2015 an outback opportunity

WESTERN Australia’s most famous pastoralist is ‘Kings in Grass Castles’ Paddy Durack, who drove his herd from near where Canberra stands to the Kimberley.

Australia’s biggest was Sir Sydney Kidman, who controlled, owned, or held an interest in more than 150 stations, some as big as 40 million hectares, even bigger than the great America cattle baron Henry Miller, whose holdings peaked at over 5.5 million hectares.

“Miller could start at the Mexico border travelling by team to British Columbia and camp every night of the journey on his own land,” one writer said.

But industries don’t survive on their pasts, no matter how romantic.

This month marked the beginning of a new Federal Government focus on this historic industry with the release by its productivity commission of a report titled Pastoral Leases and Non-Pastoral land Use.

Not widely realised is that, quietly and with considerable consultation with pastoralists by State Labor and conservative governments, there’s been a gearing up for marked adjustments while Canberra’s bureaucrats belatedly turn their attention towards our ex-tensive rangelands.

Before considering some of the already planned changes, let’s look at some facts.

Nearly 340 million hectares of Australia – 44 per cent of the continent – is leasehold. This huge swath dwarfs most UN-member countries.

In total, 38 per cent of WA is pastoral leasehold, more than unallocated Crown Lands, which are a further 36 per cent.

Reserves form 15 per cent, private freehold 7 per cent and State forest and timber reserves 1 per cent.

Leasehold land is the largest single category, and that as much as anything makes what happens to it a significant issue.

But pastoral lands management has evolved over a 150-year period, so may be inappropriate for current needs.

WA has 548 pastoral leases with only 13 foreign owned; by Americans, South Africans, Finns, Japanese and Malaysians.

It’s therefore very much a locally owned as well as territorially diffuse industry.

The productivity commission has begun its review because under Australia’s National Competition Policy, adopted in 1995, all sectors will be progressively assessed.

Power generation, ports, government trading enterprises and others already have been, so the pastoral sector’s turn is coming.

But over and above efficiency and organisational considerations, several other demands confront pastoralists.

The first is growing city folk pressure to set aside greater amounts of range and other distant lands for conservation purposes.

Tourism, including access to coastal areas by recreational and other fishermen, campers and 4-wheel drivers are others, since some leases extend to shorelines.

Also not widely realised is that many pastoralists have begun diversifying holdings through activities other than stock – tropical fruits or horticultural endeavours and tourism facilities – and so are not solely pastoralists.

And private capital, like the several million dollars outlaid by Perth-based Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) so far on 1.3 million hectares Australia-wide for conservation, not pastoral purposes, requires consideration.

The AWC’s huge holdings – already equivalent to a fifth of Tasmania – will become significant tourism sanctuaries.

Moreover, government has signalled it’s unhappy outlaying more on administering leased lands than leasing fees return.

However, the biggest single challenge WA’s 550 or so pastoral families and pastoral companies face is the so-called ‘2015 rollover’.

In that year they’ll have leases extended, with new expiry dates from 2036 to 2064.

But many will face the prospect of significant lease modifications, mean-ing land – probably the best – will be taken from them to meet newly identified purposes.

Pastoralists have known of this for some time.

Labor Lands Minister Kay Hallahan in 1990 and Liberal Minister George Cash in 1994 said government wanted to acquire certain tracts for conservation purposes.

Lessees qualifying for renewal in 2015 will be told of intended exclusions before December 7 this year.

Thirteen leases and parts of 10 others have already been acquired with funds from the Federal Government’s National Reserve System Program, with WA as part of the Gascoyne Murchison Rangelands strategy of setting aside “a comprehensive, adequate and representative conservation reserve system representing the full range of landforms.”

These little-noticed acquisitions and planned changes need high-lighting, not least because WA’s well-funded and vocal eco-activists seem entirely ignorant of them.

As important as conservationist and tourism-oriented excisions may be for leasehold-ridden out-back WA, let’s not forget this region’s bottom line and other problems.

Air services in the State’s north west remain too costly, largely because there are too few users.

Vocal opposition from southern eco-activist threatens tourism projects like the $200 million Mauds Landing development near Coral Bay.

And let’s not forget all the years of Canberra’s inability to budge the United States, European Union and Japan to open their huge over-protected economies to disease-free and cheap Australian red meat.

Also not to be forgotten is that without the Paddy Duracks, Sydney Kidmans and all living pastoralists, we’d be without outback townships, shires, roads, airstrips, and maintained wind-mills.

Instead there’d be just ghost towns and ghost stations.

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