Lindsay Johannsen makes some very interesting observations in his satirical …

Comment on Story Wall, buffel and Jacinta by Alex Nelson.

Lindsay Johannsen makes some very interesting observations in his satirical letter about buffel grass. His point about the increased vegetation cover in the Todd and Charles rivers catchments soaking up more runoff is supported elsewhere by scientific observations, as reported for example in here.
It’s definitely the case that the Todd River flowed readily when there was reduced vegetative ground cover; for example, in April 1961, as the 1960s drought gripped Central Australia, the Todd flowed a banker from storms in the catchment (it’s a memorable occasion for my parents because that was when my father proposed to my mother).
By contrast the Todd now barely flows at all, and when it does they are no greater than moderate at most.
The year 2010 was the second wettest on record for Alice Springs, falling just a few millimetres shy of breaking the 1974 record, yet the Todd River never got above a moderate flow despite water being present for almost the whole year.
The frequency of major flows of the Todd River has dropped sharply since the turn of the century and this reflects a widespread trend observed with rivers in many places.
Buffel grass almost certainly has played some role in this but, by the same token, it is slowly posing a much more serious risk for Alice Springs.
As the frequency and quantity of river flows reduce, the vegetation in turn is advancing more and more into the riverbed. Only last year, for example, tractors and dump trucks had to scrape and haul away the grass and vegetation on the Todd Riverbed next to Anzac Oval to allow the Henley-on-Todd to proceed. I’ve never seen that happen before.
A good example of what this is leading to can be seen with St Mary’s Creek just south of town. When I was a boy living at AZRI and CSIRO the creek had a clear sandy bed, but for many years now it’s been completely overgrown with buffel grass.
In the past the watercourses of the Centre provided natural firebreaks but the encroachment of feral grasses is increasingly converting them into wildfire conduits – and as the Todd River which runs through the middle of Alice Springs becomes ever more dominated by these exotic grasses, the more discomfited I grow.

Alex Nelson Also Commented

Story Wall, buffel and Jacinta
@ Kathy (Posted January 31, 2018 at 7:47 am): Unfortunately almost nothing of what you’ve claimed is correct. Here is a brief history – in the summer of 1951/52 the wet season failed completely, and much of northern and Central Australia was caught in the grip of a short but very severe drought. However, Central Australia experienced a wet winter in 1952 which prompted the growth of an enormous variety of native flowers and grasses. There were numerous claims by pastoralists of various species never having been seen before.
To the founding director of the Animal Industry Branch, Colonel Lionel Rose, this situation compounded his already strong awareness of the critical lack of knowledge of the natural ecology that underpinned the beef cattle industry. For this reason he gave significant material support to the establishment of the CSIRO’s permanent presence in Alice Springs in 1953; and the first permanent CSIRO officer, Bob Winkworth, immediately began to collect and collate specimens of native pasture species.
In 1954 the AIB itself finally gained its first botanist, George Chippendale, stationed in Alice Springs who immediately commenced work to establish a Herbarium of native plant specimens from across the NT. Bob Winkworth contributed his own collection to assist the establishment of the Herbarium.
The mid 1950s was generally a run of good seasons. Alice Springs was a cattle town and was actually one of the busiest railheads in Australia, transporting cattle from the southern half of the NT via the Central Australian Railway to markets in South Australia.
In 1958 the year went dry – it was the beginning of one of the worst droughts on record in the Centre. It was in this year that my father worked for the CSIRO but transferred back to the AIB in early 1959. He became offsider to botanist George Chippendale and was involved in a number of major botanical survey trips in the NT during the 1960s drought.
Central Australia and Alice Springs were not swept by “huge sand storms”, they were dust storms – and they blew up from overstocked pastoral leases that had denuded the natural vegetation of the region. The dust storms did not come from the true desert regions. My father personally observed and noted these conditions during his botanical survey trips.
The 1960s drought crippled the beef cattle industry in the Centre; conversely it assisted the rise of the tourism industry as an alternative economic basis for Alice Springs.
From the late 1940s onwards there had been a range of evaluation trials of buffel grass (amongst other species) for improved pasture. Ironically, at the start of the drought there was a lot of failure experienced with these trials and it looked as if buffel grass wasn’t suitable for introduction. However, a pasture species evaluation trial run by the CSIRO at AZRI during the 1960s drought indicated that, with the right conditions, buffel grass could be successfully established in limited areas.
However, it was the burgeoning tourism industry that provided the impetus for widespread establishment of buffel grass in the region. The major airlines TAA and Ansett-ANA wanted to introduce jet airliners to service Alice Springs but this would only proceed if the dust storms could be controlled. It was the need to control dust around the Alice Springs Airport that led to extensive sowing of buffel grass in the area from the late 1960s onwards, as a method to achieve soil conservation.
The 1970s were a reversal of the climatic conditions that dominated the 1960s. From 1973 onwards there commenced six years of well above average rainfall in the Centre. This happened to coincide with the collapse of the beef cattle market, leading to an enormous build-up of herd numbers in the Centre of largely unsaleable cattle. This led to concerns that the large herd numbers significantly exceeded the natural carrying capacity of the country; it was only the exceptional seasonal conditions that prevented an environmental catastrophe from occurring.
The establishment of buffel grass on many pastoral leases was systematically undertaken during this period, intended to alleviate the grazing pressure on natural pastures. In combination with the exceptional seasons, it was this program of well-intentioned soil conservation measures that triggered the invasion of buffel grass in the environment, still ongoing in many situations where it was never originally envisaged it would take hold.
In 1980/81 I was involved with a CSIRO project at AZRI to ascertain the grazing preferences of cattle at varying stocking intensities on mixed buffel/native grass pastures. It was discovered that cattle preferentially graze native grasses first before consuming buffel grass so this means that livestock assist buffel grass in outcompeting native species.
Buffel grass itself outcompetes most native plant species, that is well documented. In situations where buffel grass is removed (such as I helped to achieve at the Olive Pink Botanic Garden) and there is no grazing pressure, there is an immediate response in the return of native plant species. It’s easy to see the obvious differences of plant species diversity between areas dominated with buffel grass compared to those without buffel. It’s not difficult to measure.
Buffel grass does help stabilise soil and provides useful feed for livestock but so do native pastures when they are well managed and not abused by persistent overstocking of grazing animals.
There is no doubt, however, that buffel grass alone is the single greatest environmental threat by far across most of inland Australia, far more so than other officially recognised feral weed species, but in this case there remains a studious avoidance by government to do anything substantial about it.


Recent Comments by Alex Nelson

Minister Lawler determined to demolish Anzac High
@ James T Smerk (Posted July 21, 2019 at 12:09 pm): Uh huh, and there were people like you who said the same kind of thing about all other heritage listed places in town that barely avoided the bulldozers.
How little do you know!
That old school was once the pride of Alice Springs and a major tourist attraction – yes, truly it was!
Because that’s where the world-famous School of the Air was located from 1954 to 1968 – and there’s no reason why that can’t happen again.
Isn’t it easy for the instant experts to make pronouncements from a position of ignorance – I mean, have you or the other critics actually bothered to find out about the building’s true history?
No, I thought so.


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@ Evelyne (Posted June 28, 2019 at 3:15 pm): Perhaps you should ask people working within the public service/bureaucracy about the difference between democracy and tyranny. On second thought, don’t bother – they all have to keep their mouths shut.


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@ Interested Darwin Observer (Posted June 28, 2019 at 8:04 am): Oh! Are we a democracy?


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If I recall correctly, the Geoscience Australia Antenna commenced operation as a Landsat receiving station in 1979, so this year marks its 40th anniversary.
Our family was living at the CSIRO residence by Heath Road at the time, now the Centre for Appropriate Technology.
There was one funny occasion when my brother was wandering around in the paddock nearby the new facility, and wherever he went the antenna would swing around and point towards him.
I think he got a bit spooked by it but it was the technical officers in the adjoining demountable lab that were just having a bit of fun.


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This is tremendous good news for Alice Springs. I shall put on hold my plans to move to Katherine 🙂


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