The kiwi landscape architect working to save the Australian bush
A radio documentary about Australia’s Gondwana Link project in the country’s southwest led Kiwi landscape architect Simon Smale on a whole new adventure.
At the time he was 55 and loving working for the Department of Conservation in Rotorua. But the suicide of one of his four children a few years earlier had left him feeling he needed to throw caution to the wind and take a leap into the unknown.
“I’d spent a couple of years grinding on then thought I need to go somewhere really different,” Simon Smale said. “I’d been interested in working in Western Australia since taking my young family on a 2-month, 11,000-kilometre road trip from Perth to the Northern Territory border back in 1996, and I was keen to work on a landscape-scale restoration project.
“By chance I heard this doco, and then a few weeks later I came across a job advertisement on the project. They flew me over, I met the people, visited Albany where I now live and I thought ‘yeah I’ll have a crack at this.’”
That was in 2008 and he’s still there. Not in the same job - the original position wasn’t really for him so he quickly found another with a different partner on the Gondwana Link project.
His official title now is Bush Heritage South Coast Healthy Landscapes Manager. What that translates to is property manager/relationship manager/contract manager/financial manager (for his properties) and fundraiser.
Bush Heritage Australia is a national not for profit conservation organisation which buys land assessed as being of outstanding conservation value. It has 37 nature reserves totalling over one million hectares across Australia. It also partners with indigenous and agricultural land owners to assist with conservation management of another five million hectares, largely on traditionally-owned country across the Top End.
It’s a major contributor to the Gondwana Link. Smale manages six Bush Heritage properties within Gondwana Link.
The southwestern corner of Australia - where the Gondwana Link project is - is internationally recognised as a biodiversity hotspot, partly because of its species diversity, but also because those species and communities are at risk from a host of environmental assaults.
It’s seen as a visionary initiative that will effectively link the ecosystems of inland Western Australia with the wetter forests of the southwest corner, enhancing protection of existing bush, and extending and reconnecting habitat across a landscape that has been fragmented mostly within the last 50 years.
“It’s a place that’s got extraordinary diversity of flora - there’s about 8000 indigenous plant species in the southwest,” Smale says. “It has about 30 percent of Australia’s plant species in just 5% of it’s area.”
“That’s almost entirely due to the fact that it’s so old, with no major disturbance for over 200 million years. There’s been no volcanoes, no earthquakes, no glaciation. The rocks under this landscape are the oldest on earth - up to 4.5 billion years. They date back to the origins of earth.”
The ground though is infertile. There’s no real soil, just sand, gravel, white, red or grey clay; every few metres it changes. Plant distributions are mostly very localised, with an extraordinary array of different vegetation associations forming a fine-scale and highly heterogeneous vegetation pattern across the landscape. And this pattern is relatively static, because the flora is dispersal-limited. Unlike in New Zealand and many other places, seed doesn’t travel far.
Apart from emus, there are not a lot a lot of seed-distributing birds – there are lots of honeyeaters instead, because Australia is the most nectar-rich place on the planet. Ants eat seeds but they don’t transport them very far.
“In fact ants are one of the challenges when we do direct seeding. They steal the seeds away to their nests,” Smale says.
These characteristics make for particular challenges in the restoration work. Seed mixes are carefully matched to location and soil type to achieve a reasonable match with existing natural systems.
“If we get it badly wrong”, says Smale, “the relatively static nature of the landscape here means that our mistakes may be manifest for a very long time, and we may fail completely to restore the landscape to the self-sustaining, self-replicating natural system that is our objective”.
Summer is a nerve-wracking time of year for Smale because of the threat of bushfires. They occur every year and sometimes they’re fatal.
He works closely with local bushfire brigades, doing regular training. Part of his job entails writing wildfire response plans and sending them out to neighbours, local authorities and stakeholders every year.
He’s about to commission plans for patch mosiac burning - informed by traditional aboriginal burning patterns. It’s a system of using patches of small, low intensity, cooler fire to sweep through the understorey of the bush.
“It’s the way the Aboriginal people managed the whole of Australia - they call it right-way fires,” Smale says. “These fires don’t develop into the fast, hot wildfires that we get now and that do all the damage and kill people.”
That’s because fuel loads - the build-up of dry plant material - are kept at low levels by these controlled fires.
Some of the reserves have a lot of species that need fire to regenerate themselves, including many of the proteaceous species – Banksias, Hakeas, Grevilleas and so on – for which the region is famed, and which are such an important food source for nectar-feeding birds and mammals including the mouse-sized Honey Possum, the only mammal in the world that survives entirely on nectar and pollen.
While Smale says he’s the happiest he’s ever been he’ll be heading home to New Zealand in a couple of years.
“I should be retired already,” he says. “The Australian government isn’t very kindly disposed to New Zealanders these days. They don’t want to support me in my retirement.”
His major initiative for this year is the establishment of a Field Station out in the project area that will provide an operational base for Bush Heritage. The accommodation and work space will allow for a significant increase in volunteer and research involvement in the project, and will serve as a visitor destination for the many donors, philanthropists, scientists and restoration practitioners Bush Heritage hosts.
“The Field Station will be the springboard for a whole new phase of expansion on the project, and will provide a great platform for someone with youthful energy and fresh ideas to take it to the next level,” Smale says.
So there’ll be a job going in southwest Australia if anyone’s interested. Smale highly recommends it.
“I live and work in a stunning part of the world. It’s a great community (in Albany where he lives: population 35,000). There’s heaps of music, bushwalking, kayaking, surfing (lots of sharks too); it’s all granite coast, turquoise water and white sand so fine that it squeaks under your toes.”
And you get to work on one of the world’s most ambitious conservation projects.