Revegetation Success: How to make good on environmental promises
The headlines from the UN Climate Change Conference in 2021 boasted that Australia and 123 other countries had agreed to restore 350 million hectares of degraded forest landscapes to reaffirm “the conservation, protection, sustainable management and restoration of forests, and other terrestrial ecosystems.”1
Certainly, the big numbers around land restoration are heartening to hear. But big numbers don’t capture what’s beyond the shovel & hardhat photo-op. To achieve the long-term economic, environmental and social benefits global leaders seek, we must acknowledge the ‘natural laws’ projects must abide by. Namely, plant suitability and appropriate timelines.
The shadow side to PR-led pledge-making is that many well-intentioned governments and carbon reduction businesses set out with a lofty goal – restore biodiversity and lower carbon emissions – only to see their plants and financial investment wither in the Western Australian heat a few months later.
Failed revegetation projects don’t just fall short on environmental impact. Ecologists warn that poorly designed and executed plans can do more harm than good, wasting resources, money and public goodwill.2 When there’s so much at stake, why do so many projects fail?
Fail to plan, plan to fail
The adage “fail to plan, plan to fail” couldn’t be more true for revegetation projects. Wishful planning, unrealistic timelines and last-minute decisions are behind many failures, but external factors get the blame.
Revegetation is similar to baking – if one ingredient is out of proportion, the recipe will likely fall flat. The star ingredient here, of course, is location-appropriate native plants. Specific species thrive in particular conditions; when chosen correctly, healthy growth is more likely. It might sound obvious, but why spend money on plants when they may not grow?
Choosing the wrong plants can mean costly workarounds, such as soil amendments, which can fuel weeds (if it has a high weed seed load), resulting in money spent on weed control (and smothering seedling planting). Soil amendments aren’t necessary when the right plants are selected.
Revegetation decision-makers know the importance of appropriate plant selection. The problem? Projects are often started too late and then rushed, which means organisers have few options than to substitute plants for those that may not be ideal for the region.
On average, it takes 6-9 months to produce revegetation tubestock (some species well over this) and that’s without factoring in obtaining a quality seed supply, which is proving more difficult. The timeframe means organisations and environmental services should start planning early to choose species suitable to the region and landscape design.
Revegetation can be compared to baking – if one ingredient is slightly off, the recipe will likely fail.
The greed of weeds
Native plants aren’t the only ingredient that can hinder the success of a project. “Poor plant performance” is often a case of weed infestation. Weeds compete with natives for space, water and nutrients. Introduced species can be efficient at syphoning resources which ultimately hinders native regrowth. They also change and simplify the composition of vegetation communities, reducing their habitat value for native animals – not ideal for a biodiversity project. In short? Weeds are the enemy of local ecology and wider biodiversity – everything we are trying to achieve with revegetation.
Weed infestation isn’t just luck of the draw, it’s derived from poor management and planning. Projects utilising the direct seeding of native plants to the landscape run the risk of broadcasting seeds to compete with weeds. Subsequent management dictates that weed control through herbicide applications post-planting risks murderously killing young native seedlings along with the weeds. Direct seeding should only be considered when the risk of weed load is extremely low.
Rushed revegetation projects mean there’s no time to plan for advanced weed control prior to planting season – another contributing factor to failed projects. A comprehensive weed control plan avoids weed infestation and problems linked with controlling them, enabling the native seedlings to establish and thrive long-term.
Why Revegetation projects fail
Early engagement with a plant partner
And here we come back to planning. As Saul Elbein so aptly said in National Geographic, “forests are complex and intricately adapted to the land they grow on”, and it’s not as simple as growing more trees.3 As much as we want good intentions to make lasting change, planning is integral to long-term success.
Planning is integral to the long-term success of revegetation works.
How can you plan properly? Engaging key stakeholders early, particularly nurseries or plant suppliers, is a great start. Contacting nurseries at the landscape design stage is almost always too late for optimal biodiversity outcomes. It leaves limited time for sourcing seed (if required) and growing the stock, as well as actioning any feedback on plant selection, landscape design and post-plant nurture – subjects your plant producer is an expert in.
Experienced plant suppliers like Plantrite offer more than natives for a land restoration project. They provide strategic direction, helping governments and businesses avoid costly mistakes, and ensure a successful project.
Native partners provide
Engaging a plant supply partner as early as possible — even prior to land works — will mean your project can deliver on your promises. You will achieve long-term sustainability, and economic and social benefits – the big changes we’re all working towards.