A Champion of the Outback
Luke Bayley helps to manage and conserve land, water, and wildlife on Western Australia’s Charles Darwin Reserve.
Australia’s Outback—the country’s vast, wild, beautiful heartland—is one of the few large-scale natural regions left on Earth. An area of stark contrasts, alternately lush and inhospitable, it supports people, jobs, and economies as well as a rich and biodiverse landscape filled with some of the world’s most unusual plants and animals.
Today, though, it is under threat. Across much of the Outback, there are fewer people managing the land than at any time in world history, which is causing problems such as the uncontrolled spread of feral animals, noxious weeds, and wildfires. This land needs people. It has been home to Indigenous Australians for more than 50,000 years; they have shaped and nurtured the landscape, and had their identity and culture shaped by it in return.
Pew works to conserve this critical region of the world and recently issued a report, My Country, Our Outback, that celebrates the relationship of people with the land by profiling those who live and work in the Outback, and are attempting to carry it safely into the future.
Second in a series
What was once a lonely, narrow dirt track wandering across one of Australia’s most fascinating environmental projects is now a wide, busy thoroughfare. Every few minutes, huge four-trailer freight trucks roar past, transporting iron ore from a neighboring mine to the nearest rail terminal.
This is Charles Darwin Reserve, a former sheep station located on the border between the wheat-growing and pastoral areas some 200 miles northeast of Perth in Western Australia. Bought with private money, the property is a veritable ark of native plants and animals, and is being rejuvenated in a way that would bring the great naturalist joy.
This jarring industrial road is not everyone’s idea of what conservation should look like, but it is welcome in the Outback. It’s a place where environmental projects often live side by side with mining, and conservationists make the best of it.
It’s a reality that Luke Bayley has no problem with on this isolated conservation reserve. He has been here more than four years with his wife, Fiona Stewart, who helps him manage the place, and their two children. Bayley has no desire to live anywhere else.
“This place is where I feel safe and inspired and needed,” Bayley says of Charles Darwin Reserve.
“I didn’t grow up in the Outback. I ended up here as my career evolved, and now it’s definitely my home.
“I love the landscape—the big sky, the weathered rocks and the harshness. The beauty when it all comes together is very inspiring, and resonates with who I am,” he says.
“I also find it’s an endless journey—I’m always discovering new things. And I like the challenge—there’s a lot of work to do out here across many spheres and sectors.”
Bush Heritage, which owns the reserve, is a not-for-profit organization that acquires and cares for Australian land and partners with Aboriginal people to manage areas of outstanding conservation value and protect the country’s biodiversity and natural landscapes. It owns 38 properties across Australia, encompassing almost 15 million acres.
The organization bought this property, also known as White Wells Station, in 2003, when it was a run-down pastoral area plagued by weeds, erosion, soil compaction, wildfires, and feral animals. Protecting the land was seen as a vital step toward conserving some of the last remaining stands of vegetation that were once widespread across southwestern Australia, as well as creating a strategic refuge for wildlife.
Since its transformation into a conservation reserve, the 168,000-acre property has been intensively managed and monitored to gradually restore its natural environment. Now that grazing pressure from livestock and feral animals has been removed, the results have been stunning, and are most evident in the amazing displays of wildflowers, establishment of a biological soil crust, and growth of widespread native grasses.
To make similar property purchases easier and more secure for organizations such as Bush Heritage, Bayley wants to see a reformed pastoral lease system—in which government land is rented with limited lessee property rights—that embraces the reality that some properties are no longer viable for livestock. Buying leasehold pastoral land can be a big problem, because conditions of the lease transfer with the sale and can require new owners to maintain livestock, clear timber, and even eliminate some native species.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty about tenure if you drill down into the detail of the existing pastoral lease system,” Bayley says. “Having a rangeland lease that recognizes and supports conservation and Aboriginal land management as legitimate activities would be a big step forward. We would like to know we could buy land and put long-term covenants on it; it would be great to provide that certainty for our donors.”
Bayley, along with Fiona Stewart (at left) and their two kids, has spent more than four years living and working at this reserve owned by Bush Heritage, a non-profit that acquires and protects biodiverse natural landscapes. "Our kids don't realize it yet," says Bayley, "but they're part of something pretty special: looking after this precious country."
Bayley’s views about mining in the region might seem out of character for a committed conservationist until one realizes that they are grounded in the real-world practicality required of any Outback land manager. As far as he’s concerned, mining in the neighboring Mount Gibson ranges is contributing to Charles Darwin Reserve’s success story. He believes that as long as it leaves environmentally and culturally sensitive areas alone, mining can be a good thing for the Outback in general because it brings in much-needed people, money, infrastructure, and skills.
As part of agreed-upon environmental offsets, two regional mine operators jointly fund the Gunduwa Regional Conservation Association, which brings together pastoralists, Traditional Owners (Aboriginal landowners, whose ancestors lived on and had rights to the land before European settlement), conservationists, miners, and local government officers to work on making this corner of the Outback a healthier place, regardless of property boundaries.
“There’s so much energy and synergy and positivity in this group,” says Bayley, who chairs the Gunduwa.
One mining company distributes grants to the community, and mine money is also funding the Gunduwa’s efforts with local groups to collaborate on regional biodiversity and land management.
Contributions from mine operators and local businesses also directly support Bush Heritage’s work at Charles Darwin Reserve, such as sponsoring the annual Blues for the Bush family festival and lending resources for firefighting.
The upgraded road has made life in such an isolated location more livable for Bayley’s family. It has improved access to the local school, which is 40 miles away, and also helps Stewart get to her other job as a mental health clinician. “That infrastructure enables us to enjoy living in this part of the world,” Bayley says.
Bayley grew up a long way from the Outback—in the Dandenong Ranges in outer Melbourne, among lyrebirds and a cool, temperate rainforest. He swapped all that for the heat and big horizons of the Outback when he moved to Western Australia to work on the reserve.
Bayley loves life in the bush, the autonomy that Bush Heritage gives him, and the opportunity his family has enjoyed living on the reserve. “Our kids don’t realize it yet, but they’re part of something pretty special: looking after this precious country,” he says. “The Outback gets under your skin, and you realize how much opportunity there is to do things differently and better.”
In the Outback, he feels that he is needed and that his contribution is valued. He particularly loves finding common ground among stakeholders and achieving results that benefit all.
“The Outback just needs to be reimagined,” he says. “We can’t do things the way they were done in the past. Being out here, it feels like we’re on the cusp of something. It’s like the frontier.”
The way Bayley sees it, wealth from the Outback through commodities such as wool and gold helped build modern Australia. Now the Outback is depleted and largely ignored but deserves to be nurtured and nursed back to health. “It needs our respect and ideas,” he says. “It’s a place we’ve still got lots to learn from.
“To keep the land healthy in this part of the world, we need to keep ensuring that there are large parcels of land not being pressured for production, whether that be for mining or grazing. We need reserves staggered around the Outback that create buffers and support habitat exclusively for the purpose of keeping nature healthy.”
Diverse arrays of flora and fauna populate the reserve, including some of the insect variety; the distinctive mound of dirt here denotes the entrance to a large nest of ants.
Although Charles Darwin Reserve lies on the northern edge of Western Australia’s wheat belt, most of it miraculously escaped being cleared. It was once earmarked for broad-scale clearing and grain growing but remained a pastoral property instead. The land’s myriad environments therefore remain intact, a reminder of the nature that once covered thousands of square miles of southwestern Australia but has long been lost to agriculture.
An important aspect of the reserve’s recovery has been simply “giving the land a rest” after decades of ranching so that nature can rejuvenate itself, moisture can once again penetrate the soil, and native plants can grow back. “That approach is working, and we’re seeing lots of response from native grasses, sandalwoods, and other species,” Bayley says. In fact, the environment on the reserve remains relatively natural and varied.
“Charles Darwin Reserve is a very diverse environment,” explains Bayley. “Bush Heritage purchased it for that reason. It’s got this interface between the southwest botanical region, which is a very rich floristic part of the world—it’s one of only two global biodiversity hot spots in Australia—and the semi-arid rangelands, where it’s dryer and you’re starting to get little patches of spinifex [a hardy grass].
“There are salt lakes in the middle of the reserve that have a unique vegetation community, and you’ve got patches of gum woodlands and granite outcrops. It’s a rich, biodiverse property.”
The size of the reserve—12 by 22 miles—means it can offer genuine protection for a diversity of habitats. According to the Bush Heritage website, it is recognized as one of the few remaining areas of bush in southwestern Australia large enough for ecosystems to function naturally if weeds and exotic predators are controlled, fire is kept out of thriving ecosystems, and drainage patterns are restored.
Bayley says this period of conservation and restoration for the Outback involves engaging meaningfully and over the long term with Indigenous Australians to learn from their land management knowledge, and supporting people moving back onto their traditional country and tending to it.
He has fostered a strong relationship with the Badimia people, the Traditional Owners of Charles Darwin Reserve. Bayley helps care for their gnamma waterholes (natural cavities that collect water and serve as reservoirs) in the rocks, and his favorite place is the Red Hand site, an initiation place for boys, where hand stencils have been painted onto the rock walls.
The Outback of the future will still contain mining and pastoralism, but those activities, along with conservation, “will be underpinned by respect for Traditional Owners and their knowledge, and this will help form exciting partnerships,” Bayley says. “We can do so much more if we work together.”
Samphire—a native, edible succulent that people find similar to salty asparagus—grows freely near the reserve's salt flats. The plant is just one of many pieces of the ecosystem—akin to a rich and varied tapestry—safeguarded at the Charles Darwin Reserve.
Despite all its environmental charms, the reserve is an ecological apocalypse because it has lost so many mid-size mammals to feral predators.
“The main land management challenges we’re facing are really around controlling feral animals,” Bayley says. “The big issue for us is the feral cat, which is a common threat throughout the Outback.”
Despite the present-day challenges, Bayley is optimistic that in five to 10 years, Bush Heritage will be in a position to begin reintroducing locally extinct mammals onto the reserve. He thinks the brush-tailed possum would be a good candidate to start with, then maybe the stick-nest rat, which is being bred behind predator-proof fences on a nearby reserve managed by another private environmental group, the Australian Wildlife Conservancy.
Although Bayley concedes that “regaining the mammals is going to be a long haul,” he’s pleased to say there have also been some big wins at the reserve. Goats and weeds are finally under control and are no longer having a significant impact on biodiversity. Native vegetation is being regenerated, the soil is stabilizing, and an ever-increasing number of resident bird species is recorded every year.
Volunteers—a crucial element of the reserve’s success—now need to weed only around the old livestock areas, front paddock, and wells. “After a decade, they’re nearly on top of the weeds,” says Bayley. “And we’re getting a healthy skin back on the soil.”
With hard-hoofed animals removed and “brush packing” (fallen shrubs lying on the ground) used to slow the flow of surface water, the soil’s healthy biological crust—held together by liverworts, lichens, and mosses—is once again in place. Bayley says stabilizing the soil in this way “means we’re keeping water on the reserve. It’s not rushing off, and this is reducing soil erosion and giving plants and grasses the chance to flourish.”
“It’s lovely seeing the grasses starting to spread out from under the shrubs and to see the foliage of shrubs like sandalwood starting to drape down to the ground,” he says.
Once harvested for their aromatic oil, mature sandalwood trees are now a common feature on the property. With the grazing pressure from feral goats and sheep removed, the sandalwoods are looking healthy. But few seedlings are sprouting, so Bayley gets visiting schoolchildren to help with an important activity once performed by one of the native animals now sadly absent from the reserve.
Burrowing bettongs used to collect the sandalwood nuts and bury them for future consumption, thus helping to spread and position them for germination. Students are now taking up this task, collecting the nuts and burying them in the hope that seedlings will return.
One of the most important summer jobs is monitoring and fighting fires to make sure they don’t spread into a destructive inferno. Too much of the reserve has been subjected to such blazes during the many years since the area’s earlier Indigenous inhabitants stopped conducting patterned mosaic burning, which can help keep larger fires at bay. Nowadays, the fires are too hot and frequent for threatened animals such as the malleefowl, which prefers bushland that hasn’t burned for 40 years to source the leaf litter its enormous egg-incubating mounds require.
Although fires and feral cats pose ongoing threats, Bayley’s greatest concern remains the need to tell people in Australia and overseas about the work being done by Bush Heritage and why conserving large tracts of the Outback and its biodiversity is so important.
“We can be doing the greatest work in the world out here in the Outback, but if other people don’t know and care about what we’re doing and why—well, you’d have to ask, ‘What’s the point?’” he says with a shrug. “We can do it to make ourselves feel good and for the good of the country, but the Outback is such a special place that it needs to remain relevant and connected with the whole of our society.”
His vision for the future of Charles Darwin Reserve, and the Outback generally, starts with getting more people out on the land to help manage it and share its stories far and wide. He wants more partnerships with Aboriginal custodians of the Outback, collaborative research projects, and visits from school groups.
“The Outback’s given Australians—and the world—so much,” he says, “and we have a responsibility to give it a great deal of our thought and effort in the future.”
Photography by Kerry Trapnell