Now more than ever, natural resource management investments underpinned by science are needed to protect and restore Australia’s natural ecosystems, and to support productive and sustainable land use.
Growing up in the rainforest of Far North Queensland, I was always exploring nature – which also meant observing the impact of humans on the environment. So I guess it was quite predictable that I would study environmental science at university. I literally did my honours project in my backyard.
My thesis looked at the performance of restoration projects in North Queensland – how the plantings of different species were progressing, and what conditions they needed to thrive. That laid the foundation for some of my current research: how do we effectively restore degraded lands?
The realisation may have finally sunk in that our human health is deeply connected to the health of our ecological systems. This connectedness runs through the quality of the air that we breathe, the health of waterways and landscapes, and our general mental health and well-being. The impacts go both ways: think of the connection between what we do on land and the health of the Great Barrier Reef, for example. These aren’t easy causal stories to investigate and communicate, but the evidence is accruing. The fact is we can’t keep degrading our land and hope to maintain our health.
But this is not the “next big thing”. We’ve been talking about protecting and restoring nature for a while, so let’s just get on with it! No, the next big thing is about how we restore our environment in a clever way, and how we use technology appropriately to bring people along on that journey.
We have a changing demographic of landholders or their agents in Australia. Scaling up ecosystem restoration requires the support of individual landholders, acknowledging them as key decision-makers on the land. There are various knowledge gaps that need to be filled – understanding what landholders want, what their objectives and preferences are. We don’t often ask those fundamental questions: instead, we develop top-down programs and roll them out. But are we talking to the people who actually live and work on that land? Who know that land intimately? That’s what we need to do.
The goal is to make restoration plantings more fit-for-purpose by linking them to landholder preferences. To do this we need to embrace new visualisation technologies like VR (virtual reality), so that all the people involved can see how those preferences play out in practice, and receive feedback and information on why particular plantings or particular restoration strategies may work well in particular areas. Immersive technology can bring restoration plans to life for the landholders, natural resource managers, governments, public servants, and non-government organisations rolling out these programs.
With this technology we can also run real-time modelling and simulations that reveal the economic benefits and opportunities tied to alternative courses of action. So we can show that as a result of a certain decision, we would, for example, release 20% less nitrogen into our waterways. There’s a lot of complexity that we’re failing to overcome in restoration decision-making. But we now have the decision support tools to explore that complexity in real time and in a way that recognises that the landholders, or the people they’re working with, are the actual decision-makers and the holders of an enormous wealth of site-specific knowledge.
I’ve always been interested in restoration programs, but now that I’m at QUT I can see the potential of using these new technologies to address old problems in new and engaging ways. QUT has excellent data science capability and excellent visualisation capability. We’re still working on a prototype system for modelling and visualising the restoration of degraded land, but our approaches underpinned by decision science have already found great traction with several key partners, including the City of Gold Coast. A lot of people think of the Gold Coast as high-rises and nightclubs and theme parks, but it is one of the most biologically diverse areas in the country. I will always love the wet tropics, because they were my first home, but the Gondwana Rainforests of the Gold Coast region are quite amazing.
Our research partners have been very enthusiastic about using new technologies and new decision support systems to work out where they need to restore to get the biggest bang for their buck. Importantly, we are observing a real a willingness to try new things amongst the private sector and government agencies and to be guided by what the data and evidence tells us. Working with our applied research partners has been one of the biggest “aha” moments of my work. As a researcher, it is wonderful to ask and investigate really interesting ecological questions, quite fundamental biological questions, but it’s fantastic to combine that with other disciplines such as data science and social science and undertake research in a really collaborative way. And then to see the impact we’re having on the natural environment, it’s quite remarkable and motivating.
Professor Kerrie Wilson is the Pro Vice-Chancellor (Sustainability Strategy) and previously the Executive Director of the Institute for Future Environments at Queensland University of Technology (QUT). She has two decades of experience leading and conducting research into the science, strategy and policy of conservation.