Setting priorities for land purchase

Thursday 20 March, 2003

Compiled by Sophie Underwood, Kate Fitzherbert and Stuart Cowell.

As a nation we're now acutely aware of the degree of environmental damage our country has suffered, and the urgent need for a whole community effort to slow, and then reverse, this damage. The predominance of threatened species and high levels of landscape stress in regions where there's been extensive removal of native vegetation is sending us strong messages about cause and effect.

The single most important action needed by governments is to halt all broad-acre land clearing

For Bush Heritage, the most important thing we can do is to continue to acquire and manage land of high conservation value.

The Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council concluded in their 2002 report that ‘…it is far cheaper to maintain our natural systems than it is to allow them inadvertently to be damaged and, subsequently, to inherit a costly repair bill…’ - a ringing endorsement for the Bush Heritage approach.

But, there's so much that needs protecting. Where do we look to get the best outcomes for biodiversity conservation?

That’s the question often asked of, and by, Bush Heritage staff.

With so many issues to consider, and so many good cases for focussing our efforts in particular places, we look to a wide range of resources to help balance one need against another.

A series of recent reports (listed at the end of this article) have provided valuable information to help us identify regions and habitats of particular importance. They provide a comprehensive assessment of landscape health, salinity, land clearance, biodiversity, surface and ground water and climate change and also the affects of weeds, feral animals and disease in the Australian landscape.

A snapshot

The assessments in these reports make important reading. Of Australia’s 354 land-scape types*, 37 are highly stressed, 152 are in relatively good health and 165 lie in between in the stress stakes.

The most stressed landscapes are concentrated in southeastern and southwestern Australia with South Australia and Victoria featuring prominently in the highest stress category (Figure 1). Not surprisingly most threatened plants (Figure 2) and birds (Figure 3), as well as frogs and snakes, are concentrated in the same regions.

Threatened mammals, on the other hand, continue their struggle to survive predominantly in the arid interior (Figure 4).

Options for Bush Heritage

Currently, most Bush Heritage reserves lie in Australia’s more stressed environments where they protect vital remnants of native vegetation and wildlife.

The recent establishment of the Charles Darwin Reserve in Western Australia is an example of the protection of a nationally important landscape on the edge of a severely degraded environment.

The Queensland reserves at Goonderoo and Carnarvon Station and also the Tasmanian reserves at Liffey and Drys Bluff lie in areas suffering intermediate stress.

The importance of these reserves as refuges for both plants and animals is immense. Many of the reserves are also adjacent to existing protected areas which gives greater value to both them and the adjacent reserve.

As part of our analysis of these major reports, Bush Heritage commissioned a synthesis of their findings to help identify priority regions or habitats for protection through land purchase.

The synthesis suggests a diversity of approaches for land acquisition including buying properties in low stress landscapes – a strategy that may not seem obvious.

One hundred and fifty two of Australia’s landscapes are in relatively good health. They have been less attractive for agriculture and weeds and feral animals are not yet having a great impact on biodiversity and landscape health. However, continuing land clearing or overgrazing in these regions are major threats.

Reserves in these landscapes would protect intact, healthy ecosystems, which while at risk, are not yet acting as refuges.

Water, both on the surface and in the ground, is becoming an increasing conservation issue for Australia. Buying properties that are threatened by increasing water use, or where water, rather than land values per se, can be protected is worth considering.

Such regions may include areas of the Kimberley and the Gulf of Carpentaria. These form part of the relatively undeveloped Timor Sea and Gulf of Carpentaria drainage systems, which together support almost 50% of Australia’s rainfall run-off.

The protection of whole catchments here might be possible and would also protect estuarine environments.

‘Australia’s wetlands have deteriorated greatly since European set-tlement. Some 40-80% of wetlands have been lost through draining or changed water regimes. Many are now much saltier than before European settlement, and large numbers of native aquatic species have become threatened or endangered (PMSEIC 2002)’

Areas of tropical rainforests in northern Queensland are renowned for their extraordinary plant and bird diversity and most have World Heritage Status and are well protected. However, areas of wet sclerophyll forest that border the tropical rainforest are not as well protected, yet support rich endemic bat and ant faunas.

These areas could also be investigated for potential reserves.

The opportunities are there for Bush Heritage to play a significant role in protecting a great variety of landscapes and their animals and plants. The limiting factors are the availability of the land itself and the resources needed to purchase and manage the land effectively.

This is a long-term endeavour and one that Bush Heritage is committed to. Our search for important areas goes on and our view of the possibilities for land acquisition is broadening.

As the stress felt by our landscapes increases, protecting high quality ecosystems around Australia becomes more urgent. With your help we'll continue to buy, protect and manage outstanding areas throughout the whole of Australia, and help create an adequate reserve system for future generations.

Selected references

ACF 2000. Summary of vegetation clearance in Australia, Australian Conservation Foundation, Melbourne.

Climate Action Network, 2002. Warnings from the Bush: The impact of climate change on the nature of Australia, Climate Action Network, Australia.

National Land and Water Resources Audit 2002. A series of reports www.nlwra.gov.au

National State of the Environment Report 2001. A series of reports www.ea.gov.au/soe/

Morton, S.R., Short, J., Barker, R.D., 1995. Refugia for Biological Diversity in Arid and Semi-arid Australia,

Biodiversity Series, Paper No.4, Biodiversity Unit, CSIRO, Division of Wildlife and Ecology, Western Australia.

PMSEIC, 2002. A paper prepared as part of the report Sustaining our Natural Systems and Biodiversity for the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council, 2002.

Sattler, P. and Williams, R., (eds) 1999. The conservation status of Queensland’s bioregional ecosystems, Environment Protection Agency, Brisbane.

Underwood, S. 2002. Strategic regions for the long term development of the Australi-an Bush Heritage Fund’s reserve holdings. Unpublished report to Bush Herit-age.

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