Trails on trial: which human uses are OK for protected areas?

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Mountain biking seems harmless but can damage soil and scare wildlife.

Bill Laurance, James Cook University and David Salt, Australian National University

There’s no question about it: parks and protected areas are the absolute cornerstone of our efforts to protect nature. In the long term, we can’t save wildlife and ecosystems without them.

But people want to use parks too, and in rapidly growing numbers. Around the world, parks are destinations for recreational activities like hiking, bird-watching and camping, as well as noisier affairs such as mountain-biking, snowmobiling and four-wheel-driving.

Where do we draw the line?

Road risks

Let’s start by looking at the roads that take us into and through parks. They can be a double-edged sword.

Roads are needed to allow tourists to access parks, but we have to be very careful where and how we build them.

Road for an industrial gold mine slicing through Panamanian rainforest.
Susan Laurance

In regions where law enforcement is weak, roads can rip apart a forest — sharply increasing illegal activities such as poaching, deforestation and mining.

According to my (Bill’s) research, new roads – often driven by foreign mining or timber investors from nations such as China – could damage up to a third of all the protected areas in sub-Saharan Africa.

Read more:
The global road-building explosion is shattering nature

In Nouabale Ndoke Park in the Congo Basin, poaching wasn’t a big problem until a new road was built along the edge of the park.

Suddenly the fatal rak-rak-rak of AK-47 rifles – often aimed at elephants by ivory poachers – was being heard all too often.

Bill Laurance examines a forest elephant slaughtered by poachers in the Congo. The elephant’s face had been hacked off to extract its valuable ivory tusks.
Mahmoud Mahmoud

Trails on trial

Roads are one thing, but what about a simple bike trail or walking track? They let in people too. But they are harmless, right?

Not always. A 2010 Canadian study found that mountain biking causes a range of environmental impacts, including tyres chewing up the soil, causing compaction and erosion. This is a significant problem for fragile alpine vegetation in mountainous areas where many bikers like to explore.

Rapidly moving cyclists can also scare wildlife. In North America and Europe, many wild species, such as bears, wolves, caribou and bobcats, have been shown to flee or avoid areas frequented by hikers or bikers.

In Indonesia, even trails used by ecotourists and birdwatchers scared away some sensitive wildlife species or caused them to shift to being active only at night.

The red panda, an endangered species. Some wildlife avoid areas with even limited human use.

Every type of human activity – be it hiking or biking or horse riding — has its own signature impact on nature. We simply don’t know the overall effect of human recreation on parks and protected areas globally.

However, a study earlier this year found that roughly one-third of all terrestrial protected areas worldwide – a staggering 6 million square kilometres, an area bigger than Kenya – is already under “intense” human pressure.

Read more:
One-third of the world’s nature reserves are under threat from humans

Roads, mines, industrial logging, farms, townships and cities all threaten these supposedly protected places. And on top of that are the impacts – probably lesser but still unquantified – of more benign human activities aimed at enjoying nature.

Keep people out?

Is the answer to stop people from visiting parks?

Not really. Visitors in many parts of the world help to fund the operation of national parks, and provide vital income for local people.

Exposure to nature is also one of the best ways to enhance human health, build support for environmental protection, and generate political momentum for the establishment of new protected areas.

A hiker in the Leuser Ecosystem, Indonesia.
William Laurance

What’s more, locking people out of land is a very unpopular thing to do. Governments that block people from accessing nature reserves often face an electoral backlash.

How to manage humanity

If we accept that people must be able to use parks, what’s the best way to limit their impacts on ecosystems and wildlife? One way is to encourage them to stay on designated trails and tourist routes.

A recent study (using geotagged data from photos) showed that half of all photos by park visitors were taken in less than 1% of each park.

In other words, most visitors use only a small, highly trafficked part of each park. That’s good news for nature.

If people tend to limit their activities to the vicinity of pretty waterfalls, spectacular vistas, and designated hiking areas, that leaves much of the park available for sensitive animals and ecosystems.

Forest elephants in Central Africa. In the past decade, two-thirds of all forest elephants have been wiped out by poachers and expanding roads.
Thomas Breuer/ Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

There are many opportunities for practical science and management. We want to help design protected areas in a way that lets people enjoy them – but which also focuses their activities in particular areas while retaining large intact areas where wildlife can roam free with little human disturbance.

And while we’re designing our parks, we want to use every opportunity, and every visit, to educate and empower tourists. We need people using parks to understand, appreciate, and stand up for nature, rather than thinking of parks as simply playgrounds.The Conversation

Bill Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor and Australian Laureate, James Cook University and David Salt, Science writer and editor, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


The new electric vehicle highway is a welcome gear shift, but other countries are still streets ahead

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Motorists and governments have each been waiting for the other to take the plunge on electric cars.

Iftekhar Ahmad, Edith Cowan University

Perhaps buoyed by a 67% increase in the sale of electric cars in Australia last year – albeit coming off a low base – the federal government this month announced a A$6 million funding injection for a network of ultra-fast electric vehicle recharging stations.

Eighteen stations will be located no more than 200km apart on the main highway linking Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and Adelaide. A further three stations will be built near Perth. All will be powered by renewable energy.

The network will address the issue of “range anxiety” – the fear that your car will run out of puff before reaching its destination – that particularly concerns motorists in a country as big as Australia. If your electric vehicle needs charging every 200km or so, that’s a lot of stopping between Sydney and Melbourne – and what if you can’t find a charging station?

The newest electric vehicles can cover up to 594km on a single charge. That improvement, together with the new charging network, will do much to address range anxiety. But as is often the case, the devil may be in the detail.

Read more:
Australia’s ‘electric car revolution’ won’t happen automatically

We don’t yet know how many fast-charging ports will be available at each station, but the number of ports is often limited due to high infrastructure costs. Even a fast charge takes about 15 minutes, so queues are likely. If a 10-minute wait at your local petrol station irritates you, imagine waiting an hour or more at an electric recharge station.

But the new network is undoubtedly a step forward, and such progress is necessary to keep electric-curious prospective motorists in the game. Of that 67% increase in electric vehicles sales mentioned earlier, the vast majority are business fleet vehicles. Private car buyers are still slow to take the plunge.

Australia is in the midst of a classic chicken-and-egg situation when it comes to growing the electric vehicle market, with the result that we’re well behind where we should be. Buyers want to see more infrastructure and perhaps some government-funded incentives (just look what a A$2,000 subsidy scheme did for the LPG market). But governments need to be confident that people will definitely buy electric cars before taking the plunge.

The power you’re supplying… it’s electrifying

Now that there’s some movement afoot from both parties, there’s a third player to consider: the electricity utilities.

If most electric vehicle owners plug in their vehicle when they get home from work of an evening – just as many of us let our phone run down during the day and then throw it on the kitchen-bench charger when we walk in the door – this could pose significant problems for the electricity grid.

According to one British estimate, as few as six cars charging at the same time on a street at peak times could lead to local brownouts (a drop in voltage supply). That might sound extreme, but it’s fair to say that daily electric car charging collectively shortens the life of electricity infrastructure such as transformers.

For this reason, my colleagues and I have researched smart charging strategies aimed at preventing the peak load period for electric car charging from overlapping with the residential peak.

The issue is even more acute when using domestic renewable energy, because of the “duck curve” – which shows the timing imbalance between peak demand and peak renewable energy production. As the name suggests, the graph is shaped like a duck.

Read more:
Slash Australians’ power bills by beheading a duck at night

The duck curve can be smoothed out with the help of power storage technologies such as batteries, and by behavioural change on the part of consumers (such as temporal load shifting).

The right network

Our model can also help electric vehicle owners find a nearby charging station with the least estimated waiting time and cost, in real time. This also opens up a new avenue for the electric utilities, which can work with charging service providers to adjust the prices at different charging locations so as to to distribute the load evenly across the charging network, and reduce waiting times into the bargain.

Unfortunately the utility companies don’t seem particularly interested yet, perhaps because it’s not an immediate problem. But it soon will be if the take-up of electric vehicles continues on its current trajectory.

Read more:
Negative charge: why is Australia so slow at adopting electric cars?

It’s unfortunate that Australia is lagging behind other developed countries when it comes to electric vehicle adoption. But this can work in our favour if we learn from other countries and take a more systematic approach. A lot can be achieved through proper planning.

In Australia we’ll need to see continued and better marketing of both the advantages of reducing emissions (electric vehicles are essential for the long-term decarbonisation of the electricity and transport sectors), as well as clearer cost-benefit analysis of the economic savings that can be made through personal and government investment in electric vehicles.The Conversation

Iftekhar Ahmad, Associate Professor, Edith Cowan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Spinifex grass would like us to stop putting out bushfires, please

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Bill Hails/The Conversarion

Kristian Bell, Deakin University

Sign up to Beating Around the Bush, a series that profiles native plants: part gardening column, part dispatches from country, entirely Australian.

Spinifex grass: it’s spiky, dominates a quarter of the continent, and has no recognised grazing value. To top it all off, people have reportedly experienced anaphylactic shock from being pricked by its sharp leaf tips.

Given this less-than-stellar rap sheet, you may wonder why this plant is the subject of my research attention.

Well, it turns out that these less desirable traits are also its virtue. A plethora of birds, mammals and reptiles rely on the unique plant for their survival – to such an extent that it’s considered a keystone of its environment.

For animals small enough to navigate its sharp spines, spinifex offers a fortress of safety. Everything from mallee emu wrens, to hopping mice, to the near-mythical night parrot hide out from predators in spinifex (and snack on tasty termites and ants within).

Read more:
Still here: Night Parrot rediscovery in WA raises questions for mining

For me, as an immigrant from the grey and drizzly lands of the UK, the bone-dry arid outback of Australia – where even the grass can harm you – was the perfect antidote to the dull, predictable safety of home.

This weird-looking plant, which always seemed to be associated with huge numbers of equally exotic animals, was so intoxicatingly new to me that I fell in love instantly. This lead to my current research: trying to stop the decline of spinifex.

The Conversation, CC BY

Spinifex isn’t really spinifex

To back up a little, the common name “spinifex” is a bit misleading. There’s a genus called Spinifex (mostly made up of coastal grasses), but spinifex grass doesn’t belong to it. Spinifex grass is actually part of the genus Triodia.

There are two main kinds of spinifex: an older, harder form suited to arid environments which generally grows in the south of Australia; and a “soft” form, which tends to perform better in more tropical, northerly regions.

Regardless of species, spinifex is well adapted to thrive in some of the harshest environments in Australia, growing in well-drained, infertile, sandy soils. It can cope with extremes of long-term drought and responds well to fire.

Spinifex emerging after a fire.
Author provided

You might think, given the near-ubiquity of spinifex across the arid wildernesses of Australia, and its ability to withstand poor soils, infrequent rain, extreme temperatures and fire, that this hardy plant is free from the almost inevitable stories of doom and gloom associated with many native species.

However, all is not well for some spinifex communities. Spinifex in mallee woodland, such as can be found in south-central New South Wales, has suffered from heavy clearing (mostly for agriculture), with only about 3% remaining from pre-European settlement levels.

Counterintuitively, firefighting efforts in these areas may have also hurt spinifex. Bushfires clear the land and help new spinifex plants grow; in their absence, old and decaying plants dominate. This means the habitat degrades, which could spell disaster for the many animals that rely on abundant, healthy spinifex.

Read more:
Aboriginal fire management – part of the solution to destructive bushfires

Spinifex is such an important species that its disappearance could even precipitate an extinction cascade. Indeed, studies suggest that some reptiles rely on spinifex habitat to survive in remnant bush in farming landscapes.

Despite these issues, there is plenty to be hopeful about. Spinifex has recently attracted more attention from industry as an abundant and under-used resource, building on what many Indigenous people have known for centuries. Spinifex has traditionally been used by some Indigenous people to craft waterproof thatching for shelters, or as a source of adhesive resin.

Spinifex covers vast swathes of Australia.
Thomas Jundt/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Recent technological advances may make the plant’s nanocellulose easier to extract. That means spinifex could be a component of everything from cardboard to carbon fibre, fire hose liner, cattle tags, and even condoms.

Researchers in the field – like me – are also starting to gain a better understanding of the factors that affect spinifex. We’re creating maps of grass distribution, and reintroducing fire to areas with significant amounts of spinifex.

Read more:
Leek orchids are beautiful, endangered and we have no idea how to grow them

Returning from time in the field with hands covered in more spinifex splinters than I can count has done nothing to dampen my ardour for this overlooked group of grasses. After all, what’s not to love about a unique plant found nowhere else in the world, that provides a refuge for some of Australia’s most iconic animals, and may also lead to safer sex in the future? No matter how many times it pricks me, I’m still coming back for more.

Sign up to Beating Around the Bush, a series that profiles native plants: part gardening column, part dispatches from country, entirely Australian.The Conversation

Kristian Bell, PhD candidate, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.