Spatial Prioritization for Conservation and Management: Integrating Vegetation Condition into Conservation Planning
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The south-west of Australia is a region of national and international ecological significance, and contains the largest intact example of Mediterranean woodland in the world. Stretching almost 16 million hectares east of the Western Australian wheat belt, The Great Western Woodlands (GWW) is significant not only for its natural and cultural heritage, but is also an important area for future economic development. Despite its size and intactness relative to the surrounding agricultural matrix, the GWW faces increasing pressures from too frequent fire, invasive species and the expansion of extractive land uses.
Maintaining the overall intactness of this landscape is considered crucial for preserving large scale ecological and evolutionary processes. An understanding of extent and condition of vegetation will therefore be necessary to inform management decisions at the regional scale, and would assist with State-level strategic planning, as well as region-wide conservation and land use planning initiatives currently underway. Importantly, a widely used conservation planning tool (Marxan with Zones) now has the capacity to explicitly consider site specific metrics such as vegetation condition when determining priorities for conservation and management, alongside targets for the representation of biodiversity features.
However, there is in general a deficit of regional scale mapping of vegetation condition in Australia, despite recent advancements in methodologies for modeling condition and the availability of data which could be used for this purpose. Moreover, there is exists no framework for incorporating such data into spatial prioritization analyses. As part of the landscape-scale conservation project that is Gondwana Link, the GWW provides a unique test bed for developing such a framework that could provide guidance for other connectivity conservation projects being undertaken in Australia and overseas.
This workshop will bring together experts in the fields of conservation biology, remote sensing and vegetation ecology with the common goal of consolidating approaches and data for regional scale mapping of vegetation condition, and advancing the science behind spatial conservation prioritization. Specifically, we will:
1. Synthesise existing data on vegetation attributes, disturbances and climatic variables which could inform the prioritization of conservation, management or restoration activities at the regional scale,
2. Develop a methodology for mapping woody vegetation condition at a regional scale, using the GWW as a case study, and
3. Determine a general framework for integrating information on vegetation condition into spatial conservation prioritization analyses.
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Workshop 1 Report (15-17 November 2011)
The first of two workshops planned for the Spatial Prioritisation for Conservation and Management working group was held in Brisbane during November 2011. We were very fortunate to have a highly a diverse and experienced group of people participating in the workshop.
Much of our first meeting was focused on a specific conservation problem – the Great Western Woodlands (GWW) of Western Australia. Compared to other parts of Australia where substantial field data and vegetation modeling exists – such as Victoria and Queensland – the GWW is largely unsurveyed. This creates enormous challenges from data collection and synthesis, all the way to interpreting spatial information to inform management. Indeed, we quickly discovered after the first day of discussions that the methods and models frequently applied in data-rich areas are unlikely to be directly transferable to regions such as the GWW, and new frameworks, tools and approaches are needed to deliver spatial data products for informing management.
A key theme which emerged from the meeting was the need to account for the multi-dimensional nature of vegetation condition. ‘Condition’ need not be condensed into a single index, and these different components of condition can be used in different ways to assist in planning and impact assessment.
Another outcome from the workshop was an analysis of the key drivers of landscape change in the GWW: feral and domestic grazing, historical timber cutting, fire, roads and mining exploration, and future mining expansion. We identified the attributes of vegetation composition, structure and function which may be influenced or altered by these drivers, and considered the remotely sensed data which may detect changes in these attributes over space and time. In this regard the diversity of expertise at the workshop was invaluable –remote sensing scientists in our working group were able to rapidly identify spatial data products to suit a particular purpose, while experts working directly in the GWW ensured discussions remained ecologically relevant.
Our first workshop provided the opportunity to learn from the perspectives of those who have been developing frameworks for modeling vegetation condition for many years, and to better understand the management challenges facing the Great Western Woodlands. We will continue to work together in preparation for our next meeting in 2012, by building an appropriate conceptual model, synthesizing and analyzing relevant spatial data, and progressing a synthesis paper which will document our findings.
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