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Mitigating mining's enigmatic ecological impacts in Australia's Great Western Woodlands
I am a conservation ecologist interested in integrating field ecology with practical conservation, well-founded policy, and wise, informed decision-making for improved conservation outcomes. I am particularly interested in the conservation of ecological interactions and processes that sustain biodiversity in relatively intact systems; finding solutions to complex problems regarding environmental conservation and development; and understanding the ways in which our appreciation of, and connection to nature affect the ecological legacy we create.
Prior to embarking upon PhD studies, I worked as an environmental officer at the Western Australian Department of Water, investigating climate change, forest management, and bauxite mining impacts on forested streams in the south-west of Western Australia (and I now maintain this role part-time). I have also worked with Friends of the Earth Middle East on regional climate change impacts in the Middle East, and conducted my honours research on the threat of Phytophthora dieback to plants of significance for Noongar people on the south coast of Western Australia with the Centre for Phytophthora Science and Management at Murdoch University.
My current research is focused on improving our understanding of the regional impacts of mining and exploration in southwestern Australia’s Great Western Woodlands, an internationally significant area of great biological richness. In particular, this research targets ‘enigmatic ecological impacts’: ecological impacts of development that are not systematically accounted for in impact evaluations, and that undermine the potential for successful impact mitigation. This work is aimed at informing improved decisions regarding planning, approving, managing and offsetting extensive developments in the Great Western Woodlands, and other intact landscapes elsewhere.
This research consists of:
1. A review of ecological impacts that are frequently overlooked in impact evaluations but that continue to cause ecological loss and degradation, with a proposed framework for conceptualising and addressing these issues published in the highly-ranked journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution.
2. A spatial analysis of ground disturbance in the Great Western Woodlands using Geographic Information Systems software to identify and characterise cumulative impacts and areas within disturbance buffers, as well as associations between disturbed areas and disturbance types, land tenure, tenement history, and selected environmental values. A key outcome of this work has been the identification of roads, tracks and other linear infrastructure corridors as major components of the disturbance regime, despite their impacts being particularly poorly understood (the following sections go some way toward addressing this knowledge gap).
3. An observational field investigation using motion-sensor cameras and spoor (scats, prints, etc.) surveys to understand the effects of roads and tracks on predator activity within relatively intact landscapes.
4. A survey of ephemeral drainage lines, erosional features, and water pooling features, and their association with linear infrastructure corridors to characterise and quantify the type and extent of impacts of linear infrastructure on water movement across landscapes.
Further reading: Raiter, KG, Possingham, HP, Prober, SM, Hobbs, RJ, 2014 Under the radar: mitigating enigmatic ecological impacts, Trends in Ecology and Evolution, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2014.09.003.
The Great Western Woodlands is an internationally significant area of great biological richness, owing partly to its 250 million year continuous biological heritage, its location at the interzone between the moist southwest corner of Australia and the arid interior, and its relative intactness. At 16 million hectares, the Great Western Woodlands represents the largest remaining temperate woodland on earth, and is the driest place in which such tall woodlands grow. The region comprises a mosaic of woodland; shrubland; mallee; casuarina and melaleuca thickets; rocky outcrops; halophytic vegetation; salt lakes; and banded ironstone formations.The area is home to almost one third of Australia’s eucalypt taxa and well over 3000 flowering plant species (more than twice the number that occur in the whole of the UK), as well as many species that occur nowhere else in the world.
The Great Western Woodlands is also a very rich and productive mineral province, with 134 operating mines and 119,303 ‘abandoned mines’ registered within its boundaries, as well as more than 5000 current mineral tenements covering more than 60% of the region. Mining in the region mainly targets gold, nickel and iron ore, but commercial quantities of silver, copper, cobalt, gypsum, salt, and construction materials are also extracted. However, beyond the site-by-site scape, the impacts of mineral exploration and mining ore are poorly understood and accounted for, despite being spatially extensive and a suite of legislation and initiatives aimed at mitigating impacts and protecting the region’s natural values.
Prudent strategic assessment and comprehensive mitigation that accounts for all impacts — even enigmatic ones — could provide improved environmental and land-use planning outcomes while potentially benefiting development proponents by providing greater upfront guidance and certainty of access to specified areas, and enhancing their ‘social licence to operate’.
This research will contribute to efforts to conserve in perpetuity a relatively intact ecosystem that dates back to Gondwanan times and is internationally significant for its biodiversity and wilderness values. It is also an area cherished by its traditional owners in the cultural and spiritual connections they have with the land, and by many others who prize the region and its unique landscape.