In The Field With Australia’s Most Astounding Conservation Organisation

Did you know we have shrimp living in far western Queensland, or that Tassie Devils have some cousins in Western Australia? How about that legless lizards are actually a thing, and adorable honey possums drink the equivalent of 50-litres of soft drink a day?

Researching this story has been a little out-of-the-TDF-ordinary, but UTTERLY amazing! Along with nature’s awe-inspiring designs, there’s an architecture element too.

We delve into Bush Heritage Australia’s essential work restoring native flora and fauna – now from their very first purpose-built, sustainable field station, by H+H Architects.

If you’ve been fortunate enough to venture into the remote Western Australian wilderness you would have come face to face with ‘a broad-acre farming landscape, featuring significant patches of remnant bush that are, however, now somewhat fragmented and disconnected…’ as Simon Smale of Bush Heritage Australia describes. ‘One of the longest undisturbed places on earth, evolution has continued here without disruption by glaciation, earthquakes, volcanic activity, floods or other disturbance for tens of millions of years, which has given rise to remarkable numbers of plant species… So every last little patch of this bush is precious.’

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Formerly Australian Bush Heritage Fund, Bush Heritage Australia was founded in 1991 by Dr Bob Brown, who used his prize money from winning the inaugural ‘Green Nobel’ (Goldman Environmental) Prize, as a deposit on two forested properties that adjoined a Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Site, thus saving them from being woodchipped. Today, the independent non-profit currently contributes to the protection of 8.86 million hectares of reserves and Aboriginal partnership lands across Australia, that are home to 5,932 species, 239 of which are endangered.

Developing and expanding through the support of subscribers and donors, their 100 staff and more than 750 volunteers have done some incredible work – from acquiring entire islands before handing them over to the government as national parks to boosting numbers of a plethora of our vulnerable native species. Bush Heritage even gets the tick of approval from Charles Darwin’s great-great-grandson, Chris Darwin, who is an ambassador.

The Healthy Landscapes Manager at Bush Heritage, Simon Smale (a bit of a modern-day beanie-wearing Darwin, carrying on Brown’s good fight on the frontlines!) ‘helps return Australia’s bush to good health, protecting our magnificent native species and irreplaceable landscapes forever’. The conservationist grew up surrounded by natural beauty in New Zealand. Roaming the world after university sparked in him a new awareness, especially of indigenous nature and culture diversity, and stirred his passion to care for nature. He followed it. ‘In 2008, after more than 20 years working for the Department of Conservation in New Zealand, I heard a radio documentary about the connectivity conservation and restoration work that was happening on the South Coast of Western Australia,’ Simon recalls. As if it was written, he saw a job advertisement for the project a few weeks later.

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Simon has now been in Western Australia’s Fitz-Stirling region with Bush Heritage for a decade – ‘conservation is a long-term game!’. ‘With a lot of help from partners and our supporters, we’ve transformed what were once bare paddocks into amazing havens of native flora and fauna,’ he tells. ‘We have reconnected much of the 70 kilometres between the Stirling Range and Fitzgerald River National Parks, creating highly productive new habitat and allowing animals to move more easily between habitat patches.’

Along with that astounding transformation, so too has the project’s HQ changed! Simon and his Albany-based colleague, ecologist Angela Sanders, once worked out of a cramped caravan when visiting the Fitz-Stirling reserves. Now they have the new Michael Tichbon Field Station – ‘a serious step up!’. Named after the local environmental hero and valued donor Michael Tichbon, this fully off-grid ecological research facility is designed by the largest regional architectural practice in WA. ‘Julie de Jong and Grace Schlager from H+H Architects were a dream to work with, and the end product speaks for itself; it also came in on time and on budget, which was pretty amazing for such a remote build,’ praises Simon. ‘It was a great opportunity for us to express our values in the way it was designed, not just with respect to green building principles, but also in designing a space that was a good fit with its setting in the landscape. There’s a lovely sense of openness and the bush vista being a living part of the building – it’s a joy to have a cup of tea here in the mornings.’

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Crews at the Michael Tichbon Field Station have recently been bird monitoring, pitfall trapping and vegetation monitoring. The rapid response of animals, such as Honey Possums, Pygmy Possums, Black-Gloved Wallabies, Malleefowl and myriad other bird species, in colonising the restored habitat Simon and his team have created has exceeded their most optimistic expectations. ‘The restoration work is immensely rewarding, and a reminder that although we have awesome power to destroy, we also have the power to restore and create,’ he tells. ‘The connectedness of everything is a poignant reminder of what we’re working so hard to protect.’

The new seven-bedroom field station has hosted 156 people since September, and Simon hopes the facility will draw international researchers to spend more time in the Fitz-Stirling landscape. If so, who knows what life-changing discoveries lie ahead! ‘Protecting the environment should be the number one priority for all Australians,’ he urges. ‘Having somewhere visible where the environmental and scientific community can be in the field and sharing that collective knowledge is just so vital.’

Find out more about Bush Heritage Australia by visiting Bushheritage.org.au or follow their Instagram @bushheritageaus for endless awws and even some laughs!

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SUPPORTING CONSERVATION IN AUSTRALIA – SIMON SAYS

‘Get out in nature when you can – because it’s good for the soul.’

‘Don’t lose hope when it comes to the environment. Nature is remarkably forgiving, we can work with her to restore health and beauty, and small individual acts add up when we all do them.’

‘Consider making a donation to Bush Heritage so we can buy more land! We also currently need 10 new sensor monitoring cameras here and they are $600 each – if you want to make a tangible difference you can donate here.’

‘You can help Bush Heritage protect the habitat of species like the Western Pygmy Possum (and cross off your Christmas shopping list while you’re at it) with a conservation gift card.’

‘If I had the power to make one significant change in the world, I’d dial down the competitiveness, aggression, and greed that have allowed us to succeed so spectacularly on Planet Earth, but that are now our greatest liability. I’d dial up cooperation, consideration, common humanity and the life-affirming creativity that’s our greatest gift.’

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This story was originally published on The Design Files, December 14th, 2019.

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