What?! So, suddenly willows cause erosion?!?

Has there ever been a clearer indication of how the dominance of a simplistic ideology can warp the way we frame reality, than in the case of beliefs around ‘willows and erosion’?

In Australia, Salix species were used from the early days of British occupation to stabilise observed erosion.  This use continued for around 200 years. Let’s face it, where they are left in place, willows are still preventing erosion to this day. Despite this, for some reason, amongst the lengthy litany of accusations levelled at willows by nativist literature is the charge that they cause erosion!

Here are a few quotes (with links provided): “…causing flooding and erosion…” “…increasing erosion and flooding…” “…increased rates of bank erosion…” “…increasing bank erosion and loss of farmland…” “…increased flooding, erosion and channel realignments…” “…causing streambank erosion…” “…erode vulnerable banks…” “…causing flooding and additional erosion…”

In response to the accusation that willows are an erosion-causing agent in Australian flow-lines, the main points I’d like to consider in this post are:

  1. Whether this is an accurate portrayal of reality given the willow’s long and continuing history as an erosion stabiliser in this country–and globally; and,
  2. Why the supposed “fact” that willows cause erosion was not noticed until nativism gained ascendancy within official policy and nativists started flagrantly demonising willows.

Willows were being planted by the NSW Soil Conservation Service (among others) up until the mid 1990’s. But, as Land and Water Australia simply informs us in it’s willow control guidelines: “By the 1990s, the seriousness of the weed threat posed by willows had been recognised, and planting by government agencies largely ceased.

Historic gully in grazing paddock, deliberately stabilised using Willows near Braidwood, NSW

Historic erosion gully in a grazing paddock, deliberately stabilised using Willows, near Braidwood, NSW.

As this accurate summation indicates, it was the official classification of willows as an “environmental weed” that led agencies like the Soil Conservation Service to stop planting them. Until then, the Soil Conservation Service was using willows widely to conserve soil (of course). They would still be planting them today on account of their benefits as a cost-effective biological soil stabilisation tool, but in the 1990’s they stopped after willows became officially designated as a “weed threat”.

So, after 200 years of being actively used by government departments and private landholders to control erosion, they were suddenly persona non-grata on account of being a non-native species.

We need to be clear on this point: it wasn’t that 1000’s of government employees, scientists and private landholders that had been promoting and using willows to repair erosion suddenly noticed that they were actually causing erosion, it was that a general policy of not utilising non-native species took hold as official doctrine.

Given that they were being widely used to stop erosion until their use was discontinued, doesn’t it seem strange that today they are being widely demonised for causing erosion?

Why did it take until the rise of nativism for anyone to notice a plant that has always been the erosion prevention champion of the world was actually causing erosion? What is it about being an adherent of an illogical and very, very, very simplistic ideological position (‘natives good, non-natives bad’) that means that you can see that willows cause erosion, when millions of ordinary people have been using the willow for generations to prevent it?

How could this be? Does non-nativism cause a strange ideological blindness that means a person cannot see the erosion that willows are causing everywhere? Well, no, as a matter of fact. No, it doesn’t. In reality there are numerous peer-reviewed scientific articles in reputable journals from all over the world which document (and actively promote) the use of willows to prevent erosion. The following are a small sample:

I’d be interested to read any scientific study which suggests that broadscale removal of riparian willows will prevent or lessen current rates of erosion within Australian flow-lines. Perhaps some clever-trousers should do a study one day to see whether this could possibly be the case; preferably they’d have done it before we started ripping them all out.

It certainly wasn’t the case for Mr Sadler and other farmers in the Flowerdale region of Tasmainia, where willow removal led to mass soil erosion.

Erosion in Flowerdale, Tasmania caused by willow removal. Courtesy ABC Rural.

Erosion in Flowerdale, Tasmania, caused by willow removal. Image courtesy ABC Rural.

I strongly suggest you check out the images and listen to the audio in this ABC radio news story by following the link above. It provides such a clear example of how ideology can blind people to reality.

With perfect hindsight, Mr Sadler (the farmer who owns this particular mess) suggests that maybe NRM agencies should have performed a small trial removal before going in boots and all. He also says that his preference would have been to leave the willow roots in place until alternative vegetation was established.

Does this seem like a reasonable suggestion?

As Mr Sadler states: “it seems pretty obvious really.”

But what he fails to point out is that it would only be obvious if you are willing to concede that the willows were preventing erosion!

In contrast, to Mr Sadler’s comments, the Project Officer who is interviewed in this piece actually blames the farmers for causing the erosion! He suggests a lack of proper bureaucratic oversight regards follow-up fencing and tree planting is what allowed the problem to occur. He suggests that greedy and uninformed farmers started to graze the area where the willows had been removed.

This claim seems ridiculous given that cattle were obviously grazing these areas before all the trees were ripped out by local NRM authorities!

At no point does this person concede that perhaps removing the willows was what caused the erosion. How can he lecture farmers about “building the riparian area on their farm” when he’s discussing a project that just went in and removed all of the stablising riparian vegetation (including the roots!) on these banks?

Hear him describe this disaster as a project that is now “semi-fixed”, but needs further work.

“Semi-fixed”? What has this individual learnt from this horrible mistake?

Hear the “solution” he proposes: to get another grant from taxpayers for another well-funded project to pay someone (hint: this is a professional project officer talking!) to go in with an excavator and realign problematic large woody debris (native trees that were not originally removed, but which have since fallen into the river) and then build up the banks with a buffer of fenced-off land with some teeny-tiny little native seedlings.

This is all mind-bogglingly ludicrous! It is perfectly clear that this person still utterly fails to appreciate the reality of river dynamics and farming (the ‘reality of reality’ in this situation!) because he is unable to consider the possibility that leaving the willows in place would have been a better outcome; better for the farmer, better for the river and better for the environment in general.

No, it’s been “semi-fixed”! How do you reason with that sort of closed-mindedness?

When can we get a proper assessment of the results of this highly-paid counterproductive ideological madness? Until we do, it obviously just goes on and on.

The Project Officer in this story suggests that things have changed since this project was completed 11 years ago and so this disaster would never happen again today. Perhaps he should have a look at the Molonglo river near Queanbeyan, NSW, where another government willow-destruction project took place recently. See the picture below, which was taken from the Yass Road bridge in January 2014 (excuse my dodgy annotations).

Queanbeyan river January 2014

Cattle graze in the Molonglo river at a willow destruction site between Canberra and Queanbeyan (Jan 2014).

This is the view from a busy public thoroughfare between Queanbeyan and Canberra, home of our elected representatives and national environmental bureaucracy! The pic was taken on a phone so you can only just see the mob of cattle in the background grazing and wallowing amongst the Baumea articulata. Those dead willows are no longer preventing erosion, which is what they were brought to this country to do. It’s lucky there is some regrowth and plenty of spreading blackberry to protect a few of the unstable banks.

How is this kind of outcome still occurring without follow-up assessment and without massive public outcry over mismanaged funding? This is the kind of environmental sustainability you’re paying for folks! Just how secure are your children’s children feeling right now?

One very interesting point raised in the ABC report on the Tasmanian Willow Massacre, is the observation made by the Project Officer and by Mr Sadler that some of the large Eucalypts that have fallen into the river (as Large Woody Debris) are now causing erosion of the banks.

The majority of reports that claim willows cause erosion consistently fail to acknowledge that any obstruction within a flow of water can do this; when stream-flows are deflected they may impact banks. It doesn’t matter if the obstruction is a willow, a casuarina, a tea-tree, an emerging point-bar, a rock, a dead wombat or a piece of large woody debris. One thing that is never mentioned in relation to willows causing erosion is that these obstructions and this kind of bank erosion have always been a natural and vital part of fluvial dynamics.

This is another perfect example of nativists blaming willows for causing perfectly natural processes that are only seen as bad when they are caused by willows, but are often recognised as good at other times (see this earlier post about willows causing flooding).

Are nativists who demonise willows for causing erosion seriously suggesting that rivers shouldn’t ever change course again? Are they proposing that we should return to the days of removing large woody debris and other flow-line obstructions at a time when geomorphologists and others continue to call for the reintroduction of these components of essential flow-line evolution and change?

I started this post by questioning the ideology which frames present perceptions of reality around the issue of willows and erosion. It should be clear from this discussion that rampant and widespread demonisation of willows has clouded the perspectives of many individuals who are expected to understand and “care” for our environment. From my own explorations it is pretty clear that since nativism gained ascendancy within environmental policy, people have taken a very selective approach to the presentation of information about willows. It seems this has progressed far enough so that nowadays you can make-up just about anything you like about them, so long as it paints them in a negative light, and you will never be held to account.

Unfortunately, government money is presently being made available for some very destructive activities. This is nothing new in the history of humanity, but right now in Australia, this destructive money is being spent in the name of “environmentalism”.

As grassroots Landcare volunteers we can’t expect paid support staff to raise this debate, it’s obvious that discussing this could seriously endanger their chances of promotion, or even reappointment since everyone is on short-term contract these days. So, without professional “community support” to help us put forward this discussion, how do ordinary landholders and citizens feed-in to dominant NRM policy? How do we pierce the veil of nativist ideology? How do we get a proper assessment of the environmental outcomes of willow removal? And, when can we expect some honesty and accountability in the portrayal of willows and their vital role in Australia’s modern non-nativist environment?

15 responses to “What?! So, suddenly willows cause erosion?!?

  1. If the word “eucalyptus” is substituted for the word “willow” this would be an article about events here in California. Willows are native here and are therefore “good plants.” That’s how arbitrary the designation of “good plant/bad plant” is by nativists.

    Eucalypts were often planted on hillsides here in California, because native trees don’t tolerate wind and they require more water than eucalypts. When eucalypts are destroyed on hillsides, erosion is often the result. When this is pointed out to those who demand these eradication projects, they respond by saying that the roots will be left in the ground and will therefore prevent erosion.

    Of course, the roots are poisoned so the roots are killed and the tree will not resprout. Even if the roots aren’t killed immediately, they will eventually die within 3 to 5 years. Anyone with a rudimentary understanding of botany knows this. So, when these claims are made by people claiming to be experts, it is shocking. Surely they know better. They must be counting on the ignorance of the public to get away with it. The erosion doesn’t usually occur immediately, so the public is rarely aware of the cause-and-effect relationship.

    • Again Millie, it seems your situation in California is a mirror-image of ours over here. Willows hold our soil together in stream-lines, eucalypts are keeping yours stable on dry hillsides. Nativists in both situations seem unable to see past the simplistic compartmentalisation of landscape components into natives and non-natives. So often I wonder at how nativism actually undermines landscape health and function.

  2. The unfortunate Tasmanian project officer is in a miserable position .
    Either ten years ago or today , it is fantasy to claim that a few litres of tube stock roots can replace a giant biostructure fifty years in the making . Massive damage is inevitable , no matter how fast revegetation follows devegetation .

    The dissonance between the real world evidence of project failure and ideological expectations means nothing he can say will stand up to scrutiny . Poor loyal fellow just ends up looking stupid trying to justify stupid behaviour . It will be hard for him to continue work in Mr Sadlers district with his credibility blown like this .

    Not fair really , he has to work within the organisation which employs him. Even if it is out of control . Not his fault its middle management are well book learned but inexperienced in the practical world .

    Who do his superiors report to ? Is it state or federally funded ?
    Time to talk to those on high before The Green Army is seconded to similar disgraceful work .

    Mr Hunt , you have some excellent expertise and insights available to you via this website .
    May we invite you to a streamside chat ?
    Molonglo or Flood Creek , the principles are the same .

    The insights you gain will help you target Direct Action and save hundreds of Km of Australian streamsides from ending up like Mr Sadlers farm . Not to mention clean up the blue green algae problem just downhill from your office .


    • Hi Peter, I agree regards the position of the project officer in this story. Not sure of his employment situation, but would be surprised if he is actually working for a Landcare group. Seems more likely his would be a position charged with managing “Landcare-related” projects within a Tas. State or regional NRM body. The project he’s discussing is 11 years old so quite possibly he wasn’t actually there when it was conducted, again, can’t say for sure. What is unfortunate is that he has no option but to hold to the official line in regard to this outcome. Landcare project officers are usually pretty low in the pecking order so, yes, it does seem unfair that he would have to front the media. Unlikely the buck stops with him.

  3. Ben ,

    While we are making invitations , could you contact Mr Sadler and his neighbours and ask them on board ?

    He needs sound advice , which doesn’t seem to its forthcoming from the authorities . Semi – fixed ? They can’t even recognise a crisis when it chops the ground from under them .

    The Crumbling Cliff scenario is not unlike our local dismal failure ‘ The Bank Job ‘ at Mongarlowe . Same mindset , same misreading of the
    problem , same ineffective operations . Same huge waste of money .

    Both can be fixed with onsite resources , but only with a complete change of mindset . Sounds like he ready for that .

    When the Inglis River people join we will need to hear their story , find out about their landscape , climate and biota . Then useful work can be done .


    • Hi Peter, I lack the time for any real investigative research into this right now. But did find this August addition to the story: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-08-07/new-hope-for-flowerdale-valley-farmers-struggling-with-erosion/5654366

      Seems they’re scratching their heads to find a low cost solution to the problem caused by willow removal. One possibility immediately leaps to mind; there’s a plant I’ve heard of that’s really good at stabilising erosion like this…..

      Instead of the obvious though, they’re talking non-affordable “engineering” solutions which will mean quarrying and transporting more than a few tonnes of rock to throw in. What a stuff up. How long will we have the resources to burn to maintain these kinds of non-biological, non-ecological approaches?

      Don’t forget this is a dairy farm BTW. What is the point of puritanical nativism considering all of the exotic mega-fauna (cows) stomping around. There’s definitely some weird ideology at play here because it doesn’t make any sense. Don’t want any non-natives near our cattle pastures!

  4. Ben ,

    ACK . Mind if I hunt them down and invite them to this site ?

    You are correct .The problem can only be fixed if they put the anti willow mindset behind them .

    The tons of rock will achieve nothing , but to empty whats left of their bank accounts . But such lovely land will rapidly grow the bioengineering materials needed .


  5. Had a chat with Mr Sadler and invited him to join website .
    At the moment he is thinking in terms of a lot more rock armouring .

    My thoughts are we can look at his active erosion as a bit of a test case / discussion focus for affordable techniques for fixing the problem .
    Parts of the tool kit will be relevant to The Bank Job , below Lake Burly Griffin , Queanbeyan River and other reactivated streambank erosion sites .

    It would be nice to have a run of wrecked stream to use as a demo site for different repair strategies .
    Could give 50 yards to Willow Warriors , 50 yards to Old Time Foresters , 50 yards left as control etc .
    Before and after and comparison Photos . They teach us so much .

    Sorry , can’t offer anything at our farm , all the problems have been dealt with .
    Anyone offering a creek that needs fixing ?


  6. Re: the Tasmanian project officer and his chain of command. It is very generous to say, “. . . its middle management are well book learned but . . .” Unless you have good evidence, I suspect that is not at all true. The middle management of the “mirror image” destructive projects here in northern California definitely are not “well book learned.” They are profoundly ignorant of the huge literature on eucalyptus and how it functions in ecological communities. In spite of many California studies documenting the diverse biological systems within California eucalyptus forest, the responsible bureaucrats parrot the same inanities as the nativists destroying non-native plants and poisoning the landscape: “Eucalyptus produces a biological desert; nothing grows under eucalyptus; native birds can’t use eucalyptus forest; eucalyptus trees kill native birds by gumming up their beaks and nares…” ad nauseum They militantly refuse to use the phrase “eucalyptus forest,” and insist on “plantation,” this for forests that have existed for 150 years.

    I had thought the anti-scientific, religious fanaticism of “nativists” was a peculiar American phenomenon. From your experience I can see, sadly, that it just ain’t so.

    Good luck to us all.

  7. Keith ,

    You are correct . It takes a lot of generosity to speak calmly in the face of expensive , destructive , repetitive and blatantly stupid behaviour .

    One tries to contain the frustration which comes from noticing the bleedingly obvious, whilst some of the authorities continue to not even know that they don’t know that vast subjects of vital importance even exist .

    There is hope . I confess that 40 years ago I too was a giiddy nativist . We even used the same terminology . ” Radiata Pine produces a Biological Desert ! ”

    Then I got a microscope and discovered Mycorrizhae . Millions of tons of biodiversity under that so called desert . The fungi that run the planet, the microbes which make our air , cycle our nutrients and regulate our water .

    I realised it wasn’t about the name of the species , it was about the vastly complicated and powerful processes they were part of .

    If a peasant like me can grasp these concepts it should be no problem for the highly credentialed Natural Resource Managers of this world .

    Hope they join this site and take part in the conversation .


    • California is the native home of Pinus radiata (AKA Monterey pine). So you might think it would escape the ravages of nativism in California. You would be wrong. The native range is defined in the San Francisco Bay Area as where it existed in 1769 when Europeans first laid eyes on this patch of the Earth. At that specific point in time, Pinus radiata lived only in Monterey County, about 150 miles south of San Francisco.

      Therefore, Pinus radiata is being eradicated in the San Francisco Bay Area, along with eucalyptus and acacia and some 200 other hapless plants and trees. Ironically, there is fossil evidence that Pinus radiata lived here in the Bay Area several times in the distant past. When that discovery was made, the botanist who made the discovery published an article in the journal of the California Native Plant Society, expressing her opinion that we should quit destroying these trees where they have lived in the past. One of the reasons she made that suggestion was that this species of tree is dying off in its historic range. Its future in California is looking doubtful. Native plant advocates are unwilling to make an exception for this handsome tree. They say, “Off with its head!”

      Fortunately, it has been planted all over the world as a valuable timber species, so it is unlikely to be extinct in the long run.

  8. Except that other trees can stabilize stream banks and other flowers can be bee forage. This sounds for all the world like some little kid angry because he thinks a mean adult wants to take his toys away.

    The question becomes do you think the land you live in can sustain your life with the living beings already living there. Six of the seven continents can answer that question with an unequivocal “yes” because we have found indigenized human beings in all six of those continents. So chill the hell out. Native plants are NOT “insufficient”.

    • Hi Dana, thanks for your interesting comment, but you seem to have misunderstood our intent. We are not anti-native species in any way. Our argument is that the current focus on removal of non-native species is illogical and is leading to counter-productive outcomes in fragile and degraded riparian environments where non-natives currently perform multiple environmentally-beneficial roles.

      Your statement that other trees can stabilise stream banks is actually quite debatable given the incised condition of southeast Australian flow-lines following European arrival. If you’re interested in the degradation that has occurred I can recommend some scientific literature on the topic. These two articles are a good introduction to what is an extensive body of published research: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-8470.1977.tb00094.x/abstract http://link.springer.com/article/10.1023/A:1021999518939

      The point is that southeast Australian stream energy regimes, geomorphology and hydrology have all significantly shifted, and native plants have not stabilised these zones, willows have.

      I would hope you realise, as I do, that this is a lot more serious than someone wanting to take toys away. I and others associated with non-nativist Landcare are dedicated volunteers with significant concerns regarding the expenditure of environmental funding on environmentally destructive deforestation in degraded riparian areas. As Landcarers we are upset that our movement is being utilised and manipulated by bureaucrats and contractors to support these lucrative projects that provide no environmental benefit. We know there is a better way which is why we have commenced our ‘non-destructive revegetation’ trial (more on this shortly). In this trial we are planting native species along the riparian corridor of Flood Creek without sending in bulldozers first to destroy the existing vegetation. This is essential given the native animal species currently using this vegetation, and given the stabilisation this vegetation currently provides.

      So, yes, we do think the land can sustain our life “with the living beings that are already living there” as you say. We definitely want to keep the willows that are already living there and performing beneficial environmental functions.

      Thank you, I will chill the hell out. I hope you will too.

  9. Not so chilly here , but we continue work in the horrible heat .
    In time of drought prepare for gully scouring downpours .

    The living tool of choice for this project is a Chinese tree , Populus yunnanensis , because it has features unknown in any Australian native plant .
    -Can be pole planted .
    -Can be planted as log raft .
    -Can be coppiced and made into living fascines and brush mattresses .
    -Devotes almost all its photsynthesis to putting on biomass , not feeding bugs. Astonishing MAI .
    -Produces heavy shade to suppress blackberries .
    -Very early balsam flow for bees .
    -Stands waterlogged site .
    -Stands droughty site .
    -Responds to management of physiological aging .
    – Mycorrhizal with marketable fruiting bodies .
    -Produces excellent Ramial resource .
    -Frost proof.

    If Dana or anyone else can provide me with a native tree which has these specs I will happily plant 50 acres of them .

    Meantime , kindly don’t disrespect people who know what they are doing and have the guts to go out on stinking hot days to fix a broken landscape .



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