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ARTICLES >> Environment Articles

Cooperation and Connections Key to Rangelands Sustainability

Posted by Bestprac on Feb 02 2012

By Liz Guerin
Passionate about sustainability, Ben is the Production and Environmental Manager of his family’s 513 000 hectare

 

With rangelands areas comprising 86% of Australia and, comparatively, so few people engaged in management of them, the possibility of rehabilitating past damage might seem like an overwhelming task. But for pastoralist, Ben Forsyth, by bringing people together and adopting a cooperative approach, it is a job he feels can be done.

Passionate about sustainability, Ben is the Production and Environmental Manager of his family’s 513 000 hectare, Three Rivers pastoral lease in Western Australia. In addition to the challenges of running a large pastoral property, Ben is a past Nuffield Scholar, former WA Director of Future Farmers Network, a newly elected Councillor of the Rangelands Society and a committee member of the Meekatharra Rangelands Biosecurity Group (MRBG). Ben is also studying for a Masters in Rangeland Management at the University of Queensland. Ben says that you can always find the time for things that you really believe in.

“You have to look after the land to be able to make money,” said Ben, “And you have to make money to be able to stay there and look after the land - it’s a double-edged sword.”

The challenges facing semi arid rangelands was reinforced to Ben when, in 2004, an Ecosystem Management Understanding (EMU) project commenced on Three Rivers.

“The project aimed to rehydrate the landscape of Three Rivers and being involved made a lot of what we already knew make sense, in terms of grazing,” he said.

As a result, the Forsyth’s describe their rest based grazing system, based on an intense short duration graze followed by a rest phase, as a work in progress. However, the presence of artificial watering points in the landscape can make achieving a true rest difficult to achieve.

“Even after the removal of stock, kangaroos and other animals can continue to graze what is left, due to the presence of artificial watering points,” he said.

“Our grazing strategy tries to replicate the natural cycle of water, followed by no water and by shutting off access to artificial watering points, following a pulse graze. We can encourage that total rest phase by trapping domestic stock off and leaving native animals to return to natural watering points.”

The benefit of this rest-based system has been demonstrated in enough diverse areas of the world to be very hard to ignore. It was through the EMU project that Ben’s interest in strategies which would ensure an ecologically sustainable future, for the arid pastoral zone, prompted him to apply for a Nuffield Scholarship.

“I was concerned about erosion and pasture decline and environmental problems, which we inherited from our forebears, who built the nation largely from grazing,” Ben said. “They were building a nation but wrecking the country that they were building it on.”

Ben feels strongly that this damage needs to be repaired and is frustrated, not only by lack of investment in fixing such problems, but the inadequacy of the structures in place.

“Gone are the days when everyone had an uncle who had a farm. Now you are lucky if 10 % of city people have a rural connection. It, therefore, becomes that much harder to get people to agree, through political channels, to invest in making the country right,” he said.

“It is one thing to have all these lofty visions, but we still have to be viable and put food on the table and, perhaps, a stewardship model which allows properties to take areas out of production for a given period and concentrate on sustainable production, is a far better alternative than the current lock up conservation area approach, where there is very little management in terms of weeds or vermin.”

Rangelands represent 86% of the Australian continent, and Ben says that a small investment can make a huge difference – but it is beyond the scope of individual pastoralists.

“You show me $1M, and I’ll show you $5M worth of results, but it isn’t happening,” Ben said. “Australia loves the concept of the big Red land – but people actually don’t want to be part of it – they like to know it is there and that it is being looked after, but it doesn’t attract the empathy that other environmental issues do.”

During his Nuffield year, Ben travelled to Namibia, South Africa, the US and Argentina to investigate strategies for rehabilitation and regeneration in semi-arid environments and, on his return, was more convinced than ever that greater cooperation amongst stakeholders is the key to success.

“We recognise that we can’t do it alone, but we have the added difficulty of isolation from one another,” said Ben. “We don’t have the opportunities of sporting events or the local pub to talk and share ideas on a weekly basis.”

It was this limiting factor that has driven Ben to find ways of improving communications around the Rangelands. During 6 years as WA Director of Future Farmers Network (FFN), Ben was instrumental in developing an online community for young people involved in agriculture and aimed at overcoming vast distance and barriers to communication.

“I found that it didn’t matter if you were talking to someone in the middle of Tasmania or the middle of the Northern Territory, in both instances they felt isolated and were looking for more interaction – especially at that younger age, and FFN network provides that avenue for interaction which might not be there otherwise.”

It is this online forum approach that Ben has been charged with developing, following a Total Grazing Pressure (TGP) workshop. The idea was initiated following a Rangelands Conference in Bourke, where many pastoralists were struck by the disjointed nature of many elements associated with rangeland and pastoral management.

“We were looking at different aspects of rangeland management, such as watering point management and pastures in isolation, with no one asking the really hard question about how to bring it all together and make it work,” said Ben.

The result was a gathering of pastoralists, NRM Group members, and State and Commonwealth Department staff meeting in Adelaide in February to tackle the challenge of achieving Total Grazing Pressure (TGP) control at a national level.

“We aren’t doing anything that is revolutionary, simply bringing people with an interest in total grazing pressure,” Ben said. “All of the participants at the Adelaide workshop spoke of the injection of energy and the joy in sharing ideas and information, with like-minded people, and knowing that they weren’t isolated. The online forum is just another way of connecting people and sharing ideas.”

The site, www.grazebook.com is almost ready for release and different topics can be broken down into sub forums, focussing on issues such as productivity, pastures, infrastructure or policy.

Positivity is a quality Ben believes is very important and says it is easy to lose focus when you are feeling isolated.

“There is a lot of bleak stuff out there and it is easy to get caught up in the glass half empty group,” he said. “Connecting people and sharing ideas is as much about an injection of energy and innovation and reinforces why we bother. It is the encouragement of knowing that there are other people out there just like you.”

Ben likens his journey to date as a series of stepping stones.

“If I hadn’t participated in the EMU process, I wouldn’t have applied for a Nuffield scholarship. If I hadn’t done Nuffield, I wouldn’t have become involved with the Rangelands Society, or started my university studies and, by involvement in the Rangelands Society and a bit of knowledge through Nuffield, I became involved with TGP and now to this point.”

Ben admits that with so much currently happening, he is rarely at home, but also laughingly says that with the Station in care and maintenance mode, it has been one of the few upsides of drought and has provided a window of opportunity to be able to give back to the industry.

“I believe that you need to give something back to your area and industry and the changes I want to make on Three Rivers require industry support,” said Ben. “If I can be part of increasing awareness and communication about the impact on rangelands and the regeneration of the landscape, then that has major implications, not only for my business, but also for the land.”
 

Last changed: Feb 06 2012

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