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Stephen Kearney surveys Edgbaston Reserve, Qld. Photo Anke Frank.
Stephen Kearney surveys Edgbaston Reserve, Qld. Photo Anke Frank.

Conservation’s next generation

Words by Amelia Caddy
Location: across the country
Published 17 Oct 2022

It’s tempting, in conservation, to assume that the more regeneration that occurs in an ecosystem, the better. But Tarcutta Hills Reserve is a testament to the fact that sometimes less really is more.

Twenty-five years ago, sections of the eucalypt woodlands on Tarcutta Hills, Wiradjuri Country in southern NSW, were cleared. The post-logging regrowth came back quickly and densely, resulting in thin, stunted trees that today provide poor habitat for squirrel gliders, microbats and the myriad other woodland species that call Tarcutta home.

Intern Georgea Kamara is thrilled to have landed an opportunity to work with Bush Heritage. Photo by Georgia Ohlin.

Bush Heritage intern Georgea Kamara has the tricky task of trying to reverse this phenomenon. Over six months, Georgea is designing an experimental trial that will use tree thinning to remove some of the stunted trees. Strong evidence from similar studies show more nutrients will be made available to the remaining trees, allowing them to mature at a faster rate and develop larger canopies.

“The bigger the tree, and the more mature it is, the better it becomes in terms of habitat availability,” she explains.

Georgea’s internship is one of the first to be undertaken as part of Bush Heritage’s ‘Seeding the Future’ program.

Bush Heritage has offered internships and student placements on an ad hoc basis for many years. Last year, thanks to a grant from the Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation, this program has been formalised, with a dedicated program team established.

The program provides opportunities for early-career conservationists to gain paid work experience through internships, traineeships, and PhD placements across all areas of Bush Heritage’s work. Specific Aboriginal-identified positions and traineeships have been established within the Seeding the Future program, in an effort to actively increase conservation career opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Michelle Stook returns to Bush Heritage to lead the Seeding the Future program. Photo by Seth Stook.

Program Lead Michelle Stook knows all too well what a need there is for such a program in the sector. As former head of Bush Heritage’s volunteer program, Michelle regularly received phone calls and emails from students who were desperate to gain practical, hands-on experience.

“I vividly remember someone who broke down in tears on the phone to me. He said, ‘I did my undergrad; I couldn’t get a job. I’ve done my master’s; I still can’t get a job. And I’m just constantly told, ‘you need some practical experience’,” recalls Michelle.

Unfortunately, Bush Heritage, like many other organisations in the sector, was too stretched to take on most of those students back then. “There’s a lot of work involved in setting up and supervising a placement and our staff just didn’t have the time – everyone’s always busy and everyone has deliverables and deadlines,” says Michelle.

Now, however, that’s changing. The Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation grant includes funding for Michelle’s role, as well as two other mentorship and program support roles. Together, the team will develop position descriptions, manage application processes, supervise students, coordinate training and help participants with their resumes and interview preparation, taking the load off other staff.

“We really want to work with every individual that takes part in the program to make them completely and utterly job ready so they can step into any conservation organisation the day they finish,” says Michelle.

If Georgea’s experience is anything to go by, so far, the program is hitting its mark. Despite holding both a Bachelor of Environmental Biology and a Master in Biodiversity and Conservation Management, Georgea applied for more than 30 jobs in the space of five months before starting her internship, in a process that she describes as “gruelling and disheartening at times”.

“Conservation can be a difficult field to get into, but I feel like once you’re given one opportunity there are so many more doors that open to you because you have more experience, you have contacts, you have more knowledge,” says Georgea.

It’s clear that Georgea feels this internship has been the one opportunity she needed, and she’s optimistic she’ll be able to find a job once she finishes. If that job ends up being with Bush Heritage, it will be a win-win for everyone.

Earlier this year, Bush Heritage released its 2030 Strategy outlining an ambitious plan to deepen and double its impact across 30 million hectares. Expanding its workforce is a key supporting pillar of the strategy, and something that Michelle hopes the Seeding the Future program will help to deliver by creating a pool of passionate, trained individuals like Georgea who the organisation can call on when jobs arise.

Central Queensland Ecologist Stephen Kearney stands amongst the bright Bottlebrush at Currumbin Valley Reserve, Yugambeh Country, QLD. Photo by Daniella Teixeira

This is exactly what happened for Stephen Kearney after he completed an internship with Bush Heritage in 2018. Stephen’s research helped Bush Heritage gain a clearer picture of the native fauna and predators present on its then recently purchased Pullen Pullen Reserve, Maiawali Country in western Queensland.  

Fast forward four years, and Stephen now oversees the monitoring of ecological health of four Bush Heritage reserves as the organisation’s central Queensland ecologist – a role he believes he never would’ve been qualified for if it wasn’t for his internship. “Because of that experience, I knew Bush Heritage’s processes and some of the people and I think that put me in good stead for this role,” he says.

As the state of Australia’s environment deteriorates and organisations rise to the challenge of protecting it, it’s highly likely the sector’s need for job-ready employees will also grow. This year, Seeding the Future has funded six PhD candidates and eight interns, with plans to double those numbers year-on-year at a minimum.

But Michelle has her sights set higher. Eventually, she hopes the program will expand to support the entire Australian Land Conservation Alliance - a network of organisations working to restore, manage and conserve nature on privately managed land.

“This is not just about Bush Heritage; this is about the whole sector,” says Michelle. “We’ve had trusts coming to us wanting to support this work. It seems to be a meeting of perfect opportunity.”

Bush Heritage gratefully acknowledges the James N. Kirby Foundation for funding Georgea’s internship, the Erica Foundation for funding Stephen’s and, Chris and Gina Grubb for their continued support of PhD Placements across the organisation. If you or someone you know is interested in the Seeding the Future program, please visit our internships page.

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