Soil conservation

Bill Davies and Glenn Gale


Soil resources are a fundamental asset underpinning biological sustenance for agricultural productivity and the natural environment. Soil water and biological resources are interdependent variables in any balanced ecosystem, so that when soil resources are lost or degraded there will inevitably be fundamental changes imposed on the associated water and biological resources. Soils are a partially renewable resource, but their rate of regeneration is usually much slower than rates of soil loss and degradation commonly experienced in our agricultural, industrial and urban environments.

In South Australia most topsoil’s are naturally shallow and of low fertility, usually overlying subsoil’s with some significant limitations to water storage and movement, and root growth. Any loss or degradation of these soils causes a very long-term decline in productive capacity for agricultural or natural ecosystem function and this is termed unsustainable. View Soil Testing in SA (PDF 536.6 KB) for more information.

Sand Drift Act 1923

South Australia, as with other states, has suffered from severe soil erosion. This was partly due to the early European settlers who had little knowledge of the unique climate and environment of South Australia and therefore they applied European farming and grazing practices that were more suited to the climate and soils of the northern hemisphere. Their impact resulted in major soil erosion problems, which had developed across large areas of the State by the end of the 19th century. Farmers were calling for measures to control it and a government inquiry resulted in the proclamation of the Sand Drift Act 1923.

The legislation attempted to deal with complaints from landowners regarding sand drift from neighbouring properties, caused by extensive overgrazing. Among other things, this legislation gave private landowners powers to take action against their neighbours if their land was threatened by drifting sand. These powers however, were restricted to proclaimed areas in the Murray Mallee, Eyre Peninsula and on Upper Yorke Peninsula.

Soil Conservation Act 1939

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. In 1936 a special meeting of Agricultural Ministers from the States and the Commonwealth decided that each State should form a committee, in conjunction with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (now CSIRO), to assess the problem and make recommendations.

The Report of the Soil Conservation Committee (PDF 6.0 MB) drew particular attention to wind erosion in the pastoral areas and the seriousness of water erosion in the cereal belt between Gawler and Hawker. The outcome was The Soil Conservation Act 1939. This legislation introduced far-reaching measures to enforce the protection of the soil with three major operational powers:

  • Acquisition of land for reserves to protect the soil.
  • Imposition of Soil Orders directing land-use measures for soil protection or to carry out engineering works.
  • Prohibition of the destruction of trees, including trees on roadsides to preserve groundcover on potential erosion hazards.

Despite the considerable powers of the legislation, the Advisory Committee on Soil Conservation that oversaw the implementation of the Act made the following policy decision at its first meeting, ‘The committee should work on the lines of the education of landholders, rather than on compulsory prevention’.

This policy was not varied throughout the life of the Committee and the Soil Conservation Council that followed it. Despite the considerable powers of the two acts on the Statutes over that time, legal enforcement action was only rarely taken.

In 1945 the Soil Conservation Act 1939 was amended to enable the formation of Soil Conservation Boards. The duties of the boards were:

  • to foster local interest in soil conservation by lectures, demonstrations, conferences and discussions
  • to collect information as to soil erosion and soil conservation within its district
  • to make any investigations requested by the Minister or the Committee
  • to make reports and recommendations on soil erosion and soil conservation
  • to make orders under the Act.

This legislation aimed at fostering community driven initiatives supported and promoted by the Soil Conservation Boards through offering education and advice. Winds of Change (PDF 1.1 MB) describes the history of the Murray Mallee Soil Conservation Board (PDF 885.1 KB) from 1948–1998. Across the Plains (PDF 1.0 MB) describes the history of the Murray Plains District Soil Conservation Board.

Review of the Soil Conservation Act 1939–84

The government realized that the implementation of land management practices that reduced land degradation was vested in the landholders.

A Review of the Soil Conservation Act 1939–84, Green Paper (PDF 2.0 MB), delved into the concept of adopting an educative rather than a regulatory approach to improve land management amongst farming communities. Examples of bulletins and reports on soil conservation produced to educate farmers included Soils of South Australia’s Farm Land (PDF 3.0 MB), Your Land (PDF 3.8 MB) and Soil (PDF 4.0 MB).

Mid 1980s land resource assessment

Land resource assessment of the agricultural areas was intended to enable informed decisions to be made on soil conservation at a State and district level. A pilot study began in 1986 and that developed into a full project by 1990.

Financial injections from a series of Commonwealth programs saw the process continue for 10 years and in 2000 the work was completed.

The successful output of the project was a computer mapping Geographical Information System (GIS) with a database that enabled analysis of soil and land attributes across the agricultural zone of South Australia. View the Land Evaluation Program (PDF 147.8 KB) document for more information.

Soil Conservation and Land Care Act 1989

In 1989 The Soil Conservation Act, 1939 was replaced by the Soil Conservation and Land Care Act, 1989. The new Act continued the philosophy of encouraging community driven promotion, education and adoption of best management practices, rather than strong emphasis on regulatory tools. Under this legislation the number of Soil Conservation Boards in operation increased to 26, giving complete coverage of the agricultural and pastoral area of the State.

For more information view the article Soil Boards as a Vehicle for Landcare (PDF 2.2 MB) from the Australian Journal of Water and Soil Conservation.

Also of relevance is the South Australian Soil Conservation and the Soil Conservation Boards Annual Report 2000 -2001 (PDF 4.4 MB).

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 1989 Act required the Soil Conservation Boards to prepare District Plans, based on assessment planning and analysis. The District Plans were aimed at adopting preventative measures to stop soil loss, through proactive investigations into causes and effects. The Plans encouraged cooperation between neighbouring properties while encouraging individual landowners to adopt protective and sustainable land management practices.

The Murray Mallee (PDF 5.3 MB), and West Broughton Soil Conservation Boards (PDF 617.9 KB), were the first to prepare District Plans. These soil boards also produced educational documents titled Are You Farming for the Future? (PDF 5.3 MB) to help facilitate the district plans.

Also of relevance is the Northern Agricultural District (PDF 1.4 MB).

Map of District Plans areas in South Australia

Agricultural sustainability indicators

The development of Sustainability Indicators began in 1995. The report, Agricultural Sustainability Indicators for Regions of South Australia (PDF 1.5 MB), is the first comprehensive study of sustainability in economic, social and environmental terms.

Land Condition Monitoring Program

Land Condition Monitoring Program (LCM) was aimed at long term monitoring of South Australia’s soil and land resources. The program has collected data from field surveys, the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Bureau of Meteorology and surveys of land manager practices, knowledge and attitudes.

This information was used to compile a report on a range of indicators of the condition and management of agricultural land in South Australia:

Report on the condition of Agricultural Land in South Australia, December 2004 (PDF 3.2 MB)

Regular surveys allow the monitoring of the exposure of South Australia's cropping lands to potential wind and water erosion.

Soil conversation and district plans

The 1989 Act required the Soil Conservation Boards to prepare District Plans, based on assessment planning and analysis, with the aim of preventing soil loss. The Murray Mallee District (PDF 5.3 MB), and West Broughton Soil Conservation Boards (PDF 617.9 KB), were the first to prepare District Plans. Also see Northern Agricultural District Plan (PDF 1.4 MB)View list of District Plans.

Copies of other District Plans are held at the University of Adelaide Library. Search catalogue for District Plan.

Map of District Plan areas in South Australia.

Land Resource Assessment

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Page Last Reviewed: 20 Nov 2017
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