Cattle grazing, more park rangers: Nationals MP calls for 'more tools' in firefighting tool box

WRECKED: A ruined Torrington home months on from the town's devastating blaze. Picture: Andrew Messenger.
WRECKED: A ruined Torrington home months on from the town's devastating blaze. Picture: Andrew Messenger.

A Nationals MP is calling on his own government to allow cattle to graze national parks as a bushfire-fighting weapon, demanding a debate on adding tools to the fire mitigation toolbox.

In an interview with the Examiner, Upper Hunter MP Michael Johnsen also called on the state government to consider rehiring National Parks rangers laid off in the 2016-17 budget.

"I think we're better off spending money upfront, and probably less money upfront than what we spend on disaster recovery," he said.

The state lost 100 of its 300 park rangers due to a $121 million budget cut.

He agreed that extra up-front expenditure on park rangers "makes sense" given the enormous human and financial cost of bushfires.

"Whatever needs to happen in order to fill up the toolbox with more tools; a wider a variety of tools, we need the government to do that and make the appropriate amendments accordingly."

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The MP last week sponsored a motion to debate re-adopting a wide range of bushfire-fighting techniques in NSW including grazing "where appropriate", selective logging or thinning, cool burning among others.

The MP said many of last year's fires could have been prevented but for a "lock it and leave it" attitude and an ideological position against backburning in National Parks and Wildlife bureaucracy.

"When we look through the drought and see this situation where you've got farmers going broke and starving stock on one side of the fence and on the other side of the fence there's knee-high grass - that's just ridiculous," he said.

One of Wytaliba's oldest homes burns to the ground last year. Picture: David Pieters

One of Wytaliba's oldest homes burns to the ground last year. Picture: David Pieters

NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean last year completely ruled out using grazing cattle as fire prevention, an idea he called "ridiculous".

Nature Conservation Council CEO Chris Gambian agreed with that assessment.

"If cows could stop fires, why were so many south coast dairy farms hit so hard by the recent fires?

"The truth is, cows can't stop fires, but they can cause a host of other problems when left to wander through national parks. They trample native plants, increase erosion, collapse river banks and pollute streams.

"They also spread fast-growing and highly flammable weeds, increasing fire risk and out-competing native species.

"Calls to let cows roam in national parks is not supported by science and risks doing enormous harm.

"The fundamental purpose of a national park is to protect a special piece of landscape and native species. Where will it end? National Parks were created to keep the cows out."

The former dairy farmer Michael Johnsen said cattle would not necessarily cause extensive damage to National Parks.

If well-managed, he said, "you will probably, in my farming experience not notice anything other than less fuel on the forest floor.

"Oh sorry, you will probably come across a few cow pads as well."

Mr Johnsen said he expected government support for his motion when it comes before parliament.

Labor Shadow Minister for the Environment Kate Washington said she doubted it. She accused the government of a populist strategy of allowing National Party members to beat their chest outside parliament, but never committing to the policy inside.

"If the National party is serious about having logging in National Parks and grazing in National Parks and they want to keep talking about that in their communities well they should either have it debated or leave the coalition."

Labor has already called on the government to reverse cuts to National Parks staffing numbers, she said.

The Shadow Minister accused the government of leaving the service less able to carry out hazard reduction and maintenance work "because Michael Johnsen and Adam Marshall's government sacked or demoted more than 770 national parks staff."

A loss of often senior, experienced staff left the service less able to deal with the bushfire emergency - and shorthanded in efforts to promote ecological recovery, she said.

"I've spoken to scientists that no longer have jobs with National Parks, that lost their jobs under this government in the last few years, who are heartbroken at not only what has happened but that they're not on deck trying to try and save some of the losses that we are seeing.

"The risk is if we don't have proper management of feral animals in National Parks than we are going to see extinction of species."