SYDNEY: Spanning 2,800 km along eastern Australia, a groundbreaking new wildlife corridor will allow plants and animals to move into new habitats as the continent’s climate changes.
Stretching from Victoria’s antipodean Alps to the fertile Atherton Tablelands of Queensland, the protected area could provide an essential lifeline for species – such as the rock wallaby, mountain pygmy possum or alpine vegetation – that could one day be pushed out of their existing habitats by rising temperatures.
Up to 35 per cent of species in biodiversity ‘hot spots’, such as Australia, are currently at risk of extinction as the world warms, according to conservationists.
The ‘Alps to Atherton’ corridor, announced in late February by New South Wales Environment Minister Bob Debus, will not involve the creation of new national parks, but is “a proposal to link existing reserves, and to protect and restore ecological links that will allow species to move freely and find new areas of sanctuary.” The project has been likened to a terrestrial version of the protected areas of the Great Barrier Reef.
The New South Wales (NSW) government has already pledged A$7 million (US$5.4 million) over the next three years – possibly in the form of financial incentives – to get landowners involved in the project. Queensland, Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory have all agreed to the plans, but have yet to make firm financial pledges.
There will be no compulsory acquisition of land and the initiative will be entirely voluntary. Instead, landholders who wish to conserve parts of their property can sign a voluntary conservation agreement, said Stuart Cohen of the National Parks and Wildlife Service in Queanbeyan, NSW. The agreement sets out how the landowner will manage the property for the future and lasts indefinitely as part of the land title – so that the land is protected even if it is sold
The importance of conserving privately-owned land – in addition to reserves, crown land, state forests, and world heritage sites – is that areas with existing protection are often fragmented, creating islands of biodiversity. As the climate warms, species may need to move beyond existing protected areas in order to survive. This could involve moving south or to higher altitudes in search of cooler climates. Without linked conservation areas, populations can get stranded in shrinking islands of habitat and are threatened by climate and inbreeding.
Image: NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service
“When the climate changes animals need to be able to move across the landscape to new areas where the climatic conditions better suit them. This initiative from the NSW government is a bold and visionary approach to this challenge”, said Felicity Wade of the Sydney branch of the Australian environmental advocacy group The Wilderness Society.
Paul Adam, a conservation biologist at the University of NSW in Sydney, commended the value and scale of the project. Though he cautioned that with a wildlife corridor on such a massive scale there are “lots and lots of unknowns” – such as how plants might migrate along it, he said. The constant input of scientists will be necessary to monitor the project, and “we are going to be looking at this for a long time.”
The first landowner to buy into the scheme is The Australian Bush Heritage Fund, a non-profit organisation that buys land for conservation with both government funding and private donations. It has acquired a 13 km2 property, south of Canberra as a key part of the new corridor. The property lies in Murrumbidgee valley in a landscape of eucalypt woodlands and grassy plateaus – it will protect a range of endangered plants and animals including grasses, fish, platypus and quolls.
The Alps to Atherton project will establish Australia as a global leader in conservation corridors, said Cohen. “Certainly it will be among one of the longest in the world.” Currently, the 3200-km-long Yellowstone to Yukon wildlife corridor – which spans North America’s Rocky Mountains – is the longest in the world. Created in 1997, it helps to protect iconic wildlife including grizzly bears, golden eagles and gray wolves.