Recently a restoration project at Capertee National Park was in the news. We decided to apply the SERA standards to evaluate this ecological restoration.
Capertee National Park is 3 hours west of Sydney and is one of the few places in Australia where the critically endangered regent honeyeater breeds. In 2010 the State Government purchased a working cattle property and turned it into a protected area. Due to overgrazing, the National Park and Wildlife Service (NPWS) ordered habitat restoration works. The company commissioned to carry out the restoration was a company called CO2 Australia. They used heavy machinery to plough terraces into the hilly landscape and planted lots of native trees closely together. The NPWS said the environmental plantings would benefit biodiversity conservation in NSW, and the plantings covered only 2 per cent of the park.
However the outcome has worried scientists, including ecologist Deb Stevenson, who has previously worked for the NPWS.
“The trees are too close together,” she said.
“They haven’t planted much understory and basically it’s going to end up looking like a plantation, a forest plantation.
“It looks to me like a revegetation project that they might do on a very degraded mine site … which isn’t what it is.”
“This park supports a great array of threatened woodland animals and plants,” said ecologist Debbie Andrew, another former NPWS officer.
“The densities of the trees being put into the ground — 800 trees per hectare — is far in excess of what the CSIRO recommends of 30 mature trees per hectare.”
The plantings in Capertee National Park were funded by a $1.5 million State Government grant. They also generate revenue, because its carbon credits are sold off via the Commonwealth Government’s Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF).
Geomorphologist Brett Stevenson said under the scheme, NPWS gets paid for the amount of carbon sequestration. Carbon sequestration is carbon that has been trapped and stored, which can help to reduce global warming. “The more sequestration you get, the more return you get,” he said. A 2018 policy document, presented to the National Parks and Wildlife Advisory Council, and obtained by the ABC, suggested planting projects across 30 sites in NSW could be worth almost $60 million in revenue over 10 years.
The same document described tree planting on degraded land in all national parks as a potential “funding opportunity” worth $2 billion.
So far, the NPWS has rolled out similar planting schemes in another 16 national parks in NSW.
Twelve are registered under the ERF, generating earnings for the state. But some scientists are worried the projects are more about making money, not helping the environment.
“The main goal of the project is to actually plant as many trees as you can fit into the ground,” Ms Andrew said.
So how did the Capertee National Park project do when viewed from the perspective of the SERA standards of Ecological Restoration?
Principle 1. The restoration is based on an appropriate local indigenous reference ecosystem.
Principle 2. Restoration inputs will be dictated by level of resilience and degradation.
Principle 3. Recovery of ecosystem attributes is facilitated by identifying clear targets, goals, and objectives.
Principle 4. Full recovery is the goal of ecological restoration even if outcomes take long time frames.
Principle 5. Restoration science and practice are synergistic.
Principle 6. Social aspects are critical to successful ecological restoration
They clearly failed principle 1, which was that the restoration should be based on an appropriate local indigenous reference ecosystem. The project’s motivation was to make money by planting as many canopy trees as possible. If they had chosen an appropriate local indigenous reference ecosystem then it seems that only 30 canopy trees would have been planted not 800!
They also clearly failed principle 2, it seems that the level of resilience was not used to attempt any natural recovery. Even though the property was a working cattle station there may well have been seed stock in the soil which could have restored the natural landscape once the cattle were removed. Ripping up the soil and heavily planting with 800 trees per hectare when a more natural restoration would have been 30 trees per hectare is a massive overuse of restoration inputs.
It seems that the goal was not an actual ecological restoration therefore principles 3 to 6 are irrelevant.