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Wilderness and future conservation priorities in Australia


*James E.M. Watson, The University of Queensland, The Ecology Centre, St Lucia, Qld 4072, Australia.


Aim  Most approaches to conservation prioritization are focused on biodiversity features that are already threatened. While this is necessary in the face of accelerating anthropogenic threats, there have been calls to conserve large intact landscapes, often termed ‘wilderness’, to ensure the long-term persistence of biodiversity. In this study, we examine the consequences of directing conservation expenditure using a threat-based framework for wilderness conservation.

Location  The Australian continent.

Methods  We measured the degree of congruence between the extent of wilderness and the Australian protected area network in 2000 and 2006, which was established using a threat-based systematic planning framework. We also assessed priority areas for future reserve acquisitions identified by the Australian government under the current framework.

Results  In 2000, 14% of Australia’s wilderness was under formal protection, while the protected area network covered only 8.5% of the continent, suggesting a historical bias towards wilderness protection. However, the expansion of the reserve system from 2000 to 2006 was biased towards non-wilderness areas. Moreover, 90% of the wilderness that was protected over this period comprised areas not primarily designated for biodiversity conservation. We found a significant (P < 0.05) negative relationship between bioregions considered to be a priority for future reserve prioritization and the amount of wilderness they contain.

Main conclusions  While there is an urgent need to overcome past biases in reserve network design so as to better protect poorly represented species and habitats, prioritization approaches should not become so reactive as to ignore the role that large, intact landscapes play in conserving biodiversity, especially in a time of human-induced climate change. This can be achieved by using current or future threats rather than past threats to prioritize areas, and by incorporating key ecological processes and costs of acquisition and management within the planning framework.