The Gondwana Link Vision
"Reconnected country across south-western Australia, from the Karri forest of the SW corner to the woodlands and mallee bordering the Nullarbor plain, in which ecosystem function and biodiversity are restored and maintained".
The southwestern corner of Australia is internationally recognised as a biodiversity hotspot, partly because of its species diversity, but also because those species and communities are being lost to a host of environmental assaults. Two-thirds of the vegetation in south-western Australia has been cleared. Over much of the agricultural region many areas have less than 5-10% of their original bushland left.
Even the largest patches of bush are unable to guarantee the survival or continued evolution of species if they remain isolated from each other within ecologically hostile landscapes where key ecological processes are no longer functioning.
Only across one part of south-western Australia is the basic ecological integrity and connectivity that supported the proliferation of the south-west's biological magnificence almost still intact. Along 1000kms we already have over 900kms of intact habitat, much manged as national Park and Nature reserve.
The biggest “breaks” along this 1000kms are in the areas either side of Stirling range national park - through to the Forests and the Fitzgerald, and south to the Porongurups. Much of these gaps in the Link were only cleared 50-60 years ago – and that makes effective restoration easier to achieve than elsewhere. Then there are some tenuous connections between major forest blocks south-east and south-west of Manjimup, and between the Forests and the Leeuwin Naturaliste Ridge. Further east the recognised local hotspot of the Ravensthorpe area still has a tenuous connection through to the south-western end of the Great Western Woodlands, a massive 16 million hectare area of largely public land that straddles the edge of the south west hotpsot and connects through to inland Australia via the Great Western Woodlands.
We can reconnect these critical bushland areas and strengthen the connection with the inland. This will restore ecological connectivity and, in the cleared areas, restore land that is too fragile to farm. We will have, stretching over 1000kms, a series of core wilderness areas, linked by continuous belts of habitat and surrounded by supportive land uses.
What is there already?
Gondwana Link occurs in the biologically richest part of Australia and includes:
- over 75% of the flora species in south western Australia and over 20% of Australia’s flora species;
- several of the centres of plant diversity and endemism identified within the Southwestern Australian biodiversity hotspot;
- the largest habitat areas remaining in southern Australia and the most complete faunal assemblages in southern WA (and possibly southern Australia);
- 17 of Australia’s 23 main vegetation groups (Australian National Vegetation Assessment 2001);
- the world’s least disturbed area of Mediterranean habitat;
- numerous climatic refugia and arguably the most climatically buffered section of the southwest Australian biodiversity hotspot; and
- an impressive collection of some of Australia’s longest standing environmental, landcare and NRM groups.
Conservation at an unprecedented scale
Our approach has been to restore the strategic connections by increasing the scale and quality of conservation management. Restoring connectivity in most cases involves restoring land that is too fragile to farm, and will help species and communities to cope with changing climate conditions. By using sound ecological principles and building on practical experience, we can make sure that high quality restoration provides additional habitat for species that have been restricted by clearing and logging to only small portions of their former distributions. We can help to off-set some of the disruptions to gene flows that fragmentation of the landscape has caused, and re-establish ecological functions that have been destroyed through salinity, erosion and other degrading processes.
Ultimately, we will have landscapes that continue to support human communities, but within nature-friendly landscapes that include large vegetated areas, linkages and “stepping stones” that give all species and communities a better chance to survive.
Gondwana Link will enable the more mobile species to move safely between populations, reducing the current wave of slow localised extinctions from isolated remnants
Many bird and animal species have been reduced to small isolated populations that are under continual stress. With birds, scientists predict we could lose 50% of the remaining species from the main agricultuiral areas within 50 years. For example the Western Whipbird is now virtually extinct in the main 'wheatbelt' and only occurs in the larger south coast remnants. The Western Ground Parrot, a species dependant on long unburnt habitat, is down to a total population of about 100 birds. As far back as 1978 the WA Museum reported that only one reserve in the southern 'wheatbelt' was considered large enough to retain its current assemblage of mammals in the long term. Until these areas are reconnected they will continue to lose even 'common' species.
Gondwana Link will restore key areas of habitat needed for nomadic patterns of movement
The transition zone between the dry inland and the wet forests is defined by a variable climate, with extremes of wet and dry being common. Wildlife has responded by moving opportunistically between seasonal feeding areas. Now the smaller mammal and bird species cannot move across farmed landscapes to their seasonal food sources. As a result, population levels have fallen across the entire 'wheatbelt'. The Gondwana Link project will partially restore this vital pattern of movement into and across south coast plant communities, which provide critical nectar and pollen during the dry late summer and early autumn period.
Gondwana Link will provide some protection against the worst ecological impacts of climate change by enabling gradual genetic and species interchange on a broad front and by retaining elements of the longer term evolutionary forces that shaped the south west biota
Current predictions are for a warming of the south west over the next 50 years, with a significant decline in winter rainfall. The trend is already apparent in rainfall averages over the past four decades. This has profound, but poorly understood, implications for the biota.
In previous (slower) periods of climate change, species and systems have predominantly moved along a south-west/north-east pathway, which is exactly the direction Gondwana Link is spanning. To consolidate this we are also seizing opportunities to consolidate north-south linkages, which may also be critical pathways for species and systems affected by greenhouse induced climate change.
Assist in stabilising landscapes where clearing has led to large scale salinity, wind erosion and other degradation
The agricultural areas of south-western Australia are suffering catastrophic land degradation. Current government estimates are that, due to rising saline water tables, over 6 million hectares, more than 30% of WA's cleared land, will become salinised in the next 50 years and that without remedial action, up to 80% of small areas of bushland on farms and up to 50% on public lands (including nature reserves) in agricultural areas will be lost over time. Recent survey work has shown that without intervention 450 plant species endemic to the region will become extinct, and three quarters of the region's waterbird species will severely decline. All water courses are already severely degraded. Some south coast estuaries have received more than 4000 years worth of sediment in the last 40 years.
It is now widely recognised that these landscapes need to be 30-40% covered by perennial woody vegetation to remain stable. Traditional agriculture cannot achieve this.
In our focus areas at least 20-30% of the main catchments need revegetation. This will have significant downstream benefits, and is expected to reduce salt, sediment and agricultural pollution in two main river and estuarine systems, the Pallinup and the Bremer. By removing the least agriculturally suited land from their current use, we can substantially reduce degradation on-site and on surrounding lands. By working with farmers to focus on their unprofitable soil types, we can increase the economic efficiency and viability of farming across the region.
Accelerate the development of new cultural and economic perspectives on how people can live in the region to enrich social and environmental diversity
More diverse communities and land uses are needed. This requires 'thinking outside the box' at a huge scale. Work undertaken in Gondwana Link has already demonstrated that significant funds can be raised to protect bushland and restore biodiversity values on cleared land. Additionally, we are committed to developing and demonstrating the potential for other land use options that have commercial value and which can reduce social decline. Ecologically and socially supportive enterprises such as sandalwood growing have already been established, as has biodiverse and socially integrated carbon sequestration.
Achieve improved conservation management for large areas of the south-west biodiversity hotspot
Despite the internationally recognised biodiversity values of the south-west, the management of public lands has been less than adequate. This partly reflects the level of resources provided, historical difficulties in recognising the values of areas marked for clearing as recently as the early 1980s, the mining boom underway and the difficulties inherent in managing intensely biodiverse areas.
Through communication, providing practical assistance and some advocacy, Gondwana Link plays a critical role in improving the standard of care given to these areas. The Wilderness Society has already played a pivotal role in protecting old growth forests in the far south-west corner, particularly the Walpole Wilderness Area - over 200,000ha of forest where the Gondwana Link pathway meets the wetter forest areas.
Our next major goal is to secure better management of woodland, mallee and heath east of the main agricultural areas, in he Great Western Woodlands.
Introduce more effective scientific principles to conservation management
We urgently need far more effective approaches to conservation, and welcome the increasing focus on large landscape approaches. We arebuilding a much greater emphasis on the fundamental ecological processes critical for sustaining the biological wealth of the region.
Inspire other Australians to think about and work on large-scale restoration of the Australian landscape
We are already working with colleagues elsewhere in Australia who think and act on a grand scale. We hope our example has helped.