Kevin Gogler

The development of integrated natural resources management legislation in South Australia

South Australian Legislation website

An early need for legislation

The first South Australian colonists in the 1830s set about recreating old England’s rolling hills, uncluttered by scrub. Their activities rapidly changed the sensitive environment and one of the first impacts noticed was infestation of alien plants resulting from seeds hidden in imported fodder, packing materials, ballast and in seed for sowing.

This ‘take over’ process was hastened by introductions of food and ornamental plants by the colonists to aid their survival and to make them feel more at home. Similarly, animals brought from other countries were deliberately introduced to this environment with no thought of the consequences and in many cases to again provide an altered environment more in line with what they had been used to in Europe.

An unexpected consequence of settlement and the introduction of grazing was the loss attributed to attacks on sedate grazing animals by dingoes, and later, wild domestic dogs. The need to protect agricultural production and, to a lesser degree public safety, from the invasion of weeds and predation by dogs resulted in the Government of the day taking action.

The first control legislation

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. Both of these issues came to a head. 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.

Both Acts were amended over time, the Thistle Act being expanded to include other species. The threat posed by the influx of rabbits from Victoria soon resulted in the Rabbit Destruction Act 1875 requiring landowners to control rabbits on their land. Again this species specific legislation was later expanded to include other native and non-native species. Variously local government councils enforced a landowners responsibility to control but this changed with the introduction of the Vermin Destruction Act 1882, which introduced vermin districts controlled by district boards.

The first management legislation

Although there were specific Acts to improve the state of certain rivers (the Patawolonga River Improvement Act 1883 being one example), the need to conserve water for what we now call critical human needs and for agricultural production became necessary. 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 took much longer for significant land degradation to be noticed and taken seriously. The need for measures to encourage the conservation of soil was initiated by farmers in the early 1900s, with wind erosion resulting from extensive overgrazing being the main concern. It was 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.

Further refinement in legislation

The weeds and vermin legislation each continued to be refined during this period with the most notable improvements resulting in:

  • The Weeds Act 1956, which clearly defined who was responsible for what weeds, allowed for different categories of weeds, provided subsides from State revenue and established a central advisory body.
  • The Pest Plants Act 1975, which required that weed control be conducted through local boards formed by grouping councils, established a Commission with executive powers, formalised a funding arrangement from local government and the State and provided for the control of weeds that were detrimental to the community or the environment.
  • The Vertebrate Pests Act 1975, which provided for a Statewide Authority with executive powers and dedicated staff, allowed for local government councils to establish local boards and also allowed for councils to impose special rates and the Authority to rate land outside of council areas to fund local vertebrate pest activities.

The limitations of the Sand Drift Act were recognised and action taken to improve measures for soil conservation more generally. The Soil Conservation Act 1939 gave the Minister the power to issue soil orders and to resume land as a reserve, to prohibit the destruction of trees and to establish a soil conservation committee to advise the Minister. Further amendments over the decades allowed for the establishment of local boards to assist and influence landowners.

During the 1980s, work commenced on revising the soil conservation legislation resulting in the Soil Conservation and Land Care Act 1989. This Act continued with an expanded local board system, covered all forms of land degradation and was based on planning at the community level with wide community involvement.

Since the late 1950s, in concert with the management of the State’s water supplies, a number of actions were taken to arrest declines in water quality and to protect resources from further degradation. The Underground Water Preservation Act 1959 was limited to managing pollution of underground water and this was expanded under the Underground Water Preservation Act 1969 to introduce public involvement in the development and implementation of water resources management policies for all aspects of underground water management.

From the early 1970s consideration grew for the development of consolidating surface, underground water and water quality management into one piece of legislation. This resulted in the Water Resources Act 1976, which 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. It provided for the appointment of catchment water management boards to manage water on a total catchment basis, with the primary aim of improving the quality of catchment water and protecting the watercourses from further degradation. This Act also introduced the concepts of catchment water management plans to describe the ways in which the respective boards carried out their responsibilities and a levy as a vehicle for additional funding for the board’s water management programs. Further improvement followed with the Water Resources Act 1997.

The beginnings of integration

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. Similarly, the application of the Sand Drift Act 1923 was applied only in certain areas of the State and was limited to wind erosion. 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.

The similarity in operation between the pest plants and vertebrate pests legislation and their operations resulted in strong pressure from local government for the amalgamation of the two systems. Despite opposition from many quarters the amalgamation was approved and implemented through the Animal and Plant Control (Agricultural Protection and Other Purposes) Act 1986. The resulting system worked well; two similar systems had been integrated into a legally, well-funded, community-based control system with the potential to encourage sustainable agriculture and the conservation of the State’s basic resources.

Further proposals for integration

A proposal to integrate soil conservation and the newly amalgamated animal and plant control boards was first mooted in 1983 and again in 1987 but neither proposal proceeded any further than the discussion stage. During 1992/93 a Green Paper was prepared on the possible amalgamation of the Animal and Plant Control Commission and the Soil Conservation Council and the integration of local boards. There was strong opposition to the proposed amalgamation from many of the stakeholders. The then Minister for Primary Industries, Hon Dale Baker MP, concluded common legislation and amalgamation should not take place until it was shown that there was greater regional community support for the concept.

When the Olsen Liberal Government commenced preparation of the Water Resources Bill in late 1995, the general expectation was that the final Act would provide for true integrated catchment management – natural resources management within a catchment framework. The original drafting of the Bill reflected that intent. However following considerable pressure on the Government through its rural electorates, the Bill was revised to focus on water management only rather than natural resources management.

However, pressure was still mounting for a more integrated approach namely:

  • A Parliamentary Select Committee on the Murray River recommended that the Government establish a high level River Murray Coordinating Committee to oversee and coordinate the implementation of an integrated catchment management framework in the South Australian Murray-Darling Basin and that the River Murray Catchment Water Management Board’s resource planning functions and powers, where necessary, be expanded to include those relevant to soil conservation, native vegetation management and animal and plant control.
  • The Statutory Authorities Review Committee, in November 1999, resolved to conduct an inquiry into soil conservation boards and animal and plant control boards and to also examine the structure and relationship between all major bodies associated with natural resources management. The Committee examined the history of natural resources management in South Australia, relevant legislation and also examined overseas and interstate models. During the course of this Inquiry, the Committee found that there was significant support for an integrated approach to natural resource management and considered the time was right to amalgamate animal and plant control boards and soil conservation boards into what it proposed should be ‘land management boards’.

    Furthermore, the Committee proposed an amalgamation of catchment water management boards and the proposed land management boards some time in the future. However, the Committee was mindful that catchment water management boards were in their initial stages of development and that it would not be practical to propose an immediate amalgamation. These recommendations have been made in the belief that a more integrated approach to natural resources management in South Australia was timely and desirable. At the time of publishing its report in April 2001, the Committee believed that there was now widespread acceptance of the importance and urgency of reform to integrate natural resources management.

Integrated Natural Resource Management Bill 2001

The previous approaches to managing natural resources in South Australia involved a significant level of specialisation to deal with particular elements such as soil, water, vegetation and pest management. In implementing these approaches it became clear that the advantages of concentrating specialist effort on individual areas were countered by the disassociation resulting from resource management decisions being made in isolation. During 2000, the Olsen Liberal Government committed itself to establishing a clear direction and process to achieve integrated natural resources management. This resulted from 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 proposed new legislation was not intended to replace existing legislation but to facilitate a consistent and efficient legal framework for managing natural resources and to provide arrangements to involve the community in the development and implementation of regional initiatives. It was also aimed at providing for a common set of policies and processes across all related natural resources management legislation. It was anticipated that that this would eventually lead to pressure to reform current natural resource management legislation and arrangements. The Bill was tabled in Parliament in October 2001 after extensive consultation and was then considered by a Parliamentary Committee but the Bill lapsed with the proroguing of Parliament in January 2002, and the incoming Government indicated its intention to take a new policy direction.

Natural Resources Management Act 2004

Both the recommendations of the Inquiry by the Statutory Authorities Review Committee and the consultation comments received as a result of the Integrated Natural Resource Management Bill provided the catalyst for significant change.

In 2002 the incoming Rann Labour Government resolved to commit unequivocally to make the necessary administrative and legislative changes to reform both institutional arrangements and legislation for natural resources management. The new arrangements were based on supporting skills-based regional boards to coordinate regional programs for natural resources management and to bring together water management and allocation, soil conservation and management issues, and animal and plant control matters. They would also incorporate the development and implementation of re-vegetation and biodiversity plans, and works to manage salinity as components of both the State and regional NRM plans.

An extensive development of draft legislative proposals commenced almost immediately. Throughout this development, three separate regional community information sessions were held, including consideration of a draft Bill. The clear aim was to provide the framework necessary to deliver a strategic, integrated approach to natural resources management with a transparent, consultative, robust and effective structure to manage and protect the environmental, economic and social values of the State’s natural resources.

The resulting Natural Resources Management Act 2004 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 institutional arrangements, derived through extensive community consultation, were included together with the operational provisions of the three Acts being moved across with minimal updating to provide a large degree of consistency and minimum change, except where it was needed. The Act also provides a vehicle for the implementation of key Australian Government programs, such as Caring for Our Country.

The Act is based on the principals of ecologically sustainable development. It prescribes as its principal object, that the State’s natural resources must be managed according with those principles. These principles require decision-making processes to integrate both long-term and short-term economic, environmental, social and equity considerations, to treat the conservation of biological diversity and ecological integrity as fundamental to environmental, social and economic welfare. It establishes a duty for all persons to act responsibly in the management of the State’s natural resources for the present and future generations. It also recognises that an important use of our natural resources is for primary production and also recognises the importance of incorporating biodiversity objectives into decision-making.

There may be opportunities for further legislative reform by integrating all or part of other related legislation into the Natural Resources Management Act. Regardless of any further amalgamation of Acts, the Natural Resources Management Act provides appropriate linkages and consistency with other specific related legislation.

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.

Further information on issues based legislation

For further information on issues based legislation please refer to the following associated webpages:

Soil Conservation

Pests, Weeds and Control Fences

Water Resources and Irrigation

Native Vegetation Conservation

Pastoral Land Management

Landcare and Volunteers


Click on the link below to view cartoons by Tim Dendy.

Legislation cartoons (PDF 3.5 MB)

Page Last Reviewed: 20 Nov 2017
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