing and irrigating. The view across the river is all but unimpeded. There are a few surviving giants in the riverbed and nothing else. If they were to be destroyed by fire, would we have succeeded in sterilising the river?

The Alice Springs News Online asked Sunil Dhanji, former project officer for Greening Australia’s  Todd and Charles Rivers Biodiversity Project, what he thought might be going on.

Mowing is important for knocking down bulk fuel, he said, but the crew need to identify and avoid germinants (new growth).  Doing this has to be built into the crew’s work program; the crew needs to understand what they are doing and why. Getting this kind of management happening depends on having a vision of what you hope to preserve and promote in the landscape.

Mr Dhanji says this is the weakness in the Town Council’s management of the river. The talk has been done, enshrined in the Alice in Ten documents – the river was to be kept “wild at heart” and respected as a “river through time”. But these themes have never been used to create a focus for work programs in the river corridor.

Another weakness is the difficulty council has in working with community groups. Community energy, including that of trusties from the gaol, could be harnessed much more effectively, beyond rubbish collection and a couple of working bees, says Mr Dhanji. He points to the very noticeable difference along the river’s east bank between Wills Terrace and Stott Terrace Bridge, where the efforts of private citizens have made a big impact on buffel and couch grass.

Mr Dhanji says it’s important to differentiate between “eradication” and reducing the impact of weeds and feral animals. It can be almost impossible to eradicate them but it is important and possible to reduce their impact. One way this can be done in and along the river is by keeping the area around the base of the trees, especially the trees with hollows, clear of buffel and couch, while allowing for regeneration and diversity of vegetation.

It takes more time to work this way but the end results are worth it: take a walk along the east bank behind the Chifley Hotel. Suddenly you are in a different world. This is what the “wild river” looks like. The big old trees are there, sure, but not choked by buffel, and not standing alone as the last survivors. At their feet are countless small herbs, grasses, shrubs, including the beautiful night-flowering native passionfruit. There is a lovely sense of seclusion, although it’s stone’s throw from a busy road and not much further to suburbia.

It’s also just a short walk across the bridge from the Civic Centre. Perhaps an excursion into this little wonderland is the spark necessary to ignite the Town Council’s imagination on this issue. The Alice News asked the Mayor and aldermen this week whether they would direct that urgent fuel reduction be carried out in the river corridors, with particular attention being given to the protection of all trees.

Only two of them bothered to reply – although it does seem that they have now taken action.

Alderman Jane Clark said: “You raise a valid point.  I’ll put this to Council in the ‘other business’ section of the Ordinary Meeting if it is not addressed prior. In my opinion this is the result of over 20 years of neglect.  Realistically we will be able to save only some of our trees but if we don’t act, we won’t save any.  In another 20 years, which passes in the blink of an eye, there will be no river red gums left.

“We have asked the NT Government via NRETAS to clear weed fuel and in particular mexican poppy south of the gap.  I will get an update on progress of that request too.”

Ald Brendan Heenan said he put up a motion a few months ago, asking if the prisoners’ work program could reduce the fuel load around the trees on the banks of the Todd River from the John Blakeman bridge out to the end of the rural blocks along the Ross Highway.

“The areas in the town could use the prisoner program to help reduce the fuel load in and on the banks of the Todd River. We would need to ask the CEO the best way to do this,  either a motion from Council or just a phone call from the CEO.”

 

 

Pictured: From the top – A tamed river , utterly transformed by the planting of exotic species, mowing and irrigating. Are we rendering it sterile? This is the east bank of the Todd between Schwarz Crescent and Wills Terrace. • Further along the east bank, south of Wills Terrace, eucalypts predominate but mowing has removed the under-storey, significantly reducing species diversity . • The wild river – private citizens’ efforts to suppress buffel grass and couch reveal the river as it could be. This section is behind the Chifley Hotel, just north of the Stott Terrace bridge. All photos by MIKE GILLAM. 

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5 Comments (starting with the most recent)

NB: If you want to reply to a previous comment, start your comment with this notation: @n where n is the number of the comment you want to reply to.
  1. Hal Duell
    Posted November 28, 2011 at 4:20 am

    I keep coming back to the middle photo. It intrigues me, the way it’s framed, what it shows and what it leaves out. It’s a bit like asking if the glass is half full or half empty.
    As seen, it would appear that a copse of young trees is growing on an expanse of mowed lawn bordered in the background by a city street. The area looks manicured and inviting, offering a soft and shady seat on a hot summer day. And prickle free, another good service from an oft-maligned Town Council.
    And yet if taken from the other side, the same copse with its mowed and prickle-free lawn would be bordered by a pedestrian / bicycle path (again thanks are due to our Town Council), then a strip of shoreline with an apparently healthy variety of eucalypts in various stages of maturity and then the Todd River as it winds its way through town. The lawn has become native growth and buffel.
    Two sides of the same coin.
    Taken from a slightly different angle again, would it be possible to get the old-man river gum featured in the bottom photo in frame? He’s not far off, biodiversified understory and all.
    Continuing downstream, under the bridge and around the point of Myers Hill is the Olive Pink Botanic Garden with its 16-hectares of plants native to central Australia. Some 300 species are cared for ensuring a vigorous biodiversity will always remain a living part of urban Alice Springs.
    The companion to the old-man river gum I mentioned before might be the tree down in front of the Desert Palms. We’ve lost so many in this year’s brutal fire season it can be difficult to remember exactly where I saw the last one go down. He was grand, now he’s not. Hopefully someone will be allowed to clean up the mess.

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  2. Mike Gillam
    Posted November 27, 2011 at 9:30 pm

    I should add to my previous post because these online debates tend to focus on points of difference and sometimes that confuses the bigger picture.
    • The Todd River is a priceless feature that enriches the lives of residents and tourists alike. City councils around the country are pulling car bodies out of billabongs and trying to re-store the landscape basics that we are failing to manage.
    • Working with the country and managing the river to the best of our ability makes good ecological and economical sense. Endemic trees are under-utilized and some species offer vastly superior options for creating shade and improving the ambience of river parklands.
    • We need to learn from our mistakes. Destroying the river corridor by trying to re-create a ‘parkland’ aesthetic from another hemisphere or climatic zone is senseless and doomed to failure.
    • The river can accommodate a hierarchical mix of land-care approaches including:
    – the ‘wild river’ where we strive to optimize biodiversity by minimizing harmful impacts and controlling weeds. The rich under-storey does not need fastidious mowing.
    – manicured / mowed lawns with native trees that provide abundant shade and enhance recreational opportunities for people but do not threaten the ecological balance of the river.
    • Appropriate forms of recreation need to be planned and managed in ways that do not trash the river because that would be stupid, costly and unsustainable in the longer term.

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  3. Mike Gillam
    Posted November 26, 2011 at 9:56 pm

    Hal, your assertion that a large red gum adjacent to the Chifley was recently destroyed by fire is puzzling. That section of the riverbank has performed much better than almost any other despite the Town Council’s lack of active management. As a precaution some dry material could be knocked down but most of the work has already been done by concerned residents. I took quite a few photographs here and the understorey ‘fuel’ as shown in the bottom image does not compare to the volatility of buffel and couch. But you already know that. In fact much of the nearby buffel is now regenerating after burning during the spring fires.
    Over past weeks your wild theories and endless distractions have been challenged in one form or another eg. the observations by Sunil Dhanji about mowing in the current story actually addresses part of your very first question!
    And if you are still curious do some research and examine the photographic records for the Todd and look at the declining numbers of red gums and the low levels of germination north of Wills Tce. Consider the trees that were recently left to burn for days, rising salinity (get a pH kit and start testing) and even sand-mining. Then think about the impact of the sand-mine adjacent to the prominent Schwarz Crescent causeway where the river ‘trustee’ (Town Council) is carting away fill, presumably to provide daily cover at the landfill.
    On the subject of weeds and fire management, in fact almost anything to do with the Town Council’s responsibilities in the Todd River you seem to have developed a blind spot. So I’d ask any new readers to this website to read back through the previous stories and readers comments’– ‘Spot a tree chop it down’; ‘Only fire-fighters decide on how to deal with individual fires’; ‘Are fire vandals the only ones to blame for the state of the river’ – and decide for themselves if Hal Duell is looking for answers or just blame shifting to excuse the lackluster management of our river corridors.
    Note: While I currently serve on the AAPA Board (sacred sites authority) these comments are my personal views and reflect a long-standing interest in land management issues affecting the Todd River and crown land generally.

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  4. Hal Duell
    Posted November 26, 2011 at 6:29 am

    Taking the photos from the top, the first shows a stretch of parkland along a riverbank. Has the parkland and its upkeep caused the riverbed in the background to be without trees?
    I suggest not necessarily as I can clearly remember walking down some of our major waterways and coming upon stretches of open, clear riverbed in country where the “wild” isn’t necessarily and understandably compromised by being in the middle of an urban setting.
    This is also the stretch of the river that gets the most use by both families and from civic events. We are very fortunate to have access to this open space in the heart of Alice.
    The manicured riverbank parklands in this picture are not riverbed, but they do offer the residents of Alice a wonderful space from which to enjoy an open view of the Todd River. If it’s decided that the exotics have to go, hopefully they will be replaced by acceptable trees with a dense canopy so we can continue to enjoy a shady park.
    In the middle photo what appear to be young eucalypts are without understory and therefore have a good chance of growing to maturity without the danger of being burned down by itinerant arsonists. The open lawns at the Telegraph Station offer something similar but with older trees. There are about 200km of wild river south of Heavitree Gap where biodiversity reigns as the uncontested natural order. Nothing is being lost by claiming this short section for the town.
    And finally to the money shot, the bottom photo, and what a magnificent, hoary old man he is! And so vulnerable. When the pictured understory dries off, hopefully the private citizens mentioned, or the Town Council if necessary, will remove it before it builds up into an ignitable fuel load that an arsonist could send roaring up into all those character revealing dead limbs.
    I think it was along this stretch of river that one of the pictured tree’s equally venerable and vulnerable companions didn’t make it through this year’s fire season. The arsonists struck, the fire took hold and the tree either fell or had to be pushed over. When I last rode down that bike path I didn’t notice the carcass so unless I missed it, I assume it has been removed.
    This debate brings the story of Pandora’s Box to mind. Alice will never again be what she was. By denying that we merely prevent her from becoming all she could be.

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  5. Domenico Pecorari
    Posted November 24, 2011 at 1:34 pm

    A classic example of the “less-is-more” principle. The effort and expense presently being spent in maintaining a few pristine lawned areas should be put towards “maintaining” the whole of our town’s wild river environment in its natural state, with only the lightest intervention for the purpose of conservation.
    Thanks, Kieran and Mike, for helping to bring this issue to the public’s attention.

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