Morality and the Triage System

This post first appeared on a biodiversity blog that we set up for a course last semester. That blog can be found here: It is really great and you should check it out!

She’s so cute!!! PHOTO: Atlas of Living Australia.

Look at this photo of a baby koala. Sqqquueee!!! She’s so cute! Look at her fluffy ears and big nose and button eyes!

We know that koalas are on the decline in all States and Territories except Victoria; we all know that these insanely cute marsupials are facing habitat loss and degradation due to agriculture, new roads, expanding urban areas and forestry. We know they took a hard hit when they were hunted for their soft, thick pelts in the early part of last century.

Enter the triage system. ‘Triage’ is a term mostly used in medical circles and it means prioritising patients based on the severity of their injuries.

In conservation it means using a decision support system to decide which species or system to preserve: What are the chances of this species doing well if we support it? How much will it cost? What’s the cultural significance of the species? It is rare or taxonomically distinct (i.e. has few living relatives)?

For something like the koala, it will do pretty well in these questions; it’s a big draw for tourism, it’s important in Australian culture, it’s the last of its family (Phascolarctidae) and it’s cute and fluffy so when policy makers and groups want to protect it people say ‘Ahh, how nice.’

The darker side of the triage system is that not all animals are cute and fluffy, not all of them have a high social standing and so the funding just won’t be allocated to them because they don’t meet the criteria.

Think of the Grassland Earless Dragon. These lizards are tiny, about 1.5cm long and they live in the grasslands of NSW, the ACT and Victoria. The little dragons have been facing habitat degradation from farming (mostly grazing) for decades and are now threatened by the spread of wind farms as well, farms set up along the ridge in the grasslands they call home.

I haven’t heard of earless dragons before, I hear you say, are they cute? Yes, they are, they’re gorgeous!

That shouldn’t matter though, we should protect all species, regardless of their cuteness or social utility. We created the problems they are facing – habitat destruction and fragmentation, pollution, invasive plants and animals, climate change – so we should fix it.

Morally, it’s not okay to push another species (never forget that we are merely clothed apes; Homo sapiens, the cousins of chimps and gorillas) to the point of being endangered then say ‘Oh, but you don’t meet the cut/fluffy/social utility/inexpensive criteria so you’re just going to have to make do.’

Funding is always limited and resources always scare but the bottom line is that humans don’t have the right to decide the fate of other species* because we have decided other things are more worth our money; everything should be protected.

We need to change our values so that the triage system becomes obsolete because there is always enough funding to conserve everything.

Look at this little dragon. Can you look him in the eye and tell him he’s not precious enough to protect?

This little guy is about 1.5cm long and lives in the Australian grasslands. He’s beautiful! PHOTO: Museum of Victoria.

*The debate around humans messing with evolution through making some species extinct while preserving others comes in here. It’s a really interesting line of thought and I recommend you follow it.

Interested in finding out more?

Earless dragons in Victoria:

Koalas in Queensland:

Koalas in Victoria:

Conservation Triage:

Weekly Writing Challenge: Dialogue. About goats.

Hello everyone! I’m taking part in a weekly writing challenge to shake it up. Check it out:

It is night, and raining. A YOUNG WOMAN sits at a computer, headphones in, typing with one hand. Her chin is resting in the other. The audience can hear the tinny sound of electro-house music and the clattering of keys. Enter THE BOYFRIEND. She doesn’t notice. He taps her gently on the shoulder.

YOUNG WOMAN: (startled) Gah! Dude, you scared me.

THE BOYFRIEND: You’re still here how I left you this morning! What have you been up to all day?

She takes out her earphones and turns to face him, excited.

YOUNG WOMAN: Soils! Soils are amazing. Well, goats and soils. See, they had too many woody weeds, then they put goats on it to make it better, but the goats messed it up, so now the soil is unhappy because there isn’t any clay and so there’s a film and basically it’s all just terrible.

THE BOYFRIEND removes his jacket, sits down in the armchair next to the desk and looks at her intently. He likes hearing about what she’s learning.

THE BOYFRIEND: (patiently) … Right. And what are woody weeds?

YOUNG WOMAN: (impatiently) They’re woody shrubs that grow in the Australian rangelands and are unpalatable to stock. The rangelands are, like, 80% of Australia, but this case study is from the semi-arid region between Broken Hill and Cobar, in the south-west corner of New South Wales.

What Australian grasslands of that area are meant to look like. There’s a overstory of trees and an understory of grasses and forbes and nothing else.
woody weeds
An area over run with woody weeds; the middle story. Note the absence of an understory.

THE BOYFRIEND: So where do the goats come in?

 YOUNG WOMAN: Well, removing woody weeds mechanically or chemically is really expensive, and they tried burning it but it doesn’t always work. That’s one of the main maxims in Australian geography; if there’s a problem, set fire to it and ask questions later.

THE BOYFRIEND: (laughing) So they put goats in? Where did they get the goats from?

YOUNG WOMAN: That’s the beauty of it, see. You just fence off a whole lot of feral goats that are out there anyway, and the expense of the fence is offset by the profit made from the goats. There’s a growing market for goat in Australia, especially goat that’s Halal. The goats start off eating all the yummy things, like the forbes and perennial grasses, but then they go on and eat the woody weeds. Unpalatable doesn’t worry goats!

THE BOYFRIEND: Forbes? Isn’t that a town in central New South Wales? And how does this relate to soils being unhappy?

YOUNG WOMAN: Yeah, it is a town too, but forbes is another name for ‘herb’, something that’s not a grass or a shrub but is still a little plant. So they put in heaps of goats. Like, heaps. Out there the stocking rate is 0.3 DSE per hectare, which means that for every hectare you should only have 0.3 of a dry sheep equivalent. This is the amount of resources needed to support a ewe that doesn’t have a lamb. A cow is equal to about 15 DSE, a pony or light horse has a DSE of 10, and so on. So this place is at 0.3/ha, and they go and put in 4 goats on every hectare! This is so they can really eat the weeds down, put that many goats puts pressure on the soil. See, the soil is usually alumino-silicate aggregates coated by clay, yeah? But the goats grind it all together and the clay comes off. You following?

clay runoff
Soil particles are covered in clay (happy soil), but then goats come in and rub it off. The clay forms a film on the surface when it rains, and water can’t get in (sad soil).

THE BOYFRIEND: Yep. The area has a DSE of 0.3/ha, but you run it at about 4/ha and the clay gets rubbed off the soil particles. What happens then?

YOUNG WOMAN: Well, usually the water would just infiltrate into the soil and there’s basically no run-off at all. No erosion or anything, just lots of water for the plants, but because the clay has come off the soil it forms a film on the surface and the water can’t infiltrate into the soil. There’s lots of run-off which causes erosion, and the plants can’t access the water.

THE BOYFRIEND taps his nose thoughtfully. 

THE BOYFRIEND: Hmm, doesn’t sound too good. Anything else?

YOUNG WOMAN: Yeah, dust. Because the soil is made so unstable by the goats they lose massive amounts of topsoil via wind erosion. This is a serious problem in Australia and is very costly, both environmentally and economically.

Sydney Harbour in the 2009 Australian dust storm. I was 16 at the time and it felt like the apocalypse had come.

THE BOYFRIEND: So … goats solve one problem but create a few more?

YOUNG WOMAN: (sadly) Pretty much. If you can figure out how to solve the woody weeds problem they’ll basically make you Australian of the Year and you’ll be a gazillionaire.

THE BOYFRIEND: That’s a shame, goats are otherwise so cool.

YOUNG WOMAN: (excited, looking to a future of solving problems with goats) Yeah, geography is awesome!

So that was my night last night. More or less a true story.

Goats are awesome.
What a cutie!


You Are A Closet Geographer

Yes, you are.

Don’t try to deny it.

You’ve looked at the sunset and wondered how much is natural or just smog, you’ve eaten an apple while wondering where it was grown, you’ve muttered about how the inadequate public transport in your city is ruining your life.

These are all serious issues in geography, so congratulations on your status as a geographer!

You right now: Oh my goodness, I’m a geographer! PAINTING: Johannes Vermeer


Geography is what we call a mild superpower. You’ll never fly or lift a building or punch around corners, but you can use your geography skillz to help make our world a little better.

If you deduce that your sunset is to smoggy you can buy a bit of renewable energy to reduce pollution. Climate change: solved.

If you don’t know where your apples are coming from, buy them directly from a local farmer next time and they’ll be able to answer all of your questions.  Food sovereignty: achieved.

If the public transport in your city isn’t great, vote for people who will make it more effective, sustainable and equitable. Democracy: in action.

Look at you go, you mild superhero!

You have gotten over your denial about your status as a geographer and have started helping this little planet of ours be a bit nicer.

happy earth
Look how happy she is now that you’ve gotten over your denial and are helping! PICTURE: meme-chan3

Sacred Places

sacred adjective 5. regarded with reverence.*

What is a sacred place? How do they relate to geography?

If we go with the above definition, a scared place is a place regarded with reverence. As we’re talking geography, let’s make it a natural or natural/human interface where people feel reverence.

It is important to have such places, and to hold them dear and protect them, otherwise geography sort of falls on it’s sword. What’s the point in sustainable agriculture if we don’t care about rivers and soil health? What’s the point of National Parks if we don’t respect and interact with biodiversity and wild places? What’s the point of stopping logging if rainforests are meaningless for us?

Logging in the Amazon: it’s probably not a great idea. PHOTO: Stephen Ferry/Getty

In short, why interact meaningfully with the Earth’s natural systems if we have no reverence for them?

It may be a big ask for every part of the natural system to be a sacred space, but everyone should have one. A place to connect to and recharge in. Where you feel the wind in your hair and the water on your skin, where you squint in the sun, and hear leaves rustling and watch birds and sunsets and small kids playing with dogs.

Though I haven’t seen much of it, I love Australia’s environment. Salt bush plains, Tasmania’s alpine areas, rainforests, open woodlands, agricultural areas, the aridity of the Flinders, marshes replete with water-birds, the wilderness of the NSW South Coast, it’s all amazing and you should see it. I love it all, but my sacred place is a few beaches along the NSW Mid-North Coast where I grew up. It’s the border of land and sea and sky, where Norfolk pines and beech trees and rainforests and banksias all rub shoulders. It’s where I learnt about the threat of climate change to the ocean, to agriculture, to human health.

North Sapphire Beach, near where I grew up. The Island is Split Solitary and is in the Solitary Islands Marina Park, where warm tropical and cold Southern Ocean currents mix, creating unique and intense biodiversity.
IMG_9836 - Copy
Underwater in the Solitary Islands Marine Park.
Grey Nurse Sharks hanging out in the Solitary Islands Marine Park. They are gentle, beautiful creatures but sadly are critically endangered.

I study ecological decline for (theoretically) about 60 hours a week.

It’s highly stressful, learning about it all the time, hearing about boundaries and tipping points and dead canaries  that have all been ignored, so when I go to that part of the world it’s like a tonic, and I remember why it’s so important for us to study geography. I go back to study refreshed and ready to solve some wicked problems.

Storms at Jetty Beach.
Sunset at Secret Beach.
Sunset at Secret Beach.
Evenfall, Hills Beach.

Up until about 1908 no-one really admitted to seeing beauty in the Australian landscape, and then Dorothea Mackellar penned My Country.

Now we’re allowed to love it and be reverent, and it is because I share those feelings that I study geography.

A clear day at Sawtell Beach.
Sunset at Jetty Beach.
A shack and friend and I built one summer.
Me at Hills Beach.
Banksia silhouettes, Hills Beach.
Dads Camera#1 018
Spilt Solitary (the further island) and South Solitary. Growing up my sister and I just called them Lighthouse and First Island respectively. This is the view from the verandah of the house I lived in in high school.
Sunset at Hills Beach.

*Definition from the Macquarie Dictionary, Federation Edition. 

All of the photos in this post are my own.

Sequestering Carbon in Native Forests Part III

Using trees to sequester carbon in low-medium rainfall areas has high potential because those areas are not widely used for agriculture and often are in need of regeneration.

However, which species can be planted will depend on the amount of water available and how specific species react to factors such as long drought periods, sudden floods and random cycles of wet and dry periods.

The main species used for sequestration are eucalypts, most of which have various adaptations to Australia’s unpredictable weather patterns but a tree that is stressed due to lack of water will stop growing, thus stop sequestering carbon, and may even die.

An eight year old planting of e. sideroxylon. PHOTO: NSW Department of Primary Industries.

A study done by Walsh et al (2008) found that E. globulus and E. botryoides are both highly suited to sequestering carbon, but while both species can sequester during short periods of little or no rainfall neither can handle extended drought, which is all too common in low rainfall areas during el Niňo years. This makes those species suitable but not ideal.

The same study found that while E. camaldulensis, E. sideroxylon and C. maculate are not as efficient in sequestering carbon they can handle long periods of drought far better than the above two and so are better suited to low-medium rainfall conditions. This shows that while it is not ideal to plant in such conditions compromises can be made.

Above all, it is important that these planted forests are not competing for land with agriculture or pre-existing forests.

Of course, unlike plantations, these forests need not be in one big clump; they can be spread along fence lines or creeks, they can be a patchwork across paddocks or public land, anything so long as they are large enough (≥0.2 ha) to qualify as a forest. Spacing plantings like this can also minimise water needed in any one place (Battaglia, 2011).

If you want to learn more about eucalyptus plantings, the NSW Department of Primary Industries has a lot to say on the issue. 

Sequestering Carbon in Native Forests Part II

Part II of this series discusses what carbon sequestration is, as well as an overview of how to do it with trees. 

“The term sequestration means achieving and maintaining a net increase in the amount of organic carbon present in a soil,” Battaglia, 2011.

Sequestering carbon using trees means managing the trees so that the net amount of carbon captured through photosynthesis is greater than the net amount of carbon released by respiration, burning, logging and so on (see Fig. 1).


Fig. 1. Overview of main effects of forest management options for sequestration. The chart shows pools and services (grey boxes), fluxes of carbon (arrows) (Böttcher, 2007).

Using natural biophysical processes to lock the carbon in the soils makes the captured carbon relatively stable and able to stay in that state for a long time. There are many factors inherent to the amount of carbon that can be sequestered, from rainfall to soil type to vegetation to land use.

The disturbance to Australia’s forests and soil wrought by commercial agricultural operations and land clearing cannot be overstated; between 2000 and 2004 nationally there was a net loss of 287 000 hectares of forest (State of the Environment Committee, 2006), an area larger than the Australian Capital Territory and since 1973 there has been a net loss of tree cover every year (see Fig. 2, below) (one could safely assume that since white settlement there has been an overall downward trend in tree cover in Australia but there are no concise records).

Fig 2. Net forest change in Australia (using forest regrowth and deforestation data) 1973–2004 (State of the Environment Report, 2006).

To effectively use forests to sequester carbon the landscape must be managed using whole system thinking so the needs of the environment and agriculture are balanced (Battaglia, 2011). Forests that are overly ‘managed’ such as plantations are sometimes less effective at sequestering carbon because the mortality of the trees cannot be captured as dead branches, roots and so on being returned to the soil by natural process (Binkley et al, 1997).

For this reason, the minimum length of time for a stand of trees to sequester its full potential of carbon (in best conditions) is 100 years (see fig. 3, below).

Fig. 3. Cumulative carbon sequestered by a permanent stand of southern pine and by a periodically harvested stand (Vled and Plantinga, 2005).

Although the diagram is specific to southern pines this trend is common to all forests. Using trees in this way is effective as it requires no great input of infrastructure or costs once the trees have been planted and it takes carbon out of the atmosphere and places it in a stable and long-term storage system.

Sequestering Carbon in Native Forests Part I

This is part one of a series on sequestering carbon in native forests. It is just a brief overview of the topic; in future posts I will go into more depth. All the references will appear in the final post.

But basically, trees are awesome!

In the challenge to stabilise levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, sequestering carbon in terrestrial systems is potentially a highly effective part of the solution.

In Australia this can be achieved by planting native trees with the goal of sequestrating carbon or managing pre-existing stands with that end in mind. Planting the trees in low to medium rainfall areas (450 – 700mm/year) is ideal as those areas are not typically prime agricultural land.

If managed properly within natural systems, these forests can not only sequester carbon but also bring about additional benefits such as increased biodiversity and increased soil health.

Many types of forests, such as wild forests, plantation, agro-forests, urban forests and so on can be used for sequestering carbon but this paper will focus on native forests in rural and regional areas (‘forest’ here meaning an area that covers at least 0.2 ha, has a canopy cover of at least 20% and has to potential to grow to at least two metres in height).

agro forestry
Agro-forestry. It’s awesome. PHOTO: Landcare Australia.

Current levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide cannot be mitigated only by changing energy production to low emissions technology; as well as not putting more CO2 into the atmosphere some must be taken out in the next few years if warming is to be stabilised at 2°C.

Globally, deforestation accounts for roughly a quarter of anthropogenic CO2 emissions (Kindermann et al, 2008); in Australia the clearing of native vegetation accounts for 13% of annual emissions (Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, 2009). It is estimated that, if managed properly, natural biophysical processes in the Australian landscape could store 1 000 million tonnes of CO2 every year for the next forty years (CSIRO, 2009).

In light of this, a large part of Australia’s climate change mitigation strategy should be to manage plant and native forests to naturally sequester carbon and return it to both living tissue and the soil. Low to medium rainfall areas are suitable for growing trees for that purpose as it will not overly compete with food crops in highly arable land nor does it need infrastructure such as logging roads like commercial timber operations do (Walsh et al, 2008).

There are many additional benefits to carefully managing native forests, including an alternative and relatively stable income for landholders, an increase in local biodiversity, and in soil health.

This is a good example of geography in it’s awesome and exciting sense; humans interacting with a system (the forest) to ameliorate another system (the climate). Of course, one could argue that we just shouldn’t have messed with the climate in the first place and that’s true, but it’s not really a helpful sentiment; the problem is there, let’s solve it!

And seriously; it’s cool that planting some native forests can provide habitat, benefits for the soil, income for farmers, aesthetic values, reduces the risk of erosion and helps manage water all on the side of tackling climate change!

Trees, man. Trees are great.