Tony Gleeson, Synapse Research & Consulting
Alex Dalley, Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Forestry, Dili, East Timor
prepared for the 2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee, 2006
This commentary is testimony to the inadequacy of the trend data provided in relation to land condition.
Previous state of the environment reports have highlighted the need for improved environmental data collection and management, a need recognised as far back as the mid-1980s leading to the establishment of the National Resource Information Centre.
The continued inadequate state of trend datasets in relation to key indicators presumably is a consequence of a lack of sustained commitment to collect and manage data. There seems to be a presumption within programmes such as NHT and NAP that state and territory governments will maintain adequate generic data collection and management, but, generally speaking, neither funds nor staff are allocated for these purposes.
The collection, management and use of environmental data are crucial to our understanding of environmental condition, to our understanding the impacts of pressures on the environment and to the design and implementation of actions to protect and improve environmental condition.
The national move to establish catchment-based approaches needs to be complemented with core funding and capabilities for agreed monitoring and data management. It would seem that the discussion of the ideal indicator sets is based on the false assumption that whatever indicators are agreed upon will be monitored and fed back in a way that can be used. When these data are not easily available at a national level, more time and resources must be spent on data mining, often from projects that make data available on an ad hoc basis. This is an arduous and largely ineffective approach.
More cost-effective regional approaches to spatial data base system development and maintenance are required, for use by land managers and catchment and regional authorities. Some work in this regard is being supported with the NHT–DAFF Environmental Management System Programme and within the Desert Cooperative Research Centre at Alice Springs. The key challenge will be to ensuring that these and similar projects actually deliver practical, spatial database tools and datasets to practising land managers.
There needs to be a more realistic assessment of what data can be collected by individuals and organisations responsible for environmental management at all spatial scales, from the individual land management scale through to subcatchment, catchment, regional and national scales. There is also a need for greater coordination between state of the environment reporting processes and national data collation projects. The National Land and Water Resources Audit projects from 1999 to 2001 were completed a year after SoE2001. We have been informed (DEH pers. comm.) that Audit 2 is focusing more on national coordination committees to set up protocols for collecting data than on the actual collection of data, in itself a high level recognition that systems are not in place for data collection and management.
In SoE2006 , the focus of data collection has shifted from reliance on information collected at the state and territory level to an increased use of nationally relevant datasets that are collected using techniques such as remote sensing and satellite imagery. There is considerable potential for an expansion of this approach so that national state of the environment reporting could ultimately be based entirely on such national datasets. The benefits of this approach are two fold. Firstly, the data for use in the national state of the environment report will be collected using collection approaches that are effective and cost-efficient at the national scale. Secondly, as long as these data are available at other spatial scales (state and territory, regional, catchment and below) it will enable cost-effective complementary indicator selection and data collection at each of these subsidiary scales.
Given the paucity of trend datasets for key biophysical parameters it might be counterproductive to propose collection of additional datasets. Nevertheless monitoring arrangements that focus only on the condition of the land will not inform us of the beliefs and values that should govern the design and operation of institutional arrangements that impact both on the pressures on the land resource and on the responses to those pressures. Additionally there is a need for independent evidence-based trend assessments of the efficacy of institutional arrangements in relation to land condition.