North Australian Savanna Fire and Carbon Forum – Outline

Feb 27-28, 2018. Darwin, NT, Australia.

The Darwin Centre for Bushfire Research, together with the Northern Territory and Australian governments, the Indigenous Land Corporation and ALFA (NT) Ltd – Arnhem Land Fire Abatement, organised the first national Savanna Fire and Carbon forum, focused on supporting operational best-practice in fire management and the cohesive development of the Savanna Fire and Carbon industry.

The Forum was kindly opened by the Hon. Lauren Moss MLA, NT Environment Minister; traditional owner Donna Jackson welcomed us to Larrakia country. An introduction and history to the Savanna Burning program were provided by two of the industry’s oldest members Dean Yibarbuk and Prof. Jeremy Russell-Smith. Paul Josif from Savvy Community Development Consultants seamlessly facilitated the forum.

Best Practice in Fire Management
The morning commenced with a set of short presentations from a range of representatives from Savanna Burning projects. They were each asked to provide an overview of the project (location, area and costs), the pre-project fire regime, how it has improved,  describe their challenges in planning and implementing their fire regimes, offer some solutions, define fire management Best Practice, and outline their future aspirations.

Many Savanna Burning projects have been successful in terms of changing fire regimes; NAFI mapping is illustrative of this right across north Australia. Consequently, many projects have reduced their emissions and are earning enough Australian Carbon Credit Units to pay for their programs. The vast majority of projects and therefore presentations occur on Indigenous owned and managed land. Only one project on Pastoral land was able to present at the forum. Representatives from WA and NT National Park agencies, also with Savanna Burning projects, attended.

The presentations – “five-slides-in-five-minutes” – included:
Warddeken Land Management Ltd  NT
Ban Ban Springs Pastoral  NT
Thamarrurr Ranger Group [Western Top End] NT
Jawoyn Association NT
Nitmiluk NP  NT
Kimberley Land Council  WA
Parks  BDCA WA
Australian Wildlife Conservancy  WA
Wunambal Gaambera WA
Natural Carbon Qld
Arukun Qld

Summary
The 10 project areas range in area from 3,000 to 28,000 km, and spend between $15 to $40 per km2. The most common challenges the groups stated they faced are:
– increased fuel loads, due to improved fire management, in highly fire-prone landscapes;
– affording and developing the capacity to suppress higher intensity wildfires;
– the low population, large areas and limited access (except, expensively, via chopper);
– having consistent funds to implement the programs;
– developing enough capacity and large enough teams to do the work;
– effectively monitoring and evaluating the effects of the new fire regimes;
– getting hung up on Carbon and not using traditional knowledge or good science;
– on non-Aboriginal land, competing land uses with different management requirements;
– and in WA, Uncertain or restrictive State Government Policy around Climate Change, Carbon Taxing, and Carbon Rights.

Some Solutions to the challenges were given:
– Traditional Owners need to be consulted and in control;
– on non-Aboriginal land, need more communication between stakeholders;
– need to engage both traditional and new knowledge systems;
– apply for funding through multiple streams;
– progressively acquire assets, build capacity and teams;
– improve access through building new ranger bases;
– on Park, developing and adhering to a Conservation Strategy;
– on Pastoral Lands, better communication between the various land use stakeholders;
– improve communications to develop more regionalised strategies;
– better inform the public of the importance of the Right Way Fire.

Each of the groups provided some key points to define Best Practice:
– Right Way Fire – Proper and informed Traditional Owner consultation and ownership;
– Shift regimes from late to early dry season burning, to reduce fire intensity, increase fire patchiness, and reduce habitat impact;
– reduce the total area burnt, to increase area longer unburnt;
– improve and maintain capacity and resources;
– monitor and evaluate the impacts of the change in fire regime on biodiversity.

Finally, each of the groups provided a list of aspirations for the industry:
– More Rangers, with appropriate knowledge, training, skills, and resources;
– Improved technical information to monitor fires and receive information remotely;
– Good two-way consultation, between Rangers and Traditional Owners;
– Long-term sustainability of Rangers and funding;
– Two-way monitoring and evaluation techniques to inform the fire management;
– Better leadership on Carbon Rights.

After the presentation, the forum broke-out into groups of approximately 10, and were asked to respond to some questions. A new on-line tool was used (Groupmap) that enabled a “scribe” at each table access to a group database, that was also projected onto screens in the room. The table scribes posted their group’s responses onto Groupmap, therefore allowing everyone to see all the responses in real time. At the end of the session, each of the groups then assessed the whole list of responses and could “like” them if they felt they supported the idea, thus weighting some responses and re-ordering the list. The moderator then summarised the responses at the end of the session.

The first session question related to the group’s assessment of the common challenges for projects to be successful:
The most common response related to “not getting hung up on Carbon”, but instead to do what Traditional Owners and stakeholders thought was best for Healthy Country.
This then follows on to the second most popular response which identifies the necessity for the use of Traditional Knowledge. Ongoing support for the online fire mapping tool NAFI (North Australia Fire Information), and its enhancement, was highly ranked, then public perceptions of the industry, and a capacity to monitor and evaluate the effects of the improved fire management.

The second question asked the group to describe what they thought were the most realistic outcomes, in terms of best practice:
The overwhelmingly most common responses related to getting Traditional Owners, young and old, back on to country and making them happy, and employing them. Measuring success, but also from an Indigenous perspective, was important. Also highly ranked were good regional communications including roadside signage, biodiversity conservation, and sustainability of the industry.

The summaries from the Groupmap sessions and the ideas from the presentations aligned very well and provided a common understanding for the participants for the rest of the forum.

Current and future method development
The Clean Energy Regulator provided an overview of its approach to administering the savanna methods and its focus on working with clients to ensure successful projects and compliance with all regulatory and contractual obligations.

The issues discussed with workshop participants included:

– Emissions Reduction Fund scheme overview and its design;
– Registration, reporting and crediting requirements of ERF projects;
– Risk assessment and management for the savanna burning projects;
– Compliance and enforcement priorities for the savanna burning projects;
– The current state of registered savanna burning projects.
There were questions about the future of the scheme and if any further funding will be made available.
The Department of the Environment and Energy provided an overview of the current draft savanna methods, some of the complexities involved in transferring projects to the new methods when they are made, and the basis for abatement calculations which underpin the methods.

Issues raised by participants included:

Questions about the potential future demand for ACCUs and further government funding for the Emissions Reduction Fund.
The Department explained that funding decisions are a matter for Government through the regular budget process, but that there are a range of policy developments taking place which could have an impact on future demand. These include reviews of the safeguard mechanism, the role of international trading in carbon credits which the Government has said it will consider, as well as the detailed design of the National Energy Guarantee and the potential role of offsets in helping entities meet their emissions obligations under the Guarantee.

Concern about having to make changes to project management plans when conditions change through the course of a fire season.
The Department explained that it was not a requirement to update a project management plan. Only when submitting an offsets report would a project need to explain why a project management plan may not have been followed, provide when any revisions or updates were made and why something different was done.

Concern about the business uncertainty that comes with potential future changes to subsidiary material.
The Department explained that all methods rely to some extent on potential changes to subsidiary material. Given the ongoing research in this space, the Department has put in place a means through which the draft determinations can incorporate research outcomes that involve revising existing parameters. Outcomes outside of this scope will require either a variation or developing a new determination.

Concern about having to deal with gamba grass and not being able to bring an area back into a project once it has been removed.
The Department explained that the option to permanently remove gamba grass from a project area is consistent with state and territory laws, and not introducing additional management requirements. As the method calculations do not work with areas containing weeds, projects would not be allowed to keep these areas in a project if they were unable to permanently remove the infestation.

Savanna science roadmap
The Department of the Environment and Energy provided a brief introduction to the proposed savanna methods science roadmap. There was general interest from the audience in proceeding with the concept, with questions around timing and potential content.
Panel presentations were provided by Drs Andrew Edwards, Peter Whitehead, Natalie Rossitor-Rachor, Garry Cook and Shaun Levick and covered:
– fire severity mapping as a potential alternative to the use of fixed dates for the start and end of the late dry season;
– the data analysis being undertaken to inform the potential inclusion of live biomass sequestration;
– potential remote sensing detection of gamba grass;
– further fieldwork and analysis on dead organic matter including the standing dead wood in addition to the lying dead wood; and
-the use of LIDAR technology to calibrate satellite estimates of landscape biomass change.

The discussion emphasised the importance of transparent and consistent data management and identified future data collection arrangements being captured in the roadmap.

Group map sessions were run to identify participants’ views on the current knowledge gaps in the methods and areas of uncertainty there may be value in the Department addressing, as well as some of the key principles for collaboration between researchers and projects.

Opportunities within the broader policy context
The Department of the Environment and Energy addressed the broader policy framework as it relates to the savanna carbon industry during the ‘Industry Development’ panel.
Topics that were covered included:
– outcomes of the 2017 Review of climate change policies;
– the Carbon Market Institute’s Carbon Farming Roadmap; and
– the Indigenous Carbon Industry Roadmap.
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