Roger Lembit, Convenor, Parks Management Committee

The climate is changing, and with it the strategies to protect nature need to be robust. Around the world, park managers and conservationists are developing approaches to maintain ecosystem functions and prevent biodiversity loss.

The likely effects of climate change on biodiversity within protected areas are well documented in broad terms:

  • the natural range for species will change, with a shift toward higher latitudes and altitudes
  • a drying landscape may become uninhabitable to some species
  • coastal habitats will move inland and there will be a reduction in their extent
  • many species will persist only in refugia, small areas of suitable habitat in a wider landscape
  • increased fire frequency and intensity will reduce habitat for fire sensitive species

IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, has a Commission on Ecosystem Management which is promoting the science and practice of Ecosystem-based Adaptation. Ecosystem-based Adaptation is the use of biodiversity and ecosystem services as part of an overall adaptation strategy to help people and nature to adapt to the adverse effects of climate change. It aims to maintain and increase the resilience and reduce the vulnerability of ecosystems and people in the face of the adverse effects of climate change1.

In this context, landscape scale conservation programs, such as the Great Eastern Ranges Initiative, are of utmost importance. We need a system of large public National Parks, supplemented by conservation on private land and productive land managed in a way to protect biodiversity values.

In 2016 the US National Parks Service celebrated its centennial. Whilst celebrating 100 years of achievements it also took the opportunity to consider the future of their National Parks system over the next 100 years. Among the stewardship models they are seeking to pursue are:

  • manage for anticipated change that is not yet fully understood
  • preserve ecological integrity and cultural and historic authenticity
  • build a network of protected lands (rather than preserve separate discrete units), and,
  • provide visitors with transformative experiences.

Some years earlier, Will Steffen and other authors, published Australia’s Biodiversity and Climate Change4. Among the strategies recommended were:

  • dealing with existing stresses and disturbances
  • managing for connectivity across the landscape
  • eco-engineering through ecosystem restoration
  • capitalising on opportunities from climate mitigation strategies

Key themes in these different approaches to future conservation are maintaining ecological processes and landscape scale biodiversity protection. This is in contrast to the expressed views of more narrowly focussed scientists who seem to want to apply a reductionist approach to conservation, for instance, by establishing what are essentially experimental plots or islands within the reserve system. They would transplant species in, on the basis of a climate model, in the hope that these new species will be able to proliferate in the new climate3.

Such ‘answers’ appear to have been derived without an understanding of ecological processes and without thought of how species have persisted in a broader unsympathetic landscape. Many of the species which now exist persisted through the last Ice Age in relatively small pockets, expanding their range in the last 10,000 to 12,000 years until the emergence of the Anthropocene, the recent times where humans have dominated. Plants such as the Wollemi Pine and cool temperate rainforest plants which persist within the Wollemi wilderness are examples of long term survival within an unsuitable landscape.

Similar to the experimental plant geneticists, some fauna specialists have convinced many people that fencing off areas, including sections of National Parks and Nature Reserves, to re-establish populations of a small number of iconic species is a desirable function of the reserve system. Like some medieval walled city this treatment restricts special species within a domain separated from the big bad external world.

These zoos and experimental gardens are not the answer to future-proof nature. We need landscape scale approaches, together with high level understanding of the role and distribution of refugia or special parts of the landscape which, by their inherent characteristics, provide sanctuary for species unable to compete in the broader landscape. We need increased funding for major corridor projects such as the Great Eastern Ranges, for work which consolidates strategic pest species management initiated under the Fahey Government, and for ecological science.

Identification of, and funding for, biodiversity conservation corridors should be a priority for Federal and State Governments. A key priority at the National scale should be the Great Eastern Ranges extending from the Grampians in Victoria to far northern Queensland. This is one place where conservation efforts will have a high likelihood of success.

Its also important for people to be out there, seeing what’s happening and documenting observations about the natural world. Ecologists, naturalists, bushwalkers, families; there are many ways people can be involved in understanding nature and the ongoing changes from season to season and year to year. In many ways technology has made recording findings easier with automatic logging of location and a range of apps usable on phones and tablets.

Together we can prevent the worst impacts of climate change, but efforts need to be clearly focussed on actions which will get results.

References

1. https://www.iucn.org/commissions/commission-ecosystem-management/our-work/cems-thematic-groups/ecosystem-based-adaptation

2. http://goodnature.nathab.com/after-100-years-a-new-vision-for-the-national-park-service/

3. Hoffman A. (2016) Climate change will create new ecosystems, so let’s help plants move The Conversation 23/08/2016. the conversation.com

4. Steffen W. et al (2009) Australia’s Biodiversity and Climate Change. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood.