History of natural resources management in SA



The following history of natural resources management has been developed to provide students, policy makers and natural resources management operators with a brief overview of the past to present journey of natural resources management in South Australia.

This study of history is intended to inform future decision makers of the gradual policy changes that have occurred since the first European settlers arrived in 1836 and to assist them to create relevant and informed policies for future generations. Many policy makers are retiring from the workforce and due to government employment policies there has not been a chance to educate new employees in the journey of natural resources management in South Australia. Hopefully this history will go some way to helping fill that gap.

The South Australian landscape has been continually modified since the first European settlers arrived. Land was cleared of native vegetation for agricultural production and used to graze cattle and sheep. Water was dammed and used for both irrigation and supporting the development of South Australian towns and cities.

Many plant and animal species introduced into South Australia throughout the early years of settlement became invasive and significantly impacted on large areas of the South Australian landscape. The need for plant and animal pest control became prevalent. In 1852 the first pest recognized under South Australian legislation was scotch thistle. The Thistle Act 1852 was introduced requiring South Australian landholders to control the pest plant on their properties. Over the next 150 years of settlement, legislation was introduced to cover a range of natural resource management issues.

During this period of settlement growing demand on natural resources saw agricultural systems begin to fail. The community sought for collective action and controls on the management and use of resources. Programs were funded by the South Australian government to improve knowledge on managing South Australian natural resources for a sustainable future. South Australia was the first Australian State to introduce restrictions on the clearance of native vegetation and programs to replant parts of the landscape. A great deal of progress has been made in improving the sustainable use of the good agricultural land and rehabilitating significant areas of environmental importance.

The history of natural resource management in South Australia has been one of discovering issues and then applying legislation and programs to address them. After much community debate towards a more holistic approach to managing these problems, an integrated approach to natural resource management was introduced by the Parliament of South Australia with the passing of the Natural Resource Management Act 2004.

The development of a holistic approach to natural resource management has been a long journey and it will continue to adjust in the future. The important thing is that it continues to be addressed and legislation introduced and updated regularly to underpin the communities progress at the time.


Natural Resource Management in South Australia has developed in response to significant land degradation and the need for measures to encourage the conservation of water, land and biodiversity. Between 1852 and 1975 the various Acts relating to weed and vertebrate pest management alternated between species specific legislation (examples including African boxthorn, camels and sparrows) and those Acts that consolidated control on a theme, such as vermin or weeds.

The first South Australian colonists in the 1830s rapidly changed the environment and one of the first impacts noticed was infestations of alien plants resulting from seeds hidden in imported fodder, packing materials, ballast and in seed for sowing. By the early 1850s thistles were rapidly spreading across all the cleared land, taking natural advantage once the trees and under-story had been removed for cropping and grazing. At the same time, a large number of dogs and dingoes were causing considerable nuisance and damage to property. Following the formation of the Legislative Council in July 1851, both of these issues were considered and resulted in two specific Acts, The Thistle Act 1852 and the Dog Act 1852, both being amongst the first legislation developed in the State. Both Acts provided for enforced control

Farmers in the early 1900s, being concerned with wind erosion resulting from extensive overgrazing initiated soil conservation and partitioned to the government. It was however, 20 years before legislation addressed this problem with the introduction of the Sand Drift Act 1923. Although restricted in its area of operation, the Act was a great step forward and allowed an owner of land to take action against their neighbour should their land be threatened by drifting sand. During the 1930s soil erosion reached disastrous levels largely due to the wheat / fallow rotations and overgrazing, with droughts and rabbits adding to the problem. This forced more attention on legislative methods to counter soil erosion. The scale of the problem was a national issue and not one unique to SA.

The Water Conservation Act 1886 was a very large Act for its day and its aim was to make effective provision for the conservation of water. It provided for the establishment of water districts and water conservancy boards, which had the combined responsibility to collect, conserve, sell and distribute water in the district. The Water Conservation Act 1936 consolidated certain Acts relating to the conservation of water although the district boards were removed from the legislation with the Minister taking the role of boards.

It was not until the middle of the 1970s that the need to provide more flexible and responsive legislative provisions was finally achieved with there being basically just four Acts, one each for soil conservation, water resources management, pest plant control and vertebrate pest control.

Also during this period, important developments took place for native vegetation conservation. One was the passage through State Parliament of what was, at the time, the most modern piece of parks legislation in Australia, The National Parks and Wildlife Act 1972, and the second was the consolidation of park acquisition and management into a newly created State Government agency, the (then) Department of Environment and Conservation.

The Water Resources Act 1976, was the first integrated water resources management legislation in Australia. With the introduction of the Catchment Water Management Act 1995, a quantum leap forward was made for water resources management in the State.

The Soil Conservation and Land Care Act 1989 was developed to provide more extensive information on the soil and land natural resource base in South Australia. Backed up by information gathered for the Land Resource Assessment, this comprehensively crafted legislation provided for District Planning and monitoring, and aimed to address broader natural resource issues related to land management.

The Natural Resources Management Act 2004 integrated natural resources management. It responded to the need to better align the policies and programs of the disparate statutory bodies and to ensure a legal framework was in place to deliver funding programs established under Intergovernmental Agreements. The new Act replaced The Animal and Plant Control (Agricultural Protection and Other Purposes) Act 1986, The Soil Conservation and Land Care Act 1989 and The Water Resources Act 1997. The best of the institutional arrangements were revised into a new structure with the operational provisions being updated and moved across to provide a large degree of consistency and minimum change, except where it was needed. The Act also provided a vehicle for the implementation of key Australian Government programs, such as Caring for Our Country.

South Australia – A State of Firsts in NRM

South Australia has introduced many 'firsts' in the history of natural resources management legislation:

The Thistle Act 1852 was the first weed control legislation in Australia and, as far as we can ascertain, the world.

The Rabbit Destruction Act 1875 was the first rabbit control legislation in Australia.

The Sand Drift Act 1923 was the first soil conservation legislation in Australia.

As far as we know The Water Conservation Act 1886 was the first water conservation legislation in Australia.


Click on the link below to view cartoons by Tim Dendy

Biodiversity Cartoons (PPT 3.1 MB)


Key Achievements in Natural Resources Management (PDF 189.7 KB)


This NRM history has been written and donated by senior staff members and retired government officials and executives from Natural Resource Management disciplines in South Australia. The department wishes to gratefully acknowledge the following authors and narrators for contributing their wisdom, knowledge and extensive experience.

  • Bill Davies for Soils
  • Brendan Lay for Pastoral Management
  • Collin Harris for Native Vegetation Conservation
  • Glenn Gale for Soils
  • Kevin Gogler for Legislation
  • Michael Balharry for The Dog Fence
  • Peter Hoey for Murray Darling Basin
  • Roger Wickes for Landcare
  • Tim Dendy for Cartoons
Page Last Reviewed: 20 Nov 2017
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