Bringing traditional Aboriginal fire practices back to NSW State Forests

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Forestry Corporation of NSW’s John Shipp, Aboriginal Partnerships Leader, and Justin Black, Strategic Projects Leader, are working together with Aboriginal communities to bring traditional Aboriginal fire practices to NSW State Forests. Tony Dodson, a Garby Elder, was involved in a project last year, and here all three discuss the outcomes and future plans for this unique yet long-established approach to managing our forests.

Justin, can you tell us a little about why Forestry Corporation is interested in traditional Aboriginal burning practices?  

Our forests were fashioned by how Aboriginal people managed the land, and frequent, low intensity fire was an important part of this management. It’s only natural that we look at traditional Aboriginal burning practices to guide how we can better manage our NSW State Forests today. Hazard reduction through proactive/managed fires or burns is an important tool for reducing the risk of wildfire and more importantly, is critical in maintaining the health of the forest when used in the right way.

John, why is it important for Aboriginal people to be involved in fire management in State Forests? 

Our team works closely with Aboriginal communities across the state, particularly with cultural heritage. More and more we are focused on helping communities return to the bush and returning the bush to communities. For Aboriginal people, there is an intrinsic connection between people and country; it’s part of who we are. Using traditional fire knowledge and techniques to care for country is an important part of maintaining this connection. Not only that, having our people sharing and caring for country creates wellbeing within our community – this is really important for community pride, health and success.

Justin, tell us what’s been achieved to date.

We have carried out a few burns with local Aboriginal Communities, where we have all gained insights into future possibilities of this approach.

Last year we carried out a burn at Arrawarra, just north of Woolgoolga, with the Coffs Harbour and District Local Aboriginal Land Council and local community members, in an area that hadn’t experienced fire for some time. Every managed burn in State Forest requires a plan, which Forestry Corporation completed before bringing all parties together. It really was wonderful to see local Elders, Aunties and Uncles getting involved with some younger members of the community and Forestry staff.

Our staff continued the burn with Land Council staff for a few weeks, working on over 1,000 hectares. For me personally, one of the most fantastic aspects of this project was watching the Aunties getting involved with and embrace modern techniques for measuring fuel moisture, while also sharing their knowledge on when to burn. It was the old and the new ways coming together and a pleasure to watch.

Tony, you were involved with the burn at Arrawarra; how important was it?  

This burn was extremely important, as it taught the different methods of looking after country between today and yesterday’s societies. It will hopefully bring a better outcome to managing the bush using traditional and European ways. It’s important that we all work together to ensure that the bush is maintained as it was in the past, using fire to look after country and the animals. When wildfire comes through, you can see firsthand the impact that it has on our animals.

John, you talked about healthy forests. How does fire improve the health of forests?  

Regular cool burns were a normal part of managing country by Aboriginal people, so forests traditionally had a more open understory and denser canopy – the reverse of what we see today. Victor Steffensen, a leading Indigenous fire practitioner, talks about how our forests have become upside down forests, where the canopy becomes sparse as the forest understory thickens up due to a lack of fire.

You can see it happening across the country, as our fire regimes have changed, and the forests are becoming filled with sick trees. Regular cool burns are the key to fixing this problem. Reinstating traditional burning practices will open up country for cultural purposes and restore that traditional forest structure.

Justin, how will Forestry Corporation continue this program?

We are slowly building our program across the state and are planning a number of joint burns this year. It is important that we build on recent success, so we are planning to introduce a research element to the program, to demonstrate how the health of the forest is improving with regular cool burns.

Getting the community involved with the program takes time, and our Aboriginal Partnerships team is doing great work with the community, building capacity and getting them involved. I reckon in a couple of years we will be in a place where burning with local Aboriginal communities becomes routine practice. What a great place for us to be.

Thanks to Justin Black and John Shipp (Forestry Corporation of NSW) and Tony Dodson, Garby Elder, for this interview. 

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