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How the seed of an idea turned into a research harvest


Jessica Nelson
13 January 2021
Man with forest in background

While we all agree planting trees is good for the environment, one Southern Cross University researcher has spent more than half his life finding out just how beneficial it really is.

Southern Cross University’s Dr Kevin Glencross has worked in the Northern Rivers for almost 30 years, and owns a small farm where he has been replanting in the upper reaches of the Richmond River.

He’s actively involved in Southern Cross University research on replanting forest ecosystems, with particular expertise in carbon sequestration, biodiversity services, timber plantations, sustainable agriculture, food systems, agroecology, ecotourism and agroforestry. He supervises PhD students, works with undergraduate students in the field to expand their experience, while also running research programs in Australia, China and the Asia-Pacific specialising in rural livelihoods, protected area management, sustainable agriculture, natural resource management and restoration of complex ecosystems.

“Here around Southern Cross University Lismore campus, most of the area was covered in sub-tropical rainforests before Europeans arrived, but that forest was very quickly cut down. A lot of the timber that grew in those forests was then exported out as high-value timbers like red cedar, rosewood, some of the pines,” he said.

“They cleared those trees, grew grass, but we never thought to put trees back. Now things have run full circle - the dairy industry has shrunk dramatically and there’s a lot of land out there that’s underutilised. My PhD research looked at ways we could put trees back into the landscape, and also look at them as a potential resource. Could we re-establish a timber industry and do a much better job this time around?”

He says while people understand that planting trees has a whole range of benefits, there has been little data from this region to support the kind of changes tree-planting can make, in terms of taking carbon from the atmosphere and storing it.

“Part of my research brief has been to understand more clearly what’s going on, and account for the capacity these forests have to store thousands of tons of carbon in the tree’s timber, the canopy, the leaves, and also within the soil and the debris pool,” he said.

“And in these flood-prone environments, not only can we store carbon, but these trees help keep the soil in place up in the valleys, up in the catchment and stopping that from running into our waters, and losing that productive soil. This can help mitigate the economic impact of these intense floods as well. This vegetation not only has ecosystem value, but human value as well, for timber, food and shelter.”

The Australian rainforest flora has huge value in terms of its ability to produce fruits and oils and nuts.

The macadamia is an Indigenous nut from these forests and these subtropical rainforests have provided humans for tens of thousands of years with a whole range of really valuable resources so what we're looking now is trying to build into these rainforest plantings food values, essential oil values, some of the oils like lemon myrtle oil some of the bush foods, obviously macadamia, but also davidson plums, some of the lily pillies.

We have we have a whole range of native nuts other than macadamia and we're really only just beginning to understand the values of these crops and we have a whole range of emerging industries at the moment in the northern rivers who are looking to utilise these these products and there's a real shortage of supply.

So part of my sort of research brief is really just to look at ways of being  able to build those food values into our long-term forest plantations so that owners and industry can get some short-term benefits as well. Forests not only have a productive value for timber, ecological values, biodiversity values but also they hold our landscapes together. So one of the important things in these types of catchments on a piece of land like this which is steep and rocky is that these trees will hold this landscape together. Here in Lismore we've just had an incredibly high rainfall event and these forests do a fantastic job of holding soils together and really making our catchments much more resilient.

Dr Glencross also project manages, designs and supervises large-scale forest restoration operations for the public, for private enterprise, NGOs including the UN, and Community-based groups. He works his own land while also running a consulting business, and has had more than 25 research publications in national and international journals since 2008. His recent projects have included a lot of time working in Vanuatu and Fiji in the South Pacific, helping locals to rebuild some of their industries.

“Vanuatu had a very vibrant forest industry right up until the late 80s, then like a lot of the tropical world, that forest resource was completely harvested. So now one of the greatest places in the world to grow trees, is actually importing wood from New Zealand. There’s huge opportunity to re-establish their own industries, including producing coconut oil, nuts and tropical fruits and coffee and so on.”

Dr Glencross says he has a huge appreciation of the wealth of knowledge and understanding and depth of connection that Indigenous communities in each area have with the land.

“The kind of research I do is very much a two-way relationship and I get to work with people who have this incredible connection to the land, who need support and scientific understanding to help them promote their cause and have their voice heard through a scientific lens,” Dr Glencross said.

“This is a mechanism for a type of reconciliation with the land that we share – so it’s not only solutions for the threats that face us, but also part of a process of re-establishing a much more sound and sustainable relationship with the landscape.”

For students who want to pursue study in forestry, agriculture and science, Dr Glencross encourages them to take the opportunity to hone their intellect at University while also getting out into the world with hands-on experience and research.

“No matter where you find yourself, there are opportunities to really engage in life and in study that’s really meaningful to you to find where your niche is,” he said.

“I’ve been able to explore an area that I’m really passionate about with the support of my family, and what I love about my research is getting out there engaging with the environment and engaging with people outdoors and on the ground.”


Media contact: Jessica Nelson, media office at Southern Cross University, 0417 288 794 or [email protected]