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Published: 2009

Low success from rainforest revegetation investment

Robin Taylor

A project to investigate the outcome of large government investments in community-based rainforest revegetation has found that only about half the area reported as revegetated was actually forested after six to 11 years. About half of this forested area was in poor or very poor condition – often due to a lack of monitoring or maintenance.

Kylie Freebody (centre) and colleagues review a forestry revegetation site.
Credit: Griffith University

Project leader, Associate Professor Carla Catterall of Griffith University, says that despite the expenditure of tens of millions of dollars on replanting rainforest vegetation, and the dedicated enthusiasm of many community members, only about one per cent of previously cleared rainforest in tropical and subtropical Australia has been replanted with rainforest trees.

Dr Catterall and co-researchers Debra Harrison, Kylie Freebody and John Kanowski, funded by the Marine and Tropical Sciences Research Facility and Terrain NRM, followed up on a compilation of all available records of revegetation projects funded by the Natural Heritage Trust (NHT) in the Wet Tropics between 1997 and 2001. These projects covered a total area of 644 hectares at a total cost of more than $16 million (of which about $6 million was NHT funding).

Although some monitoring of project outcomes had occurred, the researchers noted that it often consisted of simply taking photos and in very few cases were surveys of the vegetation or fauna carried out.

‘Photos and visual observations can only indicate whether a small part of a planting is growing well at a particular point in time,’ says Dr Catterall.

Subsequent mapping and systematic recording of vegetation condition in a large number of six- to 11-year-old projects indicated that even where many trees had grown well, not all plantings had recruited a diverse rainforest understorey as intended.

‘Without the data that regular monitoring provides, the reasons for this poor development cannot be determined,’ says Dr Catterall. ‘In many cases the lack of monitoring was connected with the government’s policy of providing funding on a year-to-year basis for short-term revegetation works only.

‘Standard reporting processes covered the work done rather than the longer-term outcomes.’

She says appropriate targets to monitor during the establishment phase of reforested sites include survival and growth of planted trees, development of canopy closure, and the proportion of ground covered by grasses and weeds that might suppress the recruitment of rainforest plants.

In the later building and maintenance phases, appropriate monitoring targets include vegetation structure, floristic composition, the recruitment of plants and the use of reforested sites by wildlife.

Member of the project team and co-manager of the Tablelands Community Revegetation Unit, Kylie Freebody, says the project showed that monitoring needs to continue beyond the establishment phase.

‘We are predicting that you probably need to have annual monitoring of the planting for at least five years, and maybe 10 years, just to keep track of it,’ she says. ‘By monitoring, for example, cyclone damage which may have left big gaps in the canopy, you can see where maintenance is needed.’

This maintenance might involve, for example, intensively managing grasses and weeds with carefully applied herbicide for six to 12 months until the foliage of the undamaged trees grows back to block out the light.

Dr Catterall says funding agencies must recognise the need for continuous funding for independent regional management, monitoring and record-keeping of rainforest revegetation activities, especially given the long-term nature of the work and its increasing significance in the context of environmental offsets and carbon storage.

However, she says, typical reactions are often ‘we don’t have time to monitor, we don’t know what to do, we don’t have enough funding ...’

The finding that the NHT-funded projects had much poorer outcomes than indicated by standard reporting processes raised awareness of the need for a better-coordinated, regional-scale funding effort. Dr Catterall says that given the increased future role for carbon sequestration and offset markets, this will be crucial for credibility of reforestation in the Wet Tropics.

Largely as a result of this project, a regional monitoring and evaluation program involving collaboration between ecologists, revegetation practitioners and community groups, and the development of a regional-scale project database, has recently begun in the Wet Tropics region.

More information:

Kanowski J, Catterall CP and Harrison DA (2008) Monitoring the outcomes of reforestation for biodiversity conservation. In: Living in a Dynamic Tropical Forest Landscape. (Eds N Stork and S Turton) pp. 526–536. Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford.

Published: 2009

Northern water assessment informs development capacity

Helen Beringen

It either doesn’t rain or it pours up north. Such variability is one of the challenges identified in the first consistent, analytical water assessment of northern Australia released from CSIRO’s Water for a Healthy Country Flagship. The work is informing thinking about the development capacity of the region.

Regional coverage of the Northern Australia Sustainable Yields Project.
Regional coverage of the Northern Australia Sustainable Yields Project.
Credit: CSIRO

Rainfall and runoff variability are just two components of a comprehensive review of water resources for water policy decisions which form part of the assessments undertaken by the Northern Australia Sustainable Yields Project.

Released by Parliamentary Secretary for Water, Dr Mike Kelly, at the RiverSymposium in Brisbane on 21 September, the study resulted from a March 2008 agreement by Council of Australian Governments (COAG) to extend the CSIRO work on sustainable water yields and availability that had been completed in the catchments of the Murray-Darling Basin.

Dr Kelly said the research would be a valuable resource to inform decisions about the conservation and development of northern Australia’s water resources.

‘From Broome in Western Australia to Cairns in Queensland, the Northern Australia Sustainable Yields (NASY) reports provide important information on current and likely future water availability in northern Australia,’ he said.

Despite popular perceptions that northern Australia has a surplus of water, the research found the extremely seasonal climate with continuously high temperatures meant that the landscape was annually water-limited, with little or no rain for three to six months every year, and very high potential evapotranspiration rates.

‘Northern Australia experiences high rainfall during the wet season, with most falling near the coast and with year to year amounts that are highly variable,’ said project leader Dr Richard Cresswell.

‘Runoff follows a similar pattern to rainfall, with most surface flow approaching the estuaries, with potential inland dam sites receiving less and quite variable amounts of water and suffering very high evaporation rates.

‘The very few river reaches that flow year-round are mostly sustained by localised groundwater discharge and have high cultural, social, ecological and developmental value,’ he said.

‘Groundwater may offer potential for increased extractions for development, though the highly dynamic nature of shallow aquifers, which rapidly fill during the wet season and drain through the dry season, means there is little opportunity to increase this groundwater storage and careful management is required where these groundwaters also provide sources for the few perennial rivers.’

Dr Cresswell said future climate predictions for the north suggest that evapotranspiration was likely to increase while rainfall was likely to be similar to historical levels, which were lower than the last decade, particularly in the west.

Speaking to ABC Rural, Joe Ross, Chair of the federal government’s Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce (charged with finding new development opportunities in Northern Australia), said the CSIRO report confirmed that expectations for food production in the north have been ‘over the top’, and that there would be limited opportunity for broad-scale agriculture in the tropics.

The Taskforce’s submission to the government later this year will take into account the central findings of the CSIRO teams’ work. ‘It covers not only the amounts of water in northern Australia, but also what impact there’ll be on the livelihoods of the community of northern Australia, in particular, one of the main constituents being Indigenous Australians,’ Mr Ross said.

The Northern Australia Sustainable Yields Project is part of the Australian Government’s Northern Australia Water Futures Assessment (NAWFA), a five-year program to develop an enduring knowledge base to inform decisions about conservation and development of northern Australia’s water resources, so that any development proceeds in an ecologically, culturally and economically sustainable manner.

More information:

Dr Richard Cresswell:

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