Post-Mine restoration, the Gondwana Link, and SER Australasia – helping Australia transition towards a restoration culture

In their fourth and last report from arid Australia, James and Thibaud Aronson discuss promising approaches and programs squarely facing the conservation issues that threaten western Australian ecosystems.

Nothing is simple these days: everything is subject to trade-offs. For example, take Australia’s mining industry. The country has long drawn on its enormous mineral wealth, which sustains a significant part of its economic growth. But this takes a huge toll on biodiversity. Kingsley Dixon, with whom we spent a week in the field, helped us understand the situation, and noted that the miners do not have a very good track record of cleaning up after themselves. Today, there are around 50,000 abandoned mines in Australia – sad testimony to the boom and bust pattern that seems to characterize all too many extractive industries everywhere.  However, the pioneering work of Kingsley and his colleagues and students, in the areas of seed science, conservation biology, and restoration ecology, is helping advance the science and technology of restoration. This is difficult business under any circumstances, but especially so in a biodiversity hotspot. He is also extremely active in trying to persuade the mining industry and Australian government to do more and do it better in these areas.

Dr. Kingsley Dixon with a Eucalyptus leucophloia. Pilbara region, Western Australia.

Dr. Kingsley Dixon with a Eucalyptus leucophloia. Pilbara region, Western Australia.

The Mt Whaleback mine has been producing iron ore for nearly fifty years. The pit is half a kilometer deep and 5 kilometers long, and growing. Kingsley Dixon and his team are now involved in a project to restore parts of the site.

The Mt Whaleback mine, in Western Australia, has been producing iron ore for nearly fifty years. The pit is half a kilometer deep and 5 kilometers long, and growing. Kingsley Dixon and his team are now involved in a project to restore parts of the site.

This photo, taken on the other side of the mine, shows the first step of restoration. This involves reshaping the slopes, from the steep ones seen on the right, to gentler ones on the left, which are suitable for planting. This has already cost 1 million dollars.

This photo, taken on the other side of the mine, shows the first step of restoration. This involves reshaping the slopes, from the steep ones seen on the right, to gentler ones on the left, which are suitable for planting. This has already cost 1 million dollars. (And, make no mistake, just about every plant growing on the slopes on the right are exotic invasives.)

Happily, despite the complexity and the obstacles, a few Australian conservation organizations are also engaged in ecological restoration – whether at the site level, or much broader scales.

Many people told us that Australians are truly proud of their unique natural heritage, and the “outback”; it only remains for the government to play a larger role, and support those who are already working towards sustainability and a restoration culture.

One of the largest players is the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC), linked in a small way to the US-based organization, The Nature Conservancy (TNC). The AWC is making significant investments not only in land acquisition for conservation but also conservation research and outreach to the public.

Another example of an outstanding initiative is the 13-year old Gondwana Link, a unique and inspiring venture in the southwest. Indeed, they aim to create a biodiversity corridor 1000 km long, spanning 8 different ecosystem types. We spent several days with Keith Bradby, Chief Executive Officer of Gondwana Link, as well as Mike Griffiths, recently posted to Kalgoorlie, and veteran consultant and restoration practitioner US- born Justin Jonson, learning about the wonderfully exciting work of this coalition. They work both by acquiring pristine fragments, as well as degraded land which they restore, to provide connections between patches of habitat protected in national parks. But even more than their goals, it is their approach that is unique. Instead of coming in and telling everyone who isn’t a conservationist they they’re wrong and evil, they work with the miners, and the farmers, and the various NGOS, to achieve a vision of the landscape where humans and biodiversity can co-exist. For more information, see the chapter on Gondwana Link in Paddy Woodworth’s book Our Once and Future Planet , the first book to present the world-wide scene of ecological restoration to the general public.

The gorgeous Great Western Woodlands, near Norseman, Western Australia.

The gorgeous Great Western Woodlands, near Norseman, Western Australia.

They also have a strong commitment to work with Aboriginal Traditional Owners, of both the Ngadju and Noongar peoples. Aboriginal Australians represent only 3% of the national population of 24,000,000, but finally, and bit by bit, justice is being done. Following the 1993 Native Title Act, and 18 years of shameful litigation, Aboriginal Australians are at last being granted “native title” in their own land, and control a growing percentage of Australian outback. On these recovered lands, some communities are trying to reconcile their truly ancient traditions with sound ecological management appropriate to the new lifestyles they have taken up, and the future they desire for themselves.

Another remarkable actor is the 400 – strong Australasian chapter of the Society for Ecological Restoration (SERA), led by its chair Kingsley Dixon. The challenges they face are daunting, but important and encouraging steps forward are being taken and the network is successfully raising money and doing projects. If one’s government is not helping, after all – as is the case with the current administration in Australia, social networks – of people and institutions – are the key. As we noted in our blogpost from Jordan, last April, another source of hope is the Ecological Restoration Alliance of Botanic Gardens.

To conclude, as Paul Hawken notes in Blessed Unrest,

If you look at the science that describes what is happening on earth today and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t have the correct data. If you meet people in this unnamed movement and aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a heart.

What unnamed movement? He was referring to the thousands of independent non-governmental groups of people working for joint environmental and social change – not one or the other, but both.

As we discovered, in Australia there are plenty of clear-eyed people in conservation and restoration who do have a heart and who are working for what we would call a restoration culture for the 21st century. There: that’s a name then for the unnamed movement of this century that Hawkins referred to.

Conservation and restoration in arid Australia – an uphill battle.

In their third report from arid Australia, James and Thibaud Aronson discuss some of the serious issues facing conservationists and restorationists.

Concerning the non-native animals in Australia, the general consensus today is that eradication is impossible: the only option that remains is control, in the form of fences or culling, or both. Yet, conflicts of opinion on the ethics of culling abound, even for the armies of feral cats that reportedly kill 75 million native animals every single night. Even fences have their pros and cons, in particular the interruption of the migration of thousands of emus.

Western Australia's State Barrier Fence, 1170 km long, meant to control dingoes, dogs, foxes and other feral animals, with more or less effectiveness….

Western Australia’s State Barrier Fence, 1170 km long, meant to control dingoes, dogs, foxes and other feral animals, with varying degrees of success.

Both feral cats and foxes are most lethal in areas with relatively little vegetation cover, that is, the massive dry interior of the continent. This is compounded by the monster fires that have plagued Australia since European settlement. A single such fire can burn down hundreds of thousands of hectares, leaving small mammals and other animals with nowhere to hide.

Even this rather small fire, which spared the trees, has almost entirely eliminated all low vegetation, thereby exposing small animals to predation by cats and foxes. West MacDonnell National Park, Northern Territory.

Even this rather small fire, which spared the trees (their dead appearance is deceptive; these trees will resprout), has almost entirely eliminated all low vegetation, leaving small animals vulnerable to cats and foxes. West MacDonnell National Park, Northern Territory.

What’s more, as mentioned in our previous blogpost, most land managers continue to burn on an annual basis without sufficient attention to the impact on animals and indeed many plants. Things are changing though.

In the seasonally dry, tropical Kimberley region, in the northwest, the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, or AWC, is testing new methods, focusing on patchy prescribed burning in the early dry season, and controlling cattle grazing. They are having good results with this approach in preserving more plant cover for small native animals and thereby reducing the lethal impact of feral cats. The AWC has also shown that their fire management techniques are not only beneficial for native animals, but also for pasture quality, and would therefore benefit pastoralists, whom Australians call graziers. Since most landowners in the area are graziers, let’s hope they will follow suit and try new fire management regimes. It is in this region, by the way, that occurs the endemic baobab of Australia, known here as Boab. To our surprise there are thousands of them, in a wide range of habitats. Some are estimated to be well over 1000 years old. Survival of this tree, at least, is clearly not threatened by fire or foxes, even if other problems – such as climate change – do exist. Let’s hope they go on thriving for another 1000 years.

A typical landscape of the Kimberley, dominated by the majestic boabs (Adansonia gregorii). King Leopold Ranges Conservation Park.

A typical landscape of the Kimberley, dominated by the majestic boabs (Adansonia gregorii). King Leopold Ranges Conservation Park.

Another reason invoked for the proliferation of cats and foxes in Australia is the virtual absence of top predators to control them. This phenomenon, called meso-predator release, is also found in North America, where coyotes have greatly expanded following the extirpation of wolves throughout large portions of the continent. Therefore, some have suggested that allowing dingoes to maintain higher population numbers would have a significant effect on controlling cats and foxes. However, dingoes are still considered pests by pastoralists, and large amounts of money go into controlling them.

And that’s not the last of it. In the last 200 years, people have also introduced many exotic plant species, some of which have become terrible weeds, such as buffel grass (Cenchrus ciliaris) (see our previous blog post), but also Tamarix, Kutch (aka Bermuda grass, Cynodon dactylon), Karroo thorn (Acacia horrida) and others. By 2009, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) estimated that introduced invasive plants were costing the country 4 billion Australian dollars a year in weed control and lost agricultural production, and causing “serious damage to the environment”. With climate change, it seems possible that numerous “lurking” or “sleeper” weeds such as the White weeping broom, Retama raetam, may increase their ranges and their negative impacts.

Buffel grass presents a particularly severe problem – and like the cats, and dingoes, it is controversial. It was one of dozens of African grasses intentionally introduced by Australian agricultural researchers to “improve” pasture for cattle. Indeed cattle do like it, but the problem is that the grass spreads with amazing tenacity and crowds out native grasses, and all other groundstory plants where it invades, and, it carries fire like few other plants. Control is possible, but it is tedious and expensive and is never 100% effective at a large-scale. Furthermore, the ranchers prefer it to the native grasses, and their ideas on when and how to burn are very different from those concerned with conservation. Indeed, only few of the people we met envision stopping prescribed fire altogether.

For example, Peter Latz,  a native of the Red Centre,  plant ecologist, and author we met in Alice Springs, has been conducting manual removal of buffel and Kutch on his own land. But his main focus has been on excluding fire altogether, and achieving thereby pretty impressive results.

 

Peter Latz in his garden, next to the hemi-parasitic quandong tree (Santalum acuminatum). Alice Springs.

Peter Latz in his garden, next to the hemi-parasitic quandong tree (Santalum acuminatum). Alice Springs.

For more on Peter Latz’s views and lifetime of experience in central Australia, see The Flaming Desert: Arid Australia – a Fire Shaped Landscape.

In our next blog post, we’ll talk about some of the other people and groups in arid and SW Australia undertaking serious steps towards restoration, while fully aware of the obstacles and the complexity of the challenge.