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The Wilderness Society's WildCountry Program

An interview with its National Coordinator, Virginia Young


  • Tein McDonald

  • Box 1. WildCountry— the Vision

    The Wilderness Society, as most Australians will be aware, has its roots in a passion to protect Australia's wild places and has a 30-year history of drawing public attention to critical issues and proposing alternative plans. However, protecting the little pristine wilderness that remains across large parts of Australia is not enough to secure a long-term future for Australia's wilderness and wildlife.

    The WildCountry vision is different because it centres on identifying the ecological processes that underpin Australia's diverse landscapes and protecting and/or restoring not just small patches of country, but entire ecosystems, along with the ecological processes that drive and underpin them.

    Harry Recher, member of the Science Council, puts it this way ‘An important difference between the WildCountry concept and the reserve system being developed in Australia is the theme of “unifying and linking” and not excluding degraded lands from conservation initiatives. A primary goal of WildCountry is “to produce an Australia-wide, comprehensive system of interconnected core protected areas, each surrounded and linked by lands managed under conservation objectives. Eventually every region of the continent would be represented.” This network of protected areas will embrace wilderness areas and national parks, and use conservation agreements with private land holders and indigenous management/ownership to buffer and link core conservation areas. A prime goal is “To cover all possible environmental and landscape variations in order to ensure maximum survival and evolutionary potential of biodiversity”.’ (Recher 2003: 221)

    The underpinning aims of WildCountry as devised by the Science Council are to assist conservation planning by focusing on the need for connectivity at all spatial and temporal scales; focusing on ecological flows (e.g. migration, dispersal of genes, ecosystem movement in response to climate change, rivers transporting water and nutrients from one ecosystem to another). WildCountry combines the two principle approaches to conservation of biodiversity: ‘protection’ of extant nature, and ‘rehabilitation’ of ecosystems which have been degraded. It aims to generate new, cutting-edge science, to analyse current national biodiversity and environmental data sets to give a far better picture of the state of Australia's biodiversity.

    [Information in this Box was derived from material prepared by The Wilderness Society's WildCountry team.]

  • Box 2. The WildCountry Science Council

    An initiative of The Wilderness Society, the WildCountry Science Council is made up of leaders in the field of conservation biology, landscape ecology and related disciplines. Their role is to ensure that WildCountry projects are soundly scientific-based and draw upon cutting-edge conservation principles and methods.

    The Council first met in May 2000 and has developed a framework based on the recognition that biodiversity will have its best chance in the long-term if ecological processes and environmental drivers that nurture and support biodiversity, are preserved. This framework highlights the importance of large-scale ecological processes and the landscape linkages needed to maintain the necessary connections, interactions and flows. The maintenance of such large-scale ‘connectivity processes’ needs to be integrated into landscape planning and management systems to help promote the long-term conservation of biodiversity across Australia in the coming centuries and millennia.

    The Science Council currently consists of: Emeritus Professor Michael Soulé (Co-Chair); Emeritus Professor Henry Nix (Co-Chair); Professor Richard Hobbs; Dr Robb Lesslie; Associate Professor Brendan Mackey; Professor Hugh Possingham; Emeritus Professor Harry Recher; Professor Jann Williams; and Dr John Woinarski.

    Research priorities are to:

    • Investigate a priority set of large-scale ecological processes and the necessary landscape linkages

    • Develop a computer based planning tool that assimilates the results of the above analyses and prepares information and options for use by stakeholders

    • Integrate stakeholder and local knowledge into the planning system

    First steps

    The Wilderness Society has secured the funding to enable foundational scientific work to commence. The Australian National University, has been contracted, in collaboration with Science Council members and state-based partners, to devise a scientific framework, establish analytical procedures, assimilate key data sets, and undertake preliminary analyses. Analyses and field research is proposed for northern Australia, south-west Western Australia, and South Australia in partnership with the SA State government. Various continental-scaled analysis will also be undertaken to provide the necessary ecological context for the regional projects.

    [Information in this Box was derived from material prepared by The Wilderness Society's WildCountry team.]

  • Box 3. Views from the Science Council

    Richard Hobbs, Professor, School of Environmental Science, Murdoch University, Murdoch, Western Australia.

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     What really interests me about WildCountry is that it is trying to tackle the larger issues of what it actually means to conserve and restore something on a large enough scale to make a difference. I've been standing up for a long time now and waving my hands about on the issue of landscape scale conservation and restoration that the WildCountry program is trying to tackle. But WildCountry is actually lifting that up to an even bigger-picture level, to a regional and even a continental scale. So it's nice to be involved with a bunch of people who are doing more than waving their arms around.

     There needs to be some sort of catalyst to get things going and I am more and more convinced that it is with these NGOs that the action is really happening now. I find that they've actually got more flexibility than agencies but are very complementary to what the federal and State agencies do with their limited resources. The Gondwana Link Project in WA, for example, has been just fantastic at bringing together people and groups who wouldn't have got together otherwise. And it has triggered everyone to lift their horizons a bit and move away from their remnants-based or species-based focus to look at the bigger picture. And the thing I like best about the Gondwana Link philosophy is that every bit in the jigsaw has to make sense in its own right. So you’re not actually subtracting anything, you’re adding more. A project that is valid in its own right — that is also adding into this bigger picture — must be a win-win situation for everyone.

    Brendan Mackey, Reader, School of Resources, Environment and Society, Australian National University, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory.

    My involvement with the Science Council is to help development of a science program in support of the long-term conservation of biodiversity in Australia. That's not to undermine in any way all the good work that has been done to develop policies and programs at national and state level. The Australian and State governments have been proactive in developing policies and funding research and conservation projects for particular conservation issues. But, I think it's true to say that we do not have a scientific-based long-term framework for conservation in this country.

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    To protect what is left we certainly need an improved network of protected areas, but we know that there is a social limit to the percentage of Australia that is going to become a protected area. So protected areas are essential but insufficient, in themselves, for the long-term conservation of biodiversity. The only solution is to see those protected areas as just one dimension embedded within a broader landscape matrix. And we need to start managing the whole, the reserves and the matrix, on a landscape-wide basis. This means forming partnerships at a regional level with all Australian land managers including lessees and landowners, indigenous communities and local governments.

    This approach is needed not just to buffer reserves but because there are many larger-scale processes in operation in Australia that occur over long time frames and at landscape, regional and continental spatial scales. One example is variation that arises from the high year-to-year variability of rainfall across the continent throughout central semiarid and arid zones. Many of the inland fauna are highly dispersive, having life history attributes that enable them to move in response to this highly variable rainfall, water availability and resultant primary productivity. This phenomenon presents a real challenge in terms of long-term conservation planning and is one of the main scientific perspectives that will underpin the kind of landscape-wide, regional-focused partnerships that The Wilderness Society are talking about.

    In recent years, many commonwealth and state organizations have been spending a lot of resources pulling together available spatial data on all sorts of variables to do with land cover, vegetation, land use and infrastructure. So part of the task of the Science Council is to help draw these together in a form so that they can be readily applied to conservation assessment and planning issues. We are also synthesizing into a systematic coherent framework, the relevant scientific principles around which WildCountry projects can be designed. We are tying in, where possible, with relevant stakeholders (be they government agencies, communities or NGOs) and are keen to see that those collaborations spread. We are also talking with our colleagues in the different States who are actively involved in conservation assessment and planning issues. There are hundreds of great ecological scientists in Australia, but there are only about ten of us on this committee. So, most of the expertise needed to promote the long-term conservation of biodiversity in Australia lies outside the Science Council, not in it! We’re very much dependent on our colleagues’ expertise and input on particular issues.

    Hugh Possingham, Professor, The Ecology Centre, Departments of Zoology and Mathematics, The University of Queensland, St Lucia, Queensland.

    WildCountry needs a conservation ‘decision support tool’ to do some fundamental research to help us try to conserve ‘functional’ ecosystems. So, I see my role on the Science Council as being to extend existing planning software to allow it to deal with the connectivity issues inherent in WildCountry thinking. The MARXAN software we use (initially developed by Ian Ball, available from was the tool used to rezone the Great Barrier Reef from 5% to 33% green zones and it has been used effectively around the world. The software, through a ‘simulated annealing’ algorithm, allows us to find very good answers to very big problems, quickly. This is appropriate because, in conservation planning we need a range of possible answers. A good decision support tool needs to provide planners with a range of options to chat about with farmers, local councils, and whoever is involved, rather than as single answers determined by a computer, leaving everyone disempowered other than the person who pressed the button. So MARXAN is not a decision-making tool, it is a tool that provides decision ‘support’; delivering a range of choices to the decision-makers.

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    But there are at least two things not in the MARXAN software which we need to add for this endeavour. One is that it's currently set up for reserve system decision support, whereas for WildCountry (and other applications) we want to make it a much more multiuse planning tool where the outcome for any planning unit could be one of several uses or management regimes. For example, a site could be identified as suitable for light grazing, agroforestry, full restoration, any one of a number of different fire regimes, fully reserved or able to be developed without constraint. The other very important thing we want to do is allow people to look at maintaining connectivity and flows across the landscape (whether the flows are of water, nutrients or organisms) and account for that in conservation planning. We need to devise a way of getting connectivity issues into the existing software and allow people to set targets for flows across space and time as opposed to just assuming that the whole world is disconnected and static.

    John Woinarski, Biodiversity section, Natural Systems, Department of Infrastructure Planning and Environment, Palmerston, Northern Territory.

    I contribute to the Science Council because of my concern for the place where I live and work; northern Australia, one of the most exciting places on earth for a biologist. Here, the landscapes are large and appear little changed from their pre-European state. Here, there are lands still nurtured in the time-honoured fashion by expert Aboriginal land managers (Fig. 4). Here we can learn about how ecological processes work over vast scales and how this is dependent upon local-scale, intimate understanding and management.

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    [ Across many areas in Australia, including the north, Aboriginal people maintain an extraordinary depth of knowledge about their surroundings. Pictured here is Tom Birdingal from Doindji outstation near the Arafura Swamp, central Arnhem Land, who has a detailed knowledge of local ecosystems and traditional, conservation-based land management practices. The Science Council recognizes that Aboriginal knowledge of Australian environments can add a significantly different perspective to the understanding derived from scientific training and research and seeks to encourage a continuation of that knowledge and the land management practices that flow from it. (Photo courtesy John Woinarski.) ]

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    But these values are being diminished: the extensive lands appear to be losing elements of their fauna; ecological processes are being disrupted by broad-scale invasion of exotic plants and pests; fire regimes are becoming unsuitable; and Aboriginal land management is being lost.

    Conservation approaches developed in the largely agricultural living spaces of Europe or southern Australia will not maintain the north Australian environment and its assets. We will need a larger vision, a different set of principles and practices. WildCountry offers such an approach. It is about recognizing the value of linkages in the landscape, it is about maintaining and supporting sympathetic management of unreserved lands (such as on the extensive areas of Aboriginal lands that characterize the tenure of much of north Australia), and it is about planning for sustainable futures on a continental scale.

  • Box 4. WildCountry Projects

    Gondwana Link Project

    South-western Australia is internationally renowned as a global biodiversity hot spot. Intensive agriculture has heavily fragmented these ecosystems. An alliance of environmental and other community groups, through Gondwana Link, aims to protect and restore ecosystems across the south-east from the Margaret River in the east across to Kalgoorlie in the west.

    Gondwana Link is a formal partnership between Greening Australia, Australian Bush Heritage Fund, The Wilderness Society, Fitzgerald Biosphere Group, and the Mallee Fowl Preservation Society. Strong interest is being shown in the project by local indigenous groups. Each partner contributes to the project in ways which match their expertise.

    The Wilderness Society and the Science Council are playing a lead role in developing the scientific underpinning for the project. The Wilderness Society has appointed two new project positions: a science co-ordinator and a woodlands campaigner.

    South Australian Western Wilderness

    ‘We will support the efforts of conservationists to introduce the WildCountry philosophy into Australia to produce an Australia-wide comprehensive system of interconnected core protected areas, each surrounded and linked by lands managed under conservation objectives.’ South Australian Premier Mike Wran, Policy Statement 2002.

    Significant areas of intact Mallee-covered dunes stretch from the Eyre Peninsula to the Western Australian border. The Wilderness Society has appointed a WildCountry project officer to progress this 21 million ha Western Wilderness project and further develop partnerships among stakeholders. The South Australian Government has formed a partnership with WildCountry to help conserve this area through Science Council — based strategies, using the local project name ‘Nature Links’. The government is providing all relevant information and data held within its departments to the Science Council. Government funding is being sought for a Western Wilderness co-ordination position to be based in the Conservation Council of South Australia.

    Northern Australia

    Northern Australia is dominated by a band of tropical eucalypt forests and woodlands, grasslands, wild rivers and monsoonal wetlands. This vast savanna stretches east to west across the continent, some 2500 km wide and 100 million ha in area. It is one of the world's last great wild frontiers. Despite the intact nature of northern Australia's vegetation cover, there are significant emerging threats. In total, 16 bird species, mostly grass-seed eaters, are in decline, the Gouldian Finch and Golden-shouldered Parrot are now highly endangered, and regional extinctions of small mammals are continuing.

    The Wilderness Society has contracted the Australian National University to prepare a report on hydro-ecology in northern Australia. The Science Council has prioritized northern Australia as a critical case-study area and the information generated will be aimed at supporting the work. Research project proposals, if successful, will generate significant new understandings of ecological processes and the reasons for biodiversity decline in northern Australia.

    Cape York

    Cape York Peninsula is a vast 14 million ha area of monsoonal wilderness landscapes, including tropical rainforests, heathlands, savanna woodlands, dune fields, extensive monsoonal wetlands, and marine environments. It has one of the largest, most pristine, and least-populated woodland savanna ecosystems on earth, with more than 99% of Cape York Peninsula intact.

    A subset of the WildCountry Science Council was involved in preparing a report for the Qld Government on the Natural Heritage Significance of Cape York Peninsula (Mackey et al. 2001). This found strong hydro-ecological reasons for protecting the Cape and forms the basis of a further report (Hitchcock 2003) to provide a path to permanently exclude land clearing from high conservation value areas. The Qld Government has committed to use the report (and science team) to help develop a Cape-wide conservation plan. The Wilderness Society hopes the report will be used to progress the innovative Cape York Heads of Agreement prepared through collaboration among non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal stakeholders.

    Western Victoria

    This project stretches from the coast in Victoria's south-west, through wet forests and far inland to the semi arid mallee woodlands of south-west NSW and South Australia. The area encompasses Gariwerd (the Grampians), Little Desert and Wyperfield National Parks, and the Bookmark Biosphere Reserve. Key issues include declining biodiversity, salinity and stressed river systems.

    Discussions are underway with a range of organizations about forming partnerships for a potential cross-border Gondwana Link — style program, including: Trust for Nature Victoria, Minerals Policy Institute, Greening Australia (Vic), Portland and Hamilton Field Naturalists, Environment Victoria, Bookmark and Barkinji, Neds Corner Station, and community groups in Horsham, Natimuk and Edenhope.

    [Information in this Box was derived from material prepared by The Wilderness Society's WildCountry team.]


The WildCountry program boldly aims to offer ‘a future for Australia's wilderness and biodiversity throughout and beyond the 21st Century’. This is to be achieved through building partnerships — one of the most important being a formal partnership with ecologists.

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