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50 year old mystery – did man-made fire change the landscape of grass plains in west Tasmania?

Posted August 1, 2018

People love mysteries, therefore it is good we have so many – we will never lack a good mystery to solve. For example, the iconic button grass plains of south west Tasmania, occupying much of the World Heritage Area, are surrounded by a half a century old mystery. Scientists just cannot agree if these landscapes naturally evolve or are created by fire management practices.

Button Grass plains were probably formed by natural processes and man-made fires. Image credit: Davidjones2758 via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The iconic button grass plains situated across western Tasmania has been the centre of enthusiastic scientific conversation in Tasmania since 1968, when Professor of Botany WD Jackson published a paper about how fire is forming these landscapes. The subject was fascinating and attracted a fair share of scientific attention. Jackson had very progressive ideas about fire ecology. He believed that the landscape in the area was formed by the balance between treeless or forested zones, created through fire regimes used by the indigenous people. This paper was hugely successful both in Australia and globally. It showed how plants can influence fire and how fire can shape the landscape and how it is all cultural, because these fires are not natural.

However, as you may imagine, not everyone bought into Jackson’s ideas. For some they sounded too extreme and not based on a significant number of observable factors. Jackson even floated an idea that landscapes could exist in alternative states depending on fire. Previously, scientists thought that landscapes depend of vegetation and wildfires cannot really have a significant impact on plant patterns. Some scientists are still holding that belief ant the origin of the origin of the iconic button grass plains of south west Tasmania remains a mystery. But how can we know how much of it is natural and how much is cultural?

Professor David Bowman from University of Tasmania is looking into Jackson’s work again, to see what kind of evidence could support one or another hypothesis. He firmly believes that the truth is somewhere in the middle – some part of that landscape are natural and some are cultural. He said: “There are some excellent examples of trees invading the margins of treeless plains, but there is also clear evidence that vegetation patterns have been remarkably stable of 100s, and is some cases 1000s, of years reflecting underlying geological controls”.

Scientists hope that understanding the relationship between fire and landscapes could help improving wild land fire fighting techniques. Further studies could also help securing the legacy of Tasmanian Aboriginal people and their practices towards fire management. But will we ever know for certain what created those amazing landscapes in the south west Tasmania?


Source: University of Tasmania

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