Kimberley Environmental Problems
Not all is well in the Kimberley
Supposedly the Kimberley is pristine and untouched, the world's largest true wilderness.
In reality few if any areas within the Kimberley remain truly untouched. All of the Kimberley has been changed by man in some way or other. And that's without taking into account any global warming effects.
Many things we do have changed the face of the region, gradually, over the course of many years. The destruction is ongoing and getting worse. You can read more about those existing issues below.
But now there are new threats on the horizon, imminent threats of a scale that is hard to imagine and that make me feel sick in the stomach every time I read about it.
The Western Australian government is committed to major industrialisation and agricultural development across the whole of the Kimberley. In other words, it is committed to the total destruction of the wilderness.
Most of the politicians making the decisions about the future of the Kimberley have never visited it. So far they have ignored all input from people from the region: indigenous land owners, environmental organisations, tourism operators, residents...
The WA government WILL bulldoze and industrialise at all cost.
If we let it. That's the current situation in a nutshell.
If you think I am exaggerating then try to picture a totally denuded Mitchell Plateau and a massive gas plant on the Dampier Peninsula coast.
Read about the proposed developments and their expected environmental impact in depth. The articles will also give you an understanding of how our government approaches its decision making and the implementation of its industrialisation plans.
This is happening and it is only the beginning.
The Kimberely - An Untouched Wilderness??
The current threats to the Kimberley have been described as a perfect storm brewing. Not wrong. But a lot of destruction happened long before the government came up with the brilliant idea to bulldoze the Kimberley to make everyone rich. And that destrcution is also ongoing and increasing. And tourism is contributing to it...
Humans have affected the Kimberley in many ways, directly and indirectly. Direct influences can be seen everywhere we live. Land is cleared, roads are built, rivers are dammed, rubbish is dumped and so on...
Extensive cattle grazing, combined with the damage that cattle do to the fragile soils just by wandering around, has led to serious erosion problems. Cattle also change the species distribution by eating what they like best, leaving unpalatable plants behind, which soon dominate the landscape.
Once the balance is upset it's easy for introduced weeds to get a foothold. Many introduced weeds grow much more vigorously than local plants and outcompete and displace the native vegetation. Once the plant balance is upset it will upset the life cycle of animals that depend on those plant communities for food, shelter or breeding.
The problems are most obvious in the lowlands along the Ord and Fitzroy Rivers in the south and east. This is the centre of the Kimberley cattle industry and also where the cattle industry started. Large areas are badly eroded and it's impossible to overlook the weed problem.
Once weeds have gained a foot hold they spread. If the seeds have spikes and burrs then animals spread them. If the seed is encapsulated in fruit flesh then the birds spread them. Wet season floods spread seeds downstream.
Then you have vehicles and tourists helping along, too, by transporting seeds and soil on their cars, their clothes and their hiking boots. It quickly becomes impossible to contain any infestation.
Noogoora Burr was one of the earliest and worst infestations that led to big areas along the Ord and Fitzroy being quarantined, but today there are dozens of exotics that have joined Noogoora Burr. Some of them were introduced accidentally but many were brought in deliberately: as good cattle feed, as possible agricultural crops, as garden plants. (The latest blunder was the deliberate introduction of neem trees to the Ord irrigation area.)
Introduced animals are just as destructive. Wild donkeys, horses, camels, buffaloes and pigs have already been mentioned. Few overseas visitors are aware that cats are a serious threat and plague. The numbers of feral cats are exploding across all of Australia. This are not your cute little pussy cats any more. Our feral cats are large, vicious, supremely adaptable and highly efficient killers. Our native birds and lizards are no match for them.
Another potential disaster is knocking on our doors in the east. The highly poisonous cane toad is continuing its unstoppable march across northern Australia and has reached the Victoria River and Timber Creek area. It is expected to enter WA and the Kimberley over the 2008/09 wet season.
Any native animals that prey on frogs and toads are at risk. Freshwater crocodile and goanna populations have plummeted or disappeared wherever the cane toad became established in the Northern Territory.
Now emergency programs are under way to relocate vulnerable species like the Northern Quoll to offshore islands in the hope to save them from extinction. The rare pygmy crocodile probably won't be so lucky. It has disappeared from its location in Arnhem Land and now the cane toads are only 20 km from the only other waterhole, on the WA border, where this rare species has been recorded. Only discovered and already lost...
Despite the impressive fight that the Kununurra community has put up there is no solution in sight. Some money is being spent in the Kimberley to at least survey and record what we are about to lose, but at this point that seems to be all we can do. The cane toads will be here sooner or later.
Consider joining a weekend toad bust. See www.canetoads.com.au to find out how you can help to fight this pest, while spending a weekend camping out in some real Kimberley wilderness country.
Lake Argyle and the now permanent flow of the lower Ord River have changed the face of the area forever. While the Ramsar protected new wetlands are an attraction and bird paradise in their own right, they are man made and the project brought a host of other problems with it.
The nasty open channel system that is used in the Ord River Irrigation Area leads to massive evaporation and seepage, which means rising groundwater levels and salinity. Broad acre crops like melons or pumpkins are flood irrigated, leading to run-off of nutrients and chemicals into the channels, rivers and groundwater. Many fields are bare over the wet, so top soil is washed and blown away.
Increased run-off of solids, combined with the lack of the annual wet season flush means the mouth of the tamed and controlled Ord is silting up. So is the main Argyle dam because of erosion due to the clearing and damage from overgrazing in the catchment area.
Stage 2 of the Ord project is the largest proposed land clearing operation in Northern Australia. None of the existing issues have been sufficiently addressed.
Threats to the coastal regions
The rest of the coast is also under threat. Illegal fishing and increasing tourism are already upsetting the marine systems and damaging the world class reefs. Reefs that the world does not even know about yet! The Rowley Shoals off Broome are considered the worlds best kept underwater secret.
And as you read above, things along the coast seem destined to get MUCH worse.
The Japanese corporation Inpex had planned to build a gas processing plant on the Marets, a major tidal area in the middle of the main humpback whale calving grounds. Several other companies including Woodside have also submitted proposals to develop the Browse Basin.
Inpex chose Darwin. Our premier chose Prices Point north of Broome for Woodside...
When the Japanese planned to slaughter 50 of the whales for "research" purposes in 2008, the public outcry was massive. While atrocious, the slaughter would not have affected the population which numbers over 10000. A gas plant will affect it, and the Western Australian government is still pushing hard for the development to go ahead.
Many people here can't imagine camping without a camp fire. A fire is often needed for cooking and is just as important to socialise around and spin yarns in the evening.
Well, in many areas, especially national parks and conservation areas, fires are not allowed. Period. In other parts of the Kimberley fires may be allowed at times and fire bans may be in place at other times.
Part of the reason for the bans is the risk of bush fires. I guarantee that no matter when you visit, you will see bush fires on your travels. The whole Kimberley burns, every year. Most travellers assume these are managed burns or that it is necessary for the country to burn so new seeds can germinate. Nonsense.
Very few of those fires are managed, though many have been lit on purpose. Arson is a big problem, but so are fires that are lit accidentally. In short, fires are a big problem, a big threat to the ecological balance of the Kimberley region. As if we needed another one.
Yes, this country evolved to burn and many species need fire. But they need it at the right time of the year and certainly not every year. What you see on the horizon is far too much.
There is another issue with camp fires. Wood is a somewhat scarce resource here. In some regions it's scarcer than in others and some areas are frequented by more people than others. In many places fires are forbidden to protect this valuable resource.
In some places fires are allowed, but you can only burn the provided wood. That ensures that only a limited amount of wood is taken from any area and that it is taken in a sustainable way.
Please do keep that in mind, even when fires are allowed. Collect wood where it is plentiful and only use what you really need. Make a campfire, not a bonfire. And ensure you extinguish it properly before moving on. See above.