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Almost everyone ranks the Amazon, the Sahara and Siberia as among the world’s greatest, most gigantic and most remote wildernesses. Many might forget to add one of the planet’s vastest untouched regions, though – the Australian Outback.
The Outback covers nearly two million square miles of deserts, shrublands, grasslands and forests that represent 75 percent of the island continent, reported the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. It’s considered the “oldest” continent in geological terms as well as the driest alongside Antarctica. Much of the flora and fauna there survive according to boom and bust cycles, featuring long periods of arid conditions punctuated by short, massive rainfalls and flooding.
Efforts to halt unregulated water drilling in the Outback’s Great Artesian Basin have paid dividends recently, too. Natural springs have returned to the region, fostering conditions that have been absent for years and enabling the discovery of new species that thrive under them.
These days, fewer than five percent of Australians now live in the Outback, where the collapse in the price of wool 30 years ago destroyed communities. Efforts to build more transportation connections in the region have mostly stayed just plans, some locals complain.
But rising prices on copper and other natural resources as well as efforts to pave roadways to stitch the region more closely into the Australian and global economies have worried many experts, however. “The Outback is one of the last large and largely natural places on Earth,” Charles Darwin University conservation biologist John Woinarski told the Washington Post. “As transport and infrastructure hubs become more developed, there is a severe risk of losing that wildness, that intactness, that integrity.”
The Outback Way, for example, is a famous road that traverses almost 1,700 miles of the area, passing through “countless indigenous homelands … isolated national parks and … life-saving outback roadhouses,” wrote the BBC. Around 750 miles of the road is not paved, however. Authorities recommend only four-wheel drive vehicles use those portions of the road. Efforts to pave the rough patches have led to nostalgic grief over a lost, romantic past of terra incognita.
The region could have a bright and important future, however. Writing in the Conversation, Woinarski argued that the sheer size of the threat that climate change and mass extinction pose to humans necessitates preserving land on a scale that only the Outback could provide. The descendants of Europeans who colonized the country have often treated the Outback as a neglected backyard, he added, while the Indigenous Aborigines whose ancestors have lived there for millennia consider it as the wellspring of their culture.
No matter how one looks at it, the Outback deserves our respect – and protection.