Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

A Corridor to Where?

By Carina Wyborn

Connectivity conservation has been framed as a positive contribution that individuals can make in the face of the dual crisis of biodiversity loss and climate change. What is it and why should we pay attention?

In a relatively short period of time, “connectivity conservation” initiatives have popped up across the continent and the Federal government has just released a draft National Wildlife Corridor Plan. Connectivity conservation combines a focus on the protection, retention and rehabilitation of natural connections in the landscape with an explicit commitment to social values and collaborative land management. Initiatives that aim to build connectivity challenge existing conservation management in three ways:

• they represent a shift in focus from conserving “sites and species” to one on landscapes and processes;

• they operate on a very large scale – many initiatives cover multiple bioregions and jurisdictions; and

• they are transforming the role of government in conservation. The alliances behind many of our national biolink projects are being driven by non-government organisations, with the government playing an equal or secondary role.

The National Wildlife Corridor Plan is about providing a foundation to support these collaborative, tenure-blind approaches to whole-of-landscape conservation.

Through the catchphrase of “connecting people, connecting landscapes”, ecological connectivity has been reframed into a powerful metaphor inspiring the creation of a range of initiatives seeking to connect vast swathes of the Australian landscape. The rapid uptake and popularity of connectivity initiatives is surprising.

Why the great excitement? On one level it’s because people seem to intuitively understand the concept of connectivity and corridors. This is what one leading landscape ecologist had to say when I interviewed him for an up-and-coming paper on connectivity science:

I think that intuitively it is an appealing concept to conservation groups and to people. Here we’ve got highly disturbed, fragmented landscapes, so connect them up. It’s also because it’s something that can be done, at the scale of what individual people can do… at a local scale, you could feel you are actually doing something in the larger continental corridor.

Exciting people about connection between the local scale and the big picture is empowering. By being part of these initiatives your actions will contribute to a greater whole. By working together, individuals can make a difference.

Unfortunately, the story is not quite so simple. Despite the popularity and momentum of connectivity conservation, many researchers are questioning the value of large-scale connectivity projects.

Connectivity initiatives seek to protect remnants, manage threatening processes, promote conservation on private land and integrate resource management across land tenures. This loose amalgamation of actions led one leading Australian ecologist to claim that “the true scientific meaning of connectivity is very different from what the conservation community are doing.” In theory, connectivity is a measure of dispersal in the landscape, but in practice it has come to represent much more.

Putting the science of connectivity into a management context conceptually shifts the task of land management. Rather than thinking about landscapes as static patches managed by a single management interest working within their property boundaries, connectivity requires a land manager to think about ecological processes and function in a landscape. It requires thinking on a larger landscape scale and requires collaboration. Collaboration is fundamental given that large landscapes cut across multiple land tenures and jurisdictions.

The challenge of bringing together players from across the public/private spectrum should not be understated, as each organisation is shaped and constrained by their unique culture, objectives, values and legislation. The success of these alliances will depend on their ability to accommodate diverse expectations and motivations of players while enabling the group to work towards a common vision.

Given this, these initiatives are going to fail without secure (and adequate) base funding to support collaboration, communication and the building of institutional capacity. The draft Wildlife Corridors Plan claims to provide a framework to support this approach yet it provides no detail how the money will be distributed and what the support will be.

Connectivity conservation promotes a positive vision for restoration and land management (as opposed to the more traditional approach of conservationists rattling off depressing statistics).

Discounting connectivity conservation is like throwing the baby out with the bath water. Ultimately this is about approaching and understanding connectivity in a more holistic manner and looking at the bigger picture of the social and institutional landscape rather than getting stuck examining the detail.

Carina Wyborn is a PhD student working on the social dimensions of connectivity science. She is based at the Australian National University and is associated with the Environmental Decisions Group.