While techniques for growing trees on overburden had been developed, there had been no prior research into establishing native forest vegetation communities on Hunter Valley mines. Mt Owen embarked on the development of a research program that will lead to the eventual establishment of the most effective but practical dry sclerophyll forest community. The research that has and is being conducted has benefits for the establishment of native forests beyond the Mt Owen boundaries and will assist meeting the biodiversity objectives for the wider Hunter Valley.
A close relationship has been developed with the Physiological Ecology Unit within the Plant Science Group at the University of Newcastle. The relationship with the University of Newcastle has significant benefits in a number of areas with past, present and planned research at Mount Owen and Ravensworth State Forest grouped into three main sections:
- Studies Linked to Research Training
- Monitoring Diversity of Ravensworth State Forest and Rehabilitation Sites
- Manipulative Experiments to Improve Rehabilitation Outcomes.
To date, five Honours projects and two pHD projects have been completed that have utilised rehabilitation areas and the Ravensworth State Forest at Mt Owen Mine. These have covered issues associated with rehabilitation and native forest establishment:
- dormancy mechanisms;
- the effect of long term stockpiling on soil microbial populations;
- the positive effects of the inoculation of pasture soil with mycorrhizal fungi on the growth of the dominant overstorey tree Eucalyptus maculata;
- specificity of rhizobial isolates for a range of native peas and wattles; and
- anatomical responses of a possible indicator species for phosphorus nutrition.
The Honours projects are part of the research strategy for developing sustainable representative biodiversity in rehabilitation at Mt Owen and the results are fed into larger scale research projects. One doctorate project, "Rebuilding Sustainable and Functional Biodiversity following Coal Mining" is nearing completion and a second project, "Rebuilding Sustainable Nutrient Acquisition following Coal Mining" commenced in 2003.
In March 2003, the University of Newcastle established an Australian Coal Association Research Project (ACARP) funded project at Mt Owen, titled "Topsoil Substitutes and Sustainability of Reconstructed Native Forest in the Hunter Valley". This trial has the objectives of establishing the most effective surface growing medium for establishing a native forest community in the absence of topsoil derived from existing forest areas, providing a reference site for sustainable biodiversity research and providing a long term research and teaching field rehabilitation facility. This project will act as the nucleus for existing and future University projects at Mt Owen and be of benefit to anyone looking to establish local forest communities.
In conjunction with the University of Newcastle, further targeted research at Mt Owen has commenced to assist with the implementation of the Biodiversity Offset Strategy. This research will further develop the findings of the rehabilitation research into restoration on pasture lands. Mt Owen has committed significant funds over a 5 year period to the research, which will complement on-going native forest restoration research at Mt Owen. A major theme of the Biodiversity Offset Strategy research programme is research training. The University of Newcastle plans to recruit a number of Honours and PhD students to assist with building outcomes from the research programme. Commencement of the programme coincides with the establishment of a field research facility at Mt Owen, which forms the initial programme of University of Newcastle Centre for Sustainable Ecosystem Restoration.
The proposed implementation of the Biodiversity Offset Strategy goes beyond a commercial tree planting exercise and will seek to establish the offset areas through experimental intervention. The research programme will provide the impetus for forest regeneration in offset areas both from natural sources and from seeded or planted sources.
The research has the primary aim of determining best practice methods for the restoration of pastureland to a forest – woodland ecosystem and will focus on:
- identification of cost-effective methods for restoration of forest/woodland in pasture lands;
- development of methods to provide source vegetation that speeds dispersal of seed and microbes into open pasture lands;
- development of methods for rebuilding the ecology of degraded soil;
- development of methods to monitor the establishment of sustainable forest & woodland communities on pasture lands; and
- development of simple methods of matching community suitability to biophysical elements such as soil properties and aspect across offset areas.
The research outcomes and the resultant restoration techniques will be freely available to the community for adoption in other similar projects. It is proposed to hold community field days to promote the achievements at various stages during the project.
The research strategy to date has concentrated on achieving rehabilitation objectives. Fauna considerations have been managed through the ongoing monitoring programme controlled through the Mt Owen Complex Flora and Fauna Management Plan. The intention is to more closely integrate flora and fauna issues where practical in order to have a broader ecosystem focus. In the first instance this will involve maintaining a closer connection between the monitoring locations but could evolve into targeted species habitat recreation in the future. Other avenues being pursued include the matching of rehabilitation strategies to the habitat and feeding needs of specific species (e.g. concentrating on planting species preferred by Squirrel Gliders in areas suitable for placement of artificial roosting boxes and strategic placement of ground habitat for small mammals and reptiles).