Monthly Archives: February 2007

92 – Future Natural Resource Management policy in Australia

The Australian Government has released a document that indicates the broad direction of future policy for natural resource management.

Over the past 20 years or so, natural resource management (NRM) policy in Australia has proceeded through a series of major national programs, typically of five to seven years duration. For about the last year, there have been various processes under way to decide what the next phase of policy should look like beyond 2008, at the conclusion of two of the main current programs: the Natural Heritage Trust and the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality. There have been consultants’ reviews, a panel of eminent people has toured the country, a senate enquiry on salinity has reported, there have been inputs from commentators (e.g. here), and the wheels have turned in various internal government processes. Recently, a brief document outlining an agreed “Framework for Future NRM Programmes” was posted on the internet. Here are some observations about the process so far, and the directions outlined in the new document.

It must be difficult for government agencies to manage a transition process like this. There are so many different people involved, and there is clearly a diversity of views about what should happen. It seems to me that many of them have been heard in the various reviews and processes that have influenced the current position. From where I stand, it doesn’t appear that any one individual or group has a strong hand on the rudder, steering the process to a clear, pre-determined outcome. In that sense, there is a flavour of democracy about it, helped by the fact that the issue is not polarised on political party lines, so that reasonably rational discussion is possible. It helps that the resource issue with the highest political profile – water availability and allocation – has its own major programs that operate separately from the issues focused on in this document.

The new Framework document is essentially an agreement between the State governments and the Australian Government. Viewed in this light, perhaps the key thing about it is not its content, but the fact that it exists at all. It represents a broad consensus that governments do want to continue with a major program in this area, merging the two old ones. The document allows them to continue to work on the content in more detail. I expect that there is still a fair bit of flexibility in how the details pan out, but little or no flexibility in the five broad themes of the program, which are specified as: biodiversity decline, salinity and water quality, coastal and peri-urban areas, productive and sustainable landscapes, and capacity-building and institutional change.

Because it is a consensus document, it is somewhat conservative. I can sense that some of the pressures for changes to the programs have been influential to some extent, but there is also a lot of continuity from the old programs. The process of planning and implementation by regional NRM bodies will remain central. The core paradigm of the old programs remains, perhaps best reflected in this statement: “Strategic landscape-scale change is most effectively achieved where communities have a sense of ownership over planning and investment decisions.” It is a community-focused paradigm, based around a planning process, and supported by local facilitators.

This is no surprise to participants in the current programs, of course, but in my view the evidence shows that, at least for some resource problems in some areas, the above-quoted statement is wrong. There are cases where strategic landscape-scale change has been achieved effectively through government-dominated processes, including approaches like compulsory acquisition of land in water resource catchments (e.g. see Bennett, 2003). And on a different tack, the experience with the blue gum industry in southern Australia shows that profit drivers can achieve dramatic landscape-scale change even without “ownership” or planning, at least in regions where commercial agriculture is still the dominant land use.

Notwithstanding the above quote, the program will include elements that focus on priority investments at the national and state scales, not solely at the regional scale. Hopefully this will allow different approaches to be used where appropriate.

Other features of the Framework that I like include that there is recognition of the need to improve monitoring, evaluation, standards and targeting, and there is discussion of the need to use best-available scientific and socio-economic information.

One element that may or may not be good depending on how it is handled is “capacity building”. I was surprised to see this featured so prominently, given that I was aware of questions being asked in Canberra about the extent of outcomes from the big investment in “capacity building” in the current programs. If it means yet more investment in extension, education, communication, etc. (which have been the focus of “capacity building” for landholders in the current programs) then I think its contribution to real NRM outcomes will be pretty limited overall and it will need to be carefully targeted if it is to make a major difference (see Ridley and Pannell, 2005; Pannell, 2006a). On the other hand, another way to build capacity is to develop improved land-use options that are both sustainable and adoptable by landholders. This hasn’t featured in the existing programs, but our analysis indicates that it should be a significant element.

Several elements from existing programs are flagged for expansion: market-based instruments (MBIs – meaning economic policy mechanisms, like conservation auctions), “stewardship arrangements”, and environmental management systems (EMS). It is interesting that these three things have been grouped together in the document, since they are so very different. Indeed, market-based instruments and “stewardship arrangements” are opposites in some respects. One is about trying to make sure that program expenditures achieve the greatest possible NRM outcomes per dollar spent, and the other seems to be largely about transferring public money into private hands. It seems to me that what they have in common is that they are each strongly advocated by certain groups and that there is a bit of false hope around each of them. (That’s obvious enough for stewardship payments and EMS. See Pannell (2001) for some comments about the limitations of MBIs.)

My favourite part of the document is this:

“Critical aspects requiring enhancement include the following: The better integration of scientific and socio-economic information into regional planning and investment review, to ensure that investments are better calibrated towards delivering strategic outcomes, and providing better measurement of these outcomes.”

If this can be achieved, it will make a big difference to what the program funds are spent on, and to the achievement of major outcomes. It would be wonderful to see this come to fruition. This will require some supporting changes, such as enhancing the technical support provided to regional bodies, strengthening the accreditation process for regional plans, and removing the silly constraint that regional NRM bodies cannot spend program money on research.

Overall, the new document is quite a mixture of things, ranging from some new ideas that look like they’ll be good if they’re implemented well, through to some older ideas that were never that good. Our experience working with regional NRM bodies in the North Central region of Victoria and the South Coast region of Western Australia shows that they are keen to improve their planning and prioritisation, are willing to be challenged and stretched to achieve that, and are prepared to make some hard decisions in recognition of the need for strong protection of key assets (e.g. see Pannell and Ridley, 2007). I really hope that this can be reflected and supported in the new program as it evolves.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further Reading

Bennett, D. (2003) Rethinking community-based integrated catchment management. Paper presented at the 47th Annual Conference of the Australian Agricultural and Resource Economics Society, Fremantle, Western Australia, February 11th to 14th 2003.

Pannell, D.J. (2001). Harry Potter and the pendulums of perpetual motion: Economic policy instruments for environmental management, Connections: Farm, Food and Resource Issues 1: 3-8. (39K)

Ridley A.M. and Pannell D.J. (2005). SIF3: An investment framework for managing dryland salinity in Australia. SEA Working paper 1901. CRC for Plant-based Management of Dryland Salinity, University of Western Australia,

Pannell, D.J. (2006a). Public benefits, private benefits, and the choice of policy tool for land-use change,

Pannell, D.J. (2006b). Seeking more effective NRM policies, Pannell Discussions, No 82, 3 July 2006

Pannell, D.J. and Ridley, A.M. (2007). A new approach to public investment in dryland salinity

91 – Environmental monitoring – why bother?

Is environmental monitoring a good tool to encourage changes in behaviour by people who are adversely affecting the environment? Possibly not, especially if there is a lack of suitable management options that are attractive to those people.

In many parts of southern Australia, dryland salinity, caused by rising saline water tables, affects soils, rivers, vegetation and infrastructure. When I started taking an interest in this issue some years ago, I suspected that farmers’ lack of knowledge of the looming salinity threat might be an important reason why they were not taking strong pre-emptive action to avoid future costs. I thought it would be a good idea for governments to subsidise the installation of bores to allow the monitoring of groundwater levels (piezometers). Surely if farmers could observe the steady rise of the groundwater table under their own farms, they would take action to stop it. Seeing an imminent problem for real is surely a more effective prompt to action than merely being told about it.

When I mentioned my idea to people, I learned that I was not the first to think of it. A number of projects had attempted to do exactly what I was suggesting. Unfortunately, they weren’t being very successful. In some areas, it was proving difficult to get farmers to participate, and difficult to keep them involved in monitoring even if they had installed piezometers.

There was one stunning exception, at Jerramungup, less than 200km from my home in Albany. The local ‘Landcare’ group, supported with great energy by their project officer Carolyn Daniel, had succeeded in getting more than 90% of local farmers to monitor their groundwater levels. This was a remarkable result, especially given the low levels of monitoring in other examples I heard about. However, even around Jerramungup there was a significant decline in the number of farmers who continued to monitor. Over the course of a 9 year period, the percentage of farmers who were monitoring had dropped from over 90% to about 50%.

My collaborator Sally Marsh and I set out to see what we could learn from this wonderful example. For a set of more than 100 bores, we obtained information about the groundwater conditions at the location where they had been installed, about how groundwater levels had changed over time, about farmers’ attitudes to monitoring, and about the frequency of their monitoring over the nine-year period.

We learned a lot from our study, some of it obvious, some not. In summary, we found that farmers were more likely to monitor if they had lower levels of education, a lower age, larger farms, active involvement with a land conservation group, a perception that their properties are more at risk from salinity, or specific on-farm strategies that they wanted to evaluate.

The last point proved particularly important. Farmers who were using the information from monitoring to assess salinity management strategies implemented on their farms were likely to monitor more frequently, and to keep monitoring. This indicated to us that monitoring frequency was driven in large part by the availability of suitable salinity management practices that they could implement. I had been much too naive in my original thought: that adoption of salinity management practices may be enhanced by programs that encourage monitoring. It might help, but only in situations where salinity management practices are attractive enough to farmers to be adoptable. Other studies have shown that the currently available suite of perennial plants is not sufficiently adoptable in many regions.

This is reinforced by another finding of our study: that some of the farmers who stopped monitoring did so because they were sick of getting bad news about which they could do nothing. Why go about regularly stressing yourself with information that your saline watertable is rising, if you feel that there is nothing you can do about it (e.g. because the available preventative management responses are too costly to be viable)?

The results pointed towards the need to develop improved perennial-based farming options, as a higher priority than encouragement for monitoring. Subsequently, I helped establish a new research centre that has a strong program of improving perennial-based farming options, the Cooperative Research Centre for Salinity. This has recently been extended for a further 7 years, in a new form, as the Future Farm Industries CRC.

The results of the Jerramungup study have implications for efforts to promote farmer monitoring of environmental indicators in general. When considering which types of indicators should be promoted, the indicators most likely to be successful will be those perceived by farmers to be practically relevant to their farm management. Effort should be targeted to farmers for whom monitoring is most likely to be beneficial (e.g. it is expected to result in economic gains through improved decision making – Pannell and Glenn, 2000).

I think that governments that undertake environmental monitoring could learn something from the farmers’ approach. Often, environmental monitoring programs are not well linked to management or policy decisions that need to be made. The benefits of monitoring could be increased significantly if they were.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further Reading

Marsh, S.P., Burton, M.P. and Pannell, D.J. (2006). Understanding farmers’ monitoring of water tables for salinity management, Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture 46(7): 1113-1122.

The following is a prior study, based only on physical measures, excluding a survey of farmers’ attitudes that was used in the above study.

Marsh, S.P., Burton, M.P. and Pannell,D.J. (2001). Understanding farmer monitoring of a ‘sustainability indicator’: Depth to saline groundwater in Western Australia. In: A. Conacher (ed.), Land Degradation, Kluwer, Dordrecht, pp. 207-222. Full paper (141K)

Pannell D.J. and Glenn N.A. (2000). A framework for economic evaluation and selection of sustainability indicators in agriculture, Ecological Economics 33(1): 135-149. Full paper (93 K)

Pannell, D.J. (2003). What is the value of a sustainability indicator? Economic and social issues in monitoring and management for sustainability. Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture 43(3): 239-243. Full journal paper (48K pdf file)