Letting the Locals Lead: An Innovative Framework of Regional Responsibility for the Management of Our Natural Resources Is Emerging. Brian Head Presents an Overview

Article excerpt

Over the last twenty years, governments in Australia have been urgently developing new approaches to sustainable natural resource management (NRM). Building on some successful independent examples, cooperative regional scale governance has emerged as the preferred approach in Australia for addressing broad sustainability challenges. However, with deep complexity, both in current governance structures and the nature of our resource management issues, successful long-term regional management will require enduring and coordinated leadership. So far, a great start has been made.

The decentralised and participatory aspects of this new regional approach originated in the Landcare movement and 'integrated catchment' strategies developed in the late 1980s to tackle water and land degradation. Battles over logging in old-growth native forests led to an agreement in the mid-1990s to resolve these land-use disputes through a 'regional' assessment process for forestry. From this, federal programs for environmental and NRM issues became increasingly focused on regional planning and delivery.

General support has now emerged for four fundamental priorities:

* finding integrated solutions to address complex long-term issues;

* seeking collaboration and sharing responsibility with industry partners and non-government organisations (NGOs);

* improving the information bases for decisions and monitoring; and

* focusing on the catchment or regional scale for planning and priority-setting.

Collaborative and evidence-based processes are intended to reduce adversarial behaviour and allow constructive focus on long-term strategies. However, building long-term partnerships is not easy. It requires trust and confidence, which can only emerge over an extended period--well beyond the usual electoral cycle of governments. Sustainability must therefore be bipartisan, and draw on the goodwill of industry and NGOs.

Major strategic shifts also need new institutional arrangements and incentives. This clearly requires cooperation between three levels of government, together with adequate funding to ensure sufficient cooperation of all stakeholders. The national Salinity and Water Quality program from 2000-01 is a good example where these issues were addressed. It involved:

* federal/state shared funding, totalling $1.4 billion over seven years;

* targeting of 21 priority catchments with salinity and/or water quality problems; and

* regional plans to be developed by regional communities within a framework of standards, targets and outcomes agreed by governments.

Similarly, the federal government reconfigured the Natural Heritage Trust program along 'regional' planning lines in 2001-02. The revised program (NHT2) is a five-year national program with $1 billion of federal funds, with the states obliged to 'match' certain components of the program. NHT2 has established four focus themes-Landcare, Bushcare, Rivercare and Coastcare--and covers the whole nation (currently 57 regions).

The federal government's new NRM framework represents an internationally significant commitment to a regional sustainability focus. Key innovations are:

* systematic regional focus with designated 'regional bodies';

* consultative partnership models; and

* commitment to investing in the knowledge base. …