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Land use

Geographically, land use in the Basin is dominated by grazing (82%), since most freehold is also grazed, with conservation a distant second (11%). However, the most economically significant industry is mining, especially that involving oil and gas. The tourism sector is increasing rapidly. Although covering only a small area, infrastructure development associated with mining, towns and tourism ventures, is becoming an important consideration in land use planning.

Cattle in the Channel country. Photo: A Emmott

Much of the land tenure in the Lake Eyre Basin is pastoral leasehold (71%), with only 12% being freehold. Parks and reserves cover about 10%, but some land under other tenure is also managed for conservation. Crown land covers about 5% and Aboriginal land makes up about 2%.

Aboriginal Lands

Although the amount of Aboriginal-owned land in the Lake Eyre Basin is relatively small, significant areas are managed and used by Aboriginal people.

In South Australia, land holdings under Aboriginal management or co-management include Nantawarrina and Mount Willoughby Indigenous Protected Areas, Witjira National Park, Vulkathunha-Gammon Ranges National Park, Kati Thanda - Lake Eyre Basin National Park, Strzelecki Regional Reserve, Coongie Lakes National Park, Flinders Ranges National Park, Finniss Springs, Leigh Creek Station, Myrtle Springs Station, Mount Serle Station and Nepabunna. The balance of the Lake Eyre Basin within South Australia is subject to native title claims.

In the Northern Territory section of the Basin, some quite large areas are held under freehold by Aboriginal Land Trusts. These areas include the Ltyente Apurte (Santa Teresa), Angarapa, Alyawarra, Ltalaltuma and Roulpmaulpma Aboriginal land trusts. One of the largest parcels is the North and North West Simpson Desert area, Atnetye Land Trust, most of which was formerly vacant crown land. The area includes Apiwentye Station (4,000 km2; formerly Atula Station) which has been owned and successfully operated by Aboriginal people since 1989. Several other pastoral leases, Ooratippra, Huckitta, Loves Creek and Alcoota are owned and operated by Aboriginal organisations. Many of the national parks and reserves in the Northern Territory part of the Basin, including the West MacDonnell (Tyurretye) National Park, Finke Gorge National Park and some smaller conservation areas such as Trephina Gorge Nature Park and the Dulcie Range National Park, are now under joint management with Aboriginal people.

In Queensland, there is very little Aboriginal-owned land, but the Munga-Thirri National Park is jointly managed by the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service and the Traditional Owners. A very large proportion of the Desert Channels area (the entire Queensland section of the Basin), is subject to native title claim and, as at September 2013, there have been several native title determinations on Pitta Pitta and Indjalandji-Dhidhanu country.

Conservation

Protected areas make up about 11% of the land area of the Basin, which is the same as the national average. The juxtaposition of iconic arid ecosystems dotted with mound springs and extensive wetlands hosting thousands of birds gives the region high conservation value. The parks and reserves of the Basin not only protect and maintain biodiversity, but, as big drawcards for tourists, make a considerable contribution to the regional economy.

Many of the parks in the region are very large. In the South Australian portion of the Simpson Desert, 29,560 km2 is set aside as Regional Reserve, with a further 20,720 km2 as National Park in Queensland. Within South Australia, parks over 10,000 km2 include Lake Eyre National Park, Strzelecki Regional Reserve and Innamincka Regional Reserve. Some of the last remaining populations of bilbies in Queensland are found in the Basin at Astrebla Downs National Park.

Protected areas of the region come in many different forms, and include national parks, regional reserves and conservation parks. It should be noted that regional reserves allow for multiple use, and their effectiveness as protected areas depends on agreement, cooperation and goodwill. Conservation on private land is also expanding e.g. in the Queensland part of the Basin, under the 'Land for Wildlife' program, voluntary nature conservation agreements cover more than 1,000 square kilometres of private land.

Many land managers see maintenance of biodiversity as part of property management and by committing to undertaking specific conservation actions, the properties may become part of the National Reserve System. Bush Heritage, a non-profit private organisation supported by individual and corporate donations, own and operate several conservation reserves in the Basin, including Ethabuka, Craven's Peak and Edgbaston in Queensland and Boolcoomata in South Australia. Another non-profit organisation, Australian Wildlife Conservancy, operates Kalamurina Wildlife Santuary, a 667,000 ha property on the north east edge of Kati Thanda - Lake Eyre, as a private conservation reserve.

Mining and Petroleum

Gas well near Cooper Creek.
Photo: J Schmiechen

Mining and petroleum industries make up the largest economic sector in the Lake Eyre Basin. The most significant onshore petroleum (oil and gas) reserves in Australia are found within the Basin at sites such as Moomba, Ballera and Jackson. This area of north east South Australia and south-west Queensland currently supplies the bulk of the domestic eastern Australian gas market (South Australia, the Australian Capital Territory, New South Wales, and Queensland). In 2002, Santos sales revenue from the Cooper (geological) Basin was $1.5 billion. Santos currently operates approximately 190 gas fields and 115 oil fields in the Cooper Basin. Also in the Lake Eyre Basin are the Mereenie (oil and gas) and Palm Valley (gas) fields which supply the Northern Territory. While natural gas extraction has occurred in the Basin for many years, recent identification of the coal-bearing Pedirka (NT-SA), Arckaringa (SA) and Galilee (Qld) Basins as sites of potential coal seam gas development, has seen a rapid acceleration in exploration activities.

Many other locations are used for significant mining activities, and in the area south east of Mt Isa, 41-50% of employment is in the mining industry. The silver mine at Cannington is the largest in the world and the three major mines in the north west part of the Basin - Cannington (silver/lead), Osbourne (copper/gold) and Phosphate Hill (rock phosphate), contribute around $1 billion a year to the Australian economy. The opal fields at Winton and Opalton provide about 20% of the world's opal (also mined at Andamooka, Lambina and Coober Pedy). Other significant products include base and precious metals around Mt Isa and Broken Hill, coal at Leigh Creek, phosphate at Dajarra, gypsum near Winton and uranium at Beverly.

Pastoralism and other primary production

Grazing of sheep and cattle began in the Lake Eyre Basin in the early 1860s. Pastoralism today is not only the dominant land use in the Basin, but also the most enduring, although these days the industry is mostly based on cattle.

The region includes the world's largest cattle station, Anna Creek in northern South Australia, which covers almost 24,000km2. Although production is variable and dependant on the rainfall, in good years the Channel Country in the eastern half of the Basin is excellent for fattening cattle, with stock moved on to this country from other parts of properties and even brought in from Northern Australia. In this region, cattle numbers vary from 0.5 to 1 million with an estimated turn-off value of $150 million after major flood events, such as in 2000. The Channel Country was also one of the first regions in Australia to produce certified organic beef.

In the South Australian Arid Lands region, about half of which is in the Lake Eyre Basin, the pastoral industry contributed about $78 million to the economy of South Australia in 2002-03. Production from the Northern Territory portion of the Basin is almost exclusively cattle, and from the very small New South Wales portion, almost exclusively sheep production, primarily for wool.

The industry is relatively sustainable, but with 83% of the land in the Basin under pastoralism, total grazing pressure, weeds and feral animals must be carefully managed. Increasing ownership by large companies and a decline in resident managers bring new challenges to land management on these large, remote properties.

Agriculture, horticulture and aquaculture activities tend to be small and specific to certain localities. In general they are restricted by the intermittent water supply, but interest in them is growing and development applications increasing.

Tourism

Tourism is increasing rapidly in the Basin and may soon overtake the pastoral industry as the second largest contributor to the economy. The features of the region match the growing interest in eco-tourism, heritage and remote outback places. The combination of significant cultural sites, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, the unspoiled outback landscapes, the characteristic regional towns and unique wetlands offer a multitude of opportunities to visitors.

Several million people visit the towns and landscapes of the Lake Eyre Basin every year. The channel country in Queensland attracts over 200,000 visitors annually, accounting for about $82 million to the economy. It is estimated that 40,000 - 50,000 tourists pass through Birdsville each year, a town with only 295 permanent residents (at 2011 Census). In 2011, over 24,000 tourists visited Kati Thanda - Lake Eyre to marvel at the flooding of the lakes and the explosion of flora and fauna populations.

Popular sites include Kati Thanda - Lake Eyre itself, the Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame, the Australian Worker's Heritage Centre, visits to mining operations, the QANTAS Museum, mound springs, the Alice Springs Desert Park, the many national parks, Burke and Wills sites, holidays on working cattle stations, significant Aboriginal cultural sites, the Waltzing Matilda Centre, the Simpson Desert and numerous other locations that combine scenic beauty with a diversity of flora and fauna.

Tourism brings benefits to the Basin, but the industry is growing so fast, that care may be required. The impacts of new tracks, weeds and waste, as well as over-fishing and firewood collection, need to be carefully managed.

"The perennial issues of access, use of firewood and impacts on sensitive areas remain as challenges to be tackled on a cross-jurisdictional scale."

Joc Schmiechen, tourism member of the LEB Community Advisory Committee