Management approaches

Natural capital in the land has been modified to varying degrees by different land uses and management practices throughout human history (see Pressures). Since European settlement, the cumulative impacts of more intensive use of the land and resulting impacts on natural capital have led to a series of policies and actions to protect remnant natural areas or restore the productivity of degraded lands. Different land management practices can improve or degrade the condition of natural capital. Achieving both environmental and wellbeing outcomes from land management is a collective responsibility that requires coordinated planning and decision-making to accommodate diverse views on nature, and to balance environmental, economic, social and cultural benefits.

Australians use a broad range of management approaches designed to maintain the flow of ecosystem services from the land environment and sustain natural capital values underpinning those services (Neill et al. 2020). Governments, communities, businesses and individuals own land and manage it, for both public and private benefit. Land tenure declares the legal relationship between people and land (see Land tenure). It describes who owns which part of the land, and underpins the rights that exist and the activities that are permitted (e.g. types of land use) (see Land use). International and national agreements and policies further describe the responsibilities, goals and guidelines for those who own or are responsible for managing land.

In specific circumstances, and generally with the cooperation of state and territory governments, the Australian Government has legal authority to intervene in natural resource management and other environmental matters under the external affairs powers in the Australian Constitution, such as the obligation to uphold international agreements (Productivity Commission 2017). These agreements on the environment are wide ranging and include the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Paris Agreement on limiting climate change, international hazardous waste conventions, the Montréal Process for sustainable forest management, and agreements on biosecurity flowing from the World Trade Organization, to name just a few.

State and territory governments are primarily responsible for managing public land and administering private land, covering urban and rural land zoning, forestry plantations, mining and infrastructure development, and environmental regulations on management of native vegetation. The Australian Government has a limited direct role in owning and managing land, with a primary focus on promoting more efficient land and natural resource management and encouraging sustainable practices, often incentivised through grant programs. Examples of the Australian Government’s role are:

  • the National Landcare Program (Commonwealth of Australia 2017a), which aims to deliver priority actions on natural resource management, including sustainable agriculture
  • the National Forest Policy Statement (DAFF 1992), which established a nationally agreed basis for assessing forests, allocating resources and national reporting
  • managing 6 national parks and collaborating with states and territories to achieve broader nature conservation objectives through the National Reserve System (NRS) (see Protected areas).
  • Investment in management of land includes funding and effort by all levels of government, private landowners and businesses, nongovernment organisations, and Indigenous and non-Indigenous people and communities. For example, Indigenous land management skills and capabilities are increasingly being used in diverse contexts aimed at maintaining or enhancing natural capital values, creating opportunity and advancing wellbeing. Investment in Indigenous land and sea management supports customary or cultural resource management (e.g. hunting, gathering, burning, ceremony, knowledge sharing); actions to improve conditions in settlements (e.g. dust mitigation, firewood collection, management of water supplies); commercial activities (e.g. bush harvest for sale, pastoralism, management, art, carbon farming, mineral resource extraction); and threat abatement (e.g. weed and feral animal control, fire management, emissions reduction, threatened species management, revegetation) (Hill et al. 2012, Renwick et al. 2017, Leiper et al. 2018).

Land tenure

Land tenure is the legal regime under which land is held or occupied in Australia. It defines the manner of land ownership (e.g. Crown or freehold land; Figure 51) and who can use or occupy land (e.g. through leases, agreements, licences, easements and covenants) (AusTrade 2021). The rights, restrictions and responsibilities that apply to owners and occupiers are defined within the system of state and territory laws and regulations on land and property (Donnelly 2014). Common law applies where these statutes are not clear about the method for defining tenure, as established in the courts of Australia.

Freehold land, including freeholding leases, made up 30.2% of the land area in 2016, an increase of 14.0 million hectares (ha) compared with 2011 (Figure 52). Of the Crown land, 63.0% is under a leasehold arrangement, 18.2% is reserve (including multiple-use public forests for wood harvesting) and Other Crown land makes up 18.8%. Perpetual and term pastoral leases for livestock grazing covered 39.2% of Australia in 2016 (Figure 51) (ABARES 2021b).

Intensive agriculture, such as dairy, cropping and horticulture, are typical of uses on privately owned (freehold) land, whereas native forests can be either privately or publicly owned and managed (ABS 2021e) (see Land use). Mineral rights are owned by the Crown, and extractive industries acquire mining, mineral and petroleum rights through exploration and production leases, licences, or Indigenous land-use agreements, with royalties paid to the state and to compensate owners or occupiers of the surface land (public or private) (see Extractive industries management).

In 2015–16, 119.4 million ha (15.5% of Australia) was Indigenous owned (ABARES 2021b), under a variety of tenures (Figure 53). From 2010–11 to 2015–16, the extent of Indigenous land trust or authority land on various tenures increased by a net 5.4 million ha (4.7% of the 2010–11 extent) (ABARES 2021b). Indigenous freehold tenure made up 12% of land in 2015–16, and 77% of the Indigenous estate (Figure 53).

In some cases, land can be used by people other than those who own or lease it. For example:

  • The spatial extent of mineral or petroleum leases and licences can be defined independently of land parcel boundaries, and the rights of lease and licence holders may supersede the rights of landowners and occupiers (see Extractive industries management). For example, coal can be mined under agricultural land.
  • Indigenous rights for land are sometimes granted even if Indigenous people do not own or lease the land. The Indigenous estate – the land over which Indigenous peoples and communities have ownership, management, co-management or rights of use – occurs on all tenures and comprised 438 million ha (57% of Australia) in 2016 (Jacobsen et al. 2020a) (see Indigenous land management) (see the Indigenous chapter).

Figure 51 Location and extent of land tenure in Australia (Level 4), 2015–16


  1. Definitions of land tenure classes are given in ABARES (2021b).
  2. Level 4 distinguishes land with an Indigenous land grant, either Crown land held on behalf of, or freehold land owned by, Traditional Owner groups. Level 4 does not include native title, which applies alongside tenure. Indigenous classes are specified under Indigenous land grant instruments.
  3. Percentages are of the total land area in that class.
  4. See case study: The National Land Account, experimental estimates (2011–16).

Source: ABARES (2021b)

Figure 52 Extent of land tenure in Australia (Level 3), 2010–11 and 2015–16


  1. Definitions of land tenure classes are given in ABARES (2021b).
  2. Level 3 further distinguishes ‘Crown land’ in the Level 2 classification, defining ‘leasehold’ type or ‘Crown purposes’ type based on term and purpose. ‘Leasehold’ types are split into ‘freeholding lease’, ‘pastoral perpetual lease’, ‘other perpetual lease’, ‘pastoral term lease’, ‘other term lease’ and ‘other lease’. ‘Crown purposes’ types are split into ‘nature conservation reserve’, ‘multiple-use public forest’ and ‘other Crown purposes’.

Source: ABARES (2021b)

Figure 53 Extent of Indigenous land trust or authority land on various tenures in Australia (Level 4), 2015–16


  1. Level 4 distinguishes land with an Indigenous land grant, either Crown land held on behalf of, or freehold land owned by, Traditional Owner groups. Level 4 does not include native title, which applies alongside tenure.
  2. Percentages are of the extent of Aboriginal land trust or authority land on various tenures.

Source: ABARES (2021b)

Protected areas

Protected areas are one of several conservation measures aimed at maintaining or improving the diversity and quality of ecosystems and the native species they support (see the Biodiversity chapter). Lands can be protected in several ways, including through laws and regulations that preserve soil and manage native vegetation disturbance, or through incentives such as stewardships and related environmental management programs – for example, investments that complement the National Landcare Program (DAWE 2021l). Many of these ‘informal’ protected lands may in future be equated with ‘other effective area-based conservation measures’ (OECMs – IUCN 2019) for reporting against future targets, such as that pledged by the G7 leaders in June 2021 to halt or reverse biodiversity loss by 2030 (G7 2021).

A ‘protected area’ in Australia is defined as a geographically delineated space ‘recognised, dedicated and managed through legal or other effective means to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values’ (DAWE 2021r). Formal designation of protected areas is through the NRS (DAWE 2020i). The system comprises national parks and nature reserves, Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs), private protected areas and shared management areas. Collectively, these places aim to be comprehensive, adequate and representative of Australia’s ecosystems and biodiversity, both nationally and bioregionally (see the Biodiversity chapter). The Australian Government manages 6 iconic national parks (DAWE 2021n). Management for other areas lies with property owners, including state and territory governments and nongovernment organisations.

Since 2016, the total extent of the NRS has remained steady (Figure 54), with fewer additions following the cessation of federal funding for acquisitions. Modest increases are due to the priorities for acquisition by states and territories and private conservation. As of June 2020, the NRS included 13,392 protected areas covering 19.75% of the country – more than 151 million hectares (Figure 55; Table 11) (DAWE 2021ab). Based on area alone, 39 of Australia’s 86 continental bioregions have at least 17% of their land included in the NRS (Figure 56) (DAWE 2021y).

However, extent within bioregions is an incomplete measure of ecological protection levels. An assessment of the ecological representativeness of the reserve system (Williams et al. 2016), for example, found that only 28 of 86 terrestrial bioregions had achieved 17% representativeness of their estimated vascular plant diversity, at that time. Under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, all signatory countries, including Australia, agreed to meet a target of 17% of their land area in formal protected areas by 2020. Australia met that target by 2015 (DoE 2015b, DAWE 2020f), but more work is needed to fill gaps (May 2017a). A detailed analysis of trends in the NRS is provided elsewhere in the 2021 state of the environment report (see the Biodiversity chapter).The NRS provides for different levels of protection, ranging from prioritising nature conservation to accommodating multiple values (e.g. recreation, feral animal hunting or wild resource harvesting), which are assigned to management categories (Dudley 2013). There has been a general trend towards more multiple-use management objectives over the past decade, as evidenced by the proportional increase in Category VI protected areas with sustainable use of natural resources (Figure 57). Within each NRS property, the intactness of ecosystems can vary depending on the type of management and land-use history. Unsurprisingly, the average condition of habitats across all NRS properties in the intensive land-use zone was found to be significantly lower than in reserves in other zones (0.77 versus 0.86, relative to a maximum of 1.0) (Williams et al. 2021b) (Table 12) (see case study: Assessing condition of habitat consistently and nationally). The many small reserves of important remnant bushland in the intensive land-use zone require significant restoration to maintain or enhance their ecosystem values. In some of these areas, their level of protection may be downgraded to accommodate multiple uses. For example, management of feral horse populations to mitigate damage in sensitive alpine regions such as the Kosciuszko National Park was interrupted by the introduction of the Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Act 2018 (Worboys et al. 2018). Around 14,000 horses were estimated to inhabit the park in 2020, more than triple the number reported 2 decades earlier (Fletcher 2021). This is indicative of the trends identified by Cook et al. (2017), who reported widespread downgrading of protection over the 17 years to 2014, affecting over one-third of the NRS network at that time.

Each state and territory has implemented, to varying extents, mechanisms for regularly assessing the effectiveness of park management, using criteria established by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (Hockings et al. 2006). However, concerns persist about inconsistencies in management and the adequacy of resourcing to abate threats that require coordinated conservation action within and beyond park borders (Kearney et al. 2020). Following a review of the management status of Australia’s national system of reserves, May (2017b) recommended responsible parties adopt best-practice standards, supported through:

  • incorporating adaptive management strategies
  • developing frameworks and standards for consistent management planning and evaluation
  • increasing funding and management capacity from diverse sources.

Dudley et al. (2018) identified 100 research priorities for improving the effectiveness of protected area networks to achieve stated goals. These priorities were grouped into 4 categories: management, governance, ecological and social. One of the most frequently identified research needs related to understanding if, how and to what extent protected areas can help respond to the global challenges of widespread biodiversity losses, land degradation, climate change and threats to human livelihoods (Dudley et al. 2018). Sixteen priorities related to issues of governance, such as the importance of participatory approaches and understanding the influence that different actors have on protected areas (Dudley et al. 2018).

In Australia, there are 5 broad categories of governance linked to tenure, which vary in extent within each state and territory (Figure 58; Table 11). The largest part (43.5%) of the NRS is IPAs (see Indigenous Protected Areas), mainly in Western Australia (57.6%) and the Northern Territory (77.8%) (Figure 58). Most IPAs are community managed and a small proportion (0.55% as of June 2020) are jointly managed (DAWE 2021ab). A larger proportion (13.9%) of government-owned protected areas are jointly managed with local communities. Private conservation has been growing in the last decade, currently covering around 6% of all protected areas (Table 11).

Figure 54 Annual growth in the extent of protected areas (cumulative hectares) since 1997, by type of governance

IPA = Indigenous Protected Area; NRS = National Reserve System

  1. The cumulative status as at the end of 1997.


  1. Includes areas assessed for inclusion in the NRS that are awaiting formal gazettal (post 30 June 2020) and NRS properties, excluding Antarctic properties. Data based on NRS properties derived from DAWE (2021ab), where NRS_PA = I (interim; pending gazettal) or Y (yes, excluding Antarctic properties).
  2. Undated properties are mainly private conservation areas.

Source: DAWE (2021ab)

Figure 55 Governance categories of protected areas in the National Reserve System
Table 11 Governance of protected areas


Number of protected areas

Total area (hectares)

Percentage of total protected area

Percentage of Australia

Average size (hectares)































Sources: DAWE (2021ab), DAWE (2020e)

Figure 56 Percentage of each IBRA (Interim Biogeographic Regionalisation for Australia) region that is protected
Table 12 Condition of NRS properties in the intensive land-use zone, compared with other areas across Australia

Land-use zone

Long-term estimate of habitat condition (2001–18)


Other lands (not in the NRS)

Intensive land-use zone



Extensive land-use zone and relatively natural zone



NRS = National Reserve System


  1. Land-use zones are defined in Figure 6.
  2. Scores range from 0.0 (native vegetation completely removed) to 1.0 (native vegetation with high ecological integrity).

Source: Williams et al. (2021b)

Figure 57 Annual variation in the percentage cumulative land area in different IUCN protected area management categories since 1997

IUCN = International Union for Conservation of Nature; NRS = National Reserve System

  1. Data for 1997 give the cumulative status as at the end of 1997.


  1. Includes areas assessed for inclusion in the NRS that are awaiting formal gazettal (post 30 June 2020) and NRS properties, excluding Antarctic properties. Data based on NRS properties derived from DAWE (2021ab), where NRS_PA = I (interim; pending gazettal) or Y (yes, excluding Antarctic properties).
  2. Undated properties are mainly private conservation areas.
  3. Protected area management categories follow Dudley (2013). Unknown categories for conservation covenants were assumed to be Category IV. Not applicable categories are excluded.

Source: DAWE (2021ab)

Figure 58 Extent of protected areas as of 30 June 2020 for each jurisdiction, by type of governance

ACT = Australian Capital Territory; EXT = external territories (Christmas Island, Norfolk Island); IPA = Indigenous Protected Area; JBT = Jervis Bay Property (Commonwealth managed); NRS = National Reserve System; NSW = New South Wales; NT = Northern Territory; Qld = Queensland; SA = South Australia; Tas = Tasmania; Vic = Victoria; WA = Western Australia

Note: Includes areas assessed for inclusion in the NRS that are awaiting formal gazettal (post 30 June 2020) and NRS properties, excluding Antarctic properties. Data based on NRS properties derived from DAWE (2021ab), where NRS_PA = I (interim; pending gazettal) or Y (yes, excluding Antarctic properties).

Source: DAWE (2021ab)

Indigenous Protected Areas

IPAs have been part of the protected areas reserve system since 1997, with the purpose of ‘facilitating the integration of traditional ecological knowledge into contemporary land management practices’ (Social Ventures Australia 2016). There was a rapid growth in IPAs up to 2016, with 4 added subsequently to make a total of 78 IPAs covering 74,693,991 hectares as of June 2020 (Figure 59), representing almost half (43.5%) of the NRS (see the Biodiversity and Indigenous chapters). Two additional IPAs were added to the NRS in late 2021, expanding the system by 7 million hectares with many others under consideration (Ley & Wyatt 2020, DAWE 2021i). Consultation and planning for additional IPAs has been supported by $15 million committed by the Australian Government in 2017, and a further $11.6 million in 2021 to expand IPAs into sea Country (DAWE 2021i, NIAA 2021a). For example, the Wunambal Gaambera people use their Healthy Country Plan to guide community management of the Wunambal Gaambera and Uunguu IPAs for the benefit of future generations and to share with visitors (see case study: Wunambal Gaambera and the Uunguu Indigenous Protected Area (Mitchell Plateau) – Western Australia).

IPAs and associated Indigenous ranger programs have demonstrated benefits across a broad range of outcome areas, overcoming barriers to addressing Indigenous disadvantage and engaging Indigenous Australians on Country in meaningful employment to achieve large-scale conservation outcomes (Social Ventures Australia 2016, Larson et al. 2020, Jarvis et al. 2021). However, Social Ventures Australia (2016) identified several critical, long-term outcomes that had not yet been achieved, including stronger communities, increased capacity for self-determination and development of an Indigenous land-based economy. It is unlikely that these and other important outcomes will be realised without sustained investment from partners (Social Ventures Australia 2016, Pert et al. 2020).

Figure 59 Extent of Indigenous Protected Areas as of October 2020, and native title as of June 2021

ha = hectare

Notes: 1 – Nantawarrina (58,347 ha); 2 – Preminghana (529 ha); 3 – Risdon Cove (79 ha); 4 – Putalina (38 ha); 5 – Deen Maar (427 ha); 6 – Yalata (464,397 ha); 7 – Watarru (1,657,183 ha); 8 – Walalkara (1,068,856 ha); 9 – Mount Chappell Island (323 ha); 10 – Badger Island (1,243 ha); 11 – Guanaba (99 ha); 12 – Warul Kawa (43 ha); 13 – Dhimurru (135,771 ha); 14 – Wattleridge (645 ha); 15 – Mount Willoughby (420,680 ha); 16 – Paruku (428,560 ha); 17 – Ngaanyatjarra (9,974,049 ha); 18 – Tyrendarra (237 ha); 19 – Toogimbie (4,114 ha); 20 – Anindilyakwa (261,053 ha); 21 – Laynhapuy - Stage 1 (478,248 ha); 22 – Ninghan (46,835 ha); 23 – Northern Tanami (4,003,654 ha); 24 – Warlu Jilajaa Jumu (1,616,606 ha); 25 – Kaanju Ngaachi Wenlock and Pascoe Rivers (179,889 ha); 26 – Babel Island (441 ha); 27 – Great Dog Island (354 ha); 28 – lungatalanana (8,159 ha); 29 – Pulu (15 ha); 30 – Tarriwa Kurrukun (0,929 ha); 31 – Angas Downs (320,385 ha); 32 – Warddeken (1,370,496 ha); 33 – Djelk (640,467 ha); 34 – Jamba Dhandan Duringala (38,294 ha); 35 – Kurtonitj (367 ha); 36 – Framlingham Forest (1,142 ha); 37 – Kalka–Pipalyatjara (558,522 ha); 38 – Boorabee and The Willows (2,713 ha); 39 – Lake Condah (1,522 ha); 40 – Marri-Jabin (Thamurrurr, Stage 1) (69,504 ha); 41 – Brewarrina Ngemba Billabong (261 ha); 42 – Uunguu (759,459 ha); 43 – Apara - Makiri - Punti (1,107,523 ha); 44 – Antara – Sandy Bore (842,623 ha); 45 – Dorodong (85 ha); 46 – Weilmoringle (4,073 ha); 47 – Yanyuwa (Barni – Wardimantha Awara) (130,412 ha); 48 – Minyumai (2,160 ha); 49 – Gumma (111 ha); 50 – Mandingalbay Yidinji (5,967 ha); 51 – Southern Tanami (10,153,508 ha); 52 – Angkum, Stage 1 (4,504 ha); 53 – Ngunya Jargoon (861 ha); 54 – Birriliburu (6,667,353 ha); 55 – Eastern Kuku Yalanji (20,515 ha); 56 – Bardi Jawi (126,967 ha); 57 – Girringun (14,865 ha); 58 – Wilinggin (2,438,911 ha); 59 – Dambimangari (617,211 ha); 60 – Balanggarra (1,090,905 ha); 61 – Thuwathu/Bujimulla (124,966 ha); 62 – Yappala (10,885 ha); 63 – Wardaman (224,696 ha); 64 – Karajarri (2,440,426 ha); 65 – Nijinda Durlga (186,330 ha); 66 – Warraberalgal and Porumalgal (63 ha); 67 – Kiwirrkurra (4,268,253 ha); 68 – Nyangumarta Warrarn (2,616,042 ha); 69 – Matuwa and Kurrara-Kurrara (596,642 ha); 70 – Katiti Petermann (5,043,754 ha); 71 – Ganalanga-Mindibirrina (1,093,286 ha); 72 – Wardang Island (3,930 ha); 73 – Marthakal (323,047 ha); 74 – South-East Arnhem Land (1,819,909 ha); 75 – Yawuru (115,828 ha); 76 – Mawonga (21,987 ha); 77 – Ngururrpa (2,962,988 ha); 78 – Ngadju (4,399,301 ha)

Sources: DAWE (2021e), DAWE (2021ab), plus 2 additional Indigenous Protected areas gazetted October 2020 (Ngadju and Ngururrpa); NNTT (2021d); map projection: Australian Albers GDA94 (ICSM n.d.)

Case Study Wunambal Gaambera and the Uunguu Indigenous Protected Area (Mitchell Plateau) – Western Australia

Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation

On the far north-western coast of the Kimberley region in Western Australia are the lands and waters of the Wunambal Gaambera people. This remote biodiversity hotspot, characterised by sandy coastline, escarpment plateau, rocky gullies and pockets of tropical rainforest covers an extensive 2.5 million hectares (BHA 2021b).

Following native title determinations in 2011 and 2012, the Wunambal Gaambera people (WGAC 2020) dedicated areas of their land to form the Uunguu Indigenous Protected Area (IPA), which extends across 759,806 hectares (NIAA 2021b).

Management of Wunambal Gaambera Country is guided by the Wunambal Gaambera Healthy Country Plan (WGAC 2010), which delivers the vision for management of the extensive region, embedded in cultural governance underpinned by traditional Wanjina and Wunggurr Law. The plan articulates 10 critical areas of management foci for looking after Uunguu: Wanjina Wunggurr Law; right way fire; aamba (kangaroos and wallabies) and other meat foods; wulo (rainforest); yawal (waterholes); bush plants; rock art; cultural places on islands; fish and other seafoods; and mangguru (marine turtles) and balguja (dugong) (WGAC 2010).

Key aspects of the Healthy Country Plan are fire management, weed and feral animal control, visitor management through the Uunguu Visitor Pass, conservation of cultural heritage, and monitoring plant and animal health. The Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation (WGAC) is responsible for implementing the Healthy Country Plan (WGAC 2010). WGAC’s Healthy Country Team is headed by a Healthy Country Manager, and the Uunguu rangers lead the work.

Further, in a concerted effort to foster collaborative governance and management arrangements, Wunambal Gaambera has dedicated the Uunguu Wundaagu (Saltwater) IPA through voluntary processes (WGAC 2017). This area of saltwater Country co-exists with statutory marine parks and reserves: the North Kimberley Marine Park and the Kimberley Commonwealth Marine Reserve. Wunambal Gaambera involvement enables customary management of their Country through their traditional knowledge, management of cultural places and customary use of resources (WGAC 2017) in a partnership approach with the Western Australia and Australian governments.

The current Heathy Country Plan is being revised in 2021−22. WGAC’s vision for the next 10 years is for their people to secure sustainable livelihoods on and from their Country (WGAC 2021).

Figure 60 Uunguu Ranger Jeremy Kowan on the culture walk along the King Edward River (left); Wunambal Gaambera Country (right)

Photos: Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation

Many IPAs are under joint management arrangements. Joint management represents a trade-off between the rights and interests of Traditional Owners and those of government conservation agencies and the wider Australian community. The Northern Territory Government was the first in Australia to enter into joint or co-management arrangements in 1981 with Gurig National Park. Since then, joint management arrangements for other Northern Territory national parks have been developed, and variations on these arrangements have emerged elsewhere, notably New South Wales and Queensland (the current status of governance by states and territories is shown in Figure 58. The joint management relationships of the Australian Government include Kakadu National Park, Uluru–Kata Tjuta National Park and Booderee National Park.

Joint management arrangements with Traditional Custodians are separately negotiated and need to be responsive to the needs and aspirations of the local community. This long-term process requires a strong sense of commitment from the management agency and an equally strong sense of identity and place from the Traditional Owners. What gives life and meaning to joint management is working through complex issues daily, often in situations of conflict, through conciliation and negotiation with Traditional Custodians. Failure to recognise this can result in distrust, disharmony and dissatisfaction (see the Indigenous chapter).

There are many instances of Traditional Owners partnering with private (not-for-profit) owners and managers of land for conservation in Australia to realise diverse land and sea management goals, both on Country designated as IPAs, and where there other land management arrangements. For example, Bush Heritage Australia is currently engaged in 24 Aboriginal partnerships, including with the Ngiyampaa Wangaaypuwan people who they have been supporting for more than a decade to regain ownership of their Country. This was realised in 2020 with the declaration of the Mawonga IPA. Bush Heritage Australia supported the development of the Mawonga management plan to enable establishment of the new IPA, and will continue to play a supporting role in the IPA’s management and ecological monitoring activities (BHA 2021a). The Australian Wildlife Conservancy, which manages 6.5 million hectares of habitat, partners with a number of Indigenous land and sea managers across Australia, including working with Wilinggin Aboriginal Corporation and Dambimangari Aboriginal Corporation to deliver prescribed burning across more than 6.5 million hectaresa of the Kimberley region, resulting in improved ecological outcomes (AWC 2021).

Indigenous land management

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have cared for the lands and seas of Australia over tens of thousands of years and continue to do so today. Land rights and native title have enabled recognition of some Indigenous rights across 57% of Australia’s lands as of June 2016 (Jacobsen et al. 2020a), with the extent of IPAs having grown to make up nearly half (43.5%) of Australia’s NRS (see Protected areas) (see the Biodiversity and Indigenous chapters).

Indigenous land and sea management draws on Indigenous knowledge of Country, traditional evidence-based practices and learnings, and science-informed management approaches to address complex contemporary issues and deliver environmental, social, cultural and economic benefits for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people (Hill et al. 2013, Larson et al. 2020, Jarvis et al. 2021). Indigenous land and sea management continually adapts as ‘best practice’ approaches evolve with the emergence of new knowledge in a constantly changing environment.

Investment in Indigenous land and sea management supports diverse programs of work ranging from fire management to produce a tradeable carbon offset, control of invasive non-native species, and biosecurity surveillance, to more commercial enterprises such as agribusiness, mining and pastoral businesses (Pert et al. 2020) (for example, see case study: Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation). The study by Pert et al. (2020) revealed that at least $462 million was provided for 2,600 projects across 750 locations over the 10 years to 2012, and predominantly in northern Australia (see case study: Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation). Indigenous communities are also increasingly engaged in ecosystem services activities procured through fee-for-service arrangements.

Native Title Act 1993 and Indigenous land management

Indigenous rights and interests are recognised formally to varying extents across Australia’s land area through grant or purchase of land title, determination of native title, IPAs and Indigenous Land Use Agreements (ILUAs). On some lands, more than one of these forms of recognition apply.

The Commonwealth Native Title Act 1993 operates across all state and territory jurisdictions (see the Indigenous chapter). Native title is defined as the ‘the communal, group or individual rights and interests of Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders in relation to land and waters, possessed under traditional law and custom, by which those people have a connection with an area which is recognised under Australian law’ (ALRC 2014). In essence, native title recognises the rights and interests in land related to traditional and cultural activities under the common law of Australia. This can include rights to maintain culturally important sites; use land for hunting, ceremony and camping; and live on land. All native title rights are subject to both federal and state or territory laws.

Each state has their own laws that recognise Indigenous land interests (see Table 3, in the Lack of protection for Indigenous knowledge section in the Indigenous chapter). This may include legislation that recognises Indigenous land within their respective jurisdictions and assigns these lands to Indigenous entities, including Aboriginal Land Trusts, Land Councils and Prescribed Body Corporates, to be managed on behalf of Indigenous people who may be associated with these areas.

Native title rights and interests can be categorised as either exclusive or nonexclusive (PBC 2021, Queensland Government 2021c). Exclusive native title is the right to possess, occupy and use an area to the exclusion of all others. It allows native titleholders to control access to lands. However, in most cases, native title is found to exist alongside other non-Indigenous property rights, such as pastoral leases. Nonexclusive native titleholders do not control access to land, but have the right to live and camp in the area, build temporary shelters, hunt and fish on the area, collect food, conduct ceremonies, and maintain and protect places of cultural importance.

Land rights and native title have enabled recognition of some Indigenous rights across 57% of Australian land (Figure 61). Of Australia’s landmass, 15.2% is subject to statutory land rights; exclusive native title is held over 13.7% of Australia’s land mass and nonexclusive native title is recognised over 27.1% (NNTT 2021a). The extent of the Indigenous estate varies between states and territories. For example, Indigenous estate constitutes 80% of the land area in South Australia and 77% of the Northern Territory, but just 6.1% of New South Wales (NNTT 2021a) (see Table 5, in the Indigenous land ownership and management section in the Indigenous chapter).

Exclusive and nonexclusive native title determinations are increasing. Of 541 native title determinations, native title has been found to exist for 446 (as of 9 November 2021), with 203 current native title applications (NNTT 2021a). Nationally, there are now 230 Prescribed Body Corporates across 6 jurisdictions (NNTT 2021a). The Australian Capital Territory and Tasmania have no native title claims or determinations. Crossover between native title and other types of land rights is limited.

The Indigenous estate is also growing through non-native-title-based land rights, particularly through land settlements in Victoria and Western Australia (NNTT 2021a). The Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation also continues to acquire, manage and divest land and water rights to Indigenous Australians to support their varied economic aspirations and cultural interests (see case study: Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation).

Figure 61 Native title determinations across Australia’s land and seas, as of 16 June 2021

As stated by the 2019 review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), ‘environmental management is inadequate without incorporating the knowledge, land and sea management practices of Indigenous Australians’ (Samuel 2020).

Land environmental benefits of Indigenous land management are extensive and include (Weir et al. 2011):

  • increased levels of activity in border protection, quarantine, fire management, wildfire abatement, carbon sequestration and trading, weed control, feral animal control, biodiversity conservation, and fisheries management
  • improved environmental condition of lands under Indigenous management, with one study reporting lower rates of weed infestation and fire regimes that were more appropriate for maintaining biodiversity values than in adjacent lands.

Indigenous land management delivers benefits to both Indigenous peoples and the wider Australian society. Indigenous land management has positive impacts on Indigenous health through factors such as cultural connectivity, physical activity and better nutrition (Hill et al. 2013).

Indigenous Land Use Agreements

An ILUA is a voluntary, legally binding agreement about the use and management of land or waters, made between one or more native title groups and others (such as miners, pastoralists or governments) (see the Indigenous Land Use Agreements section in the Indigenous chapter).

An ILUA can be about any native title matter agreed by the parties, including settlement or exercise of native title rights and interests, surrender of native title to governments, land management, future development, mining, cultural heritage, co-existence of native title rights with other rights, access to an area, and compensation for loss or impairment of native title (NNTT 2021b).

ILUAs have been registered on 34.7% of Australian land as of 17 July 2021 (NNTT 2021c). A further 1.6% of Australia is subject to ILUAs in the process of being registered. ILUAs co-exist with the rights of multiple other users, and may give limited or no access for Indigenous land management (see the Indigenous Land Use Agreements section in the Indigenous chapter).

Case Study Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation

The Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation (ILSC) is an independent statutory authority of the Australian Government. The ILSC has 2 purposes, as set out in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Act 2005: to assist Indigenous Australians to acquire land and water-related rights; and to assist in the management of Indigenous-held land and waters, however they were acquired (ILSC 2019b).

The National Indigenous Land and Sea Strategy (NILSS; ILSC 2019b) is the ILSC’s key policy document, with implementation guided by Regional Indigenous Land and Sea Strategies. The 4 regional strategies – for northern (ILSC 2020c), desert (ILSC 2020d), south-western (ILSC 2020e) and south-eastern Australia (ILSC 2020a) – highlight regional opportunities aligned with the 5 focus areas identified in the NILSS: conservation and healthy Country, urban investment, agribusiness, tourism, and niche Indigenous products (ILSC 2020b).

The operations of the ILSC directly align with the government priority of economic development on Indigenous-held land and waters, within a framing of ‘unlocking the Indigenous estate’. Since 1995, the ILSC has purchased 274 land and water interests covering 6.3 million hectares (ILSC 2021). As well as acquiring land, and directing and supporting Indigenous enterprise development, the ILSC plays a role in building the capacity and capability of Indigenous people to sustainably manage and protect Country, including preserving and protecting cultural and environmental sites and traditional knowledge through reconnection with Country (e.g. Figure 62).

According to ILSC annual reporting over the past 5 years (2016–17 to 2020–21), the key performance indicator (KPI 4) that reflects the ILSC group’s contribution towards its core purpose of maintaining, protecting and enhancing cultural and environmental values of Indigenous-held land has ranged between 28% (2019–20; as a proportion of all active projects) and 58.6% (2020–21; as a proportion of new projects commenced in that reporting period), against the target of 50% (ILC 2017, ILSC 2020b). The ILSC acknowledges that while they continue to prioritise balancing investment to explicitly encompass social, cultural and environmental values (as well as economic), the scope and focus of projects remain responsive to the aspirations of the Indigenous proponents, who have delivered more commercial and economically focused project proposals in recent years (ILSC 2020b).

Figure 62 Indigenous trainees on Roebuck Plains station, Yawuru country, Western Australia (left); Tourists and visitors at the Talaroo Hot Springs on Ewamian Country, Queensland (right)

Photos: Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation

Retaining and restoring natural capital assets

More than 52 million hectares of Australia is severely degraded, costing the nation $224 billion annually in lost ecosystem services and production capacity (Sutton et al. 2016). Over the past 20 years, the Australian Government has invested in environmental management and restoration through the National Heritage Trust, Caring for Our Country, the Environmental Stewardship Program, the National Landcare Program, the Green Army, the Threatened Species Recovery Fund and the Reef Trust, to name just a few (see Resources). These activities, when combined with those of industry and private landholders, represent an accelerating new economy in landscape recovery (see case study: The Australian restoration economy).

To meet the challenge of restoring hundreds of millions of hectares worldwide, the United Nations has declared 2021 to 2030 to be the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (United Nations 2020). The opportunity to scale up ecosystem-based management presents itself at a globally critical time in history as a means to address the interconnected crises of biodiversity loss, climate change and human development inequities (Locke et al. 2021, UNEP & FAO 2021). Nature-based solutions to recover natural capital values, including ecological restoration through biodiverse carbon farming, have the potential to address up to 20% of the current climate crisis (Roe et al. 2019) while providing environmental benefits and economic return to regional communities. Large-scale, successful, biodiverse and carbon-rich ecosystem restoration can potentially shift this liability into an asset (Young et al. in press).

The foundation for the restoration economy in Australia is the carbon market, and emerging natural capital markets in native vegetation management and environmental stewardships; these also support Australia’s sustainability market brand (Young et al. in press) (see Carbon and Environmental markets, offsets, and environmental, social and governance investment). For example, the Emissions Reduction Fund has supported substantial government investment in native forest protection and restoration – $2.6 billion committed through the Clean Energy Regulator to date – with 145.2 million tonnes of abatement coming from vegetation projects covering more than 4.4 million hectares (CER 2021a). The states are also supporting and rolling out schemes – for example, the Queensland Land Restoration Fund (Land Restoration Fund 2020, Queensland Government 2021a) (see case study: The Queensland Government’s Land Restoration Fund) and the Western Australian Carbon Farming and Land Restoration Program (DPIRD 2021a). These state funds provide additional support to projects that participate in the Australian Government’s Emissions Reduction Fund and that have co-benefits – for both project proponents and Australian society more broadly.

Carbon, while prominent, is not the only economic driver in the restoration economy. Diversified industries are also emerging and benefitting when landscape restoration achieves broader outcomes, including for biodiversity and societal wellbeing (see case study: Unique Climate-ready Restoration partnership to help nature adapt to climate change). For example, seed production systems to supply native seed to alleviate massive shortfalls in the rapidly expanding land restoration programs are worth more than $100 million per year and growing (McDonald et al. 2016, Gann et al. 2019). The value of bushfood, medicinal and floriculture industries is estimated at $15 to 25 million annually (Clarke 2012) (see case study: Indigenous-led development of bushfood enterprises: the Northern Australia Aboriginal Kakadu Plum Alliance). Native honey production within restored areas is projected to generate $100 million of high-value honey products (Couvillon et al. 2015, Roshan et al. 2017).

Rebuilding Australia in response to the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic offers opportunities for a green recovery – where both the environment and the economy become more sustainable and resilient (Mansuy 2020). For example, the Australian Land Conservation Alliance identified a range of opportunities for scaling up recovery in the conservation and land management sector (Ernst & Young 2020):

  • ‘Government investment of $4 billion in a national conservation and land management program could raise economic output by about $5.7 billion, reduce welfare costs by $620 million and generate 53,000 jobs over the next 4 years.’
  • Mobilising a program of environmental investment would ‘improve Australia’s natural assets and agricultural land which can be scaled to requirements, get Australians into meaningful work quickly and may be targeted to areas where stimulatory assistance is most needed’.

The net zero emissions economy, as well as programs to recover from drought and bushfires, also offer opportunities to build the economic and environmental resilience of farms, forests, reserves and Indigenous lands (see the Greenhouse gas emissions reduction section in the Climate chapter). To address the scale of landscape recovery required, and in the face of uncertainty due to climate change, major nongovernment organisations such as WWF-Australia and Greening Australia are pooling resources (see case study: Unique Climate-ready Restoration partnership to help nature adapt to climate change). This new partnership seeks to mainstream ‘ecological renovation’: nature conservation actions that actively address climate change (Prober et al. 2019a). Renovation approaches are an important shift in mindset away from ‘restoration’, which seeks to return nature to a ‘prior’ and often ‘fixed’ view of the world. Climate-targeted ‘renovation’ approaches aim to help nature adapt to a rapidly changing environment.

New land diversification opportunities are appearing, associated with avoiding environmental harm or managing risks to natural capital caused by unsustainable land-use and management practices (CER 2019). Business leaders are increasingly aware of their environmental exposure liabilities and the reassurance markets require about supply chain sustainability (Herweijer et al. 2020). New economies in land restoration are emerging, but are poorly understood and not well coordinated or tracked (Bekker et al. 2020). The World Economic Forum (2020) has identified nature-positive business transition pathways founded on restoring the stocks of natural capital to achieve a resilient and sustainable global economy.

Planning for successful retention or restoration of ecosystems will require additional consideration of the future suitability of environments to support species and ecosystems, given projected changes in climatic regimes (Martin & Watson 2016, Maxwell et al. 2019a).

Case Study The Australian restoration economy

Renee Young, Western Australian Biodiversity Science Institute

The restoration economy is defined as the market consisting of a network of businesses, investors and consumers engaging in economic activity related to ecological restoration (BenDor et al. 2015). Australia, as a large, sparsely populated, politically stable country, is well placed to take advantage of major national and international investment opportunities through the restoration economy (Young et al. in press).

Internationally and across Australia, major private, philanthropic and government investments are driving large-scale restoration efforts by obtaining carbon credits through biodiverse plantings. Carbon credits issued by the Clean Energy Regulator increased from 100,000 tonnes per month in 2018 to 350,000–400,000 tonnes per month in 2020 (pre-COVID-19) (Foley 2021). The international market price for carbon is projected to double in the next 15 years (Piris-Cabezas et al. 2018), and carbon projects that deliver co-benefits will return a premium price. Further, it is likely that industry will soon need to report on nature-related risks to support a shift in global financial flows towards nature-positive outcomes (TNFD 2021b, TNFD 2021a), giving additional value and security to the market.

Australian philanthropists are pledging tens of millions of dollars to address climate change, with Norman Pater and Gita Sonnenberg aiming to restore 1 million hectares and test carbon-farming models at scale. Queenslanders Julie and Jeff Wicks set up the ACME Foundation, which directs funding to 25–30 organisations, including Beyond Zero Emissions (Sommer 2020).

Investment in the restoration economy translates to jobs, predominantly in our regional communities. Government economic stimulus as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has seen a boost in ‘green jobs’, with direct funding going towards environmental projects such as Western Australia’s $15 million Native Vegetation Rehabilitation Scheme, creating more than 1,000 jobs (DPCD 2020, WA Government 2020).

Coupled with these economic activities is the realisation that well-designed, biodiverse and knowledge-rich restoration has the capacity to deliver environmental, social, economic and cultural co-benefits that:

  • support environmental assets such as improved biodiversity and habitat for threatened species, as well as healthier soils, wetlands and water systems
  • improve the resilience and strength of regional communities by supporting direct and indirect jobs and increasing economic opportunities
  • provide on-Country Indigenous business opportunities and new service delivery businesses, as well as supporting cultural and customary connections (Land Restoration Fund 2020, Queensland Government 2021a).

Figure 63 Planting native vegetation to restore both the environment and economy

Note: Staff from online furniture business Koala at a tree planting event at Cook Park in Ruse. The event included a live cross on the Today show to promote Koala’s support of WWF-Australia’s Towards Two Billion Trees campaign.

Photo: © WWF-Australia / Paul Fahy

Case Study Unique Climate-ready Restoration partnership to help nature adapt to climate change

Elise Raulings, Greening Australia; Christopher Ewing, WWF-Australia; Suzanne Prober, CSIRO

Following the devastating Black Summer bushfires of 2019–20, Greening Australia and WWF-Australia formed a strategic partnership to innovate, accelerate and amplify practical, climate-adapted ‘renovation’ approaches to landscape management and restoration (Greening Australia 2021b, WWF-Australia 2021).

Over the next 4 years, the initial focus will be on identifying, experimentally testing and prototyping solutions that have the potential for the greatest long-term benefits for nature and people, so that by 2025 these solutions can become mainstream practices that can be applied on a large scale (WWF-Australia & Greening Australia 2021). The 2 organisations have committed $20 million in initial climate-ready restoration projects, with additional support from public and private sectors to deliver the program of work.

Genetic approaches that include targeting climate- and trait-adjusted seed-sourcing show great promise as a nature-based ‘renovation’ solution (Prober et al. 2019a). These approaches involve using seeds from places that match future climate conditions of the restored landscape, and/or choosing seeds that have characteristics suited to future environments. Many scientists have recommended the use of climate- and trait-adjusted seed (e.g. Prober et al. 2015, Harrison et al. 2017, Breed et al. 2018), but despite the development of multiple guidelines (e.g. Hancock et al. 2018, Standards Reference Group SERA 2018, Jellinek & Bailey 2020), decision support tools (e.g. Restore and Renew; Rossetto et al. 2019, RBGS 2021) and practical examples (Jordan & Hoffmann 2017, Greening Australia 2021a), this solution has not been widely tested or adopted. Barriers to uptake of climate-adjusted seed-sourcing include time constraints associated with funding cycles, lack of ‘know-how’, social concern about ‘playing god’ and/or creating unintended consequences, inability to collect or access suitable seed, and a lack of scale in the delivery of climate-targeted seed.

The Greening Australia / WWF-Australia partnership aims to overcome these barriers to enable climate-adjusted seed approaches to be delivered at scale, and further the case for ecosystem renovation by:

  • broadening the knowledge base and engaging a community of practice through a Climate-ready Restoration Knowledge Hub (participants range from volunteers to government agencies and large corporations)
  • showcasing on-ground measures at demonstration sites, that also serve to experimentally test and inform further lessons to be shared through the knowledge hub (Figure 64)
  • refining ecosystem renovation approaches to share methods for practical application
  • identifying barriers to scaling up nature-based solutions that can measurably improve resilience and reduce risk in a changing climate.

Figure 64 WWF-Australia’s 2018 community tree planting event at Oxley Park, Sydney, with Greening Australia

Note: The partnership will explore the potential for careful revegetation informed by fire ecology to create ‘green firebreaks’ that measurably reduce bushfire risk and improve resilience.

Photo: © WWF-Australia / Leonie Sii

Native vegetation capital assets

In many parts of Australia, native vegetation has been cleared or degraded and fragmented by humans to enable other uses of the land that support community livelihoods and Australia’s economy (see Native vegetation and Land clearing). Agriculture is presently the main driver of land clearing (see Land clearing) and, considering Australia’s status as a major food exporting nation, Heagney et al. (2021) have suggested integrating vegetation management regulations with agricultural policy to avoid expanding global markets driving land clearing.

Over the years, Australia has invested significantly in the sustainable use and conservation of native vegetation, including efforts to manage and protect natural areas or restore degraded landscapes to functioning systems. Australia’s former Native Vegetation Framework (COAG Standing Council on Environment and Water 2012) was developed to maintain or build healthier and more connected native vegetation, and as an important national foundation for future management of Australia’s land environment (State of the Environment Committee 2011:340). It was endorsed by Australian and state and territory government ministers (excluding Victoria, as they were undergoing their own reforms at the time). The framework provided clear direction around native vegetation management, including targets and goals for improving ecosystem condition, and ensuring the ecological, economic, social and cultural values of native vegetation are realised and its resilience is increased (Metcalfe & Bui 2017:103). From around 2013, the framework was no longer being actively implemented, other than by the Australian Capital Territory Government (ACT Government 2015). Australia’s Strategy for Nature 2019–2030 is now the umbrella policy for all biodiversity-related efforts (Commonwealth of Australia 2019a), and a basis for international reporting to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (e.g. sixth report; DAWE 2020f) (see the Biodiversity chapter). Strategy objectives that most closely align with vegetation management relate to broader stewardship for nature. These objectives are to:

  • empower Australians to be active stewards of nature
  • respect and maintain traditional ecological knowledge and stewardship of nature
  • improve conservation management of Australia’s landscapes, waterways, wetlands and seascapes
  • reduce threats and risks to nature and build resilience
  • use and develop natural resources in an ecologically sustainable way.

Clearing of native vegetation is covered under state and territory legislation, unless clearing has a significant impact on matters of national environmental significance when approval must be obtained under the EPBC Act. State and territory laws have continued to evolve in recent years, leading in some cases to a relaxation in requirements and increased clearing rates (see Land clearing). For example, in 2017, the New South Wales Government introduced the new Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016 and amendments to the Local Land Services Act 2013, which updated the regulatory framework for native vegetation management, and resulted in clearing of native vegetation at a higher rate on rural lands (Figure 37), for which an authorisation is yet to be associated (Figure 40) (see case study: Woody vegetation loss in New South Wales). The New South Wales Biodiversity Offsets Scheme aims to mitigate the impact of clearing based on the principle of no net loss (DPIE 2021b); however, to date, this outcome has not been demonstrated (Gibbons et al. 2018) (see the Biodiversity chapter). Offsetting methods often overestimate outcomes, which eventually leads to policy failure (Maseyk et al. 2021), requiring a shift to focus on net gain (Simmonds et al. 2020).

Native vegetation management in Australia is further confounded by inconsistencies in definitions for the extent and condition of native vegetation, and different approaches to monitoring and source data at the federal and state or territory levels. Land clearing is monitored nationally to inform the National Greenhouse Gas Accounts, in ways that are consistent with Australia’s international commitments to reduce emissions, track progress and report each year (DISER 2021h). The data are compiled in the land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF) activity tables of the Australian Greenhouse Emissions Information System (DISER 2021a). The methods used nationally do not necessarily meet state and territory requirements. States and territories separately monitor land clearing in greater detail to manage local native vegetation, soil and land use; plan infrastructure or urban developments; and comply with regulations. Therefore, different amounts of clearing may be reported nationally compared with state and territory reporting.

The general failure of national policy to protect native vegetation, other than through individual threatened species actions framed under the EPBC Act, suggests the need to return to more specific goals, such as those identified under the Native Vegetation Framework (COAG Standing Council on Environment and Water 2012). A cohesive set of targets with sufficient granularity, framed under the Strategy for Nature (Commonwealth of Australia 2019a), would help to drive consistent, collaborative approaches to native vegetation management, monitoring and research nationally. This would be similar to programs now established for managing soil, carbon and invasive non-native species.

Soil capital assets

Soil critically underpins productivity of land, and a decline in the amount and condition of soil (see Soil) is being addressed with increased action. Australian governments, industry and the community have aimed to conserve soil resources by encouraging the adoption of practices that restore function and avoid land degradation.

In 2019–20, wind and erosion protection targets for soil (60% and 30%, respectively) were not met because the proportion of agricultural land area protected from erosion fell below the area thresholds. This was due to a combination of land management and drought (leading to rainfall deficits and fires), and was the worst result in 20 years (DAWE 2020d) (Figure 14). Improving soil health is a key investment priority under the $450 million Regional Land Partnerships (RLP) program, which is part of the National Landcare Program (DAWE 2020d). This includes $36 million for Regional Agricultural Landcare Facilitators across Australia to support farmers, industry and community groups to adopt new and innovative sustainable agricultural practices. Additionally, the Smart Farms program of Landcare is investing up to $56.7 million for projects with a focus on soils, such as groundcover management under a range of farming systems. The RLP program is also monitoring groundcover as a key indicator for reporting on soil health at a regional scale (see case study: Vegetation cover as a national indicator of soil health and erosion risk).

Australia has a long history of soil conservation policy at all levels of government. At the national level, this includes the Decade of Landcare (Australian Government 1997) and the previous National Soil Research, Development and Extension Strategy (DAFF 2014), which focused on securing Australian soil for profitable industries and healthy landscapes. The new position of National Soils Advocate is an independent advocate for the importance of soil, its key role in food and water security, and the importance of the agricultural sector (see case study: Profiling the National Soils Advocate). Other investments related to soil include the National Landcare Program (Commonwealth of Australia 2017b), the Emissions Reduction Fund (CER 2021c), the Future Drought Fund (DAWE 2021g), the Environment Restoration Fund (DAWE 2021f) and the Reef 2050 Plan (Commonwealth of Australia 2020c). For example, the Australian and Queensland Government’s $600 million investment in the Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan 2017–2022 included nine projects under the Reef Trust Gully and Streambank Erosion Control Program, which prevented more than 37,000 tonnes of fine sediment entering the Reef system each year (DAWE 2020d) (see case study: Mitigating and reversing gully erosion in catchments in the Great Barrier Reef).

In the future, Australia’s capacity and ability to monitor important changes in the state of soil and its function will be increased by the activities under the Commonwealth Interim Action Plan for the National Soil Strategy. Launched in 2021, the National Soil Strategy sets out how Australia will value, manage and improve its soil for the next 20 years (DAWE 2021t), towards which the Australian Government committed $214.9 million (DAWE 2021d). The strategy has 3 overarching goals:

  • prioritise soil health
  • empower soil innovation and stewards
  • strengthen soil knowledge and capability.

The strategy will be implemented by the soil action plan (DAWE 2021a) to ensure that soils continue to contribute to agricultural productivity, environmental sustainability and economic growth. This includes funding for a 2-year National Soil Monitoring and Incentives Pilot Program (DAWE 2021d). This new funding also aims to build tools and knowledge systems that will better support farmers to participate in other programs such as the Emissions Reduction Fund.

Case Study Profiling the National Soils Advocate

Sue Bestow, Australian Government Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet

The position of National Soils Advocate was established to raise awareness of the vital role soils play in human wellbeing and the health of the environment. This position provides leadership and advocacy on the importance of conserving and improving the health of Australia’s soils, and is a world first in terms of elevating soil health and its functions to a level of national significance.

The role contributes to the national objective of protecting, restoring and maintaining the health of the Australian agricultural landscape, to enhance productivity, assure a food-secure nation and support sustainable farming communities.

The National Soils Advocate is an independent voice for soil health, supporting collaboration across a range of networks, organisations and land managers at local, regional, national and global levels. The National Soils Advocate is working to:

  • elevate the importance of, and gain support for, improving soil health across sectors
  • raise stakeholder awareness about the importance of maintaining and building soil health, and increasing skills and capacity to improve soil health, agricultural soil and landscape conditions, by increasing understanding of
    • −the critical role soil health plays in sustainable agricultural production and the follow‑on economic benefits that can result
    • −how improved soil health will benefit the environment and help to meet global challenges, most notably food security and climate change
  • provide leadership and gain the support of industry, governments and researchers to change practices to improve soil health
  • engage with current and emerging soils research
  • support productive networks to share knowledge and resources
  • provide input and ongoing support for the National Soil Strategy (DAWE 2021t).

Australia is not alone in facing soil sustainability concerns; many areas of the world are facing substantial soil, water, food and nutrition issues. The growing global population is increasing the demand for food and fibre, placing ever more pressure on the environment. This emphasises the need for managing natural resources, including soils, more sustainably. Soils have a critical, and too often undervalued, role in addressing global challenges, including food security and adapting to a changing climate. Australia’s considerable experience and skills in land and water management, and the effort it is committing to soils, is of considerable interest to other countries and the National Soils Advocate will help to share this expertise.

The Honourable Penelope Wensley AC (Figure 65) was appointed as Australia’s second National Soils Advocate on 28 August 2020, succeeding the late Major General the Honourable Michael Jeffery, AC, AO (Mil), CVO, MC (Retd). A former Governor of Queensland and distinguished Australian diplomat, Ms Wensley has a long-held interest and substantial experience in natural resource management, environmental and sustainable development matters, and in Australia’s response to national and global challenges in these areas. Secretariat and policy support are provided by the Office of the National Soils Advocate, in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Figure 65 National Soils Advocate, the Honourable Penelope Wensley AC, inspecting a field of mixed pasture that is providing a good level of groundcover for healthy soils

Photo: James Walsh, ACIAR

Case Study Mitigating and reversing gully erosion in catchments in the Great Barrier Reef

Scott Wilkinson and Rebecca Bartley, CSIRO

As shown in the 2016 state of the environment report, land management can reduce sediment and pollutant delivery to the Great Barrier Reef lagoon (see Box LAN7 in Metcalfe & Bui 2017). Since then, researchers have made considerable progress in understanding the source areas and processes delivering sediment to the Great Barrier Reef (Bartley et al. 2014, Lewis et al. 2021, and references therein). Gully erosion has been identified as the largest sediment source, while denuded hillslope areas and eroding stream banks are also important contributors in some catchments. A critical gap in understanding has been the design and effectiveness of erosion remediation options for controlling the dominant sources of sediment from gullies, and how this translates to improved water quality at property and subcatchment scales. Recently completed projects have tested the mechanisms by which specific rehabilitation techniques are effective at reducing sediment yields (Doriean et al. 2021, Koci et al. 2021).

Key findings include:

  • Sites that have large erosion rates, soils with high silt and clay content, and that deliver sediment efficiently downstream to the lagoon are the more cost-effective to treat (assuming the treatment costs are equal): (e.g. Figure 66)
  • New developments in landscape terrain analysis using airborne LiDAR (light detection and ranging) data are enabling more accurate assessment of gully characteristics (e.g. Walker et al. 2020) (Figure 67) while information on site-scale gully erosion rates is more limited and depends on analysis of historic air photos.
  • Site monitoring can greatly improve the confidence in sediment load reductions from erosion control and inform adaptive management. Monitoring may include measuring the soil silt and clay content at the site, measuring changes in water quality over time, and measuring changes in vegetation to provide an early indication of improved landscape condition (e.g. Figures 68–69).
  • While gully erosion control can be focused on the most active gullies, achieving Great Barrier Reef water quality targets at river basin scale will require much larger investments than have been undertaken to date (e.g. Figure 70).

Figure 66 Erosion control projects that rehabilitate large and active gullies (left – before; right – after) well connected to river systems are the most effective at improving water quality in the Great Barrier Reef lagoon

Photos: NQ Dry Tropics and Queensland Government Landholders Driving Change Program

Source: Figure 67 in Bartley et al. (2020). Used with permission.

Figure 67 A digital elevation model was derived from LiDAR data (a), showing information on the extent and location of current incised channel features (purple areas in b), and on locations where risks of incision may occur in the future (dark green areas – c); panel d combines b and c (blue boxes are different examples of gully erosion)

Note: Automated classification procedures based on fine-resolution digital elevation models are now providing these assessments in priority areas of Great Barrier Reef catchments.

Source: Figure 7 in Walker et al. (2020) of a cleared area on sodic soils (Goodnight Scrub, 25°14′S, 151°53′E).

Figure 68 Site monitoring of water quality has used a controlled experimental design to compare water quality from rehabilitated and untreated gullies using automated monitoring equipment

Photo: Scott Wilkinson, CSIRO

Figure 69 A gully in the Burdekin River basin (left) that has been reshaped and revegetated (right) through a partnership between the Queensland Government and Greening Australia

Note: Large gullies can individually supply considerable fine sediment to river systems and the Great Barrier Reef lagoon. Compared with an adjacent untreated gully, sediment concentrations declined by more than 90% in the following years.

Photo: Damon Telfer, Fruition Environmental Pty Ltd, 2021

Figure 70 Erosion control programs have trialled a range of techniques in Great Barrier Reef catchments; rock capping of erodible soils and check dams have been used to help revegetate this site on Cape York Peninsula

Note: Work was supported by the Australian Government’s Reef Trust.

Photo: Scott Wilkinson, CSIRO

Carbon capital assets

Management of carbon sources and sinks in the land sector helps balance the release of carbon due to industry and bushfires (Figure 15). However, the sinks created by changes in land use from 2010 to 2019 are still not enough to balance industry sources in Australia’s carbon budget, resulting in a net release of 23 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) to the atmosphere, and contributing to global warming (Canadell 2021) (see the Climate chapter).

With respect to carbon, land management in Australia needs to balance:

  • meeting Australia’s international obligations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement
  • maintaining and increasing the very large capacity of ecosystems to act as a sink for carbon
  • minimising adverse effects of climate change on the composition, resilience and productivity of natural and managed ecosystems.

As a Party to the UNFCCC, Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement, Australia has made commitments to:

  • reduce its greenhouse gas emissions
  • track progress towards those commitments
  • report each year on Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Australia fulfils its international greenhouse gas inventory reporting commitments by submitting annual National Inventory Reports to the UNFCCC (e.g. DISER 2021d, DISER 2021g, DISER 2021c).

While national targets are not specifically defined in legislation, some states and territories have enacted a Climate Change Act (or equivalent), and all states and territories have set targets for net zero emissions by mid-century. Renewable energy targets also exist federally and in some states.

The Clean Energy Regulator is the Australian Government body responsible for administering legislation that will reduce carbon emissions and increase the use of clean energy. It was established as an independent statutory authority under the Clean Energy Regulator Act 2011 to accelerate carbon abatement for Australia by measuring, managing, reducing or offsetting Australia’s carbon emissions, as part of the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources portfolio. Offset units are used to compensate for the emissions a business produces and to bring their carbon footprint down to zero (Climate Active 2019). Carbon abatement from schemes administered by the Clean Energy Regulator reached 56.1 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent (CO2-e) in 2020–21, up from 51.5 million tonnes in 2019–20 (CER 2021b). In the Emissions Reduction Fund, 16.5 million Australian Carbon Credit Units (ACCUs) were issued in 2020–21, surpassing the 15.5 million ACCUs issued in 2019–20 (CER 2021b). The Emissions Reduction Fund, established by the Carbon Credits (Carbon Farming Initiative) Act 2011, provides incentives for Australian businesses, farmers, landholders and others to adopt new practices and technologies to reduce Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions (CER 2019). In 2018, the Australian Government provided $2 billion for low-cost abatement projects through the Climate Solutions Fund, including giving farmers, small businesses and Indigenous communities the chance to improve the local environment and benefit from new revenue opportunities (DoEE 2019b).

Carbon management in the land sector is implemented through soil and vegetation management. Various policies and programs support land management towards net zero emissions as well as other co-benefits:

It is important to ensure that management of carbon is integrated with management of all other natural capital assets. Restoring vegetation, soil, biodiversity and carbon are integrated processes – not separate – thus schemes that encourage co-benefits across different types of natural capital are better placed for landscape-scale success. These activities for varied purposes represent an accelerating new economy in landscape recovery (see case study: The Australian restoration economy).

Case Study Arnhem Land Fire Abatement program

Jennifer Ansell, Chief Executive Officer, Arnhem Land Fire Abatement Northern Territory

  • Savanna fire is a major source of global greenhouse gas emissions. In Australia, Aboriginal people have been using fire to manage the Australian landscape for thousands of years. Following European colonisation and the displacement of Aboriginal people from their clan estates, Aboriginal fire management began to break down across much of northern Australia. Fire regimes became dominated by wildfires in the late dry season. Large and environmentally destructive, these wildfires also contribute significantly to Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Since 2012, the Savanna Fire Management Methodology has been operating under Australia’s Emissions Reduction Fund – the first legal instrument of this kind at a global level (Maraseni et al. 2016). Indigenous land and sea management rangers operating in the remote tropical savannas of northern Australia are leading the adoption of this unique methodology to proactively reduce or avoid greenhouse gas emissions through the management of fire, and, in doing so, helping Australia meet its emissions reporting targets.
  • In Arnhem Land, the Adjumarllarl, Arafura Swamp, Djelk, Jawoyn, Mimal, Numbulwar Numburindi, Warddeken, Yirralka and Yugul Mangi ranger groups work with Traditional Owners to deliver fire management within 5 registered eligible carbon offset projects encompassing 80,000 square kilometres of diverse Indigenous estate in northern Australia (Altman et al. 2020, Ansell et al. 2020). Their fire management aims to reduce large, hot, uncontrolled fires burning at the end of the dry season, by creating a mosaic of burnt and unburnt areas of land early in the dry season when there is sufficient moisture, low winds and heavy dews to control burns effectively (WLM 2021). The Savanna Fire Management Methodology calculates the avoided greenhouse gas emissions during each project year compared with project emissions during a pre-project, 10-year baseline period.
  • Aboriginal engagement with the carbon industry in this region is supported by ALFA (NT) Limited (Arnhem Land Fire Abatement). This Aboriginal-owned organisation coordinates commercial management and markets the remunerated carbon emissions reductions this activity generates, while operating as a charitable entity to ensure that its earnings benefit the Aboriginal landowners of Arnhem Land (Altman et al. 2020).
  • The ALFA program has built on lessons learned during the development and operation of the West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement (WALFA) project, which was initiated following discussions between Traditional Owners and non-Aboriginal fire scientists in the late 1990s (Russell-Smith et al. 2009, Whitehead et al. 2014). In 2006, the WALFA project saw ConocoPhillips and the Darwin liquefied natural gas facility work with the Northern Territory Government and the Northern Land Council to fund the work of 5 Aboriginal ranger groups over 2.8 million hectares to protect the environment and produce an annual carbon offset of at least 100,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases.
  • The WALFA project was an extraordinary success and became the landscape-scale model on which the Savanna Fire Management Methodology under the Australian Government’s Emissions Reduction Fund is based (e.g. Figure 71). The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner (2008) noted that ‘an average of 40% of the WALFA project area was burnt each year in the absence of traditional fire regimes between 1995 and 2004; and the vast majority of these fires (being late dry-season fires) consequently represents fires that are very hot and damaging to the landscape.’ Since then, WALFA and the other fire project areas in Arnhem Land have demonstrated a significant decrease in the area of late-dry-season fires and a significant increase in the area of early-dry-season fires, which have also become smaller and more numerous (Ansell et al. 2020).
  • WALFA has been registered as an eligible carbon offsets project with the Clean Energy Regulator since 2014 (ALFA NT 2014). Today, the WALFA project is a significant producer of Australian Carbon Credit Units and is currently in the top 5 highest producing projects across all methodologies in Australia.
  • ALFA (NT) Limited, as a registered charity, has other related goals: supporting biodiversity conservation, improving the wellbeing of people with traditional Aboriginal connection to its project areas, alleviating poverty and assisting in education (Altman et al. 2020). While fire management in Arnhem Land is funded through engagement with the carbon market, it is undertaken to meet environmental, cultural, social and economic goals. To this end, Traditional Owners identified 6 aspirations from their fire management efforts (Ansell et al. 2020): to continue the healthy fire management of their Country; see fewer wildfires; protect biodiversity; protect culturally important sites; apply, maintain and transfer knowledge; and create carbon abatement.

Figure 71 Backpack leaf blowers have become essential equipment for managing kilometres of fire front (left). Cool fires burning through savanna woodland marked with termite mounds (right)

Photos: Warddeken Land Management Limited