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Landscape Repair – Who Should Pay?

“expenditure on programs to restore the landscape shouldn’t be accounted as an ‘expense’, these costs should be capitalised, recognising they are investments in the Australian landscape asset that will harvest returns for generations”

Australia is an ancient continent. After tens-of-thousands of years of indigenous use of the already-old land, we decided to ramp up our impacts…

In pursuit of agricultural development, for the expansion of the national economy, we cleared the land of its native ecosystems and processes and tried to impart a Euro-centric farming system. We used the full suite of policy levers available to effectively clear the land…

  • We used “direct action” – paying people to ring-bark and clear trees.
  • We used “incentives” – by providing landholders tax-deductions for clearing native vegetation (as late as the early 1980’s these were still available).
  • We used “regulatory instruments” – when people took up leases over land they were required to ‘develop’ their blocks (clear more native vegetation).

We did a great job too…

Even on infertile marginal country there were short-term gains, a few good seasons after nutrients and organic matter were unlocked by clearing. On good soils the positive benefits are still accruing, and with modern management techniques underpinned by science they will for my lifetime. However, back to those marginal areas…

Before-long we recognised the folly of our ways. At the paddock-scale weeds moved in and salt came to the surface, at the catchment scale nutrients flowed into our rivers and caused blue-green algae blooms and at the national scale, we actually saw ‘crisis’ programs on A Current Affair in the 1980’s about salinity affecting the livelihood and sustainability of regional Australia.

The unfolding science through the second half of last century documented what we now know as the downside of landscape ‘development’ – decline and loss of species, salinisation of large swathes of the landscape rendering them useless, polluted waterways, loss of productivity, and weed and feral animal incursions. Of course the human story is equally depressing – many people went broke, livelihoods were lost, and families were broken.

Except for the return of extinct species, none of this decline is irreversible: salinity can be fixed, species and productivity can be returned, water can be made clean, and livelihoods can be reinvigorated. It just takes money. Should we bother, and who should pay?

Let’s look at the different benefits, and to whom they accrue, so we can work out whom to send the bill to…

A healthier landscape generally entails more resilient farming systems, maintenance of diverse biodiversity (genes, species and ecosystems), cleaner water in our catchments and less prevalence of invasive species (or dominance of mono-cultures). Given the opportunities for enhanced food and tourism export markets in the region, and the risks of increased pressure on our ecosystems resulting potentially in further species declines, the question is not whether we should repair the landscape, but whether we can afford not to maintain and enhance this Australian asset.

Nationally, our whole economy benefits from more resilient and productive farming systems through increased exports, satiated and healthy communities, increased employment in regional areas, reduced need for the increasingly prevalent ‘extreme circumstances’ subsidies, and increased taxation revenue. Nationally we all benefit from biodiversity, it forms part of our national identity (e.g. the coat of arms and national sporting colours from emus, kangaroos and wattles), we can secure medicinal and other technological benefits from genetic diversity, we market our tourism export economy on healthy landscapes and we as an Australian community take pride in our landscape – it’s part of the fabric of our identity. At the national scale there is a big gap between the application of on-ground landscape repair initiatives and those to whom the benefits accrue. At this scale, mechanisms other than broad-based taxation and expenditure programs don’t exist.

Regionally, clean water is important – townships and cities need clean water. All rate-payers in Australia pay to clean their water supplies, and those rates could be lower with healthier catchments. Increasingly, food consumers want to buy clean and green regional produce and are happy to pay a premium for it – healthier landscapes mean less chemicals, more produce, and less transport-miles. Regional tourism is also very important for Australians, we all enjoy visiting our nearby national parks – for walking, camping, riding, surfing or fishing. At the regional scale, there is a moderate gap in linking landscape health with those to whom the benefits accrue. Some mechanisms, like water-levies on regional water users, tourism taxes and permits, and ‘green woodland’ branding initiatives that provide premium products to regional consumers are possible are available, but are not used enough (in breadth and depth terms).

At the local scale landholders and communities benefit from improved productivity, enhanced amenity, reduced input costs (e.g. weed control, nutrients, water supply), improved land values and reduced exposure to weather risks. Local mechanisms to connect beneficiaries with costs are simpler to apply – for example landholders could just pay for all landscape improvements directly – but the capital outlay required and long pay-back periods are the main reason this hasn’t happened historically. Further, the broader public benefits that accrue (as above), from an equity perspective, mean that landholders should be supported to improve the landscape.

As the Commission of Audit (2014) highlighted, there are clearly both public and private benefits that accrue when repairing the landscape. Until better regional models are developed for linking landscape beneficiaries with repair costs, there probably isn’t a more efficient or effective model than State and Australian Governments collecting revenue on behalf of all Australians to undo the damage done by the same governments’ policy settings decades ago (with the best-intentions and knowledge at that time).

Given the scale of opportunity for export growth in tourism and food for regional Australia, expenditure on programs to restore the landscape shouldn’t be accounted as an ‘expense’, these costs should be capitalized, recognising they are investments in the Australian landscape asset that will harvest returns for generations. The real question is not who should pay, but why we aren’t ramping up our investment in this asset with the opportunities before us?

JC

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