How Rally helps the environment

The space, the scenery, the challenge

One of the best things about rally driving is the spectacular scenery. No sterile race circuits with manicured lawns, sand traps and smooth featureless tarmac. In WA our best rally stages are set in the forest. The trees and shrubs add the extra dimension of skill and challenge. It’s the thrill of not being able to see the corners until you arrive there. The co-driver making sure they are calling the right corner, the driver setting the car up correctly to take the fastest line. Let’s face it, cleared areas are not as much fun or challenge. So as a rally driver, I’d like to see more Forests and bush, rather than less.

Clearing, why so bare?

Regularly I drive past another new development where bush is being cleared in the name of progress. The amount of land cleared in urban areas pales though in comparison to that cleared for agriculture. To the year 2000, 15 million hectares had been stripped of natural bush for farming. That is in WA alone. The figure is now probably 20 million hectares. It’s mind boggling. I used to fly regularly and when I looked out the window of a plane it always astounded me how much land had been cleared. 20 million hectares in 100 or so years works out to around 15 Billion trees.

Environmental disasters with salt

Clearing the land brought some hidden environmental disasters with it. Dry land salinity (where salt comes to the surface) and/or high water tables have ruined the soil. No longer fit to grow crops, many farmers have lost whole swathes of their farms. The affected area is around 2 million hectares with another 4 million at high risk. The problem is also getting bigger. Some scientists say it’s expanding at a rate of one football field a day.

How many trees does it take to….?

Enter the automobile. For some time we’ve been hearing about climate change and carbon emissions. The car, the very invention that rally drivers love so much is alleged to be at the top of the list of emitters. When I looked into it, there were 2.2 million registered vehicles on the roads in WA in 2015. Two years on the figure is no doubt higher. I found an article online that calculated how many trees were required to absorb the emissions from a car. For an unleaded car six trees are needed per year, Diesel vehicles and trucks are more. 2.2 million cars x six trees = 13.2 million trees per year.

Now I’m no hard core greenie. I don’t spend my weekends chaining myself to trees, far from it.  I do however think about the environment a lot. How we have got to this point and how do we solve it. I don’t think it can be left to others or the government. So I put thought into what we can do ourselves.

Our 1,300 acre venue in Dowerin is a tiny speck in the vast wheat belt of Western Australia. A property where the land was cleared many years ago giving rise to soil problems. Maybe ½ to 2/3 of our land is suitable for crops. The lower sections in the valley have salt and high water table issues. We knew what we were up against when we bought the place. It was not a great concern for our Motorsport other than we’d like more bush to race around.

Starting the reversal

From 2011 until last year we funded and planted 26,000 saltbush and trees ourselves. We selected marginal or poor soil areas to see if our efforts would help. The results have been pretty good, absorbing the carbon emissions from rally cars and improving the soil too. The biggest problem was the sheer number of trees we wanted to plant. We had the space however not the time or funds to do it all at once.

This is where Greening Australia enters the picture. A not for profit organisation who help land holders rehabilitate unusable land. I found them when I contacted the local Ag Department office to see if we could get a grant to plant trees. Our timing was spot on as Greening Australia were looking for land owners for 2017. A few quick questions and a site visit confirmed everything was good to go. We sent a map of proposed areas through and requested that a buffer of five metres be left either side of our rally tracks. This allows for rally cars to get off the track if needed, without running over the plants. It also allows us access with machinery for road construction and maintenance.

In the ground

It all went quiet for a few months then in late June I received  a call. Greening Australia were on their way to start work. They used a two prong approach to planting. First a direct seeder is towed behind a 4WD which creates rip lines. Then in the same rip lines, seedlings are hand planted. With this method it is hoped that the seedlings will take root first and the seed will germinate slightly later.  If one fails the other one will cover it and vice versa. About 30 different native species were planted ranging from trees through to shrubs and ground cover.

With ten or so people, the Greening Australia team made short work of the initial area. We looked at other areas and soon decided to expand the planting. There’s plenty of land we have earmarked so the more planted this year the better.  It also means we can further extend our rally stage. I wondered if they would have enough trees to continue planting. Turns out they have 300,000 seedlings available so wasn’t a problem.

The numbers grow

In the space of a few days Greening Australia had 50,000 in the ground. To mid July 2017 that took the total to over 75,000 since we started in 2011. Then the local nursery gave me a call a few days later and asked if we’d like 10,000 trees. It seems that towns further north and east of us have not received enough rain so there is a surplus of trees from a government grant. Wow! Even in the time I was editing and uploading the video to Youtube, Greening Australia emailed to say they had planted another 7,000 trees on our property. So now the total is up to 83,000 and we still have another 10,000 to go!

Motorsport goes green

What’s the end result? Well this year we’ll have planted 67,000 seedlings. That’s not including the plants that will germinate from the direct seeding. With simple maths that means enough carbon will be absorbed for 11,166 cars. Another way to look at it is we’re absorbing enough carbon for all of our Rally Driving Experiences and Motorsport, plus all of the competitors and officials in the WA Rally Championship. Honestly though, the carbon is a bonus. The biggest issue for me is the land degradation and restoring the bush. If we can lower the water table and reduce salt we’ve had a win. Oh, did I mention rally driver like to race through forests?

The long game

For all the positives from this kind of work much more needs to be done. This is where working with farmers and land holders both neighbouring and further afield will yield dividends. I was surprised when Greening Australia told me that they have trouble finding enough land to plant on. With so much land unusable and the plants and labour supplied, it would seem like a no brainer. I wonder whether community education programs could assist to convince farmers of the merits? For our part, we’ll keep going until all of our unusable areas are planted out. Hopefully we can reverse the damage in a few years rather than a generation.

Karl Drummond

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