As a landholder that has improved landscape functions and reversed degradation on various properties in Australia, my answer is not only YES, but that we can go even further than just maintaining ecosystem functions, and actually have a more stable and sustainable environment, with development as well.
I am convenor for a voluntary lobby group that is attempting to change the public's understanding and perceptions of landholders and land management from being a very negative one, to one where the positives and successes are equally known.
For many years now, my family has improved properties which originally had imbalanced soils, poor water infiltration, low production, and poor animal performance, but with good management become very healthy and continually productive landscapes. We believe the answers are very simple.
What is Environmentally Sustainable Development?
While there is no universally accepted definition of environmentally sustainable development (ESD), in 1990 the Commonwealth Government suggested the following definition for ESD in Australia: 'using, conserving and enhancing the community's resources so that ecological processes, on which life depends, are maintained, and the total
quality of life, now and in the future, can be increased'. To do this, we need to develop ways of using those environmental resources which form the basis of our economy in a way which maintains and, where possible, improves their range, variety and quality. At the same time we need to utilise those resources to develop industry and
In farming terms it is keeping ecosystems functioning and maintaining plant biomass production (animal production relies on plant production). To keep ecosystems functioning, we might add new species of plants (e.g. lucerne to reduce water table height, or the rabbit calici virus to control rabbits ) or we may destroy some species
(e.g. fruit fly or disease causing viruses) in order to maintain ecosystem functions. The ultimate goal is one of maintaining a good mix of species without reducing productivity or reducing ecosystem function. Unfortunately this means that some native species will decrease or be out-competed in some production based ecosystems, so this
is where conservation is important to complement these circumstances.
To achieve ESD land managers need management flexibility and understanding from the community - something that is not happening at the moment.
I believe we need to look at a "whole of society" system in encouraging ESD because land managers tend to produce what they can get paid for and if we want ESD, then there should be monetary rewards for it, rather than regulations that reduce people's management rights and their creativity.
Examples of ESD
A recent bit of research in the Desert Uplands in Qld has showed developed land that was grazed appropriately had higher soil carbon levels than undeveloped land just metres away. The grazing system used gives plants more rest time between grazings to allow them to recover. It encourages larger root systems, more water holding
capacity in the soil, greater microbe activity and soil fertility increases also.
My family bought a property that 3 previous owners went broke on because the stock were always unhealthy. We added copper, cobalt, selenium, molybdenum, etc to the deficient soils and transformed the plant and animal health. The property became very productive within 10 years as the whole ecosystem performed better.
Ecosystem functions - what is its bottom line?
There is a popular perception the answer to this question is - we need every species that is in an ecosystem to be conserved to keep each ecosystem functioning.
I will suggest that answer is not correct. Due to the fact that many species can perform the functions of other species, and no one can dictate exactly which mix of species will stay in an ecosystem, (some species outcompete or exclude other species) I believe the correct answer to what keeps an ecosystem functioning should be what
keeps as much biodiversity as is necessary for all the essential functions to be performed.
And the answer to that is sufficient water and energy flow.
A way of understanding this is considering two different approaches to having a pet refuge. One pet refuge operator says what he needs is lots of pets to be successful , so he concentrates on getting every creature he can in his refuge (while he forgets about their food and water needs). The other says lots of food, water and
comfortable living conditions, are the basis and the pets will turn up sooner or later. It should be obvious which pet refuge is going to be more successful