Looking after the environment is not just about reserves and national parks. Some of the most degraded lands in Australia occur in areas that are highly productive, and are largely under private ownership. Despite their poor condition, these areas can and do provide important habitat and ecosystem services that both wildlife and people rely on.
Working with private landholders on revegetation projects is not always easy – there seems to be a constant conflict, with the environment on one side and the production and financial aspects on the other. But it is possible to get the best of both worlds and achieve real, long-term environmental outcomes while also benefiting production and the farmer’s bottom line. If it sounds too good to be true, here’s a few tips I’ve picked up over the last few years working with farmers as a project officer at Greening Australia.
Many different recipes for success
One of the most important aspects of a successful revegetation project is flexibility, and access to a range of options which can be tailored to suit a specific site or situation and to meet individual goals and capabilities of the landholder. If a project is too prescriptive, with no room for compromise or negotiation, the landholder may feel imposed upon and less likely to see the benefits of the project. Some of Greening Australia’s most successful and innovative ideas have come from landholders and are based on compromise and mutual benefit – for example the Whole of Paddock Rehabilitation program.
Inflexibility can also result in excluding potentially excellent projects because they don’t ‘fit’ – either they’re too small, the wrong shape, outside the target area, etc. Landholders may be unwilling or unable to commit to large and expensive projects straight away, and sometimes it can be better to compromise on certain outcomes in order to engage a landholder in some small way. Starting small or working in stages gives these landholders the opportunity to be involved, to gain a full understanding of what they are doing and why, and to become committed in a personal capacity. This increases the likelihood that they will be receptive to bigger and better projects in future.
The best results come from taking into account the particular site and the needs of the landholder, using all the knowledge and techniques we have, and weighing up the costs and benefits. There are three main techniques for establishing vegetation outlined below. Each has pros and cons and is suited to different situations (Greening Australia 2005):
- Natural regeneration is the cheapest and least labour intensive method, but is also unpredictable, takes a long time and only works where there is an adequate source of seed.
- Planting seedlings (tubestock) can achieve quick and reliable results, but is expensive and labour intensive making it prohibitive for large areas. Less commonly, long stem tubestock are used in some riparian projects where normal tubestock are difficult to establish.
- Direct seeding is quick and cost effective for large areas, but is not suitable for steep, rocky or highly fertile areas.
Configuration of revegetation is also an important consideration:
- Long narrow belts can provide a windbreak or wildlife corridor, but requires a large amount of fencing relative to the revegetation area.
- Fencing remnant vegetation to exclude stock can result in natural regeneration for relatively low cost, but low quality remnants may require enhancement or interventions to encourage recovery (e.g. understorey planting, cool burning, scalping and so on).
- Fencing and revegetating riparian areas can improve water quality and provide a range of environmental benefits. Consideration must be given to the possible need for erosion control or provision of alternate water for stock.
- Large scale projects such as Greening Australia’s ‘Whole of Paddock Rehabilitation’ (WOPR), provide a range of environmental and production benefits over a large area at relatively low cost, but the landholder must be willing to accept the loss of production during the establishment phase of 5 years.
- Connectivity of vegetation is an important consideration with any revegetation project in order to maximise ecological function.
What’s in it for me?
Landholders have a range of reasons for becoming involved in environmental projects, but they are unlikely to commit if they see no benefit to their enterprise. Revegetation projects need to be designed to provide multiple benefits for both conservation and production – for example: providing shelter and fodder for stock, mitigating erosion and salinity, and improving soils, pasture and water quality. Under future climate change revegetation will become increasingly beneficial, and also has the potential to absorb and store carbon and provide additional income to the landholder through carbon farming. Although financial incentives may help to attract landholders to a project, it is these additional benefits to production that really make a project worthwhile for them in the long term.
In it for the long term
Revegetation projects need to be designed to encourage landholder engagement and ownership of the project over the long term. Community consultation and face-to-face visits are important to foster personal relationships and make landholders feel that they are involved in the process from the beginning. There must be a common understanding about the goals of the project and the reasons why it is important. Greening Australia projects provide financial incentives such as stewardship payments or fencing subsidies to assist with up-front costs, but expect the landholder to make a similar contribution though additional costs, labour or loss of production. This co-contribution model requires the landholder to personally invest in the project and as such they are more inclined to maintain it in the future.
Ultimately, the success of any revegetation project relies on commitment and ongoing support, including monitoring and maintenance. With any project there is an element of risk, and environmental projects in particular are subject to unpredictable and extreme events such as flood or drought. This inherent risk can be managed by selecting the most appropriate site and revegetation method, and allowing a funding contingency for maintenance. Monitoring is also vital to assess the success of projects in order to improve knowledge and methods. As an NGO, Greening Australia has the advantage of being less driven by political cycles (and can commit to projects long term), but unfortunately it can be extremely difficult to secure funding for ongoing project maintenance and monitoring.
Working with the willing
Some landholders, for whatever reason, are just not receptive to certain ideas and are reluctant to become involved in environmental projects. In these cases it is best not to keep pushing, but to try to maintain a positive relationship and not to ignore and exclude them from the project entirely. The ‘early adopters’ are a great asset, especially those who are willing to host field days on their properties to demonstrate their success and explain their reasons for becoming involved in the project. Some of the most reluctant landholders have become the most enthusiastic and vocal supporters given a bit of time and the opportunity to see results on their neighbours’ properties.
Over the years more and more people are seeing the benefits and becoming involved with environmental projects, to the point where demand consistently exceeds the available funding. In the face of future climate change and increasing pressure on productive landscapes, governments and environmental organisations need to take advantage of this positive momentum by engaging landholders with flexible and innovative projects that provide fantastic outcomes for both the environment and production.
Greening Australia (2005). Planting Companion – a guide to native revegetation in the ACT region. ACT Forests, Department of Urban Services (ACT Government, Canberra).
This post originally appeared in a different form in RipRap magazine (Edition 27, 2014) published by the Australian River Restoration Centre (available here).
The opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of Greening Australia.