What we don’t value, we don’t protect

This weekend I had the privilege to join an agroforestry farm tour in Bambra, held by Rowan Reid, author of Heartwood, which I previously reviewed here. Apart from being in a beautiful part of the world, the farm was his home and also laboratory. Claire and Rowan lived there since 1987 and planted and cared for a lot of trees. Rowan’s main aim is to prove that it makes economical and environmental sense to plant specialty timber trees on farms and near riparian areas to restore biodiversity and generate an income from it.

There he goes contrary to current conservation philosophy in Australia and many other countries, that to protect the environment, we must not interfere with it. National Parks are reserved for walkers but you shalt not leave thy path. Rowan thinks that habitat can be created smarter and faster by human interference. Small scale, selective intervention is desirable to generate an economic return and keep the landowner caring for what he planted.

He is opposed to grants for fencing off riparian areas (areas near rivers and creeks) because if no continuous economic incentive exists for the landholder to maintain or declare an area for conservation, why would they do it? Many riparian areas in Victoria are severely degraded, accessible by cows and other livestock and further eroding.

In one example Rowan explained the creation of tree hollows. Tree hollows provide valuable habitat for possums or in his instance, sugar gliders. They are very cute. In nature it would take a reasonably old tree and a chance occurrence to drop a large limb at the right spot to create a suitable hollow. With management, he could provide exactly the right size hollow in a fraction of the time. But in a protected conservation area, he would never be able to cut a tree limb off to create that hollow.

Rethinking our definition of conservation

What I found fascinating was his use of exotic species. Bill Mollison and David Holmgren have been talking of this for decades, but Rowan Reid was a lecturer at a prestigious university for a long time and it was refreshing to hear him talk about this topic. Because of changing climate patterns and more extreme events in the future due to climate change, he is experimenting and consciously introducing species from New South Wales into his experimental plantings.
In the future, more heat stress and longer periods of drought might make the native species a bad match for the future. Trees are long lived, so if we want to be able to create habitat and benefit from our plantings, we need to think ahead and start now to plant these trees. The city of Melbourne have also started to plant New South Wales rainforest species as part of their urban forest strategy. But not specifically as trees for conservation and profit.

Faster and better

But it’s not enough to plant the right species and relax in the hammock. Rowan prunes his trees continuously every year up to 8 m height to get the best quality sawlogs. Pruning was demonstrated at the tour and didn’t take very long at all. Because he prunes the trees, he can plant them further apart and so dramatically increase the growth rate. Another trick is to provide flexible stakes and high plastic guards to protect the seedlings from browsing animals and provide humidity and protection. He plants cultivars with a straight growth habit and good quality timber. There is also a solar powered drying kiln and a bandsaw on his property to do the value-adding himself.

All of this adds up to a practical approach to conservation, rethinking Australian forestry and caring for the land. I want to see more landholders adopt a visionary approach like his to their waterways and tree plantings, for now and future generations.