Open letter to Dr Tim Flannery

Ever since he watched the ABC TV series ‘Two Men in a Tinny’, in which celebrated scientist and author Dr Tim Flannery and comedian John Doyle advocated for nation-wide willow eradication, Peter Marshall has been trying persistently to contact  Dr Flannery to canvass an alternative approach.

Recently, Peter was delighted to receive a reply from Dr Flannery along with a request for further information. Dr Flannery said he’d be interested to learn about Peter’s work and asked if the willows are ever removed after they’ve done their job holding banks together.

Peter CC’d me into his reply and invited me to respond with an outline of what Non-Nativist Landcare is about and what we’re hoping to achieve. After some encouragement, I’m posting my response here for others to consider. We’re yet to receive further correspondence from Dr Flannery who is undoubtedly a very busy individual, but we live in hope he has read what we sent, and will consider it.

What follows is a simple cut and paste of my email, sent to Dr Flannery and Peter Marshall. I know it’s lengthy and might be a bit heavy, but I wasn’t going to waste time on small talk.

Thanks for your kind introduction Peter. Sorry to be so slow to respond, I have had a number of pressing tasks to complete recently.

Dr Flannery, I’m very grateful for the opportunity to write to you. Peter has asked that I outline our thinking and operations (quite a task). I will try to keep what I have to say relatively brief, though this will be difficult.

My educational background is a Bachelor’s degree in ‘Ecological Agriculture’ from CSU. I have since completed a B.Sci(Hons) year looking at natural repair processes within incised swampy meadows. I’m currently pursuing further study at ANU in biological anthropology.​ ​In approaching agriculture from an ecological perspective​ we learn to take a functional approach to agroecosystems and to ourselves (as humans) and our place in this biosphere. It’s odd, but for many people, the word ‘ecological’ simply means ‘natural’; ​so ​agriculture and humans are ​believed to exist somehow​ ​outside of, or beyond, ecological processes. This is clearly not the reality of our situation ​here ​on Earth, as you have expertly documented​​ (several times).

As with ​the ​Aboriginal management ​that came ​before it, there has been an ecological response to the imposition of European agriculture and species​ in Australia​. And​,​ as with Aboriginal management, this response is effectively a ‘weed’ response. Where Aboriginals eventually provoked fire tolerant species such as eucalypts, Europeans have stimulated the dominance of many species tolerant of​ an​ exotic megafauna (especially cattle and sheep). Weeds, such as Salix are part of a natural response to the presence of these herbivores because they are evolutionarily-adapted to cope with herbivorous megafauna. In many landscapes in southeastern Australia these weeds are actually the only things performing productive ecological functions (as primary producers, as habitat, etc..).

Many of these ​’​weeds​’​ are sucessional species (crack willows especially), however, they will n​ever ‘self-extinguish’ and ​lead to the reinstatement of a “pristine” pre-European continent. Further, they cannot be expected to provide for the emergence of native riparian forests where no​ native​ seed-stock exists. In areas where natives do regenerate however, the ongoing presence of willows as stabilisers and ‘nurse’ species will contribute to ecological resilience for a long time to come​ (I hope)​. In short, they need never be completely eradicated because they perform a beneficial ecological function. Where they seem to dominate, it is often the removal of previous diversity that allows this to occur. Essentially, it is not the presence of the willows that lowers diversity, but the lack of ​overstorey diversity that allows the willows to dominate.

​I’m sure you’ll agree that g​iven ​inevitable ​resource depletion, we cannot expect to continue with our industrial modes of land management and farming ad infinitum. We will eventually be forced to adopt more biologically and ecologically based methods of interaction with the parts of the biosphere contained within agricultural landscapes. Peter’s work near Braidwood is a wonderful example of the kind of structural complexity and biodiversity that can occur within agricultural systems where a functional, ecological approach to agriculture is applied. Peter has a wealth of knowledge concerning practical techniques that land managers can use to increase the functionality of cultivated landscapes with very little financial input.​ I’m sure he would welcome a visit from you if you wished to see some of his results.​

There has long been a ‘movement’ of agriculturalists (here and internationally) that utilise ecological perspectives in their cultivation​,​ intending ​to ​work​ with ecological processes. Permaculture, no-till, cell-grazing, pasture-cropping and Natural Sequence Farming are all recent examples of agriculturalists observing natural functional responses and trying to work in harmony with them for productive benefit.

Landcare began as a community-based ecological-awareness-raising movement among farmers. It was largely a response to obvious failings in the industrial mode of agricultural production. Unfortunately, since the mid-nineties or so, Landcare has been increasingly professionalised and is now dominated by government and corporate requirements and dumbed-down to suit an urbanised mass market for ‘environmentalism’. The perspectives which dominate Landcare today are those of environmental science graduates and ‘Natural’ Ecologists. ​Usually, these perspectives are relatively unsophisticated in regard to human-ecological interactions—contrasting humans and nature as dualistic opposites; seeing human presence as intrinsically undesirable; and equating any species that arrived here post-1788 as inherently damaging to the environment because of its historical association with European humans. In short, these are ideological perspectives which lack the capacity to formulate land-management in a way which sees humanity acting as a component of an ecology.

These perspectives are implicit within the literature and extension activities of our NRM bureaucracies. They do not represent ecological perspectives in regard to land management; they have little (possibly nothing) to contribute in regard to ecological approaches to agriculture and to future human occupation of this continent. In this regard (being non-ecologically based), they are essentially unscientific and inherently misinformed. Unfortunately though, they are ​relatively well-funded. Right now, near to where Peter and I live, and throughout NSW and Victoria, riparian willows are being actively destroyed. The minor bureaucrats and contractors conducting this work have an incentive; they get paid to do it. Their apparent justification is an environmental benefit, but this is an environmentally-destructive activity in any agricultural landscape. It dampens what is a natural ecological response and tendency to structural complexity. This money could be better spent on beneficial landcare activities.

The purpose of Flood Creek Non-Nativist Landcare Group, is to help make explicit the nativist ideology within present conventional approaches to landcare. This is an important task ​because this ideology is leading to counterproductive approaches to environmentalism and directing the expenditure of public monies towards wasteful and detrimental programs. We hope to make it plain that the mere existence of concerned ‘Landcarers’ in the community does not automatically entail community support for destructive nativist programs.

Our online activities are intended to raise some thought and discussion around ‘Non-Nativist’ approaches to caring for the land. On-ground, we have two main activities: one is a demonstration of what we call “non-destructive re-vegetation” techniques (reintroducing natives and adding functional non-native species to a willow forest in a way that doesn’t require obliteration of the existing ecology); the other involves the establishment of an arboretum and farm-forestry demonstration on the Braidwood Common. The latter will demonstrate restorative approaches to degraded landscapes and ways to increase complexity, resilience and productivity in agriculture using various species.

One of the points I’d like to emphasise about our group and its activities is that we are happy to work to restore natives. We are not ​opposed to ​native species, we ​are opposed to ​nativism. We do not see ‘native-ness’ as a rational criteria to judge organisms, ecosystems or agroecosystems. We feel that unless a functional approach is taken, a great deal of damage and degradation will occur​ (again)​. In regard to willows​,​ we are presently witnessing a second wave of riparian deforestation. This cannot be a good thing. Replacing established gallery forests with a handful of native seedlings (or nothing as on Queanbeyan river, near Canberra) is a dramatic ecological step backwards.

In response to Peter contacting you about our activities, I feel obliged to provide a request or a suggestion for future action by you. I hope this is not presumptuous.

Given the influence that someone in your distinguished position can wield from time to time, it would be wonderful if you would consider the perspectives ​we are putting forward​ ​and​ (if you agree they represent a reasonable position) urge a reconsideration of existing policies ​through​ whatever forums you think appropriate​.​ We need a more nuanced view and approach to our ecological engagement, anything else is dogmatic ideology, not science. ​

​Thank you very much for your considered attention.

Regards, Ben​

12 responses to “Open letter to Dr Tim Flannery

  1. Wonderful Ben – not too longwinded at all – to the point and compelling.

  2. Great response Ben.

    One suggestion to anyone out there who finds themselves giving a willow elevator spiel: In the fourth paragraph where Ben briefly mentions the ecological benefits of the willow, I think it’s generally a good idea to add an additional sentence around this point regarding the hydro-geomorphic benefits they provide to the surrounding landscape and associated environmental systems. Otherwise the dogmatic autopilot response of “yeah, but if it was a native tree, ecologically it would be even better, that’s why we cut them down and re-plant” tends to predominate. The ‘weeds supporting landscape function’ argument (which Ben has obviously covered well in numerous articles on this site) is hard for anyone to shoot down without properly engaging their mind.

    Keep up the great work, Cam

    • Thanks Cam, another good point. I didn’t go near landscape hydrology or the mechanics of incision. I reckon it’d take me a few elevator rides in a row to get across all of the reasons why we need a new approach. There are so many!

  3. Dear Dr Flannery ,

    Just received the latest newsletter from The Climate Council .

    It advises us that your outfit has been briefing , strategising , advocating , talking , representing , communicating , headline -making , speaking , sharing expertise and changing conversations !

    Meanwhile our outfit has been labouring in the fields , sequestering thousands of tons of carbon , purifying hundreds of thousands of tons of water , creating habitat , saving genetic resources , contributing to the nations balance of trade and training real workers .

    We are worth a conversation too .

    You have our phone numbers .



  4. PM that’s tons of good; but bums on seats in universities dictate the terms of endearment. Their marketing underwrites ‘populist’ environmental science; delivering ‘science press’ to the hungry-for-informed-opinion punters. Honor rolls, project officer opinions and expert panels aside, you and your tribe and him, are creating a benchmark. Build it and they will come.


  5. After walking the creek at tarwyn park some ten years ago and witnessing for myself the succession process. Once the willows have recreated the conditions for casurinas to inhabit they return of their accord, growing strait out of the base of the willow .

    • Absolutely Dave. It’s plain enough for those with eyes to see. The evergreen casuarina eventually dominates deciduous willows. Where there’s no longer seed stock it doesn’t hurt to plant a few, but no need to destroy the existing riparian vegetation first!

  6. The good Professor Flannery s ‘ organisation keeps sending me press releases telling me what trouble the world is in and I should send them money .
    They regularly rail against people who promote untrue information .

    I keep replying that his untrue notions of the imperative need for a Willow War have been responsible for releasing 100s of thousands of tons of carbon into the atmosphere and that he should send us an apology ( or money would do , we could invest it more productively than he does ) .

    ACK Daves comment .
    The best weed free spot to grow she oaks is in log rafts made of willow , be it alive or dead .



  7. In May a group of international scientists will be convening in Braidwood to complete a book on the Willow War .

    Professor Tim Flannery , as a very vocal promoter of the war , will be quoted in the book .

    Seems fair that he be given a chance to be interviewed and explain his attitude . An invitation has been sent to him .

    Personally , I hope he accepts . And even more so that he recants and shows a more sophisticated understanding than he had ten years ago .
    If not , his reputation will take a big hit . That would be a pity , he is a fine scientist who usually speaks good sense .

    Any one else who wishes to be interviewed for the book , you know my number .


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s