“This has been a remarkable step forward for conservation in Australia,” says Michael Looker, Director of the Conservancy’s Australia Program.
UPDATE: In 2010, The Nature Conservancy—working in tandem with Pew Environment Group, as well as the Indigenous Land Corporation (ILC) and the Australian Government’s National Reserve System—helped the ILC purchase Fish River Station.
Since then, the groundbreaking partnership has helped to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, protect biodiversity, provide Indigenous communities with cultural and livelihood benefits, and incentivize further conservation and effective land management throughout northern Australia.
Key achievements to date include:
The groundbreaking purchase of Fish River Station was recently announced in Australia at an on-site event with the Australian Government and Environment Minister, the Honorable Tony Burke. The event marked the first time that a conservation NGO in Australia has been involved in purchasing land that will be handed back to its Indigenous Traditional owners and managed for conservation.
"By working with partners, we've achieved a big win for nature conservation and a new model for reconnecting Indigenous people with their land," Burke said.
Fish River Station is a jaw-dropping, 180,000-hectare (or 700-square-mile) chunk of northern Australia. Situated alongside the mighty Daly River, the remote property’s savannas and rainforests are shared by sugar gliders and wallabies, kingfishers and eagles.
On this spectacular bit of land, where northern Australian ecosystems still function much as they have for thousands of years, we’ve forged a new partnership to protect nature.
The Conservancy, in tandem with Pew Environment Group, worked with the Indigenous Land Corporation (ILC) and the Australian Government’s National Reserve System to help the ILC purchase Fish River Station.
Now we're collaborating with the ILC — an organization established to help Indigenous Australians acquire and manage land for cultural and economic benefits — and the Northern Land Council to place that land in the hands of Indigenous people who will sustainably manage it. The ILC is committed to turning Fish River Station over to its Indigenous Traditional Owners so it can be managed with a focus on conservation outcomes, in addition to cultural and economic benefits.
“This is a real first for protected areas in Australia — a great alliance with new thinking about how to build long-term conservation in some of our most remote country,” National Reserve System scientist Tim Bond said.
“This has been a remarkable step forward for conservation in Australia,” Michael Looker, Director of the Conservancy’s Australia Program, said. “With Fish River Station, the Conservancy is helping to protect biodiversity, provide Indigenous communities with cultural and livelihood benefits and promote further conservation throughout northern Australia.”
Fish River Station was formerly a cattle ranch. But, the property’s isolation made developing the infrastructure necessary for ranching difficult, leaving a wide spectrum of ecosystems untouched. From savanna woodlands to rainforest to the Daly River’s floodplain wetlands, Fish River Station represents a comprehensive portfolio of northern Australia’s habitat types.
Varied habitat means varied wildlife, and Fish River Station shelters an astounding array of important species. These include nearly 400 plant species and at least four nationally threatened animals: the northern masked owl, the northern quoll, the freshwater sawfish and the Gouldian finch.
The Daly River is home to more freshwater turtle species than anywhere else in Australia. And the property also contains at least 19 species of mammals, including the northern brown bandicoot, agile wallaby, sugar glider and red-cheeked dunnart.
Indigenous people and the northern savannas are intricately connected. Much of the north is a complex mosaic of country traditionally managed by hundreds of Indigenous clans. But colonization left them dispossessed of their lands in the 19th and 20th centuries and interrupted natural patterns of environmental stewardship that had developed over 40,000 years. Fish River Station is an important step toward permanently protecting the relationship between Traditional Owners and nature in northern Australia.
The ILC is holding Fish River Station on behalf of the communities who were the Traditional Owners of this country before Western settlement. The ILC and the Conservancy are working with Traditional Owners to develop long-term, sustainable management plans for the property. The employment of Indigenous Rangers is critical to this work, with the Conservancy supporting training in land management and habitat restoration so that traditional knowledge and the best modern science are combined for lasting results.
The cultural, social, economic and environmental outcomes that will flow from the purchase of Fish River Station will not only benefit local Traditional Owners; they will also be important for all Australians, according to ILC chairperson Shirley McPherson.
“Certainly, Traditional Owners will be able to renew and strengthen their connection to country and Fish River can again become a teaching place for passing on cultural knowledge about land and lore to their children,” McPherson said. “Indigenous Rangers will be able to generate income through programs such as fencing, cultural site protection, weed eradication, plant and animal surveys, feral animal eradication, soil conservation, regeneration of threatened flora and fauna species and a host of other work to protect this ecosystem ‘ark’ for future generations of all Australians."
“The ILC is proud of its collaboration with the Conservancy and the National Reserve System, which has been so vital in acquiring this land and looks forward to future collaborations and opportunities in land acquisition and land management,“ McPherson said.
In a country — and region — facing significant threats from fire and grazing, Fish River Station is serving as a vital refuge. As an example, consider the endangered gouldian finch, whose populations have been splintered and pushed northward. Fish River is an important haven for the finch as it attempts to recover from the damage wrought by large wildfires and grazing pressure.
Fish River Station’s immense importance is bolstered by its ability to inspire further conservation. The property is making a huge contribution to Australia’s National Reserve System, which currently covers more than 13 percent of the country. Fish River Station is also likely to prompt declarations of new protected areas adjoining the station and result in a protected area network of nearly two million acres.
The purchase also augments the burgeoning Trans-Australia Eco-Link, a governmental effort to link more than 2,175 miles of protected areas from South Australia to the Arafura Sea in Australia's Northern Territory.
The Conservancy is deeply grateful to the 3M Foundation for its significant support of the Fish River acquisition, as well as to the many generous individuals who helped to make this ground-breaking conservation success possible.