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:
- 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,
- 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.”
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:
- Willows for gully erosion control in the Central Tablelands of NSW.
- Willows beyond Wetlands:Uses of Salix L. species for environmental projects.
- Tackling the Bank Erosion Problem: (Re-)Introduction of Willows on Riverbanks
- Poplars and willows for soil erosion control in New Zealand
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.
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).
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?