Land use and management


Australia’s population is concentrated along the eastern, south-eastern and south-western coastal fringes. To many living in these areas, the daily experience is one of dense urban, industrial and residential zones, fringed by intensive horticulture and agriculture, human-made water bodies and perhaps production forestry. Yet cities account for less than 0.2 per cent of Australia’s land area (Table LAN2). The dominant land use, in terms of extent, is livestock grazing of native vegetation (44.9 per cent); grazing of modified pastures accounts for another 9.2 per cent. Nature conservation and other forms of protection, together with minimal use, are the principal use for 38.2 per cent of Australia’s land area. Dryland cropping is practised on 3.6 per cent of the land area.

The distribution of these land uses (Figure LAN13) reflects the history and pattern of European settlement; the availability of soil, water and climate to support primary industries; the distribution of other natural resources; and the transport networks that link them. These factors have been reviewed in previous national SoE reports. In brief, intensive agriculture is generally located in higher-rainfall zones within 200 kilometres of the coast, with some exceptions in irrigation areas. Beef cattle grazing is the dominant land use in the extensive tropical and subtropical rangelands of northern Australia. Most dryland agriculture is located south of latitude 21°S on the western slopes of the Great Dividing Range in the east, between the 300–600 millimetre isohyets (lines of equal rainfall), and largely within the confines of these isohyets in South Australia and Western Australia, extending closer to the 250 millimetre isohyet in some areas. Land managed for nature conservation and protection is located primarily in central and northern Australia, and in the forested ranges of the east and south-west of both mainland Australia and Tasmania. These are also the areas where Indigenous Australians have greatest land management responsibilities and interests (Box LAN6).

The general pattern of land use is well established across Australia (Table LAN2). Estimates of the areas affected are imprecise in some cases, but give a general indication of the scale of different land-use activities across Australia.

Table LAN2 Australian land use, 2010–11

Land use

Area (million hectares)


Grazing—natural vegetation



Grazing—modified pasture



Nature conservation and protected areas (including Indigenous uses)



Minimal use



Dryland cropping



Forests—production native forests



Forests—plantation forests






Agriculture—irrigated cropping



Agriculture—irrigated pastures



Agriculture—irrigated horticulture



Agriculture—intensive animal and plant production



Agriculture—dryland horticulture



Residential—intensive (mainly urban) uses






Mining and waste






Source: Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences, Land Use of Australia 2010-11, used under CC BY 3.0


Since 2011, areas managed for conservation have continued to expand, to around 18 per cent of Australia’s land area. During the past decade, Australia’s terrestrial conservation estate (International Union for Conservation of Nature categories I–VI) expanded by more than 50 per cent to nearly 140 million hectares. However, calculations suggest that nearly 25 per cent of Australia needs to be protected to meet the strategic goals of the Convention on Biological Diversity (Polak et al. 2016).

Land under conservation management now includes a rapidly growing area dedicated to, and managed for, conservation by private owners (e.g. conservation trusts). The extent of private conservation lands is now more than 7 million hectares.

Indigenous land

The area of land formally owned and managed by Indigenous Australians has continued to increase, to 42 per cent of Australia’s land area (see Box LAN6).

Box LAN6 Indigenous land tenure and interests

Indigenous people, their land, and their cultural and natural resource management activities are core contributors to managing Australia’s environment. Indigenous lands contain significant levels of biodiversity, and long-term investment in Indigenous land management programs has delivered environmental, cultural and economic benefits (Altman et al. 2007, SVA Consulting 2014, van Bueren et al. 2015).

Indigenous land, water and sea interests occur over 41.8 per cent (3,217,101 square kilometres) of Australia (Figure LAN14). Indigenous people comprise 2.7 per cent of Australia’s population, and the proportion of the Indigenous population that is on Indigenous lands is 25.1 per cent. More than 50 per cent of Indigenous land interests lie in very remote areas of Australia and in some of the least commercially viable lands (Altman et al. 2007). Indigenous communities in these remote regions face key challenges for enterprise development and employment (Jackson et al. 2012, Altman & Markham 2014, Woinarski et al. 2014b). Land management and, in places, the carbon economy, may bring potential benefits to Indigenous communities in terms of income, jobs, social welfare, links to community and reconnection with Country. However, land tenure will not necessarily bring economic benefits to Indigenous communities, and other legislative constraints may preclude economic development options for communities.


The sophistication of agricultural land management continues to increase. This is seen in ongoing reductions in the intensity of agricultural chemical use in the cotton industry, due largely to the adoption of genetically modified cotton (Acworth et al. 2008); more careful use of fertilisers in sensitive environments (e.g. catchments of the Great Barrier Reef); and more flexible approaches to grazing management to reduce erosion and increase productivity. The stewardship role of farmers and the part that they play in conserving their land are increasingly recognised.

Horticultural production supply, quality and profitability are threatened by introduced and native pests, diseases and weeds. Integrated pest and disease management uses a number of different integrated methods, rather than relying on a single approach. This is advantageous when managing native animals (e.g. parrots, fruit bats) as pests, and for insect pests and diseases (Horticulture Australia 2006).

Integrated pest management practices aim to integrate all available pest control techniques to produce healthy crops with the least possible disruption to the agro-ecosystem, rather than relying on routine applications of pesticides. First proposed in the 1970s, these practices are becoming more widely adopted in the agricultural sector.

Insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant cotton, and herbicide-tolerant canola are the 3 types of genetically modified crops in Australia. Insecticide use has been reduced by 85 per cent through the use of insect-resistant genetically modified cotton. However, reduced insecticide use against the cotton bollworm caterpillar (Helicoverpa armigera) has allowed other pests to survive and emerge as important pests (Williams et al. 2011). Grain crops (canola and wheat) appear to be able to retain existing yields with reduced insecticide applications, although better forecasting of years with low pest pressure is required to provide growers with opportunities and confidence to reduce insecticide input (Macfadyen et al. 2014).

Native vegetation remnants host a higher density of predatory insects and spiders than crops; crops usually host higher densities of pests (immature and mature) than native vegetation (Parry et al. 2015). Remnant vegetation also provides parasite habitat, which contributes to pest suppression in crops. These biocontrol services reach 125 metres and beyond from native vegetation into crops; however, the spatial pattern of colonisation can be patchy. Reliability of biocontrol increases as the availability of remnant vegetation increases (Bianchi et al. 2015). Management and improvement of remnant vegetation can increase the predator to prey (pest) ratio, which can improve pest control in grain and cotton crops (Bianchi et al. 2013). Retention and management of remnant native vegetation can also maintain populations of native bees (agricultural crop pollinators), which are more abundant and diverse in agricultural landscapes with more remnant native vegetation (especially riparian vegetation) than in those with less native vegetation (Cunningham et al. 2013).

Agricultural practices also aim to protect the soil and prevent sediment movement (see Cultivation). For example, modelled estimates of the nutrient and sediment loads reaching the Great Barrier Reef lagoon suggest that changes to the landscape—grazing, bushfires, and vegetation clearing for agriculture and urban development—will increase deposition to more than 3 times background (pre-European colonisation) levels (McCulloch et al. 2003, Kroon et al. 2012, Waters et al. 2014). Principles and guidelines for managing stocking rates, watering points and groundcover condition aim to improve water quality through best-practice grazing (Bartley et al. 2010, Silburn et al. 2011, Hunt et al. 2014). Significant investment by the Australian Government, state and territory governments, and industry has led to a better understanding of the source and causes of nutrient and sediment increases, and engagement with NRM bodies, industry and farmers is modelled to be potentially achieving significant (10–30 per cent) decreases in sediment loads. A combination of good contextual understanding, participation across the range of stakeholders and adequate funding should thus result in better-quality water reaching the Great Barrier Reef (see Box LAN7). In the Fitzroy Basin in Queensland, adoption of best management practice is high in dryland cropping enterprises as a result of the Reef Water Quality Protection Plan, even though croppers have not received the same resources as graziers and cane growers (Darbas et al. 2013).


The area of public native forest managed for wood production has continued to decline since 2011, to around 7.5 million hectares. There has been a corresponding increase in the extent of public native forest in conservation reserves (Davidson et al. 2008).

Plantation forests funded by managed investment contracted significantly to around 400,000 hectares in 2012–13 from 730,000 hectares in 2008–09, which represents around 20 per cent of Australian plantations compared with 36 per cent in 2008–09 (ABARES 2014).

The extent and severity of wildfires in south-eastern Australia have rekindled debate about strategies for fire suppression, how best to balance protection of life and property with protection of environmental assets, residential expansion in forested regions, and the future viability of some native forest–based industries (Teague et al. 2010).

Carbon sequestration

The recent expansion in use of land and vegetation for carbon sequestration, carbon emissions avoidance and emissions reductions has become a mainstream interest for industries and governments (see Box LAN8). The advantages and risks of biosequestration compared with other forms of sequestration (e.g. geological capture and storage) may have a very large impact on future rural land use and management. Models of carbon stocks and flows in native forests managed for timber production, of harvested wood products (including paper), and of long-term storage of harvested wood product wastes in landfill suggest broadly positive benefits when whole-of-system accounts are considered (Ximenes et al. 2016). These benefits include both sequestration—with carbon fixed for the long term in both timber products and timber wastes stored as landfill—and carbon emissions avoidance. For example, use of native timber products for paper pulp has significant greenhouse gas mitigation potential compared with the carbon emissions footprint of imported paper pulp from nonsustainably managed forests in South-East Asia. On balance, careful management of production forests was shown to have a better modelled carbon outcome than conservation management (Ximenes et al. 2016), although challenges remain to show that production management approaches are environmentally sustainable in the long term (Lindenmayer et al. 2015).

Box LAN8 Savanna burning for reduced carbon emissions

Fires in the savannas of northern Australia release the greenhouse gases methane and nitrous oxide as they burn. These emissions from Australia’s savanna fires comprise 2–4 per cent of the National Greenhouse Gas Inventory (Cook & Meyer 2009). Thus, there is potential to use fire management to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by increasing the incidence of early dry-season fires, to reduce the extent of large, high-intensity fires late in the dry season, and to reduce overall fire frequency and consequently the average emissions of greenhouse gases. The approach has been developed as the ‘Emissions abatement through savanna fire management’ methodology to reduce accountable emissions under Australia’s Carbon Farming Initiative.

An example of the implementation of this initiative is the West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement Project, which involves multiple traditional land-owning groups in an area spanning 24,000 square kilometres in the Northern Territory (Cook et al. 2012). The primary goal of the project is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. During the first 7 years of implementation, the project has reduced emissions of accountable greenhouse gases (methane and nitrous oxide) by 37.7 per cent, relative to the pre-project 10-year emissions baseline (Russell-Smith et al. 2013). Additionally, the project is providing the means to reconnect people to their Country, to keep alive traditions and to adapt them to new circumstances. It is also reducing the impact on biodiversity of decades of out-of-control fires, and providing an opportunity for traditional ecological knowledge and western scientific approaches to jointly inform future land management.

CSIRO is currently working with the Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy to quantify the increased carbon sequestration that can occur from changing fire management.

Savanna burn.

Photo of a savanna burn.

Management fire in low-rainfall savanna central Australia

Photo by Gary Cook, CSIRO


Source: Garry Cook, CSIRO


The recent downturn in the mining industry has put some proposed developments on hold, and resulted in the cessation of activities at other sites. A dramatic expansion in coalmining and the CSG industry in some prime agricultural regions has caused conflict because of competition for land and concerns about contamination of, and competition for, water resources. The associated infrastructure and expansion of export facilities are also placing pressure on some coastal environments.

Most of the announced CSG reserves are already committed to the liquefied natural gas industry from 2015–16, with the potential for domestic gas shortages in eastern Australia and the prospect of large increases in gas prices. A consequence is that exploration for shale gas and tight gas has increased, because shale gas is likely to be plentiful and has the potential to be an economically very important additional energy source (Cook et al. 2013).

Increased use of shale gas (and other gas) for electricity generation could significantly decrease Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, based on replacement of coal with gas (Cook et al. 2013). Shale gas, like CSG, has possible adverse impacts on the landscape, soils, flora and fauna, groundwater and surface water, the atmosphere, and human health, through hydraulic fracturing (fracking), habitat fragmentation, disruption of ecological processes, fugitive gas emissions and so on. Changes to the EPBC Act recognised that national environmental assets could be affected by changes to water quality, quantity and availability as a consequence of coalmining or CSG extraction. In response, the Australian Government has invested in a Bioregional Assessment Programme, which is compiling the scientific evidence necessary to support decisions taken by states and territories about the potential impacts of, controls for, and mitigations available for, any new developments (e.g. the New South Wales review by the Chief Scientist and Engineer; O’Kane 2014). Relevant industries have also taken steps to maintain public confidence and obtain a social licence to operate through offsetting impacts of mining developments—for example, the Gas Industry Social and Environmental Research Alliance.

Built environment

Australian cities and coastal settlements continue to sprawl, despite some successful attempts by local, state and territory governments to manage development to protect biodiversity, good-quality agricultural lands and areas prone to flooding. For example, one of the stated purposes of the Planning and Development Act 2005 of Western Australia is to ‘promote the sustainable use and development of land in the state’. This includes protecting land of agricultural significance from urban and peri-urban encroachment, maintaining appropriate buffers between development and coastal estuarine and water foreshores, and accounting for sea level rise and increased storm surge arising from coastal development. There is also a growing recognition of the value of green space in urban areas for recreation, biodiversity, visual amenity, flood mitigation and other ecosystem services.

Metcalfe D, Bui E (2016). Land: Land use and management. In: Australia state of the environment 2016, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra,, DOI 10.4226/94/58b6585f94911