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Development of proof of concept:

Decision-support system for environmental management in


the Kimberley incorporating ecological and evolutionary
processes.
Objective
To develop a systematic, transparent and rigorous decision-support tool for environmental
management in the Kimberley region that explicitly accounts for ecological and evolutionary
processes.
Such a tool will highlight conservation priorities at the regional scale. It will ensure that future
environmental management decisions and expenditure will be rigorous and defensible, as well
as ensuring the ongoing protection and maintenance of processes in the landscape.
The proposed tool would take the form of a regional-scale systematic conservation planning
framework, based on a range of existing data including:
Physical, biological and environmental data;
Biodiversity distribution, including habitats and species;
Spatial surrogates for ecological and evolutionary processes;
Threats to those processes, and to species and habitats in the region;
Management actions, and their costs and feasibilities.

Geographic Scope
Kimberley region of Australia (likely to exclude marine in the first instance)

Partners
TWS, DSEWPAC, NERP Environmental Decisions Hub, AWC?

Relevant Experts
Environmental Resources Information Network (ERIN)
Kimberley Land Council (KLC)
National Environmental Research Programs (NERP) Northern Australia hub (Michael Douglas,
Director)
Bob Pressey
Sue Jackson
Andrew Burbidge
CSIRO
Australian Wildlife Conservancy
Rangelands NRM
WA Department of Water
WA Department of Environment and Conservation
WA Department of Agriculture and Food
Environs Kimberley
Australian Fish Institute
University of Western Australia
Fire and Emergency Services Australia WA
Jim Binney (Resource economist)
TRaCK, and any other relevant NERP Hubs
Etc.

Step 1
Approach potential partners, seek funding to contribute to/match government funding.
Proposal workshop, outlining the detail of the proposed work. Define specific management
objectives.
Attendees: Partners plus 2 or 3 key experts.
Timing: Half- to one-day workshop in week of November 12 2012.

Step 2
Convene workshop(s) to develop detail for the decision-support system.
What processes are key to ongoing function of landscape? What are their spatial surrogates?
What spatial data are available? What threatens the function and integrity of those processes?
What management actions can maintain/protect/reinstate these processes? What are the costs
of undertaking those actions? Can we estimate the feasibility of those management actions?
Do we need to prioritise any of this?
Attendees: Partners and Experts
Timing: Early 2013?

Step 3
Gather quantitative data, map spatial surrogates of processes, develop a decision support tool
using Marxan.
Responsibility: TBC
Timing: Complete by June 2013?

Outline
There is a need to include ecological and evolutionary processes into environmental decisions.
This requires:
Explicit quantification and spatial representation of these processes;
Identification of threats to those processes (degrading and destructive);
Improved understanding of the management responses required to maintain, protect
and restore these processes;
Identify key broad-scale threat management actions for maintaining and protecting
ecological and evolutionary processes across the landscape:
a. Cost of actions
b. Feasibility of implementation over various land tenures
c. Probabilities of functional persistence in the landscape of these processes with
and without the action taking place.
The rationale for using the Kimberley region includes:
Good foundation of information, including priority threat management to protect
Kimberley wildlife (Carwardine et al. 2011);
The Kimberley has large intact ecosystems and ecological processes, has suffered no
mammal extinctions since European arrival, and is subject to existing landscape-scale
management actions;
There is a reasonable understanding of current and future threats to the region;
The Kimberley is one of the last relatively intact regions in Australia.
Processes of interest:
Disturbance regimes including fire
Ecosystem connectivity
Hydrology and hydroecology
Ecological refugia
Long-distance biological movement (species migration, seed dispersal, etc)
Exchange of materials between coastal/marine and terrestrial ecosystems
Species trophic interactions (strongly interactive species)
Productivity
Threats of interest:
Cattle grazing
Feral cats
Altered fire regimes
Mineral and energy extraction (resources sector) developments
Impacts on water resources including dams, irrigation, groundwater extraction
Intensive agricultural expansion involving land clearing
Climate change

It is proposed that the priority threat management work developed for the Kimberley region
(Carwardine et al. 2011) be used as a foundation for developing a decision support system
incorporating ecological and evolutionary processes occurring in the region.
There is also the possibility of undertaking a meta-analysis of funding applications under CFOC
and Biodiversity Fund for the Kimberley region

Summary
Australia is globally significant for its biodiversity. In the face of declining environmental
systems, limited budgets for management, and competing social values, more and more
complex environmental management decisions are required. While there is a need to gather
additional information about environmental values and their management requirements, there
is an equally urgent need to develop a robust, transparent and systematic decision-support
framework for environmental management and protection at the national level.
Such a tool should have the goal of creating a flexible decision framework for structuring
complex problems that does not dictate but does assist decision-makers and stakeholders to
transparently evaluate scientific and technical information within an economic and societal
values context.

Context
Environmental decision making in Australia is becoming increasingly difficult. Funding for
biodiversity management and protection is limited; information about environmental values is
patchy, and either highly detailed or almost non-existent; pervasive environmental challenges
such as climate change, river eutrophication, habitat loss and species extinction are based on
multiple stressors and occur at very large scales, with no clear or immediate solutions; and
conflicting social values cause seemingly intractable political situations.
As a result, current assessment and approval processes for environmental management
priorities are likely to overlook a range of ecological, social, cultural and economic factors
important to the maintenance of biodiversity across Australia, particularly at the regional and
national scales.
Conservation biologists and planners have reacted to these challenges by identifying priority
areas to manage for conservation. Many of these approaches prioritise areas using criteria such
as maximising the number of threatened species and/or ecosystems that are included. Threatbased approaches, particularly those using few criteria, may not be sufficient to ensure the
long-term persistence of biodiversity at regional and continental scales in the face of future
threats and limited funding.
There is a need to ensure that the areas which are most important for the long-term
persistence of biodiversity, supporting high levels of species richness and endemism,
containing large populations of many common but declining species, and sustaining key
ecological and evolutionary processes, are protected, managed and restored. To stem the
disappearance of wildlife and wilderness we must allow the recovery of whole ecosystems and
landscapes in every region of Australia.
The Australia State of the Environment 2011 report1 states:
although more and better information is essential, it is not all we need to meet
our challenges. What is clear from this report is that the complexity of
environmental management in a changing world demands a more integrated
approach to planning, and management focused on achieving and maintaining the
environmental values.

State of the Environment 2011 Committee. Australia State of the Environment 2011. Independent report
to
the Australian Government Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities.
Canberra: DSEWPaC, 2011.

Systematic conservation planning is a growing field of research that has the capacity to
address todays complexity of environmental information. The Australian Government is
already employing elements of systematic planning frameworks for its marine reserve
planning, and for directing funding in the National Reserve System, 2 but these implementations
are not without their flaws. For example, under the current NRS approach, regions of large
intact habitat that are supported by resilient ecological processes will only have a high priority
for new conservation investments once they have become subject to more extensive habitat
loss and fragmentation and contain many threatened species or ecosystems. 3
Several recommendations can be made to improve these worthy initiatives.
It is increasingly apparent that many ecological processes (including species and ecological
community responses to resource availability, climatic changes, hydro-ecology and natural
disturbance regimes) operate over large spatial scales, far greater than the size of the majority
of protected areas. The on-going protection of large intact areas is important to allow
evolutionary processes to continue including maintaining genetic diversity and shaping the
geographical structure of species and assemblages. 4
It will be important to quantify and spatially map important ecological and evolutionary
processes that drive the distribution and abundance of biodiversity, and to explicitly
incorporate them into prioritisations. Data and methods are now becoming available that
attempt to quantify some of these processes at appropriate spatial scales.
Furthermore, incorporating management objectives, the actions required to achieve those
objectives, and the estimated costs of those actions, will be vital elements of any national
systematic decision-support framework. An increasing number of studies demonstrate that
incorporating these parameters into prioritisation frameworks increases the likely biodiversity
benefits and avoids costly conservation mistakes.
Mapping and analysing a range of social and economic factors that define opportunities for
conservation in conjunction with information on conservation values, threats and costs could
also improve such prioritisations. Understanding the social and economic context could be a
critical determinant of the effective implementation of a conservation strategic plan. For
example, such an analysis could evaluate the willingness of landowners to be involved in
conservation initiatives on private land or engage in land stewardship programmes.

Proposal
We propose the Australian Government considers the development of a systematic,
transparent and rigorous decision-support tool for the identification of those areas of Australia
that must be protected to ensure the long-term health and resilience of Australian ecosystems.
The objective of this decision-support tool will be to identify those areas of Australia most
critical to the protection, maintenance and restoration of biodiversity, including ecological and
evolutionary processes.
Such a tool will highlight conservation priorities at the national scale, in addition to a range of
other quantitative biophysical, land management and social variables. It would provide a
rigorous and defensible means upon which to base the allocation of scarce environmental
management resources.
The proposed tool would take the form of a continental-scale systematic conservation planning
framework, based on a range of existing data including:
Physical, biological and environmental data;
Biodiversity distribution, including habitats and species;
Spatial surrogates for ecological and evolutionary processes;
2

Commonwealth of Australia (2005) Direction for the national reserve system a partnership approach.
Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra.
3
Watson, JEM, Fuller, RA, Watson, AWT, Mackey, BG, Wilson, KA, Grantham, HS, Turner, M, Klein, CJ,
Carwardine, J, Joseph, LN, and Possingham, HP (2009) Wilderness and future conservation priorities in
Australia. Diversity and Distributions 15, pp 1028-1036.
4
Ibid.

Threats to biodiversity;
Management actions, and their costs and feasibilities.

What is feasible in the short-term?


It is proposed that an interim model be developed in the next 12 months. This would facilitate
short-term outcomes, including greater guidance on the allocation of resources from the
Biodiversity Fund and similar initiatives, as well as setting the stage for longer-term
environmental initiatives.
During a recent workshop between the Wilderness Society and the Environmental Decisions
Hub at the University of Queensland, the availability of relevant data for a continental-scale
systematic conservation prioritisation was discussed. These data included a large range of
physical data sets, habitat and species distributions, threats to biodiversity, management
actions and their costs and feasibilities, as well as a series of surrogate measures for ecological
and evolutionary processes. These data could be incorporated immediately, and built into a
model to facilitate decisions on priority areas and management actions for investment. This
interim solution would allow government decisions about immediate investments to be
supported by the best available information. A program of continuous improvement would then
enable more information to be collated, digitised and applied over time.
It is recognised that the data sets at the national level are not adequate for many variables and
that regional analyses may be more reliable, but this does not preclude building towards
greater national rigour over time.
It is apparent that the Environmental Resources Information Network (ERIN) has access to a
broad range of datasets at state and national levels, and is developing more of its own, with
the capacity to integrate these into a decision-support framework.5 This work should progress
in parallel with the development of the decision-support framework, ensuring close
collaboration between the two processes.

Possible costs
A recent report on priority threat management in the Kimberley 6 is an example of defining the
management actions required to secure the biodiversity of a region, informing us about the
likelihood that the actions can achieve threat reduction, as well as the relative costs of
undertaking those actions. The reports authors estimate that the costs of conducting the
analysis for the Kimberley region were in the order of $100,000. 7 This may be a conservative
estimate, given the report was prepared by academic and non-government institutions.
Commercial rates may have increased the costs substantially. Extrapolating this cost to the
continental scale, it is possible that a systematic conservation planning prototype could be an
order of magnitude higher than the Kimberley analysis. Detailed project analysis would be
required to establish actual costs. However, the application of such a tool for a range of
government assessments, including the Biodiversity Fund, would ensure good value for money.
The tool should also be applicable beyond Australian Government investments in
environmental management, including state government planning, and non-government
organisations undertaking landscape-scale work such as Australian Wildlife Conservancy and
The Nature Conservancy. Making this data and information available to the community would
further leverage the investment significantly.

Delivery options
This project could be delivered in one of several ways, including:
1. An invitation-to-tender under the Biodiversity Fund;
2. An invitation-to-tender using unallocated funding from the $10 million allocated to the
preparation of the Draft National Wildlife Corridors Plan;
3. Making use of existing capacity within Australian Government-funded National
Environmental Research Program (NERP) Hubs;

Tony Rosling, Director, ERIN Strategies Section (Personal Communication, 2012)


Carwardine J, OConnor T, Legge S, Mackey B, Possingham HP and Martin TG (2011) Priority threat
management to protect Kimberley wildlife. CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences, Brisbane.
7
Hugh Possingham, personal communication, February 2012.
6

4. Development of a demonstration model in partnership with the Bureau of Meteorology


under the National Environmental Information Plan.

Further information
The following pages touch on some relevant research, to highlight the importance this
approach and some of the potential data and products that can be generated from applying
these tools including:
The distribution of predominant threats to biodiversity across Australia (Fig. 1);
A model showing the relative costs and feasibilities of managing areas of Australia
under two alternative conservation actions: acquisition and stewardship (Fig. 2);
A model demonstrating the relative importance of areas of native vegetation for
acquisition based on a range of datasets representing biodiversity and ecological
processes (Fig. 3).
Other Recommendations
The Prime Minsters Science, Engineering and Innovation Council (PMSEIC 2010) recommended
the establishment of a national Resilient Landscapes Initiative to support the evolution of land
systems as resilient producers, watersheds, carbon storages, ecosystems and societies. The
objective of the initiative is to develop an integrative, resilience-based approach to challenges
at the intersections of energy, water, carbon, productivity, and environmental, economic and
social health in Australian landscapes.
Outcomes include:
Development of bioenergy and food systems which complement one another, support
healthy ecosystems, and are sustainable and commercially viable as carbon, water and
energy markets evolve.
Engagement with both market-based and non-market-based measures for sharing finite
resources (complementing Recommendation 1).
Soil carbon sequestration strategies which sustain soil fertility and nutrients while
conserving water and energy.
Evaluation and resolution of tensions between water availability, ecosystem health and
carbon sequestration.
Exploration of alternative production technologies, such as a shift from land-based
bioenergy crops to aquatic bioenergy production with algae.
Full water and GHG accounting for both managed and natural landscapes.
Rural social development leading to healthy socio-ecological systems.
What is systematic conservation planning?
This is an approach to conservation planning that systematically identifies the highest priority
biodiversity values, processes and conservation areas that, combined, can achieve the most
effective and efficient goals. These areas can include private land. Explicit targets are often set
for the conservation of particular biodiversity features, such as species, vegetation, or wetland
types, and ecological processes, such as appropriate fire regimes, habitat connectivity or
environmental flows.
Conservation planning generally involves the extensive use of data, such as species lists or
vegetation types. It commonly uses computers to efficiently handle large amounts of
information but planning the best course of action also relies heavily on teams of people with
expertise and knowledge of a region.
Prioritisation through systematic conservation planning relies on identifying the actions
required to achieve a specified outcome, their costs, and their relative benefits. Thus we
prioritise actions, rather than species or places. The feasibility and cost of a particular outcome
are unknown if the actions to achieve that outcome are unspecified.

Model of the distribution of predominant threats to


biodiversity across Australia

Figure 1: A model of the distribution of the predominant threats to biodiversity across


Australia. The predominant threat is the threat affecting the greatest number of species in
each subcatchment. Where two or more threats affect an equivalent number of species, we
consider there to be no predominant threat occurring in these subcatchments, displayed here
in shades of gray.
Darker colours indicate a larger overall number of threats occurring in the subcatchment. White
indicates areas where no threatened species occur.8

Evans, MC, Watson, JEM, Fuller, RA, Venter, O, Bennett, SC, Marsack, PR, and Possingham, HP
(2011) The spatial distribution of threats to species in Australia. BioScience 61: 281-289.

Relative priority of areas for two alternative conservation actions

Figure 2: Map of Australia showing the relative priority of areas important for biodiversity
management, based on two alternative conservation actions: acquisition and stewardship.
Areas in green are those where it is less costly and more feasible to manage biodiversity
through stewardship, while areas in red are those where it is less costly and more feasible to
manage biodiversity by acquiring the land. Areas in blue are those that should be managed for
biodiversity no matter what the cost or feasibility. During modelling, these areas came up again
and again because of the irreplaceable nature of biodiversity in those areas.
Biodiversity features were based on vegetation types, environmental domains, species
distributions for non-vagrant birds, and distributions of flora and fauna species of national
environmental significance.9

Carwardine J, Wilson KA, Watts M, Etter A, Klein CJ, et al. (2008) Avoiding Costly Conservation
Mistakes: The Importance of Defining Actions and Costs in Spatial Priority Setting. PLoS ONE
3(7): e2586.

Important areas of native vegetation for acquisition based on


biodiversity representation and ecological processes in those
areas

Figure 3: Important areas of Australia based on biodiversity representation in those areas, and
the ecological processes that occur there. The darker the colour, the more frequently these
areas were highlighted in iterative modelling. This model sought to protect at least 30% of the
biodiversity features in question in each area (threatened species, for example), for the least
cost of acquiring all areas of native vegetation within each area. Areas containing native
vegetation along waterways were preferentially selected. 10

10

Klein, C, Wilson, KA, Watts, M, Stein, J, Berry, S, Carwardine, J, Stafford Smith, DM, Mackey, B,
Possingham, H (2008b) Incorporating ecological and evolutionary processes into continentalscale conservation planning. Ecological Applications 19: 206217.