Australia State of the Environment Report 2001 (Theme Report)
Prepared by: Ann Hamblin, Bureau of Rural Sciences, Authors
Published by CSIRO on behalf of the Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2001
ISBN 0 643 06748 5
Physical changes to natural habitats (continued)
The terms of trade for Australia's rural industries have been in decline for a century. In an attempt to address this, and for reasons of comparative advantage, Australia has been a leading proponent for the reduction in agricultural subsidies during the 1980s and 1990s throughout the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) rounds of negotiations that led to the establishment of the World Trade Organization (WTO). During this period Australia adopted a strong policy of dismantling assistance programs to rural industries. At the same time, because of concern over sustainability and biodiversity, changes have taken place in wild harvest industries such as ocean fishing and native forest logging.
During this time overall primary industry sector profitability maintained growth levels of 3-4% in export earnings (ABARE 2001). However, national averages disguise the degree of polarisation and large proportion of farmers who have had negative incomes over this period (SCARM 1998).
Our inability to develop and implement a workable policy model to cope with the declining economic conditions of components of Australia's agricultural systems within historical land administration systems contributes to landscape degradation and social disadvantage. This is particularly so in the rangelands of rural Queensland and western New South Wales where leases and land administration have not been adjusted to allow for changing economic and social drivers (John Childs pers. comm., Kerin and Hyder Consulting 2000). It is also apparent that constitutional constraints are becoming a significant barrier to addressing socioeconomic decline within a sustainable natural resource management framework.
Tenure can affect the way in which land is managed, and hence the condition of land. Nowhere is this more evident that in the pastoral rangelands, where substantial differences exist between State and Territory leases, and the Acts surrounding their administration. There are limited term leases and regular environmental assessments relating to lease renewal in South Australia and Western Australia. However, the perpetual leases and limitations on non-pastoral activities is enshrined by law in the Western Division of New South Wales (Kerin and Hyder Consulting 2000), over 50% of the Northern Territory and through much of western Queensland.
Over the last 15 years there have been significant adjustments to land tenure in parts of the northern and western rangelands, but little change within Queensland and New South Wales. A very thorough study on changes to land tenure in the Extensive Land-use Zone has recently been completed for the National Land and Water Resources Audit (1999) (see Figure 40).
Figure 40: Land tenure in the Extensive Land-use Zone, 1999.
Source: NLWRA (2001c)
Table 20 summarises the areal extent of these changes. The non-rangeland region of Australia excluded from this analysis was 13.7 million hectares, most of which is in freehold tenure (agricultural, horticultural, urban and peri-urban lands).
|Tenure||Area of tenure (million ha)|
|Unassigned Crown land (previously called 'vacant')||93.80||80.75||80.42|
|Assigned Crown land (stock routes, commons etc)||6.07||5.87||5.82|
|Pastoral leases (grazing, includes grazed mining leases)||284.41||269.88||266.17|
|Aboriginal leases (grazed)||4.66||15.22||15.95|
|Aboriginal land titles (not in commercial grazing) A||70.82||76.55||76.58|
|Conservation lands (non-gazetted)||18.41||22.52||24.50|
|National parks (gazetted)||8.02||14.34||15.70|
|Forested areas (State forests, reserves, multi-purpose)||1.94||3.28||3.28|
|Marine coastal reserves||2.53||3.32||3.32|
A This incorporates a variety of tenures including Crown-administered Aboriginal lands, leases, trusts, councils and local government jurisdictions.
Source: NLWRA (2001c).
The data show that the total area of conservation estate (including coastal reserves and water reserves such as wetlands, but excluding small forest reserves) has more than doubled from 34.8 to 79.12 million hectares, with most of the increase occurring in the period 1985-1995. Aboriginal lands have increased less in the past 15 years than is commonly supposed. The big increase in Aboriginal land titles occurred in the period 1965-1985. Twenty per cent of Aboriginal lands are grazed commercially. In the remainder change in ownership has often changed the land use but the effects on ecosystem function has not been documented. The Northern Territory and South Australia have the largest extent of Aboriginal titles, with 40% of the Northern Territory and 16% of South Australia being in Aboriginal titles. By contrast less than 200 000 hectares are in Aboriginal titles in New South Wales.
Figure 41 shows the total changes in woody vegetation since European settlement. It shows that the most extensive clearance has occurred primarily in the Intensive Land-use Zone, where nearly two-thirds of original forests and woodlands have been cleared in South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales. In contrast, a third or less has been cleared in the ACT, Western Australia, Tasmania and Queensland. Clearance in the Northern Territory has been small (<10%).
Figure 41: Changes in woody vegetation in states and territories since European settlement.
Source: NFI (2000)
The southern states, occupied earlier by Europeans and subjected to rapid early exploitation and its consequences, have, until recently, imposed greater legislative controls on clearing in the past two decades than has been the case in the north, where 'development' is still synonymous with agricultural activity. Historically, Land Acts have expressed the community's values, with mining and agricultural interests overriding other values, such as biodiversity conservation, tourism and recreation. This analysis is reflected in the approach to vegetation clearing legislation in Queensland, New South Wales and the Northern Territory. The situation is, however, changing and it is likely that clearing restrictions will be in place throughout Australia in the near future.
Table 21 shows that since 1996 there have been significant reductions in land clearing in most states. This reflects an almost total ban being imposed through legislation in Western Australia and South Australia, and substantially reduced permit approvals for clearing in Victoria and New South Wales. The situation in Queensland in particular, and the Northern Territory and Tasmania to a lesser extent, is still of environmental concern and has been the subject of recent controversy.
|All vegetation protected in leasehold provisions; there is no freehold land|| No change.
The Nature Conservation Act 1980 protects all native vegetation on unleased land.
The Land (Planning & Environment) Act 1991 requires an impact assessment for all proposals involving removal or destruction
|New South Wales|
|State Environmental Planning Policy No 46-Protection and Management of Native Vegetation (1995) to control clearing on freehold land. Some controls in Western Lands Act and Soil Conservation Acts. SEPP46 amended in 1996 to include native grassland as well as woody vegetation in designated environments and vegetation types; but no overall restriction to native vegetation clearance||
SEPP46 repealed 1 January 1998 by the Native Vegetation Conservation Act 1997. Native vegetation clearance generally prohibited; clearance allowed only where the development consent process under Part 4 of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 has been satisfied.
These controls are supported by the draft Native Vegetation Conservation Strategy for NSW being developed by the Native Vegetation Advisory Council, along with other guidelines and regional management planning processes
|Destruction of vegetation on Crown land must be licensed (1992), with some controls under the Pastoral Land Act, but no controls on private land||
Clearing on Pastoral Leases (48%) is controlled under the Pastoral Land Act and is subject to approval by the Pastoral Land Board. Clearing will be in accordance with clearing plans and clearing guidelines approved by the Board.
Clearing on land other than Pastoral Leases can be controlled under the Planning Act and will be subject to the approval of the appropriate consent authority under the Act.
Clearing can be controlled under other natural resource management legislation for specific situations viz. The Soil conservation and Land Utilisation Act, the Water Act, and the Territory Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act
|Local guidelines for leasehold land (Lands Act 1994) restricted clearing of some vegetation types||
Vegetation Management Act proclaimed September 2000. This prevents the clearing of endangered regional ecosystems on freehold land.
The Land Act amended to prevent clearing of endangered and of concern (vulnerable) regional ecosystems on leasehold land.
Regulatory framework implemented for clearing of remnant vegetation
|Broadacre clearing effectively ceased, limited to small highly degraded areas since the introduction of the Native Vegetation Act 1991. Consent required for any native vegetation clearing other than that specifically exempted by the Regulations to the clearance legislation. Some (limited) incentive payments to encourage protection of very high conservation value areas. Protection of native vegetation available via a number of conservation programs||
No changes to the Native Vegetation Act. Native vegetation fully protected; increase in measures designed to protect native vegetation (trusts and covenants), and promote tree planting.
Review of the Native Vegetation Act and regulations to clarify clearance allowed under Regulations (exemptions), strengthen the enforcement provisions of the legislation and allow for an appeals mechanism.
Approx 550 000 ha of native vegetation protected under heritage agreements
|Few control measures other than local government and some provision for private reserves||No change|
|Permits required for blocks larger than 0.4 ha, no compensation, but some heritage agreements, since 1989||Restricted clearance permits. Investment incentives to purchase native vegetation for preservation, and to promote plantations. Draft State Framework for Native Vegetation Management released. Planning amendments to give effect to Framework in 2001 and beyond|
|Permits required for any area >1 ha, no compensation, conditions for approval tightened in 1995. Technically some 800 properties still had conditional purchase leases requiring clearance||Since 1995 Notices of Intention to Clear in the south-western agricultural region have been assessed by four departments jointly. Less than 250 ha/year permitted, and only where there is no land degradation or biodiversity loss. Strong encouragement to invest in plantations and other tree planting|
Local governments have direct control over the zoning of the most intensive land uses, and may significantly affect sensitive ecosystems beneficially or destructively. Coastal development is a good example. Increasing numbers of Australians are moving to coastal locations. The expansion of existing small settlements, increased numbers of roads and other infrastructure has been particularly marked up the eastern seaboard from Wollongong to Rockhampton. Net annual population increase in these areas averaged over 5% from 1991 to 1996. Fragmentation of native vegetation habitats is a particular problem from such expansion (see the Biodiversity Theme Report).
One of the ugliest features of unplanned development in the past has been the proliferation of summer shacks (cottages) and informal tracks, that may also introduce pests and diseases into hitherto pristine coastal areas. They are still a significant feature of the South Australian coastline, where population is static and market demand low.
In more populous states such as New South Wales, areas of population increase have raised land prices and the demand for higher quality development have largely removed 'shacks and tracks'. However, this has had an unintended consequence of increasing native habitat fragmentation, as built roads, traffic density and fencelines start to restrict the movement of native fauna.
All states and territories now have planning policies that include the coastal zone, embracing the principle of ESD (ecologically sustainable development). The New South Wales Coastal Policy 1997 prohibits development of the foredune area, coastal headlands and estuaries for canal estates. However, the legacy of earlier unplanned practices, and the rapid pace of local 'rurban' development continues to put pressure on native vegetation habitats, through fragmentation (Financial Review 14 February 2001), and by uncontrolled nutrient and pollution emission into streams and estuaries. In response to this many coastal local governments are adopting stronger environmental standards.
In 1997 the Australian Local Government Association initiated strategies to provide improved regional development consistent with ESD principles. Local governments in several coastal regions have worked to integrate their stormwater, wastewater, erosion control, beach and shore developments into systems of Total Catchment Management. They have combined these with planned economic development and investment programs aimed at attracting tourism, service industries and retired residents into their areas. Two such projects are:
- the Northern Gold Coast Beach Protection Strategy, coordinated by the Gold Coast City Council, and
- the Lower Hunter and Central Coast Regional Environmental Management Strategy, coordinated by the Lake Macquarie City Council.
The Australian Constitution's constraint on Commonwealth environmental powers remains. However, progressive changes in land-use planning have continued through the last five years as Australia continues to develop a 'case law' role for the Commonwealth in land-use planning. The Commonwealth Government has used its export licensing, treaty, corporations and funding powers to intervene within state jurisdictions. Examples include The Regional Forest Agreements, the Council of Australian Governments' water reform package, the National Action Plan for Salinity and more recently the developing role of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cwlth). Nevertheless confrontation between primary industries and environmental values remain politically sensitive, and are the focus of political action by special interest groups.
Many government agencies have been involved in improving the knowledge and understanding by Australians of environmental issues. This often involves collaborating with volunteer organisations and community networks (Alexandra et al. 1996). Many of the participants are school-aged children or people 20-40 years old. They are characteristically hungry for accurate information, and make considerable use of advanced technologies such as geographic information systems, the World Wide Web, global positioning systems, and data loggers.
The diversity of responses to such issues as land clearing, water quality and land use planning across all jurisdictions in Australia clearly demonstrates a progression from the adversarial approach to one that has adopted ESD principles as 'mainline' daily operational mode.
Population expansion and movement will inevitably continue to put potential pressure on land systems in the future. The strategy of adopting a total catchment management approach, and of integrating economic development with cultural, aesthetic and environmental considerations, (now accepted by most governments in Australia) attempts to minimise environmental disruption in urban expansion and rural subdivision, in the same manner that adherence to stringent guidelines is doing in the mining industry.