180,000 Hectares Saved and a Remarkable Step for Conservation

Conserving tradition and nature in northern Australia's Fish River Station.

Light It Up

Learn how fire is improving lives and saving nature at Fish River Station.

Science, Fire and People in Fish River Station

Traditional land management practices in Northern Australia have included burning the landscape to replenish the land and reduce the chance of devastating wildfire.


“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: 

  • Employment: 24 Indigenous Australians have been employed on Fish River Station, including 3 full-time Rangers, 13 part-time employees and 8 contractors.
  • Fire Management: Fires are an integral part of northern Australia’s savannas, shaping and renewing the landscape. Aerial and on-the-ground burning methods to create small, controlled burns provide a powerful tool for reducing the likelihood of larger, more intense wildfires. Early dry season fire management across Fish River Station has been an enormous success, with 41 percent prescriptively burnt in 2011 and 49 percent in 2012. Importantly, wildfires in the late dry season in 2011 were reduced to less than 2%, far less than the 16-66% in previous years.
  • Fire Abatement Carbon Project: The effective fire management completed in 2011 and 2012 has paved the way for the development of a Fire Abatement Carbon Project under the Carbon Farming Initiative (CFI). Fish River Station, through the Indigenous Land Corporation (ILC), is the first approved fire abatement project under the CFI and is likely to produce 20,000 CFI carbon credits per year.
  • Biodiversity: A total of 60 sites have been surveyed using the standard Northern Territory Biodiversity Surveys. Fish River Station is home to 21 of the Northern Territory’s listed threatened species including the Northern Quoll, Gouldian Finch, Emu and the Northern Masked Owl.
  • Feral Animal Management: Significant feral animal control has occurred, especially with larger species such as buffalo, cattle, horses, donkeys and pigs.
  • Ranger Station: A new Ranger Station is currently being established at the old Fish River homestead including: five large tent-style areas for accommodation; three communal washing blocks; a new large workshop and vehicle storage shed; a 30kw solar hybrid power system; and refurbishment of the existing airstrip.
  • Establishment of an Indigenous Advisory Group: An Indigenous Advisory Group (IAG) has been established to engage and involve the Traditional Owners (Larbarganyin, Wagiman, Malak Malak and Kamu representatives) in the management and ultimate return of the property. Three IAG meetings have been held to date to inform the management of the property.
  • Plan of Management: A comprehensive Plan of Management has been completed for the property using the Conservation Action Planning process to ensure effective consultation with the Traditional Owners. 

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.”

Go Fish 

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. 

Restoring Connections

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 Crucial Place at a Crucial Time

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.

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