Stirlings to Fitzgerald River
The significance of this area
Fitzgerald River and Stirling Range National Parks are world recognised for their biological diversity and richness. As you would expect for an area situated between them, the Fitz-Stirling is similarly rich. Dense heathlands, rich mallee and thickets, riverine woodlands, stark red cliffs reminding us of the Eocene seas which once covered the area, a swarm of locally endemic eucalypts and scattered wetlands. They are all part of the picture here.
There is the usual scatter (for south-western Australia) of locally endemic plants, along with much of the wildlife lost from the inland farming areas. Western Whipbirds remain common, as do Mallefowl, Black gloved wallaby and a host of others. Even the air has the whiff of a former ecological abundance, and the opportunity to achieve effective restoration before it is too late.
Its 70 km wide, but with numerous large areas of intact habitat spread across it. Clearing of the land here only really started in the late 1950’s. But it’s a rugged landscape, so large areas of bush were left, some in the Corackerup and Peniup Nature Reserves, and some on land originally allocated to farmers.
Some of the farmed areas are so recently cleared they still retain the ability to regrow when tractors and stock are removed. While damaging environmental weeds, such as South African lovegrass, are still arriving, they are not yet firmly entrenched. And, most importantly, the large areas of remaining bush have only been separated from each other relatively recently, so often contain a near full complement of the species they had before clearing commenced.
Many areas that have been cleared are proving unprofitable to farm, making it easier to secure and restore substantial connected areas across the Fitz-Stirling without causing significant disruption of the farming community. In fact, the extra attention the area is now receiving has added diversity and richness to the area’s social fabric.
The story so far
The Fitz-Stirling portion of Gondwana Link was one of the earliest areas to be a focus of work when Gondwana Link began in 2002. First we built some momentum through clear major steps forward for conservation. In late 2002 Eddy and Donna Wajon purchased the first conservation area, the 570ha Chingarrup sanctuary. This was followed by Bush Heritage purchase in early 2003 of the 889ha Chereninup reserve, and Greening Australia’s 2004 purchase of the 763 ha Nowanup. Now some 10,900ha has been protected by conservation groups and individuals, much of it standing habitat but also including over 4,000ha of cleared land that is being ecologically restored and 580 ha under commercially funded multi species plantings. Up till the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 we have also worked with an agricultural corporation to achieve tree-belts over some 10,700 ha of the upper catchment, but many of these are now gone.
The work in Fitz-Stirling builds on nearly two decades of strong landcare activity by local farmers, primarily through the Fitzgerald Biosphere Group and the North Stirling Pallinup Natural Resource Group. These groups had already achieved fencing incentives to protect many of the smaller bushland areas, and had undertaken ambitious revegetation works. Innovative farming techniques, such as perennial lucerne above salt scalds, were making some improvement. This support for the farming community in their conservation efforts has continued, with one shining example being the Reconnections Project with Greening Australia and Shell Australia run from 2004 to 2009.
In 2003 we commenced formal conservation planning for the area, following a workshop in Albany where The Nature Conservancy’s Greg Low introduced a number of folk to the Conservation Action Planning approach. An initial plan was developed over an intensive three weeks, and then refined extensively through a major Lotterywest funded program. The current plan has had input from a number of groups and key individuals. This basic plan has been translated to an MCAS-S spatial prioritisation.
The purchase, restoration and ongoing management of strategically placed properties continues. There is an increasing focus on the use of carbon sequestration funding to support the restoration work. Greening Australia planted the first 250 ha in 2008, with over 1750ha of biodiverse carbon planted to date. Carbon Neutral purchased their first property in the area in 2009 and is a welcome addition to the program. Commercially based multi species sandalwood plantings have also been used to add perennials to the landscape and financially support property purchase.
The Noongar community are supported to become more active in the area, which many of them had left after it was allocated to agriculture. The Greening Australia property, Nowanup, has become a major focus for many Noongar and cross-cultural programs, and plans are currently underway with Curtin University for establishment of campus – the Bush University – and to enable a Noongar Corporation to become the long term owners and managers of the property.
A number of key programs operate across the area and support achievement of the plan. Fitzgerald Biosphere Group has undertaken a major program focused on the Bremer River and Wellstead Estuary, in the east of the Fitz-Stirling, while to the west the Pallinup North Stirlings Group are now working on improvements to the Monjebup catchment.
Our work and that of the key groups has led to some significant successes.
- 10,900 ha of land has been protected, through a mix of purchase by Bush Heritage Australia, Greening Australia, Carbon Neutral and individual conservation buyers plus incentives arranged by Fitzgerald Biosphere Group to attract covenanting by farmers.
- Large scale restoration technologies and management processes have been developed and tested. A total of 1800ha have been planted with over 120 locally indigenous species on many sites with an additional 580ha planted as part of commercial sandalwood approach by Greening Australia and others. These restoration programs are some of the largest ever undertaken in Australia and have employed purpose built or modified machinery and innovative techniques to match the scale of the work. An ecologically focused restoration planning approach has been developed (Justin Jonson 2010). Details of the restoration work on the Peniup property can also be downloaded (Peniup_VegAssoc.pdf 1 Mb).
- The distance between protected bushland patches has been reduced by an average of 37% (between 10-74%). The largest gap between secured bushland has been reduced from 22.4km to 15 km while the most strategic land purchase (Monjebup) reduced a gap from 14.3km to 3.7km. Populations of numerous endemic and threatened species have been protected, and the population size of a number of locally endemic plants increased through revegetation.
In one 85,000ha catchment, Corackerup Creek, we have increased the area protected for nature conservation by 63% (existing and restored bushland) so that protected land is now 17% of the total catchment). We have supported the conversion of 13% of farmland in the catchment to carbon-based agro-forestry.
The Conservation Action Plan (CAP) approach was piloted in the Fitz-Stirling, and details an ongoing program of both implementation and science investigation and monitoring. CAP’s now cover most of the main habitat gaps in the Link.
- Solid data has been produced which enables verifiable calculation of the carbon sequestered by biodiverse restoration over time (Justin Jonson 2011), which now underpins a number of funded planting programs. This work was something of a first in Australia and has been expanded nationally by Greening Australia.
- The Noongar community now have a base ‘in country’ from which a wide, and ongoing, range of programs and visits are run.
The basic need is increased funds for purchase and restoration. The Fitz-Stirling area is now poised for a major restoration effort, building on the work so far and working with local farmers to focus on the least profitable area for them, where our connectivity and conservation goals can be met. The looming carbon economy may well provide the financial wherewithal to support this.
Improved restoration standards. We are nervous that the increased carbon funding will lead to, at worst, damaging monoculture plantings in ecologically critical locations or, at best, poorly designed revegetation that fails to function as good habitat. We developed a set of initial standards t guide plantings, and have conducted the first peer review. These have now been incorporated into National Standards by the Society for Ecological Restoration Australasia.
Genetic data built into revised design standards. These will enable significantly improved and more cost effective restoration plantings. The achievements over ten years of groups working in the Fitz-Stirling section provides an outstanding opportunity to genetically evaluate the ecological and operational importance of seed provenance and the ecological implications of species selections, particularly important as climate changes. We are currently in the final stages of a three year project with the University of Western Australia, the Botanic Gardens and Parks Authority and the WA Department of Biodiversity and Conservation to move “measures of restoration success beyond that of population establishment and survival to incorporate the evolutionary processes that provide long-term resilience, persistence and functional integration of restored populations into broader landscapes.”
Better control of feral animals. Foxes, cats and rabbits have devastated the bush across Australia. Foxes and rabbits we have good control techniques for, but in other parts of WA use of these have enabled cat populations to increase, leading to a further decline in small mammals. The Department of Biodiversity and Conservation have been trialing cat baits along the south coast and these show good promise and are now working with groups in the Fitz-Stirling to trial these across multiple tenures.