Northern & Yorke NRM Business Plan 2012-2015

In December 2011 I received an invitation to comment on the Northern & Yorke Natural Resources Management Board Business Plan 2012-2015. Given my interest in all aspects environmental, I submitted the following response.


INTRODUCTION


During the past 15 years, I have been observing the condition of South Australia’s agricultural lands, natural resources, and water courses. However, in the past several years I have focused my attention on gathering information about these critical issues from documents in the public domain. I have also examined various Climate Change reports and have submitted responses accordingly. 

Some of my investigations have now been placed on my website www.SustainableSpace.info and specifically at the KEY ISSUES pages of Landscape & Biodiversity and Climate. The links to Condition of Agricultural Land are also important.


On piecing together the content of these reports and a number of other reports (including climate change adaptation issues, natural resources management, and land condition), I have come to a number of conclusions. Some have been described on my website, some are still being developed. Overall, I am deeply concerned about a range of issues, and I have connected these to the N&Y NRM Business Plan in the comments below.

My comments below may appear to the reader to be un-necessary nitpicking, but there has to come a time when the harsh reality is realised of the condition of the landscapes of the N&Y agricultural regions. As an independent voice, my hope is that what I say allows a re-think to occur of the conveyance of messages by the Board.


COMMENTS ON THE BUSINESS PLAN


1.   The Foreword by the Presiding Member states that there is “a shift to a landscape scale approach”, however in my view the Business Plan contains very little that relates to this. “Landscape-scale” is exactly what is needed, but it means a massive and enduring undertaking and I consider that the Board’s Regional Plan and Business Plan do not contribute adequately or appropriately to satisfy this statement. The problems in the N&Y region are very acute (refer to the Report on the Condition of Agricultural Land in South Australia, referenced at my website), and the Board’s Plans are missing key elements that respond to these problems. I have described these at my website. The persistent flaw is the acceptance of the present use of agricultural land, the acceptance of the status quo, the acceptance of a deeply diminished biodiversity complex, and the acceptance that what has been done since European settlement will be sustained for a very long time into the future. The data in the above-mentioned report, and others, speaks for itself. I think that we can not continue with the acceptance of these issues. The Climate Change Adaptation Framework spells out clearly the risks and problems confronting agricultural lands in the future. Appropriate responses are needed. On-ground action must be a priority.


2.   The Business Plan needs to use language and terms that reflect the true condition of natural resources. For example, in Vision & Goals, the statement “...rich in diverse natural resources...” is a misrepresentation. The N&Y region contains some of the most degraded landscapes in the state, and certainly the most devegetated. There is no richness evident, just fragmented remnants and isolated ecosystems. This is no way to describe a “rich” landscape. 

Around 12 million hectares of cleared vegetation across the state attest to this. The degraded landscapes throughout the region attest to this. Another example of inappropriate use of terms is “Aspirational Targets”. Although it’s comforting to “aspire” to targets, this is a loose term and induces no obligation. In terms of natural resources in the N&Y region, I consider that there needs to be significantly greater commitment conveyed through language. 

A similar comment applies to the use of the term “healthy” in “Healthy Soils” and “Healthy Terrestrial Ecosystems” in the Appendix. These “feel good” terms deflect the actuality. As another example, in Part B of the Appendix (“Healthy Terrestrial Ecosystems”), the targets mostly prioritise actions towards the ecosystems that remain. In the life of the Business Plan to 2015 this is understandable, and all of the actions are commendable. But my concern is that to continue to maintain the tiny fractions that are left does not address the necessity for massive landscape-scale change. To reach a “healthy” condition, it is going to take a total reconfiguration of natural resources management, and a new agri-economy. 


3.   I have written in the past about the need to implement the actions described in the river management plans for the Broughton, Wakefield, and Light Rivers. These plans are now approaching 12 years old, but very little action has occurred. It is disturbing that, with few exceptions, South Australia’s inland watercourses continue on their highly degraded path. It is a blot on the state’s history. 

At my website, I described a scenario about supporting land-based ecological communities by massive revegetation and many other simple strategies. I added ... “To have a real impact on a changing climate at the state and regional level, what is needed is a new agricultural economy based on a 50 year time horizon of revegetation – i.e. 40,000 ha annually (at 10% of land being revegetated). Not only would this protect farm incomes, but it conceivably would add to state income.” 

It is not beyond the realms of possibility that up to 20% (and conceivably more) of existing agricultural land will need to be returned to a native vegetation condition. This is a massive endeavour and involves approximately 80,000 ha annually for 50 years. 

The proportion that would apply to N&Y would be about 30,000 ha annually. Is this a possibility? Under present-day Plans and human attitudes the answer is NO.

Compare this area with the 5,000 ha in total over the 3-year Business Plan life. I’m not sure if 5,000 ha can be completed under present Board arrangements.

I suspect it is going to take a mobilisation of communities, farmers, and organisations that is going to be beyond the capacity of all prospective participants to deliver. Nevertheless, the present opportunities available through the federal government’s Biodiversity Fund need to be accessed as soon as possible. I imagine the Board would be well aware of this.


4.   Reports from state government organisations have described in detail what the landscape and biodiversity problems are, and yet the Business Plan contains few actions that actually attack these problems. Again, reference to Report on the Condition of Agricultural Land in South Australia, and the No Species Loss Overview Strategy 2007-2017, and the Climate Change Adaptation Framework, and other reports, will confirm the dire problems confronting the state and our region. These reports are examples of many that discuss the very concerning state of the environment. Government agencies such as SARDI, scarcely pay any attention to landscape-scale change; their mission is to find ways and means to maintain contemporary agricultural output. In my view this is a mistaken direction. The need for rapid and integrated on-ground action is now more apparent than it has ever been. 

I sympathise with the Board’s position, because it seems that the greatest problem is lack of resources, and lack of state government commitment.


5.   Let’s now look at the financial resources as indicated in the Business Plan. The decline in income from $5.942m to $4.074m in the 3-year period to 2014-15 is a great concern. Sure, external funding may come through at some future time, but in my opinion all NRM Boards in the state have never been properly and adequately funded from the state government. In 2002 I expressed my concerns to the then Minister about lack of funding to the purported Boards. These concerns were instantly dismissed.

If the N&Y NRM Board is satisfied with the current level of state government funding of around $0.53m from 2012-13, then I believe the risk of continual decline in natural resources condition and the risk of ecosystem collapse, will increase substantially. If desired, refer to the articles I have written on my website www.SustainableSpace.info. If the Board is not content with state government funding then I strongly urge that persistent overtures about this issue be made, including to all political parties, until there is appropriate resourcing. Referring to the general figure of about $913m of annual agricultural production across 7.56m hectares in the region (ref: Yorke and Mid North Regional Roadmap 2010, pg 73), and assuming that this figure is consistent across all years of the Business Plan, then the state government’s contribution of $0.53m (2012-13) to maintain this production and to achieve sustainable natural resources management, and to elicit necessary change, is paltry. Rural folk should not accept this. They should not accept a measly contribution of less than 0.06% when $535m has been allocated by the state government for a spurious Adelaide Oval upgrade. 


Sidenote : $0.53m annual "investment" from the state government represents 0.06% of annual agricultural production of $913m from the Northern & Yorke region. By any measure this is a very poor contribution for what is supposed to be support for sustainable systems.


To make matters worse, reliance on external funding (mostly federal) for the massive work that needs to be done in the N&Y region is a flawed model, and will not result in the landscape-scale change so desperately needed.

It is time that a rural dividend be allocated to the regions based on production and need. All the data is available to configure an appropriate financial model. In my view, a minimum ten-fold increase on the state government’s annual allocation is necessary just to kick-start the landscape-scale change so desperately needed. 

One final question on the figures at Table 8 of the Business Plan is how can the same annual interest of $100,000 be derived from diminishing total income?


6.   I will conclude by offering a way forward. On my blog page at www.SustainableSpace.info I have written about the opportunities presented by the latest suite of federal government programs relating to carbon initiatives. I will not repeat the blog post here. It is highly suspected that decline of regional rainfall is linked to removal of surface vegetation cover (see http://eprints.usq.edu.au/18483/). For a number of years I have been saying that much more research is needed in the N&Y region about rainfall and evaporation, and the connection to land use.

My appeal is to try to avert some of the predicted adverse effects, and to re-shape the agricultural regions to include very significant vegetation cover. For this to occur, there has to be sustained financial commitment from the state government to a level that I’ve alluded to in part 4 above. This financial support would be the leverage necessary to extract maximum external funding. Before all this can happen of course, there has to be a belief from the Board that landscape-scale change is a top priority.


There is much more that can be said about the condition of natural resources in the N&Y region, but I’ll leave it for now. 

I hope these comments are useful in the Board’s future planning.


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