Economics and optics influence environmental program
James Cook University researchers have identified shortcomings in a multi-million dollar, nationwide ecological restoration program, and ways to improve the program for endangered species.
PhD candidate Jayden Engert and Professor Susan Laurance studied the 20 Million Trees Landcare Program - which used funds intended for threatened species recovery programs to plant trees - in order to understand how funding decisions were made and if they could have been made better.
“The decision on whether to fund grant applications or not was primarily based on the cost per tree, but this didn’t result in funds being spent on the best projects for threatened species,” said Mr Engert, lead author of the study.
The researchers found that, contrary to published grant guidelines, project ‘value for money’ was given far more import than either biodiversity or carbon values – a result similar to a previous national audit.
“Projects that listed a lot of threatened species in their grant application were more likely to be funded, but contradictorily the projects that would actually benefit the most threatened species were less likely to be funded,” said Professor Laurance.
“Funds for this program were intended to be used for threatened species recovery, so it was important that the project deliver tangible outcomes for the threatened species most impacted by habitat loss,” said Professor Laurance.
“However, we found that the actual on-the ground restoration of habitat for the majority of species was meagre,” said Professor Laurance.
The researchers also found that using alternative ‘value for money’ calculations, such as cost per hectare of threatened species habitat, would have resulted in funds being directed to projects with greater potential to benefit threatened species.
“While it may be a good marketing strategy to advertise how many trees are being planted in these large restoration programs, it doesn’t necessarily translate to the best decision-making strategy,” said Mr Engert.
The researchers said Australia is, regrettably, a world leader in land-clearing and biodiversity declines, and ecological restoration is necessary to recover populations of many threatened species.
“While the 20 Million Trees Landcare Program represented a positive start in the quest to restore Australia’s natural systems, it was significantly underfunded and hampered by poor decision-making,” said Mr Engert.
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