Monthly Archives: January 2008

117 – Research jobs available

I am establishing a new Center of Environmental Economics and Policy at the University of Western Australia. There are three post-doctoral fellow positions currently available, including one at a senior level.

The aim of the Centre is to assist environmental managers and environmental policy makers to ensure that investments in the environment are as effective as possible, through the inclusion of latest research into decision making.

The appointees will contribute to a broad range of research contributing to this aim, potentially including bio-economic modelling of biodiversity, water quality or environmental pest plants and animals; the design and implementation of environmental policy; and behavioural responses of landholders and environmental managers. The senior research fellow will also contribute to the management of the Centre.

If you are interested, or know someone who may be, further information and details on how to apply are here (Positions 2167 and 2168). That web site also contains a lot of info about Perth and about the University. People can find out more about me at and more about a related prior project at

The closing date is 22 February 2008. In a couple of weeks I will also be advertising for a research officer/admin assistant.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

116 – Capacities of regional NRM bodies

A number of natural resource management (NRM) programs around the world have devolved decision making powers to regionally based bodies involving links to local communities. But do these bodies have the required capacity and competencies to make these very complex decisions?

Managing investments of public funds in the environment and NRM can be tremendously challenging. The problems are very complex, usually involving a difficult mix of technical and socioeconomic issues, sometimes overlaid with unhelpful political expectations..

About a decade ago in Australia, these difficult management problems began to be devolved to 56 regional NRM bodies. They vary in style from state to state, but they are all meant to have strong links into their local communities (stronger that state governments, anyway). As a group they have spent billions of dollars of public money.

A key question is what skills and capacities they need to have to do the job they have been charged with, and whether there are any important gaps in those capacities. We conducted a phone survey of 18 of the regional bodies to delve into these questions. In addition, we have reviewed over a dozen of their regional strategic plans.

We concluded that they have strong capacities in some respects, but that there are a number of important capacity gaps that appear to be commonly shared by them. The key ones are in the areas of: selection and evaluation of scientific information; use of economic and social information; integration of diverse information types in planning and prioritisation; and monitoring and evaluation. Some key lessons from our research in this area are outlined below.

  • Use of best science. Our experience in the SIF3 project ( reinforces the view that good regional NRM planning and prioritisation requires a strong evidence base and good analysis, combined with good judgment by decision makers. Currently, many regional plans have relied strongly on judgment, but with much less emphasis on the use of evidence and analysis. In addition, the regions need support from governments through the provision of quality-assured data needed for planning. There are important gaps in the required data in many (and perhaps all) regions.
  • Economic and social information in regional NRM planning. The most consistent and conspicuous capacity gap identified in this research is in economics. There are many ways that economic expertise and economic information can improve the processes of NRM planning and prioritisation (see PD#96). The minority of regional bodies who make use of economics at all do so in a limited and narrow way. The use of social information is also limited, mainly focused on social profiling. This may be helpful but there is also a need to draw on good expertise in behaviour change, and for this to be considered in a hard-nosed way when prioritising investments.
  • Integration. In most cases, the integration of information in regional NRM planning occurs informally and in ad hoc ways. There is considerable scope for more formal integration through structured decision frameworks such as SIF3. Such frameworks also provide guidance on which information is needed to support particular decisions.
  • Selecting targets. Current processes for selecting NRM targets are often very weak. Targets should be based on analysis, and should realistically reflect the available resources and the likely behavioural responses of landholders. Very few of the existing targets do so. Commonwealth and states should revise their requirements for target setting to ensure that targets are measurable and achievable, which implies the need for them to be spatially explicit and time-bound.
  • Monitoring and evaluation. Regional NRM bodies recognise monitoring and evaluation as an area of weakness. We believe that improved approaches for selecting targets are an essential prerequisite for improving monitoring and evaluation. Current monitoring and evaluation activities tend to be focused on activities and outputs, rather than on the achievement of NRM outcomes.

All of these issues can readily be addressed by the relevant government agencies (the providers of funds), with appropriate support, guidance and incentives (carrots and sticks).

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further Reading

Seymour, E., Pannell, D., Ridley, A., Marsh, S., and Wilkinson, R. (2007). “Capacity needs for technical analysis and decision making within Australian catchment management organisations”, SIF3 Working Paper 0702, Future Farm Industries CRC, Perth. Full paper (404K)

115 – Scale in natural resource management

A perception amongst some natural resource management people that I deal with is that interventions to prevent degradation of environmental resources should occur at the highest relevant scale – for example, at the scale of the catchment for a water body. There are at least four reasons why this can be incorrect.

One of the big challenges in managing the environment is knowing how well the available management actions will perform – what difference will they really make? We usually have a lot of uncertainty about this, either because we generally lack knowledge of the relevant cause-and-effect relationships, or because there is a lot of spatial variability in the system, or both.

Even with good scientific knowledge available, variability can be a crucial factor, requiring a case-by-case assessment of each possible intervention. One of the factors that varies is scale. For one natural asset, degradation might be due to processes within or close to the asset itself, while for another apparently similar asset, degradation might be due to processes occurring at some distance away. For example, a wetland connected to a river could be degraded by nutrients washing off from nearby land, or by nutrients coming from a long way up river. We obviously need to understand the causes and sources of such damage in order to manage it well.

The importance of dealing appropriately with the scale of an environmental problem is well recognised, but I have noticed that there is sometimes some confusion about it. For example, “Integrated Catchment Management” is a great idea, if applied well. The basic idea is that you understand all the issues within the catchment for a waterway or water body, and bring together all those issues appropriately when deciding on management actions. That’s fine, but for some reason, some people involved in catchment management actions sometimes seem to jump from there to assuming that actions need to be taken at the whole-catchment scale – that integrated catchment management is synonymous with catchment-scale management. For example, if an area of land is threatened by rising saline groundwaters caused by recharge within its sub-catchment, and the area of the sub-catchment is say 50,000 ha, then the view would be that perennial vegetation (a land use that can help to prevent groundwater rise in the Australian context) needs to planted over a large portion of the 50,000 ha.

There are at least four reasons why this view can be incorrect:

1. It may be possible to target interventions within the relevant area. In the salinity example, there may be smaller areas that contribute most of the salinity, or there may be areas that should not be planted with perennials because this would reduce fresh surface water yield to the waterway. If targeting is physically possible, then it is likely to be beneficial in terms of the cost-effectiveness of interventions.

2. In some cases, the best responses to water management problems are engineering works, which, may be best located at the point of impact, or at some particular point up stream, rather than all over the catchment (depending on the nature of the engineering works). These works may or may not also need to be complemented by land-use changes in the catchment.

3. In some environments, works may generate a worthwhile localised response, even though they are located within a larger catchment. For example, this can be the case with management of saline groundwater in very flat landscapes. In such cases, the majority of groundwater rise can be caused by on-site recharge rather than lateral movement or pressure from further afield. Analyses in the wheatbelt of Western Australia have shown that in that environment, the priority area for any new perennial vegetation is likely to be on the valley floor (where the salinity would occur), not higher up in the catchment.

4. For some issues, the most appropriate response is adaptation to a changed environment, rather than fruitless attempts to prevent or repair damage. Such adaptation may occur at almost any scale, not just at the whole-catchment scale.

The misconception that interventions should be at the catchment scale sometimes feeds into the selection of very poor investment strategies, prompting untargeted “vegemite” style spreading of resources, too thinly to achieve any NRM outcomes.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia