Review and recommendations for Australian policy makers
Whitten. S, Bennett. J Moss. W, Handley. M and Phillips. W
Environment Australia, 2002
ISBN 0 642 54870 6
About the report
Wetlands are among the most diverse and productive ecosystems on earth. They produce a range of food and fibre products, help with water management and provide numerous recreational and life sustaining services. As the functions, services and benefits provided by freshwater ecosystems have become better understood, the need for their long-term care is increasingly recognised. Freshwater ecosystems are now known to be essential for the long-term sustainability of Australia's increasingly stressed rivers and streams, for community well-being and for the conservation of biological diversity.
Since European settlement it is estimated that about half of Australia's wetlands have been destroyed, mostly through conversion for urban expansions and rural development. Even today, when the ecosystem services provided by wetlands are well understood, degradation and conversion of wetlands continues.
However, there are clear signals that attitudes towards wetlands are slowly changing, and across the country there are steps being taken to see wetlands protected, rehabilitated and even reinstated. These efforts are being made by landowners, a range of community-based groups, non-governmental organisations, local councils, the State and Territory Governments and the Commonwealth Government.
Acknowledging that most wetlands are found on privately held land, the major challenge for Governments (at all levels) is to put in place a range of incentive measures that can assist and encourage private landholders to manage their wetland so as to retain the ecosystem services they provide. Flexibility and diversity of options are the keys here, recognizing that circumstances differ so greatly across the country, and even from one private landholder to the next.
The companion to this report, the Information Kit, Wetland management assistance for private landholders, provides, in easy-to-use fact sheet format, and with illustrative case studies, a comprehensive account of the incentive measures that are currently available. It is targeted towards those private landholders responsible on a day-to-day basis for Australia's freshwater ecosystems.
In this report 27 incentive measures for promoting the conservation of freshwater ecosystems by private landholders are reviewed. Many of these measures are currently available in Australia while others, that are in use in other countries, are only now beginning to be considered here. Each incentive measure is considered against the following criteria; ecological efficiency, economic efficiency, social impact, flexibility, accountability and potential for community involvement, and for each incentive option recommendations have been formulated that are designed to offer guidance to policy makers at all levels of Government (as appropriate) for seeing these measures made more affective.
Short case studies relating to some of the incentive measure are also provided. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list of illustrative examples, but rather the case studies seek to provide a guide to the form that the incentive may take when implemented.
The overall conclusion of this report is that while Australia has a considerable range of such incentive measures operating today, many are being applied in a piece-meal or ad hoc fashion. Further, many of the incentives are being used in other areas of natural resource management, such as vegetation management, however these have not been targeted specifically at wetland conservation. There is clearly potential, and a mandate, for the Commonwealth Government to take more of a leadership role in seeing national application of incentive measures for conserving freshwater ecosystems by State/Territory and local governments.
The decisions about which incentive measure to apply, or indeed whether to use a 'cocktail' of options, is one that each jurisdiction must take. What is apparent is that these incentives need to be operating at all levels of government, and that a broader range of options is needed if wetland conservation and management goals are to be achieved.
The report also focuses on so-called perverse incentives, both financial and administrative, which are working in opposition to the aspiration of seeing wetlands managed for sustainability and conservation. Introducing new incentives should not be seen as a way to mitigate against the continuation of perverse incentives, and identifying and acting on these should be a high priority for all levels of Government.
The simple approach to using the recommendations provided in this report would be to dissect it along local, State/Territory and Commonwealth Government lines, and to leave each jurisdiction to 'do their own thing'. This is not recommended as one of the weaknesses of such as approach will be at the local government level where those councils with a limited rates base will be immediately constrained to act. For these councils to act, support will be needed from both the State/Territory and Commonwealth Governments.
It is also obvious that while some States and Territories have useful schemes such as 'Land for Wildlife' and revolving funds which are assisting wetland conservation to some degree, others don't. Commonwealth assistance and encouragement to see these established and well resourced in all jurisdictions is a key, and appropriate, national response.
Many of the new incentive options identified in this report as worthy of further review and possible trial (such as bonus development rights, mitigation banking, biodiversity credit schemes, performance bonds, wildlife ranching etc). While these may be identified as an issue for the States and Territories to pursue, there is also a strong case for the Commonwealth to work with and support the further investigation of these options in a national leadership role.
A further key consideration is that of identifying those wetlands of 'importance' toward which conservation efforts, and incentive measures, can be directed in the first instance. The Commonwealth and States/Territories have jointly produced A Directory of Important Wetlands in Australia with 851 sites recognized as nationally important in the third edition of this published in February 2001. While this is a helpful start, and an ongoing effort, it is a concern that for many parts of Australia the knowledge of the wetland resources remain very poor. This serious gap in Australia's planning framework needs to be addressed urgently.
Allied to this same issue is that of ensuring that Australia's most important wetlands, and those of international significance, gain the earliest recognition and are 'protected' through appropriate management regimes, whether provided by the public or private sectors. At present there does not exist a scientifically rigorous method for developing a comprehensive, adequate and representative system of aquatic reserves for Australia. This also requires urgent attention from the Commonwealth and all State/Territory Governments.
There is also scope for some fine tuning of the taxation system to make it more economically attractive for private landholders to either manage their wetlands for stronger conservation results, or pass their wetlands on to organisations or individuals who wish to. There are some anomalies operating at present that are acting to limit the opportunities and capacities of these same organisations to take on management roles for these wetlands. Some well focused action, especially at the Commonwealth level, could see these organisations become key parts of the overall strategy for wetland conservation.
The report acknowledges that through various grants programs, governments are providing significant opportunities and incentives for private landholders to access assistance for wetland management. Ensuring that wetlands are prominent in the development of national targets and the associated regional and catchment-based action plans under the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality will be a significant step in the right direction. However, there does remain a need for other grants programs under the Natural Heritage Trust and similar State/Territory and local initiatives, to be directing greater resources to on-ground wetland management action. The use of devolved grants schemes, making use of the expertise, enthusiasm and direct dealings with wetlands owners which non-government organisations can provide has some clear advantages.
The report includes 'management advice and assistance' as an incentive measure, which may not accord with many peoples' thinking in this area. However, there can be no doubt that through greater investment in education, and the sharing of wetland management experiences, the need for those measures which compel landholders to act in a certain way will be reduced. Positive flow-ons could also be expected in terms of landholder interest in most of the incentives which are described herein under the categories of seeking to facilitate or induce changes in wetland management practices toward conservation management. There exists a considerable resource base to support such an effort to raise community understanding and appreciation of wetlands; all that is needed now is to mobilise and organise the use of these resources.
The CoAG Water Reform framework is also considered in the context of what it has, or could offer, by way of incentive measures. The conclusions are that there are a number of areas where the CoAG water reforms have either under-achieved in terms of their original principles and goals, or in which further extension or 'fine tuning' could be used to improve wetland conservation outcomes. The areas suggested for exploration include water property rights and trading, provision of water for the environment, water pricing, regulation of new water developments and the protection of high value rivers.
The final section of the report identifies a range of research topics that the authors consider to be high priority for taking forward wetland incentives in an even more informed way. While there is significant local and international experience in this field that can be drawn on, as this report demonstrates, there do remain gaps in this knowledge which well-focused future research would address.