5 Land | Key findings

State of the Environment 2011 Committee. Australia state of the environment 2011.
Independent report to the Australian Government Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities.
Canberra: DSEWPaC, 2011.

5 Land

Key findings

Our land use is changing in response to new priorities and new pressures.

Major trends in land use and management during the reporting period are the expansion of the area managed for conservation and by Indigenous Australians—each of which now accounts for more than 20% of Australia’s land area—and a reduction in agricultural production during the recent extended drought in southern Australia.

The rate of land clearing, one of the most significant pressures affecting the land environment, averaged around 1 million hectares annually over the decade to 2010.

Land clearing and ecosystem fragmentation are associated with the expansion of both agriculture and settlements, and are concentrated in a relatively small number of regions, some of which are coastal. By the end of the decade, the continental extent of land clearing was balanced by the extent of regrowth—although the character and values of the original and regrowth vegetation are often different.

Widespread landscape-scale pressures, particularly those due to invasive species and inappropriate fire regimes, continue to threaten environmental values across much of Australia’s land environment.

The level of environmental impact from grazing—Australia’s most widespread land use—appears to be mixed, with diminished impacts in some regions but increased impacts in others. Invasive species, fire regimes and grazing are having a significant impact on much of our land environment.

Soil processes, including acidification, erosion and loss of soil carbon, will increasingly affect Australia’s agriculture unless they are carefully managed.

Acidification and erosion currently affect significant areas of land, although wind erosion has decreased in response to more effective land cover. Soil carbon is central to maintaining soil health and can also be a significant source or sink (depending on land management) for greenhouse gases.

Climate change is expected to bring about profound changes in the Australian land environment, particularly native vegetation and production systems.

Our understanding of the probable impacts of climate change on Australia’s land environment deepened substantially during the reporting period. Some native vegetation communities are likely to disappear completely; the extent and distribution of others are likely to change significantly; and novel ecosystems are expected to arise. These changes will affect other environmental and production values.

Management effectiveness of the land environment varies.

The effectiveness of our management of the land environment varies with land use and the nature of the pressures on the environment. The nature of widespread, landscape-scale pressures and resource constraints often make it difficult to manage more extensive land uses and pressures as effectively as we would wish. A notable exception during the past decade is the large and widespread reduction in tillage intensity across the cropping lands of Australia.

Governance and institutional arrangements for management of the land environment need improvement, and levels of investment are inadequate.

Governance and institutional arrangements have changed significantly during the reporting period, and are not yet optimal in a number of important respects. Although substantial, the levels of investment in management of the land environment—and in the research, development, knowledge and information systems that underpin management—remain inadequate for soundly based adaptive management.

There is a serious capacity gap in the professional and technical human resources necessary for effective land management, including both a growing shortage of qualified people and a lack of relevant skills and experience among the next generation of land managers.

This gap is already becoming evident in agriculture, forestry and related specialisations. It will increase, and its consequences will become more acute as we face the challenges to land environmental values and production systems associated with climate change.

The outlook for Australia’s land environment is mixed.

We have much of the knowledge and experience required to manage our land environment better, and have been doing so in many respects. However, the trends in many indicators of land environmental values are negative, and are likely to be exacerbated by climate change. Realising a more positive outlook for Australia’s land environment will require renewed resolve, effort and investment.