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Remote sensing of native vegetation extent and condition

PROGRAM: INTEGRATING TECHNOLOGIES

Western Australia is characterised by a significant diversity in the range of plant and animal species across varied landscapes and ecological communities. A comprehensive understanding of the State’s biological resources, their distribution and processes that influence them can only be delivered through a more coordinated and focused effort across agencies and industry.

One of the challenges that The Western Australian Biodiversity Science Institute (WABSI) aims to address is the remaining significant gap in biodiversity data across large areas of the State, and strategically filling these gaps is important for more informed decisions. Emerging survey technologies used in combination with traditional field surveys, are likely to provide a more powerful approach to cost-effectively identifying and monitoring biodiversity patterns.

One of WABSI’s key priorities is to help develop, identify and trial innovative new technologies and systems for the collection, collation and analysis of biological survey data that enables the taxonomic resolution of species, informs the definition of ecosystems and biological communities, and enables distribution of species across Western Australia to be predicted.

PROJECT PARTNER
The Department of Water and Environmental Regulation

PROJECT REPORT AND RECOMMENDATIONS

The project report is a national and international review of what and how existing technology can help address the pressing need in Western Australia of understanding the extent and condition of native vegetation in an efficient and coordinated way. It includes an analysis of existing remote sensing technologies and data providers including the limitations and opportunities of each, and the extent to which the various existing technologies and products could contribute to a state-wide native vegetation measurement and monitoring program in Western Australia. Options for utilising remote sensing data in WA to develop spatial information products are also examined.

When added to other datasets, an assessment of extent, condition and change in condition of native vegetation could be used to help answer questions of:
• How much native vegetation is directly cleared each year in WA, and where?
• How much native vegetation remains in WA, and what associations do they represent?
• How is the area changing over time, especially for important or rare associations; and are these changes cyclical or directional?
• What are the trends in vegetation condition and what factors are affecting these changes?
• Are conservation programs effective and achieving their set goals and outcomes?
• Where should management and policy interventions be targeted, to have the most impact?

Key findings of the report are that remote sensing is eminently suitable for monitoring native vegetation and to detect trends, which are probably related to its condition but requires more information to be correctly interpreted. Remote sensing is the only feasible approach to assessment in a state the size of Western Australia. Furthermore, there is an opportunity, building on current dispersed expertise and WA’s computing infrastructure, to create a specialist remote sensing group to provide the state with improved vegetation information. Such a group would require an institutional home and strategic goals, cross-agency commitment and a specific funding allocation.

Western Australia has a remote sensing capacity which is technically strong, but institutionally weak. Some areas of remote sensing in the state are fragile in that they rely on a single individual and their skills and commitment. WA has a long history of innovation and product delivery relevant to land and vegetation inquiry. The collaborative Land Monitor arrangement continues to operate after more than fifteen years. Despite this longevity and ability to produce products suited to NRM agencies, there is limited evidence that the products are widely used and merged with other datasets. There is therefore a need to improve awareness and capability, especially in the use of raster data, and a need to improve ease of access to data and products.

This availability of user-ready remote sensing data now places an emphasis on the development of vegetation response models and indices that are relevant to Western Australian conditions to interpret vegetation change maps. This could become an area of strategic research involving the state agencies, CSIRO and universities to progressively build up within-state capabilities and expertise. Intelligent interventions and strategic investments would both enhance the capability and ensure that the current system is more secure.

The report outlines six recommendations:

  1. Strategic coordination – A state-wide coordination for remote sensing and updating vegetation information of WA by Senior Officers Group of the State Natural Resource Management (NRM) agencies. A key role would be to address arrangements to strengthen WA’s remote sensing capacity to meet state requirements. This will provide a more secure base for investments, improve investments in products that benefit multiple agencies and allow the state to respond in a coordinated manner to national opportunities.
  2. Technical coordination – A formal Memorandum of Understanding (or similar) be developed by the current member agencies of the Land Monitor Consortium to act as a technical advisory body for NRM remote sensing needs in WA, delivering a secure and strategic role in the future.
  3. State-wide responses to opportunities – The Senior Officers Group and Land Monitor Consortium consider the opportunities arising from coordinated responses to Digital Earth Australia and to investigate the benefits and costs of becoming a member of the Joint Remote Sensing Research Program as well as the research and development opportunities.
  4. Use of digital data to improve vegetation association maps – Updating the accuracy and scale of the current vegetation association maps for Western Australia is important for management and clearing control reasons but the cost is large if traditional methods are used. The existence of multi-temporal optical and radar imagery, collated biodiversity data and three-dimensional landscape models may enable statistical methods to be developed that reduce costs while producing updated maps of improved accuracy. Linking remotely sensed data with vegetation plot information is a further opportunity to be investigated.
  5. Identifying native vegetation and the factors responsible for native vegetation loss – Landscape, hydrology and vegetation response models could be used to infer causes of loss elsewhere in nearby areas. Ideally, a probability of the cause could be assigned (e.g. 90% probability of fire). Such an attribution process would enable better targeting of management responses by landholders, Landcare groups, regional NRM councils and the state. Cross-linking the attributed losses with vegetation associations could also improve the protection of poorly protected and rare vegetation types.
  6. Training – Training of relevant state and local government GIS staff in the handling of raster datasets (e.g. using free software such as QGIS) and the merging of vector and digital data is urgently needed so that remote sensing products can be used more widely. Non-GIS staff may also be trained in how to manipulate and interpret simpler raster data products


Read the full project report

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