The Natural Heritage Trust of Australia Act—a foundation for sustainable development

Australia is a unique mix of land, water and biodiversity resources. In the 200 years since European settlement, the biological productivity from these resources and the Australian landscapes has been progressively doubled . But there is a growing acceptance worldwide that natural resources are finite and require effective management. This acceptance is so strong that sustainable development has been identified as the central issue of our time. In 1997, the Commonwealth Parliament passed the Natural Heritage Trust of Australia Act 1997 (Cwlth). Its preamble recognised:

… the need for urgent action to redress the current decline and to prevent further decline, in the quality of Australia’s natural environment, … to integrate the objectives of environmental protection, sustainable agriculture and natural resource management consistent with the principles of ecologically sustainable development …

Assessing the status of Australia’s natural resources, the health of its ecosystems and the opportunities for improving our use of natural resources is of paramount importance for Australia’s development. In recognition of this need, the Commonwealth Government established the National Land and Water Resources Audit under legislation … to provide the baseline for the purposes of carrying out assessments of the effectiveness of land and water degradation policies and programs, … [and] … to improve Commonwealth, State and regional decision-making on natural resource management. This initiative is sponsored through the Natural Heritage Trust.

Assessing the condition of Australia’s natural resources
Over the period 1997-2002, the Audit coordinated and commissioned a range of assessments that encompassed the nation’s land, water and biodiversity. All assessments were based on the development and agreement of national data quality standards with ongoing monitoring to establish clear and coherent trends. To facilitate systematic updating and use of the data, the Audit also established web-based sources and repositories for natural resources information-the Australian Natural Resources Atlas and the Australian Natural Resources Data Library.

The Audit has undertaken assessments of surface and groundwater; dryland salinity; native vegetation; rangelands; agriculture, natural resource accounting; river, estuary and catchment health; and terrestrial biodiversity.

Many of Australia’s resources are in sound condition, but may require protective management programs to ensure this remains the case. In the small proportion of Australia that contains the greatest concentration of the population and industry there are many opportunities for improved productivity and sustainable development. Resource condition and management opportunities vary as:

some resources have undergone irreversible degradation and loss (e.g. extinctions of native flora and fauna);
some issues are amenable and require immediate consideration (e.g. soil acidity and conservation measures);
some may require more adaptive management (e.g. living with salinity);
others may represent problems building up for the longer term (e.g. increasing nutrient loads to estuaries); and
others would benefit from protective management (e.g. managed fire regimes in the rangelands).
Information, the currency for implementing sustainable development
Natural resource management in Australia is increasingly being driven by community commitment, and delegated to regional and local groups and managers. To guide their decision making and make best use of natural resources, it is essential that all managers have ready access to natural resources information based on timely data and sound underpinning science. Managerial decisions also need to be able to be evaluated by monitoring and evaluation of the outcomes, providing a basis for continuous improvement in the use of and investment in the management of our natural resources.

Most importantly, information:

serves to underpin policy development;
assists in building an ethos of natural resource responsibility and stewardship across the entire community;
aids planning and decision making;
helps to prioritise investment opportunities; and
guides the development of programs leading to improvements in the effective and sustainable use of our natural resources.
If Australia is to improve the quality of its natural resource management and increase the pace of positive change, it will require a portfolio of natural resource data sets, collation and assessment tools. Information aligned to meet the needs of current and future policy instruments, and able to identify the public and private benefits involved, is essential.

To deliver on the vision for improved natural resource condition, conservation and productive use of its natural resources, Australia through partnerships and contributions across government, industry and the community, should strategically increase its investment in data collection and collation, the provision of information and its application and making it available at cost of transfer, for use by the community and industry.

Translating information into priorities and actions
Providing regular, structured natural resource monitoring programs and consequent assessments will not, of itself, be sufficient to guarantee effective natural resources management. We also need the capacity to turn these assessments into information that will be accessed and valued by stakeholders, and developed as management tools. This requires an ability to recognise the needs of different stakeholders, whether they are operating at property, local, regional or whole-of-government level. A prerequisite is that the community has an awareness of, and facility to find, this information; understands the biological systems underlying the information; appreciates the likely interactions and responses among the environmental variables; and uses the tools as aids in developing their natural resource management objectives and programs. This is required at all scales—from on-farm to regional management and for State or Australia-wide policy development. Part of the Commonwealth response to this demand will be fostering knowledge interchange and support to regional groups within Audit activities 2002-2007.

Based on strategic and integrated information provision, Australia needs to increase its activities in knowledge exchange, investing in a variety of government, industry and community based extension and support services that translate natural resources information into understanding, improved practice and the setting of goals and targets, providing decision support techniques and applying these at regional through to national scales.

Tracking changes in natural resource condition and use
Experience gained in implementing the National Land and Water Resources Audit shows that a continuing monitoring and assessment program should be instituted with a minimum set of components. This program must have the capacity to meet the needs of all resource managers for information required for:

policy development;
definition of management practice;
investment decision making; and
the monitoring and evaluation of outcomes.
These are the necessary drivers to ensure effective natural resource management at local level, whether within a landscape, catchment or ecosystem framework.

To meet the increasing demand for use, productivity and health information, there should be implemented an integrated and coordinated monitoring and assessment program, building on State and Territory activities, covering:

3.1 Australia’s land resources, that tracks soil condition, monitors soil, water and nutrient budgets, details land management practice, links practice to soil condition and productivity and is based on the Australian Soil Resources Information System.

3.2 Australia’s surface and groundwater resources, that tracks water use, monitors water availability and quality, details management practices and is available to underpin an Australia wide agreed policy for sustainable water use.

3.3 The ecology of Australia’s rivers and estuaries and how they operate, including the current condition of their riparian and aquatic biodiversity, and the impact and sustainability of current and proposed management practices, based on agreed assessment protocols and spatial frameworks, is reported and assessed within a catchment land use context.

3.4 Australia’s native vegetation and its biodiversity values that tracks change in extent, monitors condition, determines levels of carbon sequestration, details management practice and returns from use and builds on and integrates data from both the National Forest Inventory and the National Vegetation Information System and links to the National Carbon Accounting System and the Australian Collaborative Rangeland Information System.

3.5 Australia’s terrestrial biodiversity, its condition and management needs using an hierarchical and landscape based bioregional monitoring and assessment program that tracks change in species, populations and regional ecosystems, determines the impact of threatening processes, details management activities and assesses opportunities for improved management.

3.6 Australia’s rangelands to underpin effective and protective management, including their use, productivity, biodiversity, community, indigenous and economic values, by implementing the Australian Collaborative Rangeland Information System.

Integrating social, economic and biophysical components of natural resource management
Although a large proportion of managerial decisions have been based mainly in rational economic judgements, there is increasing recognition that environmental and social considerations must be objectively evaluated and brought to bear in the process. Australia would benefit from community agreement on how environmental and social resources should be valued. These values can then be added to economic considerations to support sustainable conservation and use of the nation’s natural resources.

To facilitate integrated social, economic and environmental planning and management Australia needs to develop and implement an agreed approach to resource accounting, applicable at regional through to Australia wide scales, incorporating market and unpriced values, together with the costs and benefits of resource use.

Assessments, the key to improving programs and policies
Australia needs to undertake long term monitoring and assessment activities on a regular, programmed basis and to a high and consistent standard. The benchmarks and assessments provide a basis for decision making, meeting stewardship obligations and ensuring Australia’s continued international credibility as an exporter operating within a sustainability ethic.

To meet demands for information and provide a framework for effective and efficient investment in and returns from our natural resources, Australia should regularly assess and report on their condition and on the outcomes of our natural resources programs, and in the context of these assessments, adjust and implement its natural resource management initiatives.

Meeting changing client demands and providing information on emerging issues
There are many gaps in knowledge on Australia’s natural resources and their use. All Audit assessments detail key gaps in knowledge and opportunities to streamline data collection and management.

There are also many natural resource management opportunities and investment strategies that will only become defined with this increasing knowledge.

Any system for providing information for Australia’s natural resources needs to apply new knowledge in priority setting to meet client needs.

To meet client information needs and maximise returns from investment in data collection and information analysis, Australia needs to re-assess opportunities to target data collection, improve coverage, relevance and quality, implement any gap-filling and ensure effective information provision, with consequential activities to be implemented in a coordinated manner.

Maximising returns on investment in data collection
Natural resources data sets and information need to be readily and consistently available, managed systematically and be well coordinated. The Audit has identified a variety of activities and organisational initiatives that provide opportunities for improving returns on Australia’s investment in natural resources data and information provision. Data management activities need to be based on the Australian Spatial Data Directory and Infrastructure, the use of data library systems, and the compilation of distributed but linked atlases including the Australian Natural Resources Atlas. An effectively run information system is likely to be able to attract client co-investment to support additional data collection and management to meet specific needs.

As part of the development of a more strategic, client responsive and cost effective approach to data collection and information provision, Australia needs to implement through the Natural Resources Management Ministerial Council, recommendations contained within the Audit’s Report Australian Natural Resources Information 2002.

The recommendations include building and maintaining fundamental data sets; providing ready access at cost of transfer to data and information through data libraries and atlases; ensuring maximum utility of the investment in data collection activities; ensuring regular reporting within the standard frameworks defined by the Australia New Zealand Land Information Council; and facilitating opportunities for further co-investment and collaborative management in data sets required by client organisations.

Coordinating data collection and the provision of information
A successful and valued natural resource data collection and information system will be both client-driven and strategic. Users expect:

consistency between related data;
the ability to produce seamless maps at a range of scales;
an hierarchical structure that underpins development of data sets so that they can be progressively aggregated to report at regional, State/Territory and national scales;
effective linking between data sets that allow assessment of the condition of natural resources and of any changes;
uniform acceptance of descriptors and attributes;
the ability to meet a demand for new information products; and
continually improving efficiency of operation.
The Audit has established the foundation for such a natural resource data collection and information system. Continued and strategic coordination Australia wide is imperative to implement the technical standards detailed within the Australian Spatial Data Infrastructure.

To ensure cost effective and client relevant data collection and management, Australia needs to continue coordination and the building of partnerships, as a core part of Audit activities 2002-2007, for the collection, management and assessment of natural resource data and its access through data libraries and atlases operating consistently with the Australia New Zealand Land Information Council standards.

Australia’s Natural Resources Information Agency
A critical component in gaining the confidence of contributors to and users of the Audit has been its managerial and geographical independence. This was recognised by the Commonwealth Government when it announced in March 2002 an in-principle commitment to continuing the Audit until 30 June 2007.

Key identified principles are:

maintaining independence while fostering coordination across agencies;
building a cooperative State, Territory and Commonwealth partnership;
ensuring data collection, processing and storage are primarily demand driven;
a user-pays policy for additional activities;
developing an increased responsiveness to policy information needs that avoids a direct policy role; and
establishing clear and achievable objectives and work plans that are agreed and set by principal users.
While program-based activities provide valuable outputs and impetus, history suggests that their sustainability is not ensured. Audit-type activities would be best sustained by establishing an independent information agency. Part of this agency’s role would be to formally report to government at regular intervals on the status and changes in Australia’s natural resources and opportunities for strategic investment to improve or maintain the resource base. Establishing the information agency, its role and responsibilities requires the development of legislation, administrative and accountability arrangements and partnership agreements. These should be progressed over the next term of the Audit (2002-2007).

To ensure the information-based approach to natural resource management that Australia has implemented is effective, Australia needs to establish an information agency with assured life and independence. A legislative base would enable and facilitate processes for the coordinating of natural resource data collection, information provision, mandated assessments of progress, the review and finetuning of major programs and the development of initiatives.