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Reconnecting nature.

Speaking at the Senate Inquiry into Australia's Protected Areas last year, Penelope Figgis said that the conservation of biodiversity, the variety of life on earth, should be treated by nations around the world as a strategic objective. 'It is about, in effect, the country's defence,' she said, speaking on behalf of the World Commission on Protected Areas. 'You are defending your agriculture. You are defending your tourism. You are defending your fisheries. You are defending the quality of life of your people.'

Her words carry extra weight when you consider that the world is facing the largest mass extinction crisis since the dinosaurs were wiped from the face of the earth more than sixty-five million years ago. It is a crisis that has prompted the Convention on Biological Diversity to identify climate change and the loss of biological diversity as the two most important global environmental challenges facing humans, with far-reaching ecological, economic, financial, social, cultural, ethical and security implications. It says that unless action is taken now, two-thirds of the earth's remaining species are likely to be extinct by 2100.

Only seventeen nations in the world are recognised as 'megadiverse', collectively housing between 60 and 70 per cent of the earth's known species. As one of these seventeen nations, Australia has an international obligation to help turn the tables on the world's looming extinction crisis. In Victoria the state government has opened up a process that has the potential to help address this crisis, at least at a state level, launching the first stage of its Land and Biodiversity White Paper inquiry in April this year.

Ever since Europeans arrived, Victoria has been subject to intensive land development. The first step was heavy stock grazing of our native grasslands; the second came with the discovery of gold and the ensuing population explosion that led to the clearance of virtually all lowland areas that had fertile soils for agriculture. During that period more than half the state's freshwater marshes were drained to make way for agricultural production. Development continued, with the construction of dams on most major rivers, the intensification of logging practices, and the introduction of foreign plants and animals.

We are now living with the legacy of that unrestrained development. In just over 150 years we have managed to clear about 70 per cent of the state's native vegetation. On private land the figure jumps to more than 90 per cent. We have lost over a third of our wetlands, and three-quarters of our waterways are degraded.

Species have also suffered. In 2002 the National Land and Water Audit pointed the finger at north-western Victoria for having the highest number of threatened species in any one region of Australia. Thirty per cent of the state's native animals and more than 44 per cent of our indigenous plants are listed as either extinct or threatened. And although Victoria's national parks and reserves are often seen as the first line of defence for nature conservation, on their own they are not going to be enough to protect the state's native plants and animals from the multiple threats of habitat fragmentation, soil erosion, poor river health, invasive species and now climate change.

In the same way that we are beginning to take the management of our water resources beyond traditional state barriers, we need to push nature protection beyond national park boundaries. We need to rethink the landscape. This is happening in other states, with Gondwana Link in Western Australia perhaps the most audacious proposal. This project covers a huge arc of land, sweeping all the way from Margaret River on the WA coast to Kalgoorlie 1000 km inland. Its basic premise is to reconnect habitat across a broad range of land heavily cleared of native vegetation, giving species that have for years been hemmed in by farmland room to move. The idea is not dissimilar to wildlife corridors, but on a much larger scale.

The concept could work in Victoria by linking major habitat refuges in national parks such as the Grampians and the state's Box-Ironbark forests in Central Victoria through a system of 'biolinks'. The concept of biolinks is a response to earlier work done by Victorian scientists looking at the effects of climate change on a range of native animals. They found that as temperatures increase the distribution range of many species will change as they are forced further south or onto higher ground in search of cooler climates. The same phenomenon occurred during the last Ice Age, with studies of protected gullies in East Gippsland revealing the existence of plants that failed to survive elsewhere in the region.

However, most of Victoria's national parks are surrounded by farmland. This is not a problem for certain birds but it is a real barrier to many other species, including ground-dwelling animals and plants which need habitat to move through the landscape. Biolinks, which can be tens of kilometres wide, hundreds of kilometres long and include private properties and agriculture, have the potential to reconnect our national parks and give species room to move under conditions of climate change.

Public land such as parks, revegetated streamsides and road reserves, all home to often scarce remnant vegetation, would be key components of biolinks, as would properties and habitat purchased for biodiversity under schemes such as those run by Trust for Nature and Bush Heritage Australia.

It is going to be a huge challenge in Victoria to restore enough native vegetation across the state, both on private and public land, to give threatened species room to move and survive climate change. It is the sort of challenge that will require a big-picture approach to nature conservation, the sort of big-picture approach that could come out of the state government's Land and Biodivesity White Paper inquiry.

John Sampson works for Victoria Naturally, an alliance of environment groups working on biodiversity. For information on Victoria Naturally, go to <>. See also: <>.
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Title Annotation:AGAINST THE CURRENT; the importance of biodiversity protection
Author:Sampson, John
Publication:Arena Magazine
Geographic Code:8AUVI
Date:Aug 1, 2007
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