Springbrook Rescue
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The Science

Goals and objectivesConceptual modelsProjects

Our great challenge is to restore ancient ecological communities that were stable and resilient habitats of many plants and animals for well over twenty million years until they were cleared, often many times, during the last century.

Restoring these degraded rainforest landscapes to anything like their original state, even if that is possible under greatly changed conditions, is much more than simply letting nature take its course or planting and weeding then hoping for the best. To intervene unnecessarily can be costly, potentially risking failure. Not to act when action is required is definitely risking failure. Knowing when and when not to act becomes crucial. A scientific approach becomes essential.

To restore damaged landscapes, one needs to try to understand how the original ecosystem works, the history of disturbance that led to the current state, and the nature of damage done not just to the vegetation, individual species and their habitats but to the physical environment and all the complex interactions between components as well (Hobbs 2007).

Scientific studies increasingly reveal the complexity and unpredictability of ecological systems. Their capacity to transform rapidly, unexpectedly, often irreversibly, into quite different states with different form and functions, seems to be more the norm than otherwise. Lake systems can suddenly switch from clear to eutrophic states from which recovery is difficult extremely slow or impossible. Coral reefs can degrade extremely rapidly from over-fishing to a radically different state from which recovery is not guaranteed. Rangelands can shift to woody-dominance from over-grazing. Salinity can suddenly and mostly irreversibly materialize after clearing. Radical range shifts in forest species is now happening within just a few years from massive die-offs caused by climate change that has already occurred. We can no longer assume ecosystems will automatically recover from disturbance, or that our active interventions will be appropriate or successful.

To complicate matters even more, some scientists believe mountain-top rainforests - cloud forests - are the most threatened by climate change because this climatic zone contracts or disappears entirely with warming. The longer we wait, the harder it may get, so the task is both urgent and complex. We have to learn to deal with complexity and uncertainty. Thankfully, it is possible.

Ecological theory explaining sharp transitions between alternative stable states is still in its infancy but concepts of ‘criticality’, ‘resilience’ and feedback processes in ecosystems need to be addressed. Restoration projects can provide vital data to advance these theories further.

Clearly, restoration ecology and ecological restoration are inextricably linked as two-way processes. As much as restoration benefits from science, it also provides ideal opportunities for testing and advancing ecological theory. Springbrook provides exceptional opportunities because of the very compressed ecological gradients within a relatively small, readily accessible area. One would have to travel many hundreds of kilometres to find equivalent opportunities on the lowlands.

Our science strategy sets out:

  1. clear goals to measure progress against, consistent with internationally recognised requirements for achieving ecologically resistant and resilient communities,
  2. conceptual ecological models that will help us detect, predict and adaptively manage possible regime changes to favour restoration,
  3. the design principles for field studies enabling resilience concepts to be addressed,
  4. specific research and monitoring programs including wireless sensor networks to gather vital information at ecologically meaningful scales,
  5. protocols for monitoring, evaluation, review and improvement of the whole ecological restoration strategy,
  6. the scientists actively involved or guiding the strategy, and
  7. protocols for reporting of results both in-house and for peer review.
Miller, J.R. and Hobbs, R.J. (2007) Habitat restoration — Do we know what we’re doing? Restoration Ecology 15, 382–390.

Growth measurements on Warblers

Conducting seasonal growth measurements on Pallida

Measuring plant stress levels

Carrying out plant identifications

Surveying bird species in regenerating scientific plots

Reading coordinates of grid markers established with a differential GPS

Locating monitoring grids with a differential GPS accurate to 30 cm.

ARCS Weather Station

Sensor nodes ready for the field

Dendrometer for measuring growth

Marking regeneration on Ashimha

Marking regeneration amongst whiskey grass on Pallida

Upper slopes on Pallida 5/02/2007