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Regional level investment under the Natural Heritage Trust and the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality

Chris Schweizer

Assistant Secretary NHT and Biodiversity Policy Branch, Environment Australia

Commonwealth NRM investment

Since at least the 1980s the principles of ecologically sustainable development have been central to the thinking of many program and policy development initiatives at the national, state and local level.

A national strategy has been developed for ESD and State legislation, including some local government acts, make reference to sustainability principles. As we will hear at this conference there a number of local governments that have developed LA21 or Sustainability plans.

And perhaps no greater has the realisation been in Australia of the need to address social, economic and environmental issues in an integrated and sustainable context.

The direct consequences of a degraded environment to the social and economic well being of our country have become increasingly apparent — perhaps none more so than the impact of salinity on both our rural and urban lands.

It is the approach that the Commonwealth Government is taking to address key natural resource management issues such as salinity, water quality and biodiversity conservation that I would like to talk about with you today.

The Commonwealth is committing substantial resources in cooperation with the States and local government to address Australia’s natural resource management issues.

There are two principal investment initiatives currently under way to address natural resource management issues in Australia:

• the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality (NAP); and

• the second stage of the Natural Heritage Trust (NHT).

The National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality announced in November 2000 has the commitment of $1.4 billion over 7 years from the Commonwealth, States and Territories to address salinity and deteriorating water quality in priority catchments and regions across Australia.

The goal of the Action Plan is to enable regional communities to use targeted action to prevent and stabilise salinity, improve water quality and secure reliable allocations for human uses, industry and the environment.

The Action Plan has ushered in a new era for natural resource management across Australia.

The Plan provides for the Commonwealth and the State /Territory Governments to jointly:

• provide technical support for regional bodies to develop regional plans;

• accredit the plans;

• invest, through block funding, in priority outcomes; and

• develop a national performance information and evaluation framework to help assess and report on the progress of regional bodies in the implementation of plans against defined targets.

Consistent with the regional delivery approach of the National Action Plan is the new structure for the extension of the Natural Heritage Trust.

The Commonwealth Government has extended the Natural Heritage Trust for a further five years with funding of $1.032 billion.

The NHT will also provide more funding directly to regional groups for large, strategic projects that deliver agreed priorities through regional integrated natural resource management plans.

This second phase of the Government’s Natural Heritage Trust will feature a new streamlined structure — for example the Trust’s existing 23 programs will be consolidated and simplified, with future investment made through four overarching programs with the following focus:

• Landcare — reversing land degradation and promoting sustainable agriculture;

• Bushcare — conserving and restoring habitat for our unique native flora and fauna which underpin the health of our landscapes;

• Rivercare — improving water quality and environmental flows in our river systems and wetlands; and

• Coastcare — protecting our coastal catchments, ecosystems and the marine environment.

A monitoring and evaluation framework will cover both the Trust and the National Action Plan and contribute to a better understanding of the state of our environmental and natural resource assets, and thus to more informed actions that will sustain these critical assets.

The new arrangements for the Natural Heritage Trust will take effect from 1 July 2002.

Regional integrated natural resource management plans

Communities are being assisted to develop and implement regional integrated natural resource management plans that reflect national and regional priorities.

Regional plans will need to cover the full suite of natural resource related issues across each region. This is necessary to enable an integrated approach to achieving environmental, economic and social sustainability.

Currently the Natural Resource Management (NRM) Ministerial Council, with Commonwealth, State and Territory representatives and its supporting committee, with local government representation, are finalising program arrangements.

Integral to the regional delivery of NRM programs will be the requirement that:

• regional strategies set targets based on agreed national standards;

• regional strategies are accredited before funding is provided to ensure they satisfy nationally agreed standards;

• regional bodies identify investment priorities and are accountable for the implementation of the regional plan.

The Commonwealth and the State/Territory Government will jointly accredit the plan and block funding will be provided to regional groups to implement the plan.

The success of these plans will depend on communities and governments working closely together to both develop and implement the plans.

Currently the Commonwealth is negotiating program delivery arrangements with the States for both the NHT and NAP. The Commonwealth and individual States will be signatory to bilateral agreements outlining the conditions and commitments of both parties.

Role and opportunities for local government

Local Government as a land-use planner and manager, and leader in supporting and engaging the community, has a significant role to play in the development and implementation of regional natural resource management plans.

The National General Assembly for Local Government in Canberra late last year made it clear that rural and regional councils are committed to tackling the national issues of salinity, water quality and biodiversity conservation.

This was a welcome message for the Commonwealth, which seeks to strengthen partnerships with local government as it sharpens the regional focus of the Natural Heritage Trust and the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality.

For regional plans to be accredited they will need to demonstrate that local government and other key stakeholders, that have a role in natural resource management in the region, are effectively engaged in the planning process and are supportive of the plan.

In regions across Australia there are already a number of examples of councils working within a regional partnership context to tackle NRM issues.

• Victoria’s North Central Catchment Management Authority recognised the need to engage all 16 councils in the region more directly to foster regional commitment to NRM. A meeting of Mayors and CEOs last October was followed by a workshop with catchment and local government staff to identify priority issues and practical solutions at the regional and local level. One result was agreement that the CMA and all councils will aim within the next 12 months to work off the same spatial data layers so that regional and local planning can be more readily reconciled.

• The seven shires in the recently established North East Wheatbelt Regional Organisation of Councils (NEWROC) in Western Australia agreed that the health of the environment was as important as road maintenance and construction to rural councils. The smallest of the seven shires has a total operating budget of $1million and the biggest has a budget of $3.5million. With salinity escalating as a regional crisis, a meeting between NEWROC representatives and staff from State agencies and regional bodies identified maintaining and restoring vegetation a top priority in the development of an NRM Strategy for the area covered by the councils. With assistance from the State Government NEWROC have appointed an NRM Officer to help implement a strategy. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) are also helping implement the strategy through their NHT funded Woodlands Watch initiative, with a Vegetation Officer assisting landowners to manage native vegetation remnants.

• In Queensland’s Far North Wet Tropics, the NRM Board (Regional Strategy Group for the Wet Tropics) and North Queensland Afforestation Association (a regional Local Government body managing farm forestry, revegetation and Land for Wildlife programs in the wet tropics) have been working to develop a joint management structure for the regional delivery of natural resource management programs. The proposed Board of Management will be composed of approximately one third community, one third agency and one third local government members. All nine councils are keen to participate and will be represented on the new regional body, which will be resourced by contributions from the agencies and local government. It will also include a small Support Unit to provide administration, financial management, planning and monitoring for regional NRM activities.

Councils, catchments and regional bodies such as these are proving that investing time, resources and good will in regional partnerships is the way to tackle Australia’s national environmental challenges.

And it is not a new thing for local government to commit resources to address environmental issues.

As reported by the ABS — in 1999–2000 local government expended some$2.5 bn on the environment with $147m on NRM related conservation measures such as tree planting, controlling weeds in native reserves, protecting local water courses and preventing land degradation.

Where such a commitment is informed by regional priorities, targets and coordinated actions, there is a greater likelihood of sustainable outcomes being generated across the region.

Sustaining our communities

So what is the relevance of regional integrated natural resource management to the theme of this conference ‘Sustaining our Communities’ and Local Agenda 21.

We now have a clearer understanding of the true value of natural resources and natural systems to our society. It is far greater than probably most people would ever imagine.

There are the obvious economic gains to made from minerals extraction and harvesting of forests and fisheries. However, there are a multitude of other services that are provided and maintained by natural systems or ecosystems — the provision of fresh water and fertile soil, pollination of agricultural crops, pest control, flood mitigation and breakdown of pollutants.

There is an intrinsic value to our biodiversity that for many can not be represented by a dollar figure. However, there are many tourists who are attracted to Australia to see our unique wildlife and landscapes for these same intrinsic values.

It is clear that the conservation of biodiversity and more broadly the management of our natural resources is not only integral to the health of our natural systems that provide us with the basic necessities of life but are also vitally important from an economic and social perspective.

However in seeking to provide for Australia’s growing population and development, vast areas have been damaged and biodiversity has been lost. Dryland salinity, soil acidification, toxic algal blooms, soil erosion, siltation, and declining fish catches are all symptoms of this.

Many of these problems can be directly related to declines in biodiversity or inappropriate land management practices.

Many of these problems will and are affecting the fabric of local communities.

In sustaining our communities the regional delivery model for natural resource management that is being supported by the Commonwealth and (most) State Governments provides the opportunity for communities to develop and implement a plan that will address the NRM issues that are relevant to their area.

This approach acknowledges the differing needs in regions across Australia and allows flexibility to accommodate the varying capacity of communities within those regions.

Regional and local communities have the opportunity to shape regional plans so that they deliver on regional and local level sustainability issues that are consistent with the broader national level priorities.

From another perspective regional bodies will gain from the involvement of those local government bodies that have already moved along the path of a sustainable agenda. The complexity of developing and implementing an integrated plan will benefit from the experiences of these councils at the local level.

Depending on which part of Australia you are from the establishment of a regional delivery process may be well under way, but whether it is or not, a coordinated approach by local governments and local communities in a region has the best chance of influencing the regional delivery model for your area.

In closing I would like to encourage local governments and local communities, if not already engaged, to get involved and become active participants in the development of regional partnerships and regional plans as the NHT and NAP initiative is rolled out across Australia.

About the author

Chris Schweizer has a background in environmental policy and natural resource management. Her responsibilities in Environment Australia include administration of the Natural Heritage Trust, overarching biodiversity policy, supporting local governments to engage in natural resource management and developing and implementing policies for nature conservation on private land, including tax reforms and conservation covenanting. Chris’s previous positions in Environment Australia cover a wide range of environmental protection functions, including matters relating to air quality, clean vehicles and fuels and pollution management. Before joining Environment Australia, Christine worked for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

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