There is looming environmental catastrophe growing in far north Australia. A "War on Weeds" is erupting and the enemy culprit is an introduced tree called the prickly acacia.

For most who visit this remote region of Australia, the appearance of the landscape would look green and lush from the air, with large swaths of green canopy meandering along water courses and peppering out in all directions across agricultural farmland, although this is by no means a good thing. Prickly acacia is destroying an enormous amount of the environment and affecting threatened native marsupial species such as the Julia Creek dunnart. It is spreading at an alarming rate.

Australia is well known as a biodiversity hotspot and susceptible to invasive species due to a fragile ecosystem. As with cane toads that were introduced without fully understanding the future ramifications, prickly acacia (PA) has become an introduced scourge that will require a major long-term strategy to eradicate and control.

A recent broadcast of the program ABC Landline, War on Weeds, should cause alarm to all Australians. The program covered the issue of PA well, although a narrow view of the eradication response was presented. Basically, the current response to this issue is a reactive one: kill everything with chemicals.

Reading between the lines, investigating the proposed methods and the promoted remediation proposal of PA, this “War on Weeds” and the “world’s largest weed eradication program” may well lead to the world’s largest environmental and future generation poisoning event.

The PA issue is by no means a recent problem.  It may be news to those living in metropolitan Australia, but not in the north where the outback Australians have been living with the issue for decades. PA has been on the radar of northern graziers, as well as local, state and federal government authorities for decades. For most Australians that are unaware of this devastating issue, PA may be a topic of household discussion, but we should be alarmed when learning the extensive overuse of chemicals in our environment that may lead to another cane toad type issue.

PA is a noxious weed and declared as a weed of national significance. It was introduced in Australia from the Indian sub-continent in the late 1800s.  In the 1920s, the Qld government advised graziers to utilize the species for shade and fodder for livestock. In the 1950s, the numbers of PA had exploded due to the 160,000 seeds produced by each plant every year. Today, the area of PA impact is astounding and arguably far outpaces the impact of cane toads, which were also thought to be a good idea at the time of introduction.

PA has spread from Queensland into New South Wales, the Northern Territory and has the potential to reach Western Australia. In Queensland, it is estimated to cost graziers $50,000,000 per annum.

Each prickly acacia produces over 160,000 seeds annually

The worst affected area identified in Queensland is the size of Victoria, and is slowly decimating the Mitchel Grass country which is the last of the free-range grazing countryside in Australia and arguably the last of the free-range grazing country in the world.

Scientists say PA causes erosion, reduces biodiversity, and cuts pasture growth.

The recent ABC Landline episode shows communitybased natural resources management group Desert Channels Queensland deploying herbicide over a 500 square kilometre area. Through a program where graziers pay 50 per cent of the herbicide cost, Desert Channels is facilitating large scale herbicide applications using advanced drones.

The drones apply a pelletised herbicide called Tebuthiuron in a controlled method that involves multiple operators. This highly water soluble herbicide has a great potential to contaminate ground water and has been banned in Europe since 2002.

The Queensland Government provides information on the eradication and control of PA, though most of the options are expensive and do not provide a revenue stream for the landholder. This leads to the inevitable cheapest approach of using herbicide chemicals for attempted control.

There must be an alternative that doesn’t cost individual farmers hundreds of thousands of dollars and the potential poisoning of the environment.

Carbon renewable energy provides one soluction, along with the potential to stimulate regional economy and turn an environmental disaster into a profitable long-term revenue stream that involves renewable energy production, global exports, regional jobs, sustainable agriculture and will stimulate the Australian economy.

CRE has researched PA for over 10 years and can turn the issue into a natural resource that can assist in reducing Australia’s carbon emissions. The CRE approach could be described as “green mining.”

The project involves clearing PA from within the current containment lines (Hughenden – Julia Creek – Winton) and transforming the resource into an economically viable product suitable for use as a carbon-neutral renewable energy resource for thermal power generation.

“Our proposal is revolutionary. We can take a biosecurity issue and turn it into a profitable natural resource,” said Brad Carswell, CEO of CRE. “Our project will stimulate the national economy, produce renewable energy, reinvigorate desolate regional areas and lead to improvement of land management through sustainable agriculture and forestry. Positioning Australia in the global Carbon Credit market while exporting a profitable manufactured wood pellet resource/industry throughout the globe.”

CRE has now completed initial technology testing and pre-feasibility studies for the development of the PA Project and has concluded a range of studies including developing extensive knowledge of the feedstock, its growth and propagation profile, harvesting and clearing issues, and its potential as a resource for development. The PA wood pellet has been identified to match the gross calorific value of thermal coal.

Key CRE milestones achieved and completed are:

  • Quantified biomass mapping
  • Produced a quantity of wood pellets and torrefied wood chips from a sample harvest
  • Analysed wood moisture, ash, volatile matter, net calorific value and BTU
  • Established Landowner and Right-of-Entry Agreements and frameworks
  • Conducted pre-feasibility study

Stage one of this project covers three main operational areas:

Mapping and Harvest Planning:

Prior to harvesting operations, a low altitude mapping operation will be conducted to determine resource size, spread and quantity prior to developing a harvesting plan to be agreed with landholders. Mapping will be conducted by small drones to build resource identification maps and 3D models.

Follow-up mapping will also be conducted three months after harvesting operations to ascertain clearance effectiveness, with further annual mapping of each target area conducted to identify regrowth and to provide landholders with valuable information for their control of regrowth. The importance of the regrowth mapping is to assist a break in the reproductive cycle of PA as seeds can remain viable for over 10 years. A team of UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) pilots will be deployed as part of a local training program.

Harvesting, Clearing and Integrated Forestry:

This element of the project is designed to clear and part process PA wood pellets on landholders’ sites and transport the raw material to a central processing facility to be built in Richmond (the centre of the containment area). A variety of harvesting techniques will be used including double chain pulling, stick raking and cutting. Removal of the trees is not a cloaked “clean forestry” spin.

This area of Australia was a prehistoric inland sea and developed into a grassland expanse, traversed by Australia’s first people for thousands of years. PA is an invasive forest. CRE intends to break the life cycle of PA through integrated forestry as part of their master plan to plant an impressive 20 million trees in the initial phase of development.

Pilot/Demonstration Pellet and Torrefaction Plant:

A processing facility to transform the PA feedstock (wood chips) into marketable wood pellets will be built at the facility in Richmond for managing approximately 50,000 tonnes of pellets in the first year. This facility will be used to develop products suitable for testing with major buyers for a range of coal powered power stations and for European domestic markets. Further expansion to a 500,000-tonne operation for commercial development will contribute to an established global market for wood pellets that was initiated by the first Canadian wood pellet export to Europe in 1985.

The main benefit of torrefied wood products is that they are more durable, lighter and suitable as a coal substitute without the need for further processing facilities being built at thermal coal power stations. It is expected that this product will be a potential resource for use as an alternative and direct substitute for coal in domestic thermal power stations currently in operation.

Surely the approach of CRE in mitigating the environmental disaster of Prickly Acacia is feasible. Turning a biosecurity issue into a profitable revenue stream that improves the Australian economy and specifically invigorates regional sectors is a good thing. The alternative – poisoning the environment at the cost of the landholders is not only expensive and time consuming, it may come at a cost to the environment and future generations.

It is a no-brainer turning a biosecurity issue into a sustainable natural resource is great. We must investigate all options on the table before we reactively turn to the chemical drum. The concept of green mining may lead to another boom that is truly innovative, good for Australia and beneficial to the health of our planet.