Biodiversity: Responses

Independent report to the Australian Government Minister for the Environment and Heritage
Beeton RJS (Bob), Buckley Kristal I, Jones Gary J, Morgan Denise, Reichelt Russell E, Trewin Dennis
(2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee), 2006

5.3 Responses

The increasing value many Australians place on biodiversity is reflected in the large increase in community action  and investment in recent years. The NHT and the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality (NAP), for example, have driven more conservation than ever before. Although they have sometimes struggled to focus enough on the underlying causes of biodiversity decline (PMSEIC 2002) the value of these programmes is that they have brought biodiversity management into broader natural resource management processes  [Link to: BD-17_institutional response to vegetation loss]. Although this has been occurring slowly, initiatives such as conservation advice from the Threatened Species Scientific Committee is providing information links for natural resource management regions. Resource management programmes, such the National Reserve System and the National Water Reform Framework, have shared similar stories. Many states and territories offer some type of financial incentive, based on the merits of agreed management plans and relative conservation value of the land. Collectively, these schemes are generating significant governance issues that remain to be resolved.

From 2000 to 2004, Australia’s terrestrial protected areas  increased by approximately 19 million hectares and now extend across almost 81 million hectares or 10.5 per cent of Australia (Table 11) (Cork et al 2006). Despite this coverage, the protected area system is only partly representative of the biodiversity of nearly half of Australia’s bioregions (NLWRA 2002b). Creative ways are required to fill this gap, and they must include whole-of-continent and whole-of-landscape management as a means of protecting Australia’s biodiversity.

Table 11: Australian terrestrial protected areas 1997–2004
1997 2000 2002 2004
Number Area (ha) Number Area (ha) Number Area (ha) Number Area (ha)
5645 59 752 783 5251 61 438 611 6755 77 461 951 7720 80 895 099

Note: ha – hectare

Source: DEH(2005c)

Large areas of land of high conservation potential are found on private property. For example, 50 per cent of Victoria’s threatened vegetation types are found almost entirely on private land. As this report is being prepared, various off-reserve schemes , such as Bush Tender Victoria, Property Vegetation Planning in New South Wales, and the Nature Reserve System in Queensland, are being trialled as mechanisms for engaging private landholders in biodiversity conservation. In New South Wales, the community-based New South Wales Murray Wetlands Working Group has been managing 30 000 megalitres of environmental water on behalf of the New South Wales Government. The programme has so far extended a natural flood event through the Barmah–Millewa Forest and ensured successful bird-breeding of more than 30 000 waterbirds, watered a remnant stand of Common Reeds (Phragmites australis) within the Werai Forest, and watered approximately 120 isolated floodplain wetlands on private properties within southern-central New South Wales.

The regional forest agreements have also been important in conserving forest values. The result of the 2005 Tasmanian Community Forest Agreement is that more than 156 000 hectares of forest were added to formal and informal reserves and, of that, some 121 000 hectares were old-growth forest .

There is an increasingly cooperative approach between states and territories and the Australian Government in developing a consistent, national approach to biodiversity management. This is seen in the listing and protection of threatened species and ecological communities  (DEH 2006c). Also, three states—Victoria, New South Wales and Western Australia—and the Australian Capital Territory  have agreed national objectives and targets for biodiversity conservation. Although progress towards these targets is encouraging, it has so far improved only policy, regulatory and planning processes (Griffin NRM Pty Ltd 2004). Biodiversity outcomes will take longer.

A potentially positive response for aquatic biodiversity may be the 2003 Living Murray Initiative, in which the Council of Australian Governments  agreed to promote ecosystem health by implementing environmental flow regimes at a whole-of-basin, aquifer or catchment scale. It involved an historic commitment of $500 million over five years to return up to 500 gigalitres of environmental flow to six iconic sites along the river, including the Barmah forest, Hattah and the Coorong. Despite the recent and growing acceptance by governments and the community of the need for water reform in Australia (see “Inland Waters”, no jurisdiction has as yet provided environmental water allocations for all of its river systems.

An innovative programme of the Australian Government to improve the conservation of biodiversity hotspots followed identification of such hotspots by the Threatened Species Scientific Committee in 2003. Biodiversity hotspots are areas that are both rich in plant and animal species, particularly many endemic species, and under immediate threat from impacts such as land clearing, development pressures, salinity, weeds and feral animals. The Australian Government allocated about $36 million to improve the conservation of these biodiversity hotspots on private and leasehold land.

Attempted restoration is not, in itself, the solution to poor environmental condition. Some ecologists are doubtful that restoration can ever be considered successful because of the poor understanding of most ecological communities and because of the lack of benchmarks against which to measure the success of most restoration projects. Also, restoration projects are subject to the same vagaries of climatic variability as fully natural systems. Consequently, it is extremely difficult to set time limits on environmental restoration, but restoration will often be the only way to give some elements of biodiversity a reasonably secure future. This will require that absolute concepts of naturalness be abandoned in favour of management for specific objectives.

For example, although it is possible to revegetate, reintroduce native animals, or mitigate threats such as weeds and feral animals, these activities cannot restore all the processes in an entire ecosystem. Furthermore, many elements of ecological communities and the way they function are poorly understood, and they can shift to a new state with little warning. These natural shifts can be a threat to some ecological communities when they are added to the extreme disruption that has occurred in recent history. For example, the rapid spread of native shrubs in the semi-arid zone, and their apparent ‘locking up’ of the system in a state of low grass basal area, could be seen as an ongoing threat to biodiversity recovery across large areas of Australia’s rangelands (Page et al 2000). Similarly, the absence of fire and the subsequent spread of wet forest types are placing some ecological communities under threat (Stanton 1995).

It should never be assumed that any cause and effect sequence involving biodiversity is simple or linear. It is for these reasons that preservation and adaptive management of what is left are much more effective.

Key points

  • Australia has a legacy from past actions, and biodiversity will continue to decline in some areas before current investments either arrest or reverse change.
  • Biodiversity has become increasingly vulnerable because of both loss of extent, and ecosystem resilience, aggravated by current climatic variability and possibly by enhanced variability.
  • Pressures on biodiversity are uneven and reflect the level of development and at times the spread of novel biota.
  • The future reduction in land clearance represents a reduction in pressures on biodiversity.
  • Much needs to be done to increase the sophistication of biodiversity management and its integration into natural resource management.
  • Biodiversity management needs to continue to move to a landscape-based model with adaptive management applied equally to productive and protected lands. This is because while the national reserve system could expand, it cannot ever fully conserve all of Australia’s biodiversity.

Living in a land of fire (more information on this topic)

Fires are an inherent part of the Australian environment. They cannot be prevented. Fires have a fundamental and irreplaceable role in sustaining many of Australia’s natural ecosystems and ecological processes, and are a valuable tool for achieving many land management objectives. If they are too frequent or too infrequent, too severe or too mild, or mistimed, they can erode ecosystem ‘health’ and biodiversity, and compromise other land management goals—just as uncontrolled fires can threaten life, property, infrastructure and production systems.

Over the past 40 years, fires have claimed more than 250 peoples’ lives, making fires the most hazardous natural events in Australia. Their financial cost, around $2.5 billion over the same period, represents about 10 per cent of the costs of natural disasters in Australia (Ellis et al 2004). Fires also typically release smoke particles, carbon monoxide, air toxics and volatile organic carbons into the air, and can raise the concentration of ground-level ozone. Both low-intensity cool-season fires and intense uncontrollable fires can affect human health.

Although bushfires occur at some time in most parts of the Australian continent, they may be very infrequent in some vegetation systems, such as rainforest, and very frequent in others, such as the savannas of northern Australia. Fires in wet sclerophyll forests are infrequent, but are often of spectacularly high intensity when they do occur. Fires in temperate heathlands typically occur at intervals of between 7 and 30 years and some species may become locally extinct if fire intervals are shorter, whereas fires in tropical savanna woodlands and grasslands can occur every second year.

Bushfires do not destroy the bush, but burning can cause changes—some species may be lost from a burned area, temporarily or even permanently. Because not all species respond the same way, there are a variety of responses to an individual fire as well as to the fire regime. An inappropriate fire regime for some species may be frequent fires, whereas lack of fires, high intensity fires, or low intensity fires may be inappropriate for others. A common misconception is that all Australian species are unaffected by fires. Research clearly shows that the flora and fauna may be adapted to certain fire regimes but not to others. Some plants die, others re-sprout, and others appear little affected. Some Xanthorrhoea species flower abundantly soon after a fire. Other species that were not obvious before a fire, appear on burnt ground following germination of buried seed, stimulated by heat or smoke, or as a result of reduced competition. Some of these differences are due to the individual species, some are due to the characteristics of the fire, and some may be due to the particular environmental conditions before and after the fire.

Strategic management

There is increasing interest in engaging Indigenous people in contemporary fire management, especially in northern Australia where Indigenous people are major landowners and much traditional ecological knowledge persists (Horstman and Wightman 2001, Hill and Nowakowski 2003). For example, reintroducing fire to Boggy Plain in 2001 transformed the wetlands from a dense thicket of grass into a mosaic of habitats that is rich in biodiversity and of greatly enhanced cultural value to Indigenous people. This issue remains contentious because of uncertainty over the ecological impacts of traditional fire management and its relevance to contemporary conservation values. Russell-Smith et al (2003) show that the breakdown of traditional burning practices in northern Australia has led to a far higher incidence of large-scale wildfires late in the dry season.

Most Australian states and territories are managing fire by developing various forms of landscape and fuel management planning and zoning. Fuel reduction burning, although widely used throughout Australia because it is the only feasible means of fuel reduction on a landscape scale, will never prevent fires completely (Kanowski et al 2005). It is easier to protect adjacent property from lower intensity fires. Interface zones—between rural and urban land uses, and between primary production and conservation reserves—are usually the parts of the landscape in which fire poses the greatest risks to lives, property and economic values. Such interface zones are a high priority for fuel management as well as for other preparedness activities, especially where land uses and management objectives preclude wide-scale fuel reduction across the landscape.

Institutional arrangements must also be addressed. There is a need for better coordination of all aspects of fire mitigation and management among all levels of government, and between agencies in each jurisdiction (Ellis et al 2004). A second requirement is the adoption of a structured risk-management process for effective planning, preparedness and appropriate responses to fires. A risk-management approach focuses attention on the context in which fires occur—the local community and its assets, the environment, and the available resources for mitigation and response—as well as on the threats bushfires can pose.