When it rains in the Gayini wetlands, the dirt road is treacherous; driving is like skating on ice. But the land managers of the nearly 88,000 hectare property in southwestern New South Wales are used to it and deftly navigate their off-road four-wheel drives over the vast floodplains while checking the water channels. water, pest control and general maintenance. of the property.
Storms are common in the region, as are floods and droughts. The tough conditions aren’t for everyone, but for Nari Nari man Jamie Woods and Ngiyampaa man Mark Schneider, managing the property is the best job there is.
It has only been three years since the area was returned to its traditional custodians, the Nari Nari Tribal Council, for management. But it’s already teeming with birds, kangaroos, emus and snakes as its keepers work hard to protect the area’s past, present and future.
As he stands in his favorite spot on the property – a bridge under which proliferate yabbies and fish, overlooking a marshland of ibis – council lands manager Mr Woods says he has the fortunate to have the task of taking care of his country.
Water flowing under the bridge will infiltrate the rest of the property, bringing wildlife back to areas damaged by cattle grazing over many years.
“I couldn’t see myself doing anything else,” says Woods. “Land management is about doing the right thing and creating the right environment and everything takes care of itself.”
Eight years ago, the state and federal governments purchased 19 properties and their water extraction rights in the lower Murrumbidgee Valley. In 2017, the government issued a tender for the merged property, seeking custodians to ensure its continued management. A consortium involving The Nature Conservancy, the Nari Nari Tribal Council and others won the deal in 2018, and a year later the traditional owners received legal ownership of Gayini, which is the Nari Nari word for the water.
Since then, the new custodians of the private lands conservation area have been working to restore the land to its original state.
Gayini offers a unique management approach in that it is a private land conservation area with signed conservation covenants, which is a signed agreement between the Nari Nari Tribal Council and the NSW Government. The agreement outlines how the property will be used and informs land and water management plans.
The state and federal governments continue to provide support to the property, including advice on managing hydrological issues.
This approach means that Gayini does not report to a public body, such as the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, as is the case with national parks or nature reserves.
The Nature Conservancy Australia’s conservation director, James Fitzsimons, said there are many conservation approaches used across Australia, and the best approach depends on the needs of the land, such as its Aboriginal heritage or the type of landscape.
Gayini was one of Australia’s largest wetland restoration projects. Dr Fitzsimons said that while there were a significant number of Indigenous Protected Areas in central and northern Australia, there were few in the eastern and southern parts of the country.
“Buying back land for First Nations people is the only way to get land back into the system,” he said. “It is very important to protect natural assets and cultural assets,” he said.
“Gayini is unique in so many ways… [This type of agreement] could be replicated in other parts of the Murray Darling. We have never restored wetland types of this magnitude.
National Parks Association executive office Gary Dunnett said while the public agency’s approach offered safer long-term conservation efforts with scientific expertise, those from other environmental groups also played a vital role. .
“We are completely open to any mechanism that sees the land protected,” he said.
He added that the key to good land management, regardless of the governance approach used, was to ensure that endangered species were monitored and that basic infrastructure, including appropriate mitigation of fires, was in place.
Mr Dunnett said most of the national parks were on land that had not been fertile enough for agricultural purposes, so land conserved in fertile areas was unique.
“There is absolutely a place for public agencies or private organizations to look for places that are in the heart of these high fertility soils and high rainfall areas because they actually punch above their weight,” he said. -he declares.
“Their value in the landscape is very high and they are not well represented in the reserve system. There is a fantastic opportunity to regenerate these places as they will potentially support greater biodiversity, including breeding sites for more diverse species.
Gayini also relies on the efforts of scientists who monitor the various ecosystems in and around the property, including monitoring fluctuating bird populations and recently rediscovered species of gray snakes.
Mr Schneider, who is also a member of the Nari Nari Tribal Council and one of the property’s land managers, grew up in and around Gayini. He said one of the main successes of the project has been the close working relationship with scientists, combining local knowledge with Western science.
“Any data they get, we get too. There are definitely opportunities to learn from people – there’s a lot of knowledge out there,” he said. make it work, and we’ll make it work.”
After working for national parks for more than a decade, Mr Schneider said it was rewarding to return to his country and protect it. Although he said it’s easy to get lost in the beauty of Gayini, there’s more to it than the wetlands.
“We still have a culture and a heritage to protect there,” he said.
Nari Nari man Rene Woods, who also works for The Nature Conservatory, said he hoped the conservation approach taken at Gayini could be adopted elsewhere because of the benefits it offered not only to indigenous peoples , but also to the local community.
“It’s not a project for us – it’s our life and our story,” he said.
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