Land use and management

2011

The absolute and relative extent of Australia’s principal land uses are summarised in Table 5.1 (2005–06 data). The dominant land use, in terms of extent, is livestock grazing of native vegetation (46%); grazing of modified pastures accounts for another 9%. Nature conservation and other forms of protection are the second most common land use—together with minimal use, they are the principal use for some 36% of Australia’s land area. Dryland cropping is practised on about 3% of our land area. Other uses—production forestry, various forms of intensive agriculture, urban and residential, mining and waste, and water bodies—each account for less than 2% of Australia’s land area.

Table 5.1 Australian land use, 2005–06
Land use Area (million hectares) %
Grazing:
  • native vegetation
 
356
 
46
  • modified pasture
72 9
Nature conservation and other protected areas
(includes Indigenous uses)
159 20
Minimal use 124 16
Dryland cropping 26 3
Production forestrya
  • native forests
11 1.5
  • plantation forests
2 0.3
Water 13 1.6
Irrigated and intensive agriculture:
  • irrigated cropping
 
1.3
 
0.2
  • irrigated pastures
1.0 0.1
  • irrigated horticulture
0.4 <0.1
  • intensive animal and plant production
0.3 <0.1
  • dryland horticulture
0.1 <0.1
Urban and rural residential
  • intensive (mainly urban) uses
1.6 0.2
  • rural residential
0.9 0.1
Mining and waste 0.2 <0.1
Total 769 100

a Production forestry data have subsequently been updated in Montreal Process Implementation Group.1

Source: Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES);2 ABARES is an independent research agency of the Australian Government.

The distribution of these land uses (Figure 5.1) reflects the history and pattern of European settlement of Australia and the intersection of that settlement with climate and resources relevant to primary production. These factors have been reviewed in previous national State of the Environment (SoE) reports. (SoE) reports.3 In brief, urban settlements and the majority of Australia’s population are concentrated along the eastern, south-eastern and south-western coastal fringes (see Chapter 10: Built environment and Chapter 11: Coasts). Intensive agriculture is generally located in higher rainfall zones within 200 kilometres of the coast, with some exceptions in irrigation areas. 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 (maplines joining points of equal precipitation); and largely within the confines of that isohyet in South Australia and Western Australia, extending closer to the 250–millimetre isohyet in some areas.4 These three groups of land uses define what is often described as the ‘intensive land-use zone’. 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.

    Box 5.1 Caring for country—Indigenous Australians’ land and sea management

    Indigenous land and sea management, also referred to as ‘caring for country’, includes a wide range of environmental, natural resource and cultural heritage management activities undertaken by individuals, groups and organisations. In pre-colonial times, caring for country was undertaken by individuals and clan groups with inherited rights and responsibility to particular land and sea estates, under the guidance of initiated elders and other knowledge holders. These cultural rights and practices still underpin all contemporary land and sea management activities, but they have adapted and evolved over time and are delivered by a diversity of local, regional, state, territory and national institutional arrangements. Contemporary caring for country embraces a combination of long-established cultural practices, such as species-specific ceremonies, seasonal use of traditional resources and use of fire to maintain desired environmental conditions, as well as contemporary practices such as feral animal and weed management, biodiversity surveys and satellite tracking of marine turtles.

    There are now several hundred community-managed Indigenous land and sea management groups or organisations around Australia. Some of these comprise ranger groups employed by local community councils. Others are more fully developed Indigenous land and sea management agencies employing specialist planning and research staff as well as operational rangers, often with traditional owner governance arrangements that are separate from, or complementary to, local community councils. Although the majority of these groups and organisations are located in remote communities in northern and central Australia, Indigenous ranger groups and other caring-for-country initiatives occur throughout Australia, including the southern mainland states and Tasmania.

    Indigenous ranger groups are generally engaged in patrolling, managing and monitoring areas of Aboriginal land that have returned to Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander ownership as a result of land claims or the recognition of continuing native title under the Native Title Act 1993. However, Indigenous ranger groups also increasingly engage in land and sea management activities in areas that may not be formally under Indigenous ownership, but lie within the traditional land and sea estates of the groups involved. This trend from tenure-based to country-based Indigenous engagement in land and sea management reflects a growing appreciation by government agencies and the wider community that Indigenous caring for country rights, interests and obligations are based on cultural connections to traditional estates—irrespective of their current tenure. This trend can be observed, for example, in increased Indigenous engagement in national park and marine park management, whether or not these protected areas have been returned to Indigenous ownership.

    The continued growth in the capacity of Indigenous groups to undertake their own land and sea management is likely to be accompanied by new and diverse partnerships with government, research and nongovernment conservation agencies. This will lead to mutual benefits for all parties. Land and sea management may be a long-term propitious niche for Indigenous people in remote communities and elsewhere in Australia, particularly since these initiatives are grounded in Indigenous culture and have been driven by Indigenous groups and organisations, rather than by government policies. The challenge for governments is to respond positively to this momentum without overburdening the recipients of funding and other support with excessive reporting and compliance processes.

    Source: Smyth7

    Australian land is managed by:

    • approximately 136 000 agricultural businesses, who manage around 52% of the total land area5
    • Australian, state and territory governments, which manage national parks, state forests and other public land totalling around 25% of the total land area1-2
    • Indigenous Australians, who have formal ownership and management or co-management responsibility for 23% of the total land area (Box 5.1 )6
    • mining companies, water authorities and others with particular interests or responsibilities, who manage a small proportion of the total land area
    • residents of urban or peri-urban (between the suburbs and the countryside) settlements, who have responsibility for their residential land.
    Figure 5.1

    Source: Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences2

    Figure 5.1 Australian land use at national scale 2005–06

    2.1.1 Land-use trends

    While the general pattern of land use is well established across Australia, significant changes have occurred since the 2006 SoE report. Estimates of the areas affected are imprecise in some cases, but the most important trends are described below.

    Conservation
    • Areas managed for conservation continued to expand, to around 25% of Australia’s land area. Over the past decade, Australia’s terrestrial conservation estate (International Union for Conservation of Nature categories I–VI) expanded by more than 50% to nearly 100 million hectares. 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 4 million hectares.8
    Indigenous land
    • The area of land formally owned and managed by Indigenous Australians continued to increase, to 23% of Australia’s land area.6
    Agriculture
    • The millennium drought (affecting southern Australia from 2000 to 2010, although starting in 1997 in some areas) had a profound impact on agricultural industries. It reduced agricultural production and caused a reappraisal of risks in irrigation regions. However, the shift to higher-value irrigated crops on smaller areas meant that the total value of production per unit of water increased significantly in the Murray–Darling Basin.9
    • The sophistication of agricultural land management increased, with significant reductions in the intensity of agricultural chemical use in the cotton industry, due largely to the adoption of genetically modified cotton;10 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 trend of significant expansion of horticulture was curtailed with the demise of the managed investment scheme taxation arrangements supporting this industry.
    • Global concerns about food security, triggered initially by the 2008 spike in food prices (e.g. von Braun11), started a debate about Australian agriculture and land-use policy, which will undoubtedly intensify in the future. Forestry
    • The area of public native forest managed for wood production declined by nearly 20%, to around nine million hectares, and there was a corresponding increase in the extent of public native forest in conservation reserves.12
    • Plantation forests funded by managed investment schemes expanded significantly to around one million hectares, but expansion has now ceased and a contraction of up to 50% is expected in the coming decade.
    • The extent and severity of wildfires in south-east Australia rekindled debate on strategies for fire suppression, how best to balance protection of life and property with that of environmental assets, residential expansion in forested regions, and the future viability of some native forest-based industries.13
    Forestry
    • The area of public native forest managed for wood production declined by nearly 20%, to around nine million hectares, and there was a corresponding increase in the extent of public native forest in conservation reserves.12
    • Plantation forests funded by managed investment schemes expanded significantly to around 1 million hectares, but expansion has now ceased and a contraction of up to 50% is expected in the coming decade.
    • The extent and severity of wildfires in south-eastern Australia rekindled debate on strategies for fire suppression, how best to balance protection of life and property with that of environmental assets, residential expansion in forested regions, and the future viability of some native forest–based industries.13
    Carbon sequestration
    • The use of land and vegetation for carbon sequestration became a mainstream interest for industries and governments.14-15 The comparative 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.
    Mining
    • The dramatic expansion of coal mining and the coal-seam gas industry in some prime agricultural regions 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.
    Built environment
    • Australian cities and coastal settlements continued to sprawl, despite some successful attempts by local, state and territory governments to manage development to protect biodiversity, good-quality agriculture lands and areas prone to flooding.
    Kanowski P, McKenzie N (2011). Land: Land use and management. In: Australia state of the environment 2011, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra, https://soe.environment.gov.au/theme/land/topic/land-use-and-management, DOI 10.4226/94/58b6585f94911