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Standing Committee on Climate Change, Environment and the Arts
17/05/2012
Australia's biodiversity in a changing climate

LEAMAN, Mr Greg, Executive Director, Policy, Department of Environment and Natural Resources, South Australia

NICOLSON, Ms Clare, Principal Policy Officer, Policy, Department of Environment and Natural Resources, South Australia

[10:28]

CHAIR: Welcome. On behalf of the committee I thank the department for its support yesterday with our visit to the Coorong and Lower Lakes, which were fascinating and worthwhile in relation to the work of the committee.

Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath I should advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the House. We have received a written submission to this inquiry from you. Do you wish to make any additional submissions or make an opening statement?

Mr Leaman : Thank you, very much, for the opportunity to appear before this public hearing. I was contacted by the committee to discuss three programs that are currently under way in South Australia. They are our NatureLinks program, which is a program around restoring and connecting habitat across a landscape; our Protected Areas on Private Land project, which we are working on at the moment; and co-management of parks with Aboriginal people in South Australia. Each of those initiatives will contribute to increasing the resilience of species and ecosystems to the impacts of climate change. There are also a number of other, broader whole-of-government initiatives that address climate change adaptation. If we have time, Clare might talk briefly about one of those.

In terms of NatureLinks, in 2002 the South Australian government made a commitment to develop a system of interconnected, core protected areas, each linked by lands managed under conservation objectives. The NatureLinks strategy was prepared and came out of that commitment and gives effect to that commitment. As a result, the South Australian government was the very first in Australia to formally adopt a landscape-scale approach to biodiversity conservation. That was the Labor government in 2002. We have gone on to incorporate that whole concept into our policy and planning frameworks within the state.

The long-term vision for NatureLinks, and it is a very long-term vision, is to link protected areas together and to restore and create corridors between them so that they are joined across the landscape. It is the move towards management on the landscape scale that will make the contribution to the resilience of natural systems and therefore to their resilience against the impacts of climate change over time—to give plants and animals the best opportunity to adapt to the changing environment.

Five NatureLinks corridors were established across the state. I will refer to some maps. The first map shows where the NatureLinks biodiversity corridors are located. One, the northern one, is up in the arid lands. It is largely in the pastoral region, and it includes the Lake Eyre Ramsar site. The others are: Flinders-Olary, which includes the Flinders and Olary ranges; East meets West from the northern Eyre Peninsula right through to the Western Australian border; River Murray-South East, which connects the various wetlands and other systems, following the River Murray down to the south-east wetlands, which are important wetlands in South Australia, and includes the Coorong; and, of course, Cape Borda to Barossa, which extends from the western tip of Kangaroo Island up through the spine of the Mount Lofty ranges to, more or less, the Barossa.

Subsequently, in 2009, we partnered with the Northern Territory government to develop the Trans-Australia Eco-Link. It is shown on another of the maps I have here. The Trans-Australia Eco-Link extends all the way from the top of Spencer Gulf right through to the Arafura Sea in the Northern Territory. It is about 3½ thousand kilometres. It is Australia's first continental-scale biodiversity corridor and we are working on that together with the Northern Territory government.

NatureLinks as a concept is really about partnerships between governments, NRM boards, landholders and non-government organisations. It recognises that governments alone cannot achieve landscape-scale conservation. There is no way that the government is able to pull this off on its own; you have got to engage private landholders, leaseholders, land managers and other interests—there are many interests out there who are keen to do it. That underpins it. NatureLinks seeks to integrate conservation with regional development and natural resource management, and provides a framework for sustainable use. It is not a straight-out, pure conservation initiative. It is not trying to lock-up large areas—large corridors—that is not what it is about. Whilst protected areas are at the core of it, and spaced out across the landscape, the idea is to be able to connect them with areas that are managed with conservation objectives. Between 2008 and 2010 the government prepared implementation plans to provide the partners with guidance and direction as to how we might achieve those corridors in those five NatureLinks.

In South Australia there is a strong recognition that you cannot impose this on people using a top-down approach. What you have got to do is create the frameworks, provide the guidance and direction, but then allow the grassroots organic implementation. The way we have used it in government is to firstly incorporate it into the state's strategic plan. The establishment of these NatureLinks corridors became one of the targets in the state's original strategic plan. That strategic plan has been modified over time. There is a current target in the plan to increase participation in nature conservation activities by 25 per cent. That directly links to our NatureLinks initiative. So it has seen a bit of an evolution, if you like, from originally getting it established to now being on the implementation side.

We have also incorporated the NatureLinks principles and concepts into a range of other planning and policy documents in the state, including the state's NRM plan, which is produced by the NRM Council, and the regional NRM plans—each of the eight regional NRM boards has incorporated it. NatureLinks has found its way into the South Australian planning strategy, including the 30-year plan for Greater Adelaide and also the regional planning documents. So we have embedded NatureLinks in the institutional framework so that it has a longer term, longer lasting effect.

At the same time, we have encouraged people to work with it on the ground and take it up as they see fit, as it suits them, to implement the NatureLinks. As a result, we have a number of non-government organisations and local groups—there are many different groups in the state—implementing small projects and larger projects all around the state. Over time, that will give rise to the creation of these NatureLinks. So we have come at it from two directions—from the top down, institutionalised, without forcing it onto people, but providing the guidance and framework for interested landholders to work to in the longer term. We are talking about a very long term initiative. It may take 100 to 200 years to get there, but you have got to provide that framework to get you there. It has proven to be very successful. We have engaged a very wide range of interests and partners, and the work that is occurring is happening in a very strategic way.

The second matter I wanted to speak about is our program for the co-management of parks and reserves with Aboriginal people. In South Australia the public reserve system covers about 21 per cent of the state. About 20 per cent of South Australia is Aboriginal owned freehold land. Aboriginal people, as we all know, have a very strong interest in the management of areas well outside their own lands, including the parks and reserves system. Relationship to country is of course essential to the culture, identity and spiritual beliefs of Aboriginal people, and therefore access to that country is critical for maintaining that relationship. In many ways, the co-management program is based on recognition of those relationships. The co-management of our national parks and reserves actually provides some opportunities for genuine involvement and power-sharing with Aboriginal people. It also provides a bit of an opportunity to build and improve on the existing formal reserve system and increase the area that is managed for conservation objectives. In 2004 we changed the National Parks and Wildlife Act in South Australia to create the framework for sharing management responsibility for parks with Aboriginal people and those amendments made provision for the establishment of statutory comanagement boards for individual parks which often have equal or in some cases majority representation from the traditional Aboriginal owners of the area. Those amendments, importantly, also enabled national parks and conservation parks to be established over Aboriginal owned lands if the Aboriginal owners so desired to do that.

We now have eight national parks and conservation parks that are comanaged in the state. They cover nearly four million hectares. It is about 15 per cent of our parks system. They are comanaged with the traditional Aboriginal owners. One of those areas, the Mamungari Conservation Park, which is also known as the 'L-shaped park' and is a large park that abuts the West Australian border, was the first park to be established on Aboriginal owned land. It is Aboriginal freehold land with a conservation park status over the top of it. The others are the Vulkathunha-Gammon Ranges National Park, up in the Flinders Ranges; the Flinders Ranges National Park, which has recently come under comanagement; Witjira, up on the Northern Territory border at Dalhousie Springs near the Simpson Desert; the Coongi Lakes National Park, up in the north-east; Ngaut Ngaut Conservation Park, which is a very small park on the Murray River; and the Gawler Ranges National Park and the Lake Gairdner National Park, which are in the northern Eyre Peninsula region. We are also looking at further comanagement of parks in South Australia, including with the Ngarrindjeri community for comanagement of the Coorong in time. Hopefully, we will have a few more of those in place fairly shortly.

There has been significant interest in the comanagement arrangements that we have put in place in South Australia. They are seen as quite innovative. The interest has been from throughout Australia, from other agencies, other jurisdictions. Also, there has been some interest overseas in what we are doing. It was not the original intent at all of comanagement, but the comanagement arrangements have also been seen as a very useful tool for resolving issues relating to native title as part of Indigenous land-use agreements. They have proven to be quite useful in that regard, both to the Aboriginal communities and to the government.

The final matter that I want to cover is the Protected Areas on Private Land project. I mentioned before that we have about 22 per cent of the state in the public protected area system. That is around 21 million hectares. That is an area equivalent to the size of Victoria. It is a big area of the state. We also have a private protected area system. It is a small one that comprises voluntary sanctuaries entered into by private landholders under the National Parks and Wildlife Act and also heritage agreements under the Native Vegetation Act, which are formal statutory agreements under that act. Together they cover nearly one per cent of the state, 750,000 hectares.

The state government, as I mentioned before, is not really in a position to be responsible for all conservation lands in the state. We have got 21 million hectares already and we manage that. But if you look at it, you see there are still holes in the system, if you like, and the only way that they can really be filled is through cooperation and partnerships with private landholders and Aboriginal groups. Private protected areas are being established but there is currently no formal statutory framework for that to occur. So in 2010 the department prepared a discussion paper on behalf of the government and put it out. It proposed some ways by which we might better facilitate and encourage private landholders to manage their lands for conservation purposes. The main objective of that was really to make it easier for them to enter into some sort of formal statutory arrangement that is quite transparent so that everybody could see what it was. It is there in perpetuity and people know what we are talking about. We have got a system in place and it is not ad hoc. There was very strong support for that in a couple of areas. The existing sanctuary areas were seen as useful. Heritage agreements were seen as very good. The only thing was they only addressed native vegetation. So there is a proposal to expand and update the heritage agreements to look at conservation more broadly. So a private landholder could enter into a heritage agreement focused on conservation and biodiversity more generally, rather than just on native vegetation.

The other new initiative which came out was the concept of having privately owned national parks or conservation parks, or the equivalent thereof. So private landholders would seek to manage an area as a national park or as a conservation park, in a similar way to what government does. The concept had support but the nomenclature did not, unfortunately. The idea of privately owned national parks or conservation parks was a bit of a step too far for many people. One of the issues for the large NGOs was that the community relates the term 'national parks' to government and the minute something is called a national park its funding base may well be at risk; whereas, if it is seen as quite clearly being run by an NGO, their funding base, their donors, may be more inclined towards it. That was one of the worries.

The other worry was that there are some elements in the community who still say that national parks and conservation parks should be the sole domain of governments, that governments have that responsibility. I think they are both reasonable views—they were strongly put and we accept that. I guess it is the naming that is important. If we can move away to something like 'private reserve' or a name which is less offensive, that is more likely to be more acceptable.

We have not yet finalised our framework. We are in the process of doing that. Hopefully that will be done later this year or early next year and will be able to introduce changes to the National Parks and Wildlife Act which will enable that to occur.

CHAIR: Ms Nicolson, do you wish to add anything to those comments?

Ms Nicolson : If there is time, on a separate initiative. In terms of some broader work we are doing around adaptation at the state level, there is recognition that effective adaptation will primarily need to be tackled at the regional level and also across sectors because the impacts climate change might have on one sector will have flow-on effects to another sector. So the state government is working with NRM boards, regional development boards, local government and industry to develop effective adaptation actions in each of the regions, and biodiversity is one of the key sectors being looked at. They are developing climate change vulnerability assessments for each of the regions, which look at the vulnerability of each of the sectors, biodiversity being one of them. The first such assessment has been recently completed in the Northern and Yorke Region and that does indicate that the region's biodiversity is significantly at risk. So there are partners working together at the moment to develop relevant adaptation actions.

All of the regions in South Australia have come to agreement on some of the major land management reforms that will need to be put in place to help build the resilience of natural systems. One of those which is now being increasingly recognised as a major strategy is tackling conservation and restoration at broad landscape scales rather than in patches. So that is a major strategy which is driving biodiversity adaptation statewide at the moment. I just wanted to let you know about that work as well.

CHAIR: Thank you for that.

Mr KELVIN THOMSON: Mr Leaman, the NatureLinks concept is, I think, really significant. One of the saddest pieces I have ever read about Australia's declining wildlife—and I have read a few—was about bird species in the Mount Lofty Ranges. It talked about the birds paying an extinction debt, whereby quite a number of species died out because the area had become isolated from other habitats. Even though the areas they were looking at were secure from any further vegetation-clearing and so on, the piece said that further bird species there now will die out in the future because bird numbers have sunk below the threshold level and they do not connect with other areas of the landscape. You talked about the Cape Borda to Barossa NatureLink—I think that is the relevant one; does it have any capacity to address that kind of issue?

Mr Leaman : Yes, that is the intent. You have hit the nail on the head, or at least it is one example of the sorts of outcomes that you would hope to achieve. As you mentioned, we have these isolated, postage stamp sized reserves, because it is a pretty developed area and they are small reserves, each of them isolated from the other by land used for other purposes—legitimate purposes—whatever they might be. If we can encourage the people using that land, the owners or managers of that land, to also manage for conservation within a specific framework so they have some guidance as to what it is that is required, they should for the most part still be able to utilise the land for whatever purpose they sought to utilise it in the first place. By thinking about their management, they should also create those conservation corridors that will link one reserve to the other. There was some very good work done in the Wheatbelt region of Western Australia many years ago that shows the advantages of those linkages. They were using roadside vegetation there as an example. This is exactly the same, except on a larger scale.

Mr KELVIN THOMSON: Yes. You talked about the concept of having protected areas on private land to try to tackle holes in the system. Do you find the Commonwealth EPBC Act useful in that regard; and, if not, do you have any ideas about ways in which it could be amended to make it more useful in that regard?

Mr Leaman : It is interesting. In terms of protected areas on private land, there is really little impact on that. At the moment, the Commonwealth will support the acquisition of land for protected areas by private landholders; in fact, it has done quite a bit in South Australia, as has the South Australian government. The issue is: what is the long-term security of that land? You are putting money into it to secure it for conservation; where is the statutory basis for it? So what we are doing with the Protected Areas on Private Land project here is trying to embed that into the South Australian National Parks and Wildlife Act so there is an agreed management framework that is spelt out in the legislation and there in perpetuity. The Commonwealth does not have that arrangement at the moment in the EPBC Act, and I do not know whether that would be the right act to have it in.

Mr KELVIN THOMSON: Sure. My final question is about carbon offsets. Do you think that carbon offsetting has a role to play in supporting biodiversity conservation; and is there anything going on currently or prospectively on this front in your area?

Mr Leaman : Absolutely. It is a new area. I spoke about the Arid Lands NatureLink and the Trans-Australia Eco-Link: a large part of that falls within the northern arid and semi-arid pastoral areas. In terms of how that might be managed for conservation, we need to provide incentives to pastoral landholders to do that. We are currently exploring what opportunities there might be through carbon—carbon offsetting, carbon markets and everything else—that would provide that incentive to the pastoral landholder or manager to do something that will also benefit conservation. So I think there is great scope for that. That is just one area. I think, more broadly, that will occur. I know some of these private, non-government organisations and others who are setting up areas as private protected areas, if you like, are looking at carbon as one of the ways that they might benefit from those as well.

Mr KELVIN THOMSON: Thanks.

Ms MARINO: You have touched on how private landowners may be funded for this work. Once these significant areas are developed and they grow—which they will—we are going to have an increase in the costs associated with managing them. As the undergrowth increases, the umbrella will increase. We are going to end up with ferals, weeds and a whole raft of other challenges—which will come at a cost. How does the draft legislation in South Australia address this ongoing issue, particularly for private landowners in and around these conservation areas and even the private landowners who are engaged in that work? Where does the cost land, and how will that be managed? The mitigation of ferals, weeds and bushfires will be an ongoing issue. The more connected this becomes, the more it grows over a period of 20 to 50 years, the greater this issue becomes. How do you see that being managed?

Mr Leaman : Weeds, feral animals and fires are already an issue across the landscape. Within our parks as they exist now, we have the same responsibilities as the private landowner next door—whether it be weeds, animals or whatever.

Ms MARINO: It does not always work like that.

Mr Leaman : We have some fairly impressive programs that are dealing with some of those issues. But the landowner has a choice as to whether they want to manage their land as a protected area or for some other reason, and the costs of that are legitimate costs for that landholder. Just as the government is responsible for the cost of managing its land, so are the private landowners responsible for the costs of managing their land—by and large, though, there is often assistance. In the Flinders Ranges there is a program called Bounceback, which has won a number of national awards. It has been going since about 1990. This is focused on feral animals and weeds. It started in the Flinders Ranges National Park but it grew out. By working in partnership with the surrounding pastoralists and farmers, we are now covering a very large area with feral animal and weed control. The particular focus is on yellow footed rock wallabies. We have seen a massive increase in their number as a result of bringing the number of feral animals down through a managed partnership approach. This has allowed the number of yellow footed rock wallabies to grow.

Coming back to your question: whilst it remains the responsibility of the landholder to manage their land—we have all got the same responsibilities—there is plenty of scope for partnership projects across the landscape where government can work with landholders. It is a synergistic and additive approach: we can do more together than the sum of what we can do individually.

Ms MARINO: That may be so, but do your figures analyse the ongoing and incremental costs, over a period of years, of the management of these extended areas?

Mr Leaman : That cost is up to the individual landholder if they want to enter into these agreements. This is not compulsory.

Ms MARINO: But where they are going to be government owned national parks or other, or any increase in those types of areas, is there an incremental figure on those costs?

Mr Leaman : In terms of government owned parks, new acquisitions, we do look at the potential costs of management into the future. We need to program and budget for that, just like any other thing that we have got to manage. If you are talking about the private landholders, private lands are a private responsibility. The government does not interfere with the management of the private lands. If a private landholder chooses to manage an area of conservation, that is a decision that they have got to make, and budget for accordingly.

Ms HALL: Firstly, I want to clarify where we were going before. You are not proposing that the government obtains all the land in the NatureLinks and the eco-links—rather, you are proposing a system whereby there is a partnership between the public and private sectors and, therefore, management is a joint responsibility of both the public and the private parties. That is my understanding of where you are going. Is that correct?

Mr Leaman : Yes, that is correct. What is important to note is that so many of these lands have other uses.

Ms HALL: Absolutely.

Mr Leaman : They are productive landscapes for grazing or crops or whatever it might be in the particular place. By working with the private landholders conservation can also become one of their management objectives and often they can achieve some fantastic conservation outcomes in addition to their livelihood outcomes.

Ms HALL: Actually, they can be cost-saving measures, as opposed to cost-incurring measures.

Mr Leaman : Yes, that is proving to be the case in a lot of areas especially with crop productivity and also sheep productivity.

Ms HALL: I am really interested in the whole concept and I think it is a great idea. I wonder if you could give me a little bit of background on how you engage with the community and on the consultations you have had and on the process of developing the partnerships and on how you are empowering the communities that are involved and on how you are involving them.

Mr Leaman : It is probably useful to use an example, the East Meets West NatureLink over on the west coast of the Eyre Peninsula. The conservation NGOs have formed an alliance, and I think they call it the NRM Alliance. It is a formal alliance. They have come together to try and progress the NatureLinks concept. We partner with them on a number of fronts. We can provide expertise, advice and some funding from time to time. But largely it is up to them to follow their initiatives. We are not dominating; it is not an imposed arrangement. So these groups are looking to do something about the environment and we are providing a framework to enable them to do so and then we are working with them to help them and provide the guidance or the financial assistance in some cases or whatever else it might be, such as expertise, to enable that to occur. Because so much of this work adjoins areas that we are responsible for and manage, we do joint projects. A boundary becomes irrelevant as you are trying to manage something , as I talked about, like a feral animal program, for example, and you are trying to manage it across the landscape. It is tenure blind.

Ms HALL: In relation to adaptation and the climate change vulnerability assessments that you are conducting, I was wondering if you would go into a little bit more detail on that and about how you are linking it to the actual assessments and then the adaptation strategies for communities that you are going to put in place. You did make the point that it was very regionally focused, so there are different approaches as to different communities. Is that correct?

Ms Nicolson : That is right. While there are a handful of issues that we will need to address at the whole-of-state level, much of the action will need to occur in the regions, as I said previously, and across sectors. A major approach that the state is going to be taking—and I think other states have similar approaches as to how they approach adaptation—is to address it regionally and to conduct what are formally called integrated climate change vulnerability assessments in each region. They are assessments that look at social, economic and environmental issues across all of the sectors and how they all interrelate. The state government is supporting the regional development boards in each region, with the NRM boards and industry and local government, to conduct these assessments. They are being rolled out over time.

Ms HALL: So they are partnerships.

Ms Nicolson : They are partnerships. It is all similar to what Greg mentioned before. The state government is supporting these groups but essentially it is the groups, regional development boards, NRM boards, industry and local councils who are themselves driving these assessments and the actions that will come out of them. So that will be the major approach that we take within the state to developing the right adaptation actions for the right regions. Biodiversity is one of the eight key sectors that will be looked at—I think it is eight—and, obviously, one of the key things that will need to happen in each region is this whole landscape-scale approach, and NatureLinks and the work that Greg has talked about will play a major role in helping to deliver those sorts of actions.

CHAIR: Perhaps we will wrap up with this question, because I am aware that we have just about run out of time. Given your experience to date in the work that you have been doing throughout the state across a whole range of areas, in particular trying to pull together private owners, community groups, government departments and other state governments, is there anything further that you believe the Commonwealth could be doing to assist in this process that has emerged as a result of your work to date?

Mr Leaman : A big lesson that we have been able to gauge is that government is able to create the institutional frameworks and provide the guidance at a high level, but, the minute government starts dictating what has to happen, you get push-back. At the other end, in the community—I will start with local government, NRM boards, conservation groups or the broader community, there is a huge amount of interest and keenness to do something out there, provided that they are guided and not told what to do. I think that if we can create the frameworks, which is what we are trying to do in South Australia, to enable that to occur and to harness all that energy, enthusiasm and resources, then we will get somewhere. With the Commonwealth, I guess the lesson to take from that is perhaps that that is where the opportunities lie: providing the frameworks at the high level and providing the support to enable those people closest to the ground to progress what they see as important at the time.

CHAIR: Perhaps I could reverse the question by asking this: are there any barriers to your work that have been presented by Commonwealth legislation or anything else that you can think of that might make your work and your task a lot easier if they could be overcome? If there are none, that is fine as well.

Mr Leaman : I am not able to think of any off the top of my head. The one thing I would say is that rapidly changing agendas can be problematic. You are following an agenda, a funding source or whatever. If that is changing too rapidly in what might appear an ad hoc way—it may not be an ad hoc way but it may appear that way—that can create a lot of unnecessary churn.

CHAIR: I understand.

Mr Leaman : Aside from that, I am not able to identify anything off the top of my head.

CHAIR: On that note, thank you very much. I ask one of the committee members to move that the three maps presented by the South Australian Department of Environment and Natural Resources be accepted as evidence and included in the committee's records as exhibits.

Ms MARINO: I so move.

CHAIR: Once again, Mr Leaman and Ms Nicolson, thank you very much for appearing today and thank you very much for the support of the department throughout this whole visit whilst we have been here in South Australia. Thank you.

Mr Leaman : Thanks for the opportunity.

Ms Nicolson : Thank you.

Proceedings suspended from 11:07 to 11:20