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Natural Heritage Trust
Helping Communities Helping Australia
The Bushcare program has been working for the last two and a half years to achieve two key goals of the Natural Heritage Trust - a revegetation rate that is greater than vegetation loss and an improvement in the quality and condition of Australia's native vegetation. It has provided unprecedented support to the Australian community to protect and plant native vegetation.
Halfway through the first phase of the Bushcare Program and the Natural Heritage Trust Partnership agreements it is now clear that to achieve these objectives we will need more effective support by the States for integrated regional planning of natural resource management and control of native vegetation clearance.
Against this background this is an opportune time to review progress, to elicit the lessons learned, and to develop new directions. These longer-term directions will be refined as the Government analyses the findings of the Mid-Term Review of the Natural Heritage Trust in coming months. But to maintain momentum, there are steps that should be taken now to further improve the program:-
Australia's native vegetation is one of the richest and most fundamental elements of our extraordinary natural heritage. Native vegetation binds and nourishes our ancient soils; it shelters and sustains native wildlife; it protects streams and wetlands, estuaries and coastlines; it absorbs carbon dioxide and emits oxygen.
Conversely, the depletion and degradation of native vegetation communities threatens the long term health and productive capacity of Australian landscapes. Destruction of native vegetation is the single biggest cause of biodiversity loss; it is a primary driver of land degradation, salinity and declining water quality; and it is among the single biggest components of our net Greenhouse gas emissions.
Land clearing is a central issue but there is much more to it than clearing alone.
Clearing is compounded by more insidious, widespread, incremental losses of remnant native vegetation. Grazing pressure, old age, insects, disease, weeds, rising watertables and firewood gathering are undermining the quality of bush remaining in rural landscapes.
Similarly in cities and towns, the precious remnants of native bush are depleted, fragmented and degraded incrementally.
The solutions to the decline in native vegetation cover, and the environmental problems stemming from that decline, are simple: land clearing should be reduced very significantly; revegetation of native vegetation communities should be enhanced; and a great improvement is required in the protection and management of the native vegetation which does remain in rural and urban landscapes.
The Natural Heritage Trust is the largest investment in the environment ever made by an Australian Government. It is tangible recognition of the fundamental importance of natural capital, which underwrites other forms of wealth. The Natural Heritage Trust marks the point at which Australia finally started re-investing in natural capital.
Reflecting the centrality of native vegetation management for many environmental issues, the Bushcare program is among the Trust's largest components, with almost $350 million in Trust funding over six years.
Bushcare has an historic and ambitious goal: to reverse the long term decline in the quality and extent of Australia's native vegetation cover by the year 2001. This goal is pursued through three complementary forms of investment:
Bushcare has funded more than 1800 projects through the Trust's One Stop Shop, in which it has invested over $127 million to date. About 70% of this funding has been invested directly in on-ground works to improve native vegetation management.
A great diversity of projects is being supported. For example:
Natural resources are sustained or otherwise through the cumulative impact of the countless everyday decisions and actions taken by those with direct responsibility for the land - including farmers, indigenous communities, municipalities, government agencies and utility companies. The Bushcare program recognises that attitudes, knowledge, skills and capacities of the people taking these decisions are crucial.
The Australian landcare movement is unique in its combination of grassroots voluntary community effort with technical and financial support from government and increasingly the private sector. Landcare, Bushcare, Rivercare and Dunecare groups are cleaning up the rivers and beaches, stabilising eroding banks and dunes, recreating wildlife corridors and restoring wetlands. They are controlling feral animals and weeds, and putting back some of the vegetation which their forebears, and in some cases they themselves, have removed.
Despite the leap in community awareness over recent years, there remains a great thirst for information at a community level, and for hands-on skills and technical support. There also remain significant areas where the knowledge base is patchy or weak. Moreover, some of the natural resource management issues Australia faces are of such scale and complexity that it is unreasonable to expect community groups alone to tackle them effectively through small-scale local projects.
The problem of dryland salinity is perhaps the best example. Salinity is a symptom of inappropriate land use and management, often over large areas and long timeframes. Solutions to it are likely to involve far more significant changes in land management practices than hitherto thought necessary.
We can broadly identify that large parts of south-west and south-east Australia require large-scale revegetation to help deal with dryland salinity. There is a large overlap between areas that have been cleared in the past, have moderate to high salinity risk, have potential for commercial reforestation and are in need of revegetation to restore biodiversity conservation values. The design of appropriate incentive structures and integrated program delivery mechanisms involving the community and lifting its levels of participation at the regional scale will be crucial to generate the investment necessary to achieve the scale of revegetation envisaged. In this way regions obtain a more diverse economic base, farmers get an alternative source of income, and Australians get a significant improvement in environmental outcomes.
Broad scale community participation is critical to increasing momentum in the transition towards more sustainable land management practices. Through thousands of local projects, the Natural Heritage Trust has provided extra resources, encouragement and technical support to help community groups to invest in their own natural heritage. Around 60% of Bushcare projects are for less than $20,000 per year, and 75% of Bushcare projects to date are being undertaken by voluntary community groups.
Bushcare has also invested in projects which are national in scope, aimed at enhancing the overall capacity of the Australian community to improve native vegetation management. These strategic national projects include: FloraBank, which has developed a national framework and protocols for collection, storage and distribution of native seed; and the new national Atlas of Australian Birds, involving thousands of volunteers generating a national overview and important insights into trends in the quality of habitat across Australia.
Bushcare-funded research has also enhanced our overall capacity to manage native vegetation more strategically, more effectively, and at less cost. Research projects are giving us a much better knowledge base on issues such as more effective incentives for conservation on private lands; opportunities for local government to conserve native vegetation; legislation in States and Territories that facilitates or constrains conservation behaviour; and potential tax incentives for the protection of native vegetation, to name a few.
Bushcare has also catalysed improved native vegetation management on land managed by Aboriginal people. For example Bushcare funding has enabled the Anangu-Pitjantjatjara Land Management group to institute a program of capacity building for traditional owners. The Community Ranger project is developing a Property Management Planning process that will be used across all Anangu-Pitjantjatjara lands (which make up 14 % of South Australia). The project is currently implementing a program of traditional indigenous land and vegetation management practices, rehabilitating land and controlling feral animals and weeds.
Ninety-three percent of the Australian continent lies outside formal conservation reserves. On the vast majority of this land, much of it privately owned or managed, conservation of biodiversity is not the primary land use or management objective. In most circumstances it is not possible to obtain a cash flow from conservation. Further, taking steps to conserve biodiversity on private land often imposes on landholders a direct cost or loss of opportunity to profit. And because many of the benefits arising from the conservation of native vegetation accrue off-site and to the public as a whole, it is often difficult for conservation to compete with other land use options that provide direct economic returns.
As a consequence, conservation remains under-valued and under-provided in the market place in which traditional goods and services are traded.
Governments can support the conservation of native vegetation on private lands through the removal of disincentives and the creation and provision of incentives, to a level commensurate with the public good. Through such mechanisms, the costs of biodiversity conservation and land restoration can be shared appropriately between individual landholders, the local community and society as a whole.
The most common form of incentive used to date has been grants, such as the majority of community projects funded through the One Stop Shop. Other forms of incentives on a more limited scale include assistance for local councils to introduce differential rating schemes, which allow a reduction in, or exemption from, rates payable on land managed for conservation values.
A fine example is the Johnstone Shire Council's Rate Rebate and Conservation Agreement Scheme. This Bushcare project aims to develop voluntary conservation initiatives and agreements with private landholders for all critical habitat areas within the shire. By the end of the project 2000-3000 hectares of critical habitat in the Wet Tropics will have been protected and enhanced. Conservation agreements with landholders are tied to the Shire's planning scheme and involve the rezoning of the area covered by the conservation agreement into a Conservation Zone. Landholders are offered a rebate on the general rates applicable to the allotment, and Council undertakes the rezoning process at no cost to the landholder. Johnstone Shire is committed to continue the program after Trust funding ceases.
The ongoing economic incentive provided to landholders through such schemes is highly symbolic, recognising their contribution to the wider public good. It is also practical in helping to offset long-term management costs.
Under the Natural Heritage Trust Partnership Agreements, all State and Territories have committed to prevent any clearing of endangered ecological communities, any clearing which changes the conservation status of a vegetation community, and any clearing which is inconsistent with the sustainable management of biodiversity at a regional scale.
These are impressive commitments, which make an historic pledge to improve management of our natural resources. To further embed these agreements the Commonwealth is working with States and Territories to establish a national framework within which these commitments can be met.
Through the Australia and New Zealand Environment & Conservation Council (ANZECC, the Council of Environment Ministers), the Commonwealth and State and Territory governments have developed a National Framework for the Management and Monitoring of Australia's Native Vegetation. It sets out the national consensus on best practice arrangements in regulation and also planning, incentives, monitoring and evaluation. The framework will encourage cooperation in establishing a comprehensive platform for institutional reform.
But collective action between Governments can take us only part of the way. A clear lesson from the early years of Bushcare is that the national goal of a net gain in the quality and extent of native vegetation cover cannot be achieved in the absence of effective controls on broadscale land clearing in all jurisdictions. This is not something that can be delivered by landcare groups, or bird observers, or committed individual landholders. It is the business of State and Territory governments.
Having successfully supported the thousands of landcare groups around Australia to restore and conserve native vegetation, the next great challenge is to assist landholders who are not members of landcare groups to undertake similarly important work. A key vehicle to assist such landholders will be 'devolved grant' projects, including fencing incentive schemes and bush corridor revegetation projects. Devolved grants enable a regionally based organisation to administer Bushcare funds to assist many individual landholders to carry out works on their own properties that deliver regional priorities.
For grant recipients, those doing the work on the ground, there is a minimum of paperwork and delay, and funds are available at the time of year most appropriate to the region. These projects are potentially available to all land users, not just the members of landcare groups, and they concentrate the burden of paperwork on the professional staff of regional organisations, rather than on the volunteers who do most of the on-ground work.
For example, Greening Australia is now running a large-scale, Bushcare fencing incentives project in Tasmania, which in its first four months approved funding for more than 155 km of fencing, protecting 1876 hectares over 109 sites. Rather than requiring 109 separate project funding applications, this is a single project which allocates funds at a property level against defined criteria, in return for a management agreement with the landholder.
To date Bushcare has invested about $17 million in focused on-ground works through Devolved Grants. This model shows enormous potential and the Commonwealth will expand upon it. The Natural Heritage Trust Guide to Applications 2000-2001 provides potential new participants with new and additional information on Devolved Grants.
A central feature in our delivery of Bushcare and associated programs is the 'One-Stop-Shop' process which enables community groups anywhere in Australia to apply for funding through an integrated process, with community-based assessment of their proposals at regional and State levels. This process has delivered funding to over five thousand projects over the first three funding rounds.
The One-Stop-Shop process is continuously being improved. This year the guidelines for new applications are easier to follow. While keeping the same basic structure that past applicants are familiar with, the new guidelines are shorter and easier to read. They also make it easy for applicants to get help or extra information if they need it.
This year has also seen an improvement in the delivery of cheques to community groups. This has been possible with the commitment and cooperation of all parties. The Government will continue to seek improvement in this area.
But to obtain maximum value for the Government's investment in the Natural Heritage Trust, increased emphasis will be given to funding participants in larger scale, regional projects which are underpinned by integrated natural resource management planning at a scale in which the community is capable of addressing the key issues.
Addressing climate change creates profound challenges and opportunities for native vegetation management in Australia. The Government has established the Bush for Greenhouse program, overseen by the Australian Greenhouse Office. Bush for Greenhouse is designed to facilitate corporate investment in revegetation 'sinks' to sequester carbon dioxide and reduce our net greenhouse gas emissions. Delivery of this program is being let through a competitive tender process, the outcome of which I expect to announce over coming weeks.
Limiting the loss of native vegetation will form a critical part of any long-term greenhouse abatement strategy. There are important synergies to be captured between reducing net greenhouse gas emissions, abating dryland salinity, enhancing water quality and improving wildlife habitat at a landscape scale.
Through Bush for Greenhouse and through the development of further policy and program measures, the Government aims to maximise the positive effects of these synergies on Australia's native vegetation.
Bush for Wildlife is a new initiative to provide a stronger focus on wildlife conservation through Natural Heritage Trust programs such as Bushcare, Endangered Species, Feral Animals and Weeds.
Through this initiative the Bushcare guidelines now give priority to projects which include a component which protects or restores habitat for endangered native plants and animals.
The initiative is also supporting State based 'land for wildlife' schemes. These schemes provide a support base for landholders interested in protecting wildlife on their properties.
The information technology revolution offers major opportunities to enhance access for the thousands of Australians who participate in Bushcare to the information they need to make their efforts a success. I would like a Bushcare grant applicant, school or community group anywhere in Australia, to be able to use the Trust website for obtaining information such as: recommended species for replanting, habitat requirements for endangered and migratory species, management plans for important wetlands, as well as summaries of relevant Bushcare research projects, best practice information, key contacts and other sources of support.
Work is well underway to enable this in the very near future.
Community projects funded through the One Stop Shop are critical to providing land managers with the education, information, motivation and resources required to underpin and guide on-ground action and will remain central to the Commonwealth's overall strategy for Bushcare.
There is scope to provide even greater incentives for conservation management on private lands through the tax system, through recent measures to encourage greater corporate and personal philanthropy announced by the Prime Minister on 26 March 1999.
Take the United States. There the private sector invests as much in public benefit nature conservation as the public sector.
Through the Prime Ministers initiative, for the first time donations of property valued at more than $5,000 to any eligible institution, including environmental organisations, will be tax deductible, no matter when the property was purchased.
The Prime Minister also announced gifts donated as part of a deceased estate will be exempt from capital gains tax.
These initiatives build on the $80 million Landcare Tax Rebate introduced through the Natural Heritage Trust and are designed to encourage greater philanthropic investment in the future of Australia's natural heritage.
The Commonwealth is committed to the introduction of new revolving funds, in cooperation with other governments and non-government organisations to enable the purchase of land with high wildlife habitat values and its subsequent resale to buyers committed to management for conservation.
The conservation values of purchased properties will be secured in perpetuity by the placement of a covenant on the title of the land. Resale of the land will enable the capital invested through the Natural Heritage Trust to be revolved to fund further purchases. With appropriate enabling legislation to minimise transaction costs, revolving funds are an innovative, efficient, market-based mechanism through which to provide greater security for conservation values on private lands, at little ongoing cost to the taxpayer.
This proposal is modelled on the highly successful Trust for Nature Victoria, which has been operating under its own legislation since 1972. The revolving fund operated by the Trust for Nature was enhanced significantly earlier this year with a capital injection of $500,000 from Bushcare. Bushcare will facilitate similar initiatives throughout Australia.
The next phase of Bushcare will focus on tackling the wider constraints to better vegetation management, and on investing where we can exert most leverage on the policies and practices of the key players in vegetation management. It is about highlighting, extending and improving best practice, not just in vegetation management, but also in regulatory, planning and incentives frameworks across all tiers of government.
Over the last decade there has been a proliferation of regional and catchment-based structures and processes in natural resource management. Many regional/catchment strategies have been and are still being prepared, and are often used as the basis for allocating public resources such as Natural Heritage Trust funds including devolved grants in particular.
However these strategies are rarely reflected in statutory planning or regulations that have legal force. If they do, it is usually with a narrow focus on a specific issue such as water quality.
Australia needs to dramatically improve the effectiveness and integration of its natural resource management planning systems. There needs to be much better vertical integration cascading through statewide or regional planning, and given effect in local planning, zoning and rating schemes.
We also need to deliver better horizontal integration. The management of rivers, catchments, coastlines, vegetation, wildlife, land use and now carbon needs to be addressed as one and planned accordingly. This is both most feasible and most imperative at the regional or catchment scale.
Now is the time for Governments and communities to work together to create much more effective mechanisms for addressing natural resource and environmental management issues of which native vegetation is a vital element. This must happen in an integrated manner and at a scale which is appropriate to the particular issues being addressed. It must also enable community commitment and participation in discovery and delivery of the solutions.
The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act commences in mid 2000. It will oblige the Commonwealth to pay close attention to matters which will inevitably be the subject of regional strategies and plans. These include matters of national environmental significance such as nationally threatened species and communities of native wildlife; wetlands of international importance; and migratory species protected under international agreements.
A key objective of the Act is to promote a cooperative approach to protection and management of the environment involving governments, the community and landholders. The Commonwealth looks forward to working nationally to enhance the very frameworks within which we manage Australia's natural resources.
A further field of genuinely exciting opportunity involves the potential synergies to be captured between reducing net greenhouse gas emissions, abating dryland salinity, enhancing water quality and improving biodiversity conservation and wildlife habitat at a landscape scale. Full realisation of these synergies may depend on the development of effective markets for carbon and, perhaps, salinity credits to generate some of the required long-term investments. The Government will be working hard to explore and build upon these opportunities.
The overall goal of Bushcare to achieve a net gain in the quality and extent of Australia's native vegetation is a clear on-ground outcome with environmental and sustainable production dimensions.
The first two years of Bushcare have strongly emphasised direct capital investments from the Trust in on-ground vegetation projects, and also the fundamental role of the community in managing native vegetation.
The community-driven elements of the program are now being complemented with a greater emphasis on strategic investment to deliver on key priorities such as reducing land clearing, securing the habitats of endangered and threatened species, and targeting key land and water degradation problems.
Reforms to institutional arrangements capable of influencing all landholders are also progressing well but need to be taken much further.
The institutional arrangements to most effectively deliver investment in landscapes will fully engage community capacity and innovation, be at a scale at which there can be complete integration across natural resource and environment management objectives and have the strong support and engagement of governments at all levels in the form of resources and authority.
The Government will work cooperatively and strategically to achieve this vision as it continues in its unprecedented efforts through Bushcare and the Natural Heritage Trust to reinvest wisely in Australia's natural capital.