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Tuesday, 23 April 1985
Page: 1711

Mr MILTON(10.50) —The problem of soil conservation is well known in Australia but has not received popular attention or an adequate response from the Government. The extent of the problem was documented by the Commonwealth-State soil conservation study published in 1978. In fact, if my memory is correct, this study was initiated by the Whitlam Government. However, despite this well documented study, the problem was neglected by Commonwealth governments until the present Government established a soil conservation unit within the Department of Primary Industry and set up the national soil conservation program. In 1983-84 the program started with payments of $600,000 to the States for soil conservation programs. In addition, the Commonwealth spent $400,000 on research and public education programs. The 1984-85 Budget provided $3.3m for payments to the States under this program.

The 1978 study found that over half the area of agricultural and pastoral land in Australia required treatment for land degradation if the productivity of the land was to be maintained. It was estimated that capital works required for soil conservation would cost $675m in 1975 values-in today's values this figure would be approximately $2,000m.

There are indirect costs involved in soil conservation, including the restoration of damaged public facilities such as roads, bridges and water resources. There are also costs associated with the loss of soil productivity. For example, yield losses of 30 per cent have been reported in northern New South Wales wheat lands following a season of bad erosion. Although there have been great increases in productivity leading to high efficiency in Australia's rural industry, regretfully land users have failed to develop or administer land management systems consistent with long term protection and utilisation of the soil resource.

Some people tend to look on soil as a renewable resource. In Australia this is a fallacy. Australian soils are shallow, deficient in certain nutrients, and there is a very low rate of soil formation. No rate of soil loss, however small, can be considered acceptable or insignificant. It is vital for the prosperity of the agricultural community in this country that the rate of soil loss is stopped because once the soil has been lost it cannot be replaced. The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Conservation, under my chairmanship in the Thirty-third Parliament, recently tabled a report on bushfires and the Australian environment.

Mr Lamb —A great report.

Mr MILTON —Thank you. During its inquiries the Committee heard a good deal of evidence about the serious impact that high intensity bushfires can have on the rate of soil loss. The Committee concluded that 'one of the most severe impacts of intense bushfires is exposure of soils to erosion'. It was reported to the Committee that on some soils there were erosion rates of 100 tonnes per hectare of soil lost in thunder storms after Ash Wednesday. It is obviously necessary for the State soil conservation authorities to implement programs to stabilise and rehabilitate soil following bushfires. The primary objective of such rehabilitation programs would be to prevent erosion in those areas where it would present the greatest hazard to public utilities such as roads and water supply installations, but it would also be necessary to maintain the long term productivity of the land. The Committee called on the Commonwealth Minister for Primary Industry (Mr Kerin) to request the Standing Committee on Soil Conservation of the Australian Agricultural Council to consider formulating a proposal for Commonwealth assistance with post-fire soil protection works.

One of the reasons put forward for the development of the national conservation strategy was that soil erosion, largely the result of inappropriate use or management of land, was degrading dams and waterways and affecting terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. The strategy identified a number of priority national requirements including the need to conserve Australia's soil, with the aim of ensuring that soil is not lost or degraded as a consequence of any land management practice. In particular, the strategy stressed that there was a need to give high priority through a national soil conservation program to intensify soil conservation and restoration efforts to the level necessary to ensure sustainable agricultural and pastoral production. The Commonwealth Government has only limited powers and responsibilities in the area of soil conservation. However, it has initiated the national soil conservation program in an attempt to overcome the problem.

One of the difficulties is that soil conservation is a difficult problem for government and individual land holders because benefits from investment in conservation are realised over a long period. Land holders are usually more concerned with short term economic gain and immediate cost pressures and find it difficult to direct funds to soil conservation. Governments are also concerned with immediate problems and may not see any electoral advantage from soil conservation programs.