Carbon Farming on Western Australian Rangelands

21 March 2018 Geoff Craggs, Research Analyst, Northern Australia and Landcare Research Programme

Background

Reducing atmospheric carbon is fundamental to ameliorating the effects of climate change. Capturing and storing carbon in the soil, by planting and maintaining species of native grasses and shrubs, will have the flow-on effect of restoring northern Australia’s denuded pastoral rangelands – natural vegetation cover will renew itself and livestock and wildlife will be able to graze and forage. Moreover, farmers and land managers will be able to realise a significant economic return on their investment, through sponsored carbon credit incentive programmes.

Comment

Carbon farming is not new to Australia. For many years, farmers have actively managed their land by planting and maintaining vegetation, introducing organic fertilisers and mulches, and similar strategies. On pastoral rangelands, graziers manage stock numbers and grazing patterns to avoid over use and the likelihood of degradation of their pastures. Other measures include reducing deforestation; revegetating cleared lands with native trees; and, in northern Australia in particular, incorporating fire management regimes of mosaic burning in cooler weather, which can prevent intense, large-scale bushfires during hot periods. Innovative practices are resulting in more land being actively used in carbon sequestration (storing carbon in plants or soils), potentially leading to a reduction in atmospheric carbon.

Primarily covered by vegetation patterns of native grasses, grass-like plants, flowering plants and shrubs, rangelands support ecosystems that encompass grasslands, savannas, shrub-lands and woodlands. These afford richness in biodiversity and supportive wildlife habitats for a wide range of indigenous species of flora and fauna. They also provide grazing and foraging for livestock and wildlife. The open spaces and clean air provide good quality water. Covering almost 81 per cent of the continent’s total landmass, Australian rangelands have been traditionally used for grazing and mining. Rangelands are of critical importance to the natural environment in mitigating the effects of atmospheric greenhouse gases through carbon sequestration.

Projects to capture and store atmospheric carbon in soils are in operation across Australia. Wyandra, west of Brisbane, is an example, where work is aimed at regenerating bushland to store carbon; in northern central NSW a number of projects are directed towards ‘human induced regeneration’ and avoiding deforestation of land; and, in the Wheatbelt region in the south-west of WA, some farmers are realising significant commercial gain from the Australian Government’s Emissions Reductions Fund, by planting trees to regenerate the natural environment.

Tree planting programmes in WA are being conducted on relatively small areas of land occupied under freehold lease. Freehold implies ownership of the land, enabling farmers and land managers to make changes and improvements to their properties. They are also able to engage in commercial operations, subject to existing Federal or State caveats. Under leasehold arrangements, however, occupiers of Crown land (land owned by the Commonwealth) are not afforded the same rights. Consequently, they are less able to alter or amend long-standing leases to undertake management interventions, such as reforestation and other land improvements. Importantly, the northern part of WA contains large areas of leasehold pastoral rangelands that have been used for cattle and sheep grazing over many years. These pastoral lands have been under threat for over 75 years from a range of factors (drought, poor management practices, weed infestation), resulting in a general decline in their condition. Compounding this has been inadequate protection from WA’s existing system of land monitoring and administration. The net result of those factors is a need for priority action to reduce further ecological damage and ensure environmental sustainability.

A perceived history of ineffective pastoral rangelands management led the WA Government to commission a report by the Auditor-General in October 2017, to review the future ecological sustainability of WA’s pastoral rangelands. The report is required to identify opportunities to achieve social, environmental and financial outcomes for pastoral businesses and local communities. It is also expected to include a broad range of general recommendations. It is due for completion in June 2018. The hope is that the recommendations will prompt changes in policy and legislation, especially to allow leasehold farmers more freedom of action to implement management interventions aligned with ecologically sustainable outcomes. A key issue will be the requirement to include enabling measures that will allow restorative work, including reforestation and carbon farming projects.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

Published by Future Directions International Pty Ltd.
Suite 5, 202 Hampden Road, Nedlands WA 6009, Australia.