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Ecosystems on Cape York

An ecosystem includes all of the living organisms (eg. plants, animals, fungi) and processes (eg. soil, water, air) in a given area. Each organism or process within the ecosystem relies on the others for it to work efficiently and effectively. If something is missing from a system, it has an impact somewhere else. For example, trees rely on seeds being dispersed to reproduce. If the bird that spreads a particular kind of seed is removed from the system, the tree will also be at risk. The flora and fauna that depend on the tree for food and shelter will also impacted. And so on.

Cape York has incredible and invaluable ecosystems, including reef, wetlands, freshwater systems, rainforests, heath, savannah and grasslands. These are home to thousands of species and several hundred threatened species.

Threatened ecosystems have been identified in the southern section of Cape York. The coastal vegetation type, called 'Littoral Rainforest and Coastal Vine Thickets of Eastern Australia', runs from Princess Charlotte Bay all the way to Victoria. This is the target of a national recovery planning process currently being conducted by the Department of the Environment.

Tools to understand and monitor ecosystems

Several tools are available to explore ecosystems on Cape York, including:

Ecosystem services and valuation

Currently CYP has limited opportunities under the current carbon economy. A more holistic approach that would provide a framework for development decisions on Cape York could be based on a valuation of Cape York's natural assets - its rivers, wetlands, forests, grasslands, coastal systems and reefs - as a fundamental component of its wealth, wellbeing and sustainability. This approach would make explicit the values associated with economic decisions that, based on other accounting methods, hide the value of ecosystems from view.

People value ecosystems and biodiversity for many reasons: cultural values such as sacred sites and totemic species; environmental values such as water and carbon sequestration; intrinsic values of species to exist in their own right; aesthetic values, such as ethical and psychological characteristics of landscape beauty and charismatic species; and economic values such as tourism, fishing and industry.

A recent paper suggests that the value of Cape York's ecosystems is in the hundreds of billions of dollars per year. While the exact numbers are not important, it is the number of zeros that tell us something about the value these ecosystems provide.

Options for land management

There are several opportunities for managing land for ecosystem services, these include:

  • Ecotourism;
  • Carbon sequestration opportunities - fire, soils, grazing, vegetation and wetlands;
  • Conservation efforts such as through nature refuges and privately funded conservation actions;
  • Maintenance of land and sea condition, such as pest and weed management, marine debris removal, erosion control and fire management;
  • Indigenous economic development that supports connection to country and on-ground activities.