Stuart Cowell is managing the Bush Heritage contribution to Gondwana Link in south-west Western Australia.
Looking from Yarrabee Wesfarmers Reserve to the Stirling Range. Photo Stuart Cowell.
Regular readers of Bush Heritage News will know about Gondwana Link, an exciting, challenging and inspiring project in south-west Western Australia. Gondwana Link is about conservation in a rural landscape and bringing many partners together to benefit the environment and local and regional communities.
Native habitat across the South-West has been heavily fragmented and Gondwana Link aims to reconnect the larger fragments all the way from the wet forests of the south to the semi-arid woodlands near Kalgoorlie. Gondwana Link will restore a great arc of bushland and protected areas that will once again enable the free movement of species.
So far, Bush Heritage, our supporters and our partners have purchased four properties and established some of the most significant biodiversity regeneration work yet seen in Australia.
The latest purchase, the 923 hectare Yarrabee Wesfarmers Reserve, abuts the Stirling Range National Park, protects a significant area of Banksia woodland and is the site of the most extensive ecological restoration work yet attempted in Australia.
The property is jointly owned by Bush Heritage and Greening Australia WA. Gondwana Link is a complex project but it arises from a relatively straightforward proposition: to exponentially improve the health of existing native vegetation by building on and reconnecting what remains.
Banksia baxteri. Photo Amanda Keesing.
Well, the problems of fragmentation are clear. By breaking up the bush into small areas, and creating large spaces between those remnants, plants and animals that were once able to ‘move’ to escape deteriorating conditions are now effectively ‘stuck’.
While it's true that plant communities don't move across a landscape very quickly – and individual plants not at all – they do ‘move’ over millennia. The impacts of habitat fragmentation on plant communities can therefore take time to see. The impacts on animals and the environment are generally more immediate.
Animals lose their shelter and food. Soils and salt that have been held in place by plants move with somewhat more alacrity once the plants are gone. Overall, the result is an environment that's no longer able to work as it should, requiring constant intervention and action.
So, that's why the task is relatively straightforward – ‘unfragment’ the landscape, stick it back together, and get out of the way before you get run over by some migrating eucalypts.
A bit at a time. Start small. Protect a bit of land here and a bit of land there until you have two or three properties close together in a cluster. Create more clusters and then join up the clusters. In other words, gradually buy the bush that remains and replant the missing bits, reestablishing as much bush as you can.
Species are then free to move again. At a local level this process creates visible changes immediately. It will take many years for the changes to be seen over the entire project area. However, the process is under way.
Red kangaroo paw Anigozanthos rufus. Photo Stuart Cowell.
The first three properties purchased, Chereninup and the two that were combined to make Monjebup Reserve, have built a cluster with Greening Australia WA’s Nowanup Reserve and the public Corackerup Nature Reserve.
Yarrabee, the latest purchase, creates a cluster with the Stirling Range National Park. These two clusters are developing and will soon be linked. And this is where our various project partners are essential!
Bush Heritage is buying and managing the large areas of relatively intact bush, the building blocks of Gondwana Link. Greening Australia WA is bringing its experience to revegetating the cleared areas and linking the building blocks. Together we're building clusters.
The Wilderness Society is assisting by increasing our understanding of environmental processes on different scales, from the local to the regional and national scales. It has funded a scientist who has helped to create the overall plan for Gondwana Link.
Western pygmy possum. Photo Jiri Lochman / Lochman Transparencies.
Community groups such as the Fitzgerald Biosphere Group and Friends of the Fitzgerald provide the essential connection between our activities and those of the regional communities and towns of which we're becoming a part. And the Noongar people, the Traditional Owners of the region, are working to ensure that their cultural connection is woven into the project.
So far, so good! Together, Bush Heritage and its supporters, and Greening Australia WA, have purchased 5353 hectares, and by the end of this planting season will have regenerated 1158 hectares of this overall area.
Wildlife species protected include the rare and endangered western whipbird, malleefowl, Carnaby's cockatoo and red-tailed phascogale. A number of plant species with very limited ranges have already been protected, such as the Corackerup moort, dwarf spider orchid, Monjebup wattle and Barren’s wedding bush.
Now we just need to continue that work across about 14 million hectares (equivalent to twice the size of Tasmania) along a pathway about 850 kilometres in length. This looks more like an impossible goal than an ambitious one, but one of the terrific things about Gondwana Link is that it's about doing the possible while imagining the impossible.
Revegetation at Chereninup has been very successful. Photo Amanda Keesing.
We've broken the 850 kilometre pathway into smaller operational areas. We'll work on these one at a time and thus focus on the unique challenges in each. If we can continue to ‘link’ clusters within each of the operational areas, presumably over many years and possibly decades, we can eventually link areas.
Our first operational area lies between the Stirling Range and Fitzgerald River national parks where the Corackerup and Peniup nature reserves are the core building blocks. This first stage of the plan sounds achievable when described as reconnecting habitats on 460 000 hectares over a distance of about 70 kilometres. Or we can look at it another way, as working in an area less than two-thirds the size of the land currently owned by Bush Heritage and over a shorter distance than from Ethabuka’s homestead to its back fence.
Bush Heritage, its supporters and the other Gondwana Link partners have only just started this regional repair work. Finishing the revegetation of Yarrabee will be the most emphatic statement to date of our vision and capacity.
This 600 hectare replanting job has been generously funded by the South Coast Regional Initiative Planning Team (SCRIPT) with the support of the West Australian and Australian governments through the Natural Heritage Trust and the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality.
Bush Heritage and Greening Australia WA have further cemented their partnership by jointly purchasing and owning this property.
The Nature Conservancy, based in the United States, is promoting the project internationally and providing additional support by helping us all to develop a strategic approach to landscape planning and management.
There's still a long way to go just to rejoin the habitats in this operational area, and then we must tackle the next one, and the next. But already the pattern of linked landscapes and inhabitants is starting to emerge. It's a complex process based on a beautifully simple concept and it's of great value.
We really are doing what may seem impossible.
Yarrabee Wesfarmers Reserve was acquired with generous support from Wesfarmers. Wesfarmers’ contribution substantially met the reserve’s purchase cost.