February 2023


Flame wars

By Katherine Wilson
Illustration of bushfires
Michael-Shawn Fletcher’s claims that conservation measures create extreme bushfire conditions are dangerously informing government policy

At a weekend “Earth” forum at TarraWarra Museum of Art, an audience member asked a panel of scientists why they did their research. “To tell the truth,” answered Wiradjuri man Michael-Shawn Fletcher.

A professor of geography at the University of Melbourne, Fletcher frequently invokes truth in media appearances. Responding to my own questions, he answered: “My academic work tells the truth about Country and tackles harmful myths.”

But some First Nations knowledge-holders and scientists want Fletcher’s recent publications retracted. Fletcher calls their criticisms “the biggest clutch at straws I’ve ever witnessed”.

Charismatic and brawny, Fletcher – who argues that conservation law “creates the conditions in which climate-driven bushfires become megafires” – enjoys kaleidoscopic reach, holding audiences at WOMADelaide, submitting to bushfire inquiries, serving on cultural boards including McClelland gallery’s, and keynote speaking at forestry lobby forums. He has received hefty Australian Research Council grants and an award from the Australian Academy of Science, and is assistant dean (Indigenous) for the Faculty of Science at his university. When appointed to advise state pulp-log enterprise VicForests, Fletcher was commended by the government for providing “the Indigenous perspective” on forest management.

But Richard Swain, Indigenous ambassador for the Invasive Species Council, says Fletcher’s claims “make my teeth hurt”. “They’re offensive to me and to the landscape.” A Wiradjuri man, Swain rejects Fletcher’s assertion that catastrophic bushfires are caused by conservation.

This is a well-rehearsed doctrine among logging and grazing lobbyists, who understand forest biomass as “fuel load” for bushfires. But its lineage can also be traced to Marcia Langton’s famous 2012 Boyer Lectures, in which she argued that the idea of wild, untouched landscape is a racist proxy for terra nullius.

Ever since Roderick Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind (1967), ecologists have largely shunned the “untouched wilderness” idea. But Fletcher’s tweets suggest many conservationists and ecologists remain white and racist. In one, he wrote that the Wilderness Society, the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace “have blood on their hands – the blood of humans and non-humans alike”. In another: “wilderness zealots like you … are misanthropes and closet racists who deny our humanity in favour of bs arguments about ancient baselines”. In another: “non-Aboriginals have their petty political wars and environmental crusades at the expense of Aboriginal people choosing what is done on their country”.

Ecologists have been hesitant to refute Fletcher’s research lest they be “cancelled with racism slurs”, claims one critic. When I put this to Fletcher, he said my own questioning had “racist undertones”, adding: “I am not going to shy away from calling what I see through fear of fragile egos. Challenge me with data and logic.”

Last November, as summer approached, he co-authored an article in The Conversation claiming that Victoria’s Land Conservation Act 1970 “turned this ‘paradise on Earth’ into a tinderbox”. The article followed another in the journal Fire, which condemned “the curse of conservation”. Across bushfire-prone regions and beyond, these articles generated news reports and magazine features with the same anti-conservation messages. Fletcher’s team claimed their research showed that the devastating 2019–20 bushfires “blew out due to legislation introduced in the 1970s”, which “banned farmers from mimicking Aboriginal burning practices by using frequent fires to promote grass for livestock. As a result, the amount of flammable trees and shrubs exploded in the region. It was only after this prohibition on burning that catastrophic bushfires became an issue.” (The Conversation has since amended this quote.)

Yet the Act never prohibited burning, and graziers continue burning to this day, according to legal experts and state government ministries. Moreover, “catastrophic fires occurred well before lands in Gippsland were in the conservation estate – the 1939 fires perhaps being the most spectacular example,” confirms Bruce Lindsay, senior lawyer at Environmental Justice Australia. Following Fletcher’s articles, ANU modeller Chris Taylor plotted on a map government records of planned burns around Fletcher’s study site. Taylor’s research debunks the articles’ claims, showing extensive coverage and succession of planned burns across the region since the Act was introduced.

That parts of Australia have become woodier and more flammable since colonisation is uncontested. But a wide body of research shows this was caused by increased burning, not a lack of it. Fire ecologist Philip Zylstra, an adjunct associate professor at Curtin University, says planned burns result in a short period of low flammability, followed by a long period of high flammability while vegetation regenerates, before returning to indefinite low flammability as the mature forest “self-thins” and develops a moist mid-story.

Among scientists calling for retractions of Fletcher’s claims is fire ecologist Michael Feller, who is an associate professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia. He calls Fletcher’s research “absolute rubbish”. “It’s junk. These papers are false and wrong, a complete abuse of science. They take one swamp sample, they extrapolate to an entire region and they’ve come up with theories that are completely contradicted by science. There are no considerations of other studies; no analysis of human aspects contributing to bushfire; no analysis of logging operations in the region; no analysis of climate, the major cause of severe fires.”

These would be insider quarrels if not for the political agency of science. Shortly after his research was published, Fletcher was in Canberra being honoured by the Australian Academy of Science, and his anti-conservation warnings were published and broadcast in bushfire-prone regions and internationally. “These narratives get laundered up in the system until they become accepted science,” says Zylstra. Fletcher’s publications inform government bushfire policy and those of Aboriginal land agencies. And while Fletcher is supervising a new generation of graduate students, his “curse of conservation” narrative is built into their research.

Like Fletcher, grazier Ian Penna earned his doctorate in geography at the University of Melbourne. When he read the “curse of conservation” claims, he emailed Fletcher, curious about what part of the Act prohibited burning. Fletcher responded: “The quotes from the local land holders are sufficient for me – they state very clearly that the [Act] prohibited burning.”

The quotes Fletcher was referring to come from submissions to government, including from lobbyists. When I asked Fletcher about them, he said: “If you’re asking me to believe local landowners over legal experts retrospectively looking at [the Act], I will always go with the lived experience.”

“Lived experience” is a fashionable category of qualitative research, but it’s inconsistent with scientific rigour. Federation University Emeritus Professor Peter Gell, who offered a series of research papers (including his own charcoal sampling) that contradict Fletcher’s claims, says: “There are some who are willing to ignore other evidence to advance a particular narrative. The merging of science and advocacy risks diminishing the integrity of the great advances in our discipline.”

Fletcher’s critics tend to applaud his advocacy for returning land care to rightful custodians. They also accept the historical truth that traditional custodians are expert carers of Country, and that colonisation is a fundamental cause of bushfires. But there is a concern that some research misappropriates cultural knowledge.

A non-academic contributed to Fletcher’s research “on behalf of Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation” (located on land where the research took place). There is sound justification for including such authors in science research: First Nations people are this continent’s first scientists and their knowledge canon pre-dates invasion. But disputes over authority can complicate their knowledge-claims. Marjorie Thorpe, who sits on the Gunaikurnai Elders’ Council and is one of the Gunaikurnai corporation founders, says some Indigenous representatives are “ex-public service types who may identify as Aboriginal but who don’t always hold deep ancestral knowledge”.

This is a mounting concern among First Nations scholars. Suzanne Ingram, a Wiradjuri woman who is studying the rapid rise of Aboriginal self-identification, also worries about “race shifters”: people who identify as Aboriginal but don’t have a connection to Country, and who may be careerists who end up representing Indigenous organisations.

But Thorpe’s main concern is that Fletcher’s arguments, along with the detailed infographics used to support them, lend scientific credence to powerful lobbyist campaigns that run along the lines of: greenies are responsible for bushfires, graziers have been continuing age-old Aboriginal land practices, and forest thinning is on a par with traditional management.

Fletcher rejects this, accusing me of “trying to frame [him]as a shill for the forestry lobby”. He says he has “never been an advocate for logging or thinning”, and points out that he has criticised “narcissistic ideas of exploration and extraction”.

He likens his critics’ views to “the semantic crusades of the type waged against Dark Emu, attempts to bend the principles of Western science to deny the simplest interpretation of robust empirical data”. When Dark Emu author Bruce Pascoe depicted traditional Aboriginal societies as “advanced” farmers, he was accused of rehearsing a whitefella doctrine of social evolutionism. Ever magnanimous, Pascoe welcomed criticism. But Fletcher believes his critics “are saying one thing – don’t rock the boat blackfella be happy with the pittance we give you”.

Fletcher is awarded and professionally elevated, but his ascendancy has become his Achilles heel. When he was appointed to VicForests, First Nations activists accused the enterprise of “blak-cladding”, a practice of enlisting Indigenous Australians to gain social licence for commercial activities. Blak-cladding can also be used as a silencing tactic against critics who fear denouncing Indigenous knowledge.

When I summarised these arguments to Fletcher in emails, he responded that people were “cherry picking Aboriginal voices to fabricate disagreement or disharmony” and engaging in “false controversy or contradictions, and the perpetuation of the idea that Aboriginal people are deeply divided – because we are not allowed to hold or be capable of navigating differing views within our communities”.

He wrote: “It never ceases to amaze me, how far people will go to deny Aboriginal people their agency or to deny that their [own] efforts of conservation are actually damaging… these people develop convoluted explanations to prop up their own ideologies so that they do not have to face the truth.”

Katherine Wilson

Katherine Wilson is the author of Tinkering: Australians Reinvent DIY Culture. She has a PhD in cultural studies.

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