BLOG: How green is my desert?
It’s common, this time of year after the rains have been kind to central Australia, to hear from locals and visitors to the region how green everything is.
Social media is awash with surprised remarks on how our vast expanses are more akin to an English countryside than how they thought a desert would be.
And it’s true, it is green.
However, once you start to dig a little deeper there’s what I prefer to see as 'good' green and 'bad' green.
(Left image): 'Bad' green. Looking across the Todd River awash with buffel grass with the Olive Pink boundary fence in the far distance. (Right image): 'Good' green. Within the Olive Pink boundary looking out to the river. Note the buffel in the far distance in the river.
Sadly, around the town of Alice Springs so much of what we see early in the year is the bad green; buffel grass.
You can see buffel along the banks of the River Todd, scaling to the scraggy top of Mount Gillen and the MacDonnell Ranges, flanking mountain bike and hiking trails through the bush and littering the gentle undulations of the Ilparpa Claypans.
Once your eye is in, you’ll begin to notice it everywhere.
The history of buffel in Alice Springs is a complex one.
Originally brought in by cameleers during the 19th century, it was later sown as a reliable pasture fodder for many of the region’s cattle enterprises in the 1960s, helping to establish central Australia’s strong agricultural industry.
In the1970s it was introduced to town as a dust suppressant, especially around Alice Springs airport, thus mitigating the large dust storms that were once relatively common.
Sadly though, buffel is not content with its public benefit services.
It is an extremely competitive plant that reduces native plant diversity and helps fuel very hot fires potentially catastrophic to river red gums and other trees.
It replaces the myriad shades of green of the native grasses, supresses the abundance and splendour of wildflowers and replaces these with the homogeneity of its dark neon green tufts flanked by the dusty hint of magenta that emanate from its seed burrs.
If you take a stroll into Simpsons Gap in the West MacDonnell Ranges, you will notice a wall of buffel grass along both sides of the river bank as you approach.
On your right, to the east, this stops as the sloping cliffs become vertical.
On your left, a rocky outcrop juts out and beyond this, concerted efforts by Parks and Wildlife Rangers have removed the buffel.
The sea of one shade of green replaced by the nuanced differences of the native flora.
A landscape still made green by the desert rains, but more splendid for the spectrum on show.
The same is true of Nurses Hill at Olive Pink Botanical Gardens.
Indeed, the river frontage the gardens have impacts upon buffel density there.
Take a look across to the far river bank and notice the invasive monoculture that represents the majority of the Todd’s edges for comparison against that which skirts the garden boundary.
Many landholders around town have also made significant strides with several, especially around Ilparpa and Ross, who have turned their properties into buffel free zones and seen native flora and fauna increase as a result.
The arguments for and against buffel in the wider context will continue, although it has certainly been effective in its role as a dust suppressant and as a food source for many cattle.
Furthermore, there are several other invasive grasses ready to pounce if conditions allow, less palatable to cattle, that could prove even worse to the landscape.
However, through town and in our recreational spaces, let’s look to reverse the trend and take pride in those buffel free zones.
Olive Pink and Simpsons Gap did not plant the native flora that replaced the buffel once removed, it was there all along.
It just needed a little room to breathe.
Around town, let’s look for and celebrate the good green once more.
On Saturday 18 February, the Arid Lands Environment Centre is hosting a free buffel busting tour in Alice Springs. Click for more information.