Tropical Savannas CRC > Publications > Savanna Links > Savanna Links Archive > Issue 20, October - December 2001

Issue 20, October - December 2001

Conservation: a not-so private concern

Pressure is growing to see more conservation measures taken on land outside parks and reserves. But who should decide when and where this conservation takes place, who will pay for it, and who benefits? Kathryn Thorburn, Peter Jacklyn & Kate O'Donnell explore the issues.

Roper River at Elsey Station west of Katherine in the NT.

Roper River at Elsey Station west of Katherine in the NT. Landowners in the area took part in a Landcare project that fenced 80 km of the river from grazing and feral animals to protect the sensitive riparian environment
Photo: Kathryn Thorburn

Private parks | Goodwill hunting | Who should pay | Rules and regulations frustrate landholders | Managing grazing pressure |

In recent years it has become increasingly clear that we cannot rely on National parks and reserves alone to conserve native plants and animals. Some types of environment, for example, are not abundant in parks and reserves, such as the valuable pasture country of Mitchell grasslands and blue-grass pastures. There is also a limit to the amount of land that can be placed in parks and reserves as they need to be managed within a finite government budget.

Lands outside reserves are vital for many plants and animals. They contain areas such as riverbanks and monsoon vine forests that provide refuge for animals in the dry season as well as routes to move along.

According to Dr John Woinarski, a senior wildlife ecologist with the Parks & Wildlife Commission of the NT, many species use ‘off-reserve’ areas like these as they move across large areas of country—from reserves to unreserved lands and back—to cope with seasonal fluctuations in food and shelter. These species will not persist, even in reserves, if the surrounding lands are degraded.

So how can we safeguard populations of native plants and animals in north Australia? For John Woinarski, coordination is the key.

“For many species the greatest conservation security will be achieved when management across properties and tenures is coordinated,” he said, “rather than having a pronounced distinction between conservation lands and production lands.” It appears this coordination still has some way to go as there are now a number of different and often isolated approaches to off-reserve conservation.

Private parks

One trend that has received much publicity is where land is bought specifically for conservation using funds from sympathetic individuals and businesses.

Bush Heritage is independent, non-profit, and dedicated to protecting species and habitats through creating reserves on private land. The organisation currently owns 13 reserves across the country. Carnarvon Station in central Queensland near Emerald is the latest acquisition, protecting 59,000 hectares of brigalow, grasslands, vine thicket, and other threatened vegetation. Another such organisation is the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) which owns five properties in Western Australia, and has just purchased Mornington Station in the Kimberley. This organisation is involved in the recovery and protection of endangered species, especially mammals, and reintroduces these animals to areas after addressing threats such as feral animal predation. It also has research and education programs.

According to managing director Barry Wilson they don’t believe any native animals have been lost at Mornington. “Our project there is more about protecting what is there,” he said. “We want to use the place as a window of how the Australian environment was elsewhere, and should be again.”

As the property is under pastoral lease, AWC is obliged to continue running cattle there, but the plan is to destock key areas, and manage them for conservation and also for public recreation.

Earth Sanctuaries Ltd (ESL) has a more commercial approach. Founded by Dr John Wamsley in 1969, the company was publicly listed on the Stock Exchange in May 2000. It is the world’s only publicly listed conservation company. It has 10 sanctuary projects around Australia, with 92,000 hectares under its care. Each property is fenced off to exclude feral animals like foxes, rabbits and cats. Four of the sanctuaries are open to the public: Warrawong, Yookamurra, Scotia and Hanson Bay.

However, at the Earth Sanctuaries annual general meeting on November 26, chairman Dr Don Stammer conceded that the company had lost momentum in developing new sanctuaries, and posted a $13 million loss in the past financial year. The share price has also weakened.

While there was a 10 per cent increase in revenues in the four months to October, ESL is now listing several properties for sale that it had bought to develop into sanctuaries.

Wendy Craik, former executive director of the National Farmers Federation and recently appointed chief executive officer of ESL is optimistic. During a recent trip to Townsville, Dr Craik raised the possibility of opening new wildlife reserves along Queensland’s east coast, and eventually one in north Queensland. Another strategy the company will pursue is to build reserves close to towns and cities to draw more visitors.

Goodwill hunting

Despite the promising start for private conservation parks, in the foreseeable future most conservation outside reserves will have to be carried out by landholders. But this type of conservation effort will rely on the goodwill of landholders and assistance from government.

A number of pastoral properties are choosing to manage parts of their land for conservation rather than production. Elsey station south of Katherine has fenced off sensitive riverbank areas to exclude stock. This has protected the riverbank environment from overgrazing and erosion, but also made mustering easier. On Newry station east of Kununurra, a section was fenced off to protect the habitat of the endangered Gouldian Finch. Other stations receive assistance from research programs such as Biograze which helps them implement effective conservation strategies (see separate story below ). For many of these pastoral stations, the cost of fencing and other materials has been covered under government-funded programs such as Landcare, and the labour supplied by the landholder.

Land for Wildlife is a national program that encourages landholders to maintain corridors and patches of native vegetation to provide animals with habitat and corridors to move through. Landholders admitted to the scheme get support, advice, technical notes, field days and links with other LfW members, which is funded by the Natural Heritage Trust through Bushcare. The scheme has been most effective in semi-rural and agricultural areas where habitats are drastically altered or removed entirely. The NT branch of Land for Wildlife was launched in October this year, the last state and territory in Australia to implement the program.

Who should pay?

But goodwill only goes so far, particularly when you are struggling to make ends meet. For those landholders who don’t actively pursue adequate conservation there is always legislation. There are various laws to protect plants and animals outside parks and reserves, ranging from those that protect endangered or threatened species to laws that restrict the activities that can be undertaken on different types of tenure. However, these laws are often difficult to police in remote areas, and in the case of legislation like Queensland’s Vegetation Management Act, designed to limit land-clearing, they have kindled fierce opposition from many landholders.

Much of the problem comes down to who pays for conservation efforts and who stands to benefit. Many landholders see conservation laws that prevent them from developing their land as depriving them of income. A recent report released by the House of Representatives Environment Committee into Public Good Conservation examined these issues in some detail.

According to committee chair, the Hon. Ian Causley MP, current policy approaches are often out of touch with the realities of rural and regional Australia.

“Very often landholders have to meet significant costs out of their own pockets for conservation works from which they can anticipate little immediate or even medium-term benefit,” he said. “The benefit flows to the community, but the cost is borne by the landholder.”

The report recognised that landholders were the key to implementing sustainable environmental practices that would ensure the future of not only Australia’s rural sector but the health of its landscapes for generations to come. (See separate story below).

The committee developed six basic principles as the basis for public good conservation policy, among them the recognition of landholder rights in respect of land use; and that all landholders have duty of care to manage land in an ecologically sustainable manner. The report was released in September 2001, and the Federal Government is yet to respond.

Although not the main focus of the committee’s report, the situation on Aboriginal land has many similarities to that on pastoral land. Increasingly, pressure from the broader community may require Aboriginal communities with few resources to manage their extensive lands for conservation.

Ultimately this may come down to whether urban Australia, which represents the majority of those who stand to benefit from off-reserve conservation, is willing to provide adequate resources to those people in regional Australia who have to implement that conservation.

The NSW Farmers’ Association recently called for a debate on introducing a GST on fresh food as a way to raise public funds for repairing the environment—a signpost, perhaps, to the future.


ABC TV Landline footage of landholders at Winton in February 2000 protesting against Queenslands new Vegetation Management ActPicture courtesy of ABC Landline

ABC TV Landline footage of landholders at Winton in February 2000 protesting against Queensland’s new Vegetation Management Act
Picture courtesy of ABC Landline

Rules and regulations frustrate landholders

THE recent Parliamentary Standing Committee report into public good conservation received submissions and evidence from more than 250 landholders. According to their report, those landholders reported widespread frustration, anger and resentment in the rural community as a result of what were perceived to be inappropriate policies.

The committee said that Australia’s present conservation policies were not addressing the country’s environmental problems. In fact, the committee suggested that “nothing short of a reconfiguration of land-use practices in Australia was required.” And the major drivers of that reconfiguration of land use would be landholders.

While the inquiry noted that landholders were eager to change their land-use system, they often did not have the resources to do so. Without those resources, conservation works were unlikely to be undertaken and the environmental problems facing the country would remain and only get worse.

According to Leon Ashby, organiser of a landholder lobby group, that anger and frustration is because of what he calls over-regulation. In February this year, Leon and his wife Jane started an email newsletter Landholders for the Environment, which goes out to landholders, green groups, scientists and government. Even a quick perusal of the newsletters reveals the depth of that anger and differing views to some generally accepted tenants of sustainability and conservation. Leon identifies that anger as landholders being sick to the teeth of over-regulation.

“We are good managers. We are gradually improving the management of our properties and there is no recognition of that,” he says. “We believe we need minimal regulation because profits will come from good management, and from looking after our ecosystems.

“We don’t see a need for regulation that doesn’t understand the environment or the need for flexibility in management.”

Leon was the organiser of two rallies held last year in Roma and Winton that attracted more than 1000 landholders protesting against the implementation of Queensland’s Vegetation Management Act. A lack of consultation was a key reason for landholder resentment over the Act’s implementation.

In NSW, a number of landholder groups, principally the Fiveways Landholders group, are preparing their own vegetation management processes, and when complete, will be implementing them, rather than those in place under NSW legislation. He says this form of ‘civil disobedience’ is the way a number of landholder groups are heading, and that there are other groups looking at exactly the same measures.

“Landholders are starting to say we’re going to take on the governments now.”

Leon says the Standing Committee’s report has resonated very well with his members, especially those recommendations supporting landholder’s property rights. “Most of them we would agree with, a few technical differences—essentially it was a very good report.”

See below for links to where you can read the Public Good Conservation Report, and Landholders' for the Environment Website.

Managing grazing pressure to maintain biodiversity

Pastoralists know that there are plant and animal species that change in abundance under different grazing pressures. These are known as ‘decreasers’ and ‘increasers’. While good pastoral management practice encourages numerous and evenly spread watering points to manage grazing pressure, ‘decreaser’ species require a network of lightly or ungrazed areas; that is, areas remote to water.

To demonstrate to producers how they might achieve this, CSIRO’s Arid Lands Division and the Parks & Wildlife Commission of the NT developed the Biograze program. Biograze assists producers to retain some areas of their properties in a water-remote and therefore ungrazed state. Fencing off lightly grazed areas is another option. Biograze can demonstrate not only the practicalities of these developments on the ground, but also minimise costs to producers in terms of lost production.

See web link below .