Justin Jonson: Leadership in ecological restoration

Narrator: Welcome to Heartland Journeys, and to the ecological restoration underway in the central zone of Gondwana Link, between the wetter forests and the Great Western Woodlands. This work is largely taking place on land cleared for agriculture and is part of an ambitious program to re-connect wildlife habitats across south-western Australia. 

Restoration ecologist Justin Jonson has spent years refining the science of restoring habitats and ecological integrity on cleared land.

As a young man, I finished university and I was disappointed with the way that the world was heading. And I was trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life. And in the end, the penny just dropped for me, there was just a moment where I just sort of had this simple conception that if by the process of living, humans degrade and consume resources from the environment, if that upsets me, well, why don’t I just make my profession the antithesis of that? Why don’t I just restore or repair the natural capital and value of nature that is being consumed.

Narrator: This thinking carried Justin from the United States to south-western Australia to take on the challenge of ecological restoration in this biologically rich and ancient landscape.

The botanical diversity here is one of a kind, and that’s one of the reasons that really attracted me here. I knew that the soils of Australia were difficult, I knew that they were nutrient poor, and had gone through millions of years of erosion and nutrient leaching without any kind of glaciation that could build new soils like in North America. So, I thought, if you’re going to try and repair the planet, the best place to start is in those hostile, arid areas.

And it’s the complexity that actually drew me here. I mean, if you want to do restoration, it’s sort of like anybody can fill out an easy crossword puzzle. But when the crossword puzzle gets challenging, that’s what becomes more interesting. And unpacking this flora, unpacking the relationship between the soils and the plants and where they grow and what they grow with that is a challenge that is exciting.

Narrator: A lot of science and investigation underpins an ecological restoration planting, and there are several key steps in sowing diverse, local provenance seed mixes on cleared land.

Ecological restoration in a way is like being a detective, you’ve got to dig in the soil to find out where the soils are and create detailed maps. you spend a lot of time in the bush all around the site and also neighbouring properties. And you start to see the soil types and the relationships with the species. And then you become familiar with those vegetation associations. And you build a map and that map then becomes your stepping stone to deciding how to put back the plants where they need to go. And, then from there, the seed collection. And that’s how you build your mixes.

Narrator: South of Jerramungup is Peniup, a 1200 hectare property owned by Greening Australia, and purchased for its strategic location in terms of nature conservation benefits. Large-scale ecological plantings are buffering and linking existing bush habitats.

This is just one of the systems that we planted here in 2008. And, you can hear it, when you come here, it’s a beautiful feeling, you can feel like nature’s coming back. You can hear the birds. And that’s because we followed the techniques of ecological restoration: we’ve put the right species in the right places at the right stocking, and in the right composition. So the result is the beginning of a returning ecosystem.

This tree is 10 years old. It’s a pretty amazing thing that in 10 years you can get this massive yate tree, Eucalyptus occidentalis, a specialist in, young landscape areas that we find here, like the gullies and the wetlands. It can handle water logging, it also produces flowers at a certain time of the season what they call the autumn food gap. So, it’s a very important tree for birds.

These are also 10 years old, these ones: Acacia cyclops – phenomenal. Melaleuca acuminata. So we’ve got the combination of the shrubs and the overstorey, which is really important habitat. Because that’s what really when we do these projects, we’re thinking about how we can maximise the ecological productivity. And that’s mainly about creating a diversity of habitats for all the species that live in this area, all the fauna. So, it’s about creating shelter, it’s about creating food. And it’s about creating space essentially for organisms to live here, to find their niche to find their homes to reproduce, to create more offspring.

In terms of productivity that ecological restoration brings, at the fundamental level its biological productivity, which is similar to what the farmers are doing with their crops and their sheep. Only it’s nature’s biological productivity in terms of habitat.

Narrator: Most of the seed, which is collected from local bush areas, is sown using a tractor pulling a seeding machine, in a process called direct seeding. A small quantity is used to grow specialty seedlings which are then hand planted, often in nodes or small patches.

This is what my work has been, in Gondwana Link it’s been about rolling out large scale restoration at the highest quality we can. The process is about creating an assemblage, a community of plants, that are going to provide a broad range of functions are going to complement each other and also are going to be able to persist through time.

In a biodiversity hotspot there are so many plant species to select, it becomes very challenging. So, you have to be able to pick, number one, the species that you can get seed from. And then, number two, you have to look at each plant based on what type of structural form it has. Does it create a dense type structure or is it an open structure? What kind of ecological attributes does it have? Is it a nitrogen fixer? Is it a long-lived plant? Is it a short-lived plant? Because what we’re looking for is complexity here, we want to maximize complexity. So you’re working with the seeds that you have available there might be a certain suite of species that are producing seed in abundance, where another species that you want is producing no seed at all.  

What we can’t do with direct seeding, we then supplement with the seedlings, with the nodes and also other enrichment plantings.

Sometimes there’s certain areas that you can’t seed because there might be a rocky outcrop. And so those areas, they actually become opportunities to come in with some of the species that we can’t direct seed, because all of the stuff that we’ve been looking at really has been mainly about the broad brushstrokes, it’s the species that we are able to collect in bulk, and we can cover a lot of ground. But obviously, the species diversity across the south-west WA is very high, and there’s some species that are not as easily germinated, and those are the ones we would use in the nodes. We do the broad brush strokes with the industrial gear and then you come in with a fine hand and paint in some of the rarer species in the patches here and there throughout those plantings.

So here we have a Banksia caleyi, this is actually part of a node. You can see underneath here the beautiful red flower. It’s a very beautiful banksia that holds its cones actually underneath the plant in the foliage. The idea is to bring these rare plants into a planting area where they can provide their function, but also sort of complement the direct seeding.

They’re also fantastic habitat in terms of a thick, dense foliage that’s close and closed and low to the ground which is excellent for bird nest and also any kind of refuge from predation. So this is sort of another tool in the toolbox that we use to maximize ecological function and productivity out here in these ecological restoration projects.

Narrator: Improving restoration outcomes is a constant learning process of experimenting, monitoring and then adapting the techniques used. In 2011, Justin’s work included planting a restoration site near Boxwood Hill.

So this project was three years in to my work in Gondwana Link. And this is where we really identified we were short on the Melaleucas in some of the earlier projects. So we really made an effort to get that seed. And we went very hard because we were experimenting, and we wanted to see what would happen. And now, the fact that we’ve got these eucalypts in the overstory, and the melaleucas in the mid story, and, you know, acacias in the mid and to the low story we’re starting to get a lot closer to creating the sort of assemblage that you we see when we walk through the bush. And that’s how we’ve been lifting the bar and improving practice. Reducing row spacing was another really critical component to that work, you visit the early plantings and they have these three meter wide row spaces so we basically just reduced the row spacing to 1.4 meters. So the idea is that when the plant grows up its canopy can then touch the canopy of its neighbouring plants in the neighbouring rows, and then you can create some sort of closed canopy.

You have to be adaptive, you got to be looking for solutions. You’ve got to be looking for improvement. You got to say, Okay, how can we do this better? But at the same time, you’ve got a limited budget. So you have to sort of be innovative in figuring out how can you get the most bang for your buck? And how can you get the most ecological productivity from the tools that you have and the skills that you have and can you develop new skills? Can you develop new techniques? Can you modify your practice?  

Narrator: A more recent ecological restoration project coordinated by Justin was at Monjebup North, a property owned by Bush Heritage Australia.

I actually have a bit of a personal story about my experience with this one project at Monjebup North, 2012. It was a 100 hectare project. And it came at a point where I’d finally gotten confidence about my decision making and a strong familiarity with the species and the soil types. And I put everything into that project. The team basically put every single possible thing we could think of. We trialled all different techniques. We burned serotinious branches in the field that were holding the seed until the fire would release them, we burned them in situ, right in the field – 180 piles. We did, hundreds of nodes, hundreds of seed piles, we built habitat debris piles out of wood and logs and created eight different seed mixes, we put everything into it. And I remember at the final bit I was on my own out there and um I actually shed a tear because I felt a little bit like it wasn’t enough.

But the good side of the story is returning years later and driving down the access tracks and what pops out but a Black Gloved wallaby. And I thought wow, that’s interesting. And then I went back again, and it was there again. And I realised that it was a resident, it was occupying the site. And then the next thing you know, there’s a mallee fowl nest being built. And the ecologists were monitoring and they were finding honey possums were utilising the site. And there were some surveys done with the birds, and it turns out that there’s 60 species of birds, including rare birds like Southern Emu Wren, you don’t just find that bird somewhere it has very picky requirements about what kind of habitat it’s going to utilise. So when we’ve got southern emu wrens on the site, and blue breasted fairy wrens, and mallee fowls making nests, and Black Gloved wallabies, and honey possums all occupying the site, we’ve achieved it, we’ve demonstrated that you can do it, if you put the energy in it will, support the native biota.

Narrator: Back at the 2008 Peniup restoration site, Justin feels that success is being achieved here too.

This feels like nature. And, you know, if there wasn’t experiences like this, it would be difficult to continue to do revegetation. But this is nature, this has taken over, it has become more than the effort that we did, it’s become more than the tractor and the seed mixes and the diesel and the steel and the human tree planters and the seedlings, it’s now taking on its own form that’s beyond us. This is the goal is to set something forward in motion, a wheel that keeps turning after you leave. This forest that we’re in, it’s still young, it’s only 10 years old. It’s not even a teenager yet. So, if it feels like this at 10 years old,  what’s it gonna be like in 15, in 20 years, as it continues to grow and come into its own, I think it’s only going to take more of its own essence – that nature is going to continue to assert her domain over this area.

So that’s really the purpose of what we do out here. That’s what gives me the greatest reward is to be able to set that wheel in motion and then to step back, and let nature take back this land, take back this space and do what she does.

It’s been the passion of the work that’s brought me here. And it’s been a humbling experience, you know, I’ve come from wanting to be the hero when I was a young man to now realising, it’s actually a great opportunity and privilege to be working to restore the planet and, maybe also just for the reward in knowing that you’ve done something good.

Narrator:  Even with such good results under his belt, Justin is not standing still.

So, 250 hectare projects that’s no longer considered large scale. That’s an achievable scale where we can do pretty high-detailed restoration. The next step now is to step up another scale, and that is actually the critical scale that’s needed globally in fact. Because in order to really make an impact at a global level, different projects around the world need to start stepping up to the 1000 hectare scales, and that might be sort of a blended style of restoration that doesn’t only focus on full ecological restoration, it might have, some modified farming systems with woody vegetation, but we need to move into basically re-building farms.

Narrator: This has been a Gondwana Link production with story development by Nicole Hodgson, Margaret Robertson, Keith Bradby and Teresa Ashton Graham. Narration by Nicole Hodgson and music by Rod Vervest. Our warm thanks to Justin Jonson, and to audio editor Teresa Ashton-Graham and producer Kim Lofts of Blue Manna Studio. Thanks also to Frank Rijavec and Margaret Robertson for the original 2018 recordings of Justin.