Native Vegetation Heritage

Collin Harris

South Australian initiatives to better manage the State’s native vegetation

The 1960s

...rising community interest and concern

A post World War 2 land development boom has seen the clearance of hundreds of thousands of hectares of native vegetation in the agricultural regions of the State.  There is a growing community realisation that there is an environmental cost attached to this and what is to later become a strong lobby group - the Nature Conservation society of South Australia - is formed.  The Society very quickly becomes a political force in opposing the resumption of parks and reserves for farming development on central Eyre Peninsula.

On the national front, the late Professor Jock Marshall produces a polemical but very influential book, The Great Extermination (PDF 66.1 KB), and vigorous campaigns are fought to oppose sand mining at Cooloola and Myall Lakes, limestone mining at Colong in the Blue Mountains and further land clearance in the Little Desert of Victoria (PDF 102.5 KB).  Over the border in South Australia a similar land development scheme proposed for what is to later become Ngarkat Conservation Park (PDF 174.7 KB) is opposed by a coalition of conservation interests and the proposal is eventually dropped.

The Jordan Report

...and establishment of a State Environment Department

Partly as a response to local concerns, but also as a response to rising global concerns about a range of environmental issues, the Steele Hall Liberal Government in South Australia establishes a committee of inquiry into the environment in February 1970 and two years later the Committee's findings are published as The Environment in South Australia (PDF 1.1 MB): Report of the Committee on Environment. 

The report is a stimulus for action by the Dunstan Labor Government and a new State Government agency, the Department of Environment and Conservation, is established on 28 February 1972.

Native Vegetation Clearance Enquiry and Report

From early 1973 new scientific and policy staff are recruited to complement existing National Parks & Wildlife, Planning and Museum staff in the new Agency.  One of the first major initiatives is Cabinet approval for an inter-agency enquiry into native vegetation clearance. The Committee reports in 1976, documenting for the first time the extent of clearance throughout the State. The report is released for community consultation in 1977 and its findings attract front page coverage (PDF 186.1 KB) in the print media. Extensive regional consultation is undertaken and a final report to Cabinet advises that urgent action is needed to slow the rate of clearance: incentives are favoured, rather than regulatory constraints, and Cabinet approves further studies along these lines.

Heritage Agreements

The outcome of the legal and financial studies sees the Tonkin Liberal Government introduce in late 1980 Heritage Agreements - legally binding agreements between the Crown and individual landholders  to have privately owned native vegetation of high conservation value managed to maintain or improve those values.  The Agreements run with the land - ie, they are binding on subsequent landholders and in return for this commitment a range of financial incentives (PDF 3.7 MB) are provided, including remission of State and Local Government charges that would normally apply to the land, fencing costs and management assistance and advice.

Native Vegetation Clearance Controls Introduced

The Heritage Agreement Scheme is hailed around Australia as a first, an innovative and important initiative which, it is hoped, will significantly slow the rate of clearance.  Many landholders do sign-up, but over the following two years monitoring carried out by the Nature Conservation Society of SA confirms what many suspect - that it is largely the conservation-minded landholders who commit to Heritage Agreements: farmers intent on further clearance show little interest in changing their plans and, if anything, the rate of land clearance actually increases.

Faced with this situation, and with an electoral commitment to curb native vegetation clearance, the incoming Bannon Labor Government acts decisively: on 12 May 1983 statutory controls on clearance (PDF 110.9 KB) in the form of Regulations under The Planning Act 1982 (PDF 203.8 KB) are introduced.  Conservation groups welcome the move and, significantly, the State's peak farming body the then United Farmers & Stockowners (UF&S), does not question the need for the controls, focusing instead on the absence of any compensation for affected landholders.

Shock for SA Farmers  (PDF 102.6 KB)
Anger over Land Clearance Law  (PDF 60.4 KB)

Reassessment and a new legislation

...the Native Vegetation Management Act 1985

The Government defends its decision not to pay compensation by indicating that it is looking for a balance between conservation and development and most landholders lodging clearance applications receive approval to clear around 40-60% of the area applied for. However there are long delays in the assessment process and farmer unrest builds, culminating in a test case and a High Court of Australia ruling (5-4) in the landholders' favour.

To retain the controls the Government is forced to negotiate a political solution in the Upper House of State Parliament which will see the controls removed from the Planning system and placed in a new Act, with compensation payable (PDF 110.9 KB) for those refused clearance approval.  The Bill for the new Native Vegetation Management Act 1985 eventually receives bipartisan support, a new decision making body in the form of an Native Vegetation Authority is set-up and compensation is paid.  In a number of cases landholders in marginal areas use the payments to restructure their businesses or, in some instances, to leave the industry and almost all political controversy dies away (PDF 86.5 KB).

See the below documents for more information on the Native Vegetation Management Act 1985:

Native Vegetation Management in SA - Part 1  (PDF 4.1 MB)
Native Vegetation Management in SA - Part 2  (PDF 3.9 MB)

The end of broad-acre clearance

...the Native Vegetation Act 1991

In the years following the 1985 Act relatively little broad-acre clearance is approved and almost $70 million is paid in compensation.  By the early 1990s the Government believes that most bona-fide farmers will have been compensated and it introduces new legislation in the form of the Native Vegetation Act 1991 (PDF 89.2 KB), with sunset clauses that draw compensation to a close.  Also formally drawn to a close is any further broad-acre clearance - the Act makes it clear that any approvals for clearance will only be given in exceptional circumstances, or for individual trees.

Such proves the case and in succeeding years the Native Vegetation Council, established under the 1991 Act, finds most of its time being put into applications to remove solitary trees, frequently in open pasture situations where landholders are wanting to install centre-pivot irrigators: broad-acre clearance is indeed over.  By now, most other states in Australia have moved in the same general direction, albeit many years behind the pioneering initiatives of the South Australian Government.

Also see:

Bushland Heritage: The South Australian Heritage Agreement Scheme 1980-2002 (PDF 2.3 MB)
Bush Corridors – An award winning film made in South Australia (PDF 281.0 KB)

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