Changing the delivery of environmental stewardship in Australia
Dr Pamela Parker, Australian Landscape Trust
Mr G Fitzhardinge
prepared for the 2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee, 2006
Command and control styles in conservation have not worked to secure nature and natural resources (Holling and Meefe 1996). National parks cannot address many conservation and environmental responsibilities that are evident in the rural sector. Various experiments have arisen in recent years in which the private sector has entered into agreements with government for the management of conservation land, or has purchased land to become a private conservation estate as a means of offering an alternative to the management culture of government agencies working on public land. In these alternative models, voluntarism plays a key role as a form of enabling investment.
A particularly exciting development is the proposal from the Barcoo Shire Council in Queensland to assume responsibility for delivering management services for land within the Queensland conservation estate located within shire boundaries. The Queensland Government has been asked to devolve responsibility for public land to local government. There are other examples of similar collaborations, including that of the Australian Landscape Trust with the Renmark Paringa Council in South Australia for operating the McCormick Centre for the Environment (a facility dedicated to environmental education for the lower Murray–Darling Basin) that is owned by the council.
The trend for the private sector to invest in the management of conservation land addresses some of the issues that burden relationships between government agencies with land management responsibilities and their surrounding rural communities. As budgets for conservation lands declined over the past 30 years, government agencies had fewer resources to pay for feral animal control, restoration, revegetation, wildlife management and other services. Surrounding communities criticised the efforts of agencies that struggled to provide services to an expanding public conservation estate. In addition to constraints of funding, agencies operated through a ‘top down’ culture that was necessary to ensure accountability for resources and statutory responsibilities. Under these circumstances, many agencies cannot engage constructively with neighbouring communities.
Some agencies embrace limited community involvement confined to donations of money and supervised volunteer tasks such as tree planting. These activities do not devolve significant responsibility or management discretion to the volunteers who regard these tasks as labour substitution for government personnel. Some volunteers are satisfied with these experiences but others are not, especially those most energetic in their criticism of underfinanced government agencies. An impasse is reached when an agency cannot meet demands for improved management services and the community is barred from tackling problems directly because of statutory regulation of a park.
In order to capture the resources of voluntarism, a recipient organisation recognises that individuals assess the value of their volunteer activities to themselves, their community and their environment. They continue to volunteer when that assessment reflects wise use of their time and personal resources. The role in rural communities that voluntarism and its accompanying social networks play in cultural change in environmental practices and natural resource management cannot be underestimated.
Contrasting models of volunteer participation have been explored in the literature. Finding the right balance in volunteer programs for individuals, communities and nature is important in making a successful transition in devolving responsibilities from government to communities as society copes with diminishing contributions of the tax base to management of the public conservation estate.
There is an increasingly recognised necessity for the transfer of submarginal lands from production uses to environmental and conservation uses. Management of these resources can only be accomplished by increasing the engagement of rural communities living around these lands and by innovative engagement of the urban population, as well, as resource providers.
In this environment, several task-focused environmental organisations have developed, bringing private sector investment into support of a parallel, private conservation estate receptive to activities that are not easily accommodated in the traditional national park model. Two of these organisations are the Australian Bush Heritage Fund (ABHF) and the Australian Landscape Trust (ALT). There are, as well, a number of other active organisations with similar characteristics, including the Australian Wildlife Conservancy.
Both the ABHF and the ALT rely on contributions of significant donors and on grants. Both provide opportunities for a variety of investments in conservation land and programs. These are learning organisations, evolving programs and testing ideas within a private sector culture that recognises the ‘deal making’ approach of business culture, the give and take that is essential between donors, volunteers of services and the management of the organisations. Both organisations attempt to involve local communities in their operations, and seek to extend their influence beyond reserve boundaries. Because of the significant private investment that is required for the operations of these organisations, performance milestones and accountability are high priorities.
The ABHF is a national, independent non-profit organisation that acquires and manages land and water of outstanding conservation significance. It selects areas to protect that have plant and animals communities that are under threat and poorly represented in public reserves. It is Australia’s most widely supported organisation of this type, having attracted the support of more than 12 000 Australians. ABHF is funded mainly by tax-deductible donations and secondarily through long-term ethical investments. ABHF protects and manages nineteen reserves throughout Australia containing 346 000 hectares of land. Over 133 vegetation communities are represented; 52 of these are of high conservation significance. These reserves protect at least 53 plant species and 51 animal species of conservation significance.
ABHF is an ‘investment’ business managing philanthropic investments in nature conservation. Corporate and private investors seek assurances on the cost/benefit or demonstrable outcomes from their investments, and such investments are often tied to specific outcomes. While this ‘business’ approach suits larger corporate investors smaller donors sometimes seek personal involvement. To this end, ABHF’s skilled volunteers have contributed over $300 000 worth of labour to conservation efforts.
The following examples represent the breadth of ABHF projects.
Carnarvon Station Reserve is in the highlands of central Queensland, in a region that has undergone significant land clearing, particularly over the last twenty years. Before its acquisition as a reserve, Carnarvon Station was a pastoral property but had not been extensively developed.
In 2001 ABHF acquired the 59 000 hectare property to protect its 28 regional ecosystems, seven of which were classified as ‘Endangered’ and one as ‘Of Concern’. Most of the endangered ecosystems were not represented in the adjacent national park. Grazing by cattle and feral horses was degrading the property. Feral pigs were miring its springs. In the five years following purchase, the health of the property has improved significantly. Native grasslands have returned, as have birds of prey that feed on returning wildlife.
By the end of 2005, eight springs will have been fenced to exclude feral pigs and horses, with an immediate improvement in water quality and the return of aquatic plants and animals. Over 300 pigs and 400 horses have been removed. Weed control has targeted areas of Johnson and buffel grass, while reducing further infestations through strict weed hygiene. A fire plan for the property guides controlled burns that maximise habitat complexity and reduce the impacts of wildfire. These control programs are ongoing and volunteer rangers help the reserve managers to carry out the work.
The 452-hectare Reedy Creek Reserve in coastal Queensland has been created through an innovative partnership between a property developer and a non-profit environmental organisation. The ‘Sunrise at 1770’ development is a model for ecologically sensitive, coastal, residential development. It has stringent controls on water and energy use, waste management, land clearing and landscape management. The development sits between Deepwater National Park to the south, a coastal reserve to the north-east, a rural residential development to the west and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The housing development occupies 148 hectares of the 600-hectare site. The remaining 452 hectares has been gifted to the ABHF.
The reserve has a diverse landscape of Corymbia woodlands, rare vine-forest communities and riparian melaleuca forests that are floristically significant. The creek forms a complex bird, freshwater fish and amphibian habitat. The coastal zone is an important turtle-breeding area and, although not part of the reserve, is also being managed by the ABHF.
As part of the Reedy Creek Reserve management program, ABHF is controlling weeds, erosion and feral animals and implementing a rigorous burning program to protect life and property, maintain habitat complexity and reduce the risk of destructive wildfires. The cost of this management work and of having reserve managers permanently on-site is paid for by an environmental levy contributed by the lot owners of the ‘Sunrise at 1770’ development.
The ALT operates through public–private partnerships and with local communities in environments in need of remediation and community voluntarism. These are areas in which the public sector lacks sufficient resources to address long-term environmental debt. ALT works in two locations, the Riverland in South Australia and at Strathfieldsaye Estate in East Gippsland, Victoria.
Through joint land purchases with the Australian Government, ALT and the Riverland community are able to take day-to-day responsibility for approximately 340 000 hectares of Murray River floodplain and mallee land in South Australia. This is accomplished through a management contract with the Australian Government, holder of the titles to Calperum and Taylorville stations. Community volunteers deliver the day-to-day care of the individual paddocks within these properties and responsibilities defined by the government management contract. This arrangement with the Australian Government is in its eighth year of operation, providing an example of partnerships and enhanced investment in the conservation estate, and in repair of degraded environments through private sector resources. Over 10 000 volunteer hours are given each year in land management and projects.
Aggressive feral animal control over more than a decade has permitted rapid recovery of ground vegetation and of small vertebrate populations. Additional volunteer services are also given to research, monitoring, restoration and revegetation and, especially, protection for a high density of mallee fowl. Volunteers also provide conservation services elsewhere in the community on private land, and they have contributed to heritage restoration and protection.
Calperum and Taylorville stations, along with neighbouring parts of the South Australian conservation estate, Scotia (belonging to Australian Wildlife Conservancy), Gluepot (belonging to Birds Australia), and near several Victorian protected areas including Neds Corner (belonging to Trust for Nature), encompass nearly 2 million hectares of relatively intact mallee lands containing a rich biodiversity including Critical Habitat for Black Eared Miners and the newly discovered Jurassic ancestor of beetles. All of the private sector properties rely on large donations of community support, much of it through volunteered labour and professional services.
Calperum Station includes a portion of a Ramsar-listed wetland that was once part of the overland stock route between New South Wales and the Adelaide market. The legacy of intensive grazing, desertification and salinisation due to hydrological change is an ongoing challenge for management.
Strathfieldsaye Estate, a property held in trust, occupies the north shore of Lake Wellington. This 1 700-hectare farm and heritage homestead belonged to the Disher family. Through bequest, the property is dedicated to the pursuit of sustainability, research, teaching and engagement of the community in the best uses of natural resources. Support from the Australian Government’s Sustainable Regions program allowed a number of programs that reflect community interests to develop. One of these is designing a linked farming operation with a detailed program of monitoring the impacts of farming on natural resources used in production.
Through Dr Bob Beeton, University of Queensland, two community development courses were offered to community members who then used their learning and networks in a variety of investments in environment and cultural endeavours. These activities are merging with other conservation and educational activities and community networks that add to local capacity in an area of Australia challenged by environmental degradation and excessive clearing (less than 3 per cent of native vegetation remains on private land).
Although resources of Australian conservation organisations are small compared with the budgets of major international conservation organisations, there are some salutary lessons to note. Chapin (2004) described the risks from these major international organisations (including The Nature Conservancy and Conservation International) focusing too exclusively on raising funds and from ignoring the limitations of skills for delivering field-based programs. There are disadvantages from concentrating on simplified performance goals such as numbers of species conserved and hectares of land protected. These measures made achievements of private sector organisations marketable to businesses that could easily understand performance in such terms. By concentrating on agenda-based conservation science rather than on the social and economic realities that provide the context for conservation, these large organisations put their long-term effectiveness at risk.