Environmental governance: Critical issues in regional natural resource management

Independent report to the Australian Government Minister for the Environment and Heritage
Beeton RJS (Bob), Buckley Kristal I, Jones Gary J, Morgan Denise, Reichelt Russell E, Trewin Dennis
(2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee), 2006

11.5 Critical issues in regional natural resource management (more information on this topic)

The way Australians are managing natural resources is changing. The traditional ‘top-down’ model of centralised natural resource management that relies on governments for planning and implementation is no longer in favour. It is being replaced with ‘civic regionalism’, an approach that relies on participation by citizens through regional citizen boards and statutory committees in their own regions. There are many examples of this shift at the national level (under the NHT) and in the states and territories (particularly South Australia, New South Wales and Queensland). A similar shift in governance is also underway in some aspects of social and economic policy.

As a new approach, civic regionalism is being pursued in different ways in different parts of Australia. There are three reasons given for adopting this model of natural resource management:

  1. management needs to be scaled down to the regional level so that management efforts can be focused on a single geographic unit
  2. government has failed to secure environmental sustainability (or, at least, government action has proven ineffectual) and so alternative ways of managing need to be found
  3. citizen participation should be central to the development and implementation of natural resource management strategies. Instead of being treated as stakeholders, the citizens of any given region should be directly engaged in policy development and implementation.

These reasons do not always hold in Australian natural resource management. Reviews of the NHT (for example, Lowe 2004) have highlighted the ephemeral character of groups receiving financial assistance, the short-term benefits of their work, the lack of scientific information combined with local knowledge as it is replaced with citizens’ views and experiences, and the lack of a wider strategic direction in their work. There are also questions around the potential parochialism of regional management, the capacity of new regional groups to acquire the skills and knowledge needed to address urgent environmental problems in time, and the ability of regional boards to be truly democratic rather than entrenching the power of local elites (see ‘Future Directions’).

Civic regionalism will not necessarily enhance the integration of policy and management. The allocation, use and management of natural resources is a complex, multi-jurisdictional domain in which many non-government players (from market and civil society) jostle with diverse government players to determine environmental policy at different scales. Furthermore, because many of the causes of environmental problems are extra-regional, regional bodies will be required to coordinate the activities of more powerful government and market forces operating at broader scales.