Landscape and Mindset

A Commentary On A Perplexing Matter With Special Reference To The Northern & Yorke Natural Resources Management Region


This brief commentary was prepared in April 2010 in response to a survey of community attitudes to natural resources management by researchers at University of South Australia. The region chosen by the researchers was the Northern & Yorke NRM area. 

During the previous year I had been gathering together a range of thoughts about this very same topic, but instead of examining present day contemporary attitudes to resources use and the attendant economic viability of agricultural systems, I focused on a topic that scarcely rates a mention in any of the reports and documents in the public domain on natural resources use ... the DNA of decision-making and why there is resistance to landscape repair

The commentary has been modified very slightly from the original to synchronise with the present day, and will be expanded to include additional writings.


For many years I have been perplexed, and curious, as to why there has been a continual acceptance of the radically transformed agricultural landscape of South Australia, including that in the Northern & Yorke Natural Resources Management (N&Y NRM) region, without substantial corrective action being taken.

The mallee landscapes of South Australia, unique as they are, have been in deep decline for decades, ever since 150 years or so of land clearance effectively ended when some controls were introduced in 1983.

It is commonly known and reported that native vegetation clearance in rural Australia has been the principal contributor to dryland salinity, weed invasion, soil erosion, soil structural decline, loss of native plant and animal species (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2006), and numerous other problems.

These landscapes, and the landscapes of the arid lands, have been pulled apart, cleared for cereal crops and grazing, continually smashed through ploughing, additives applied at great cost to extract any semblance of productivity out of them, domestic herd animals and feral animals introduced that have all created enormous disturbance to soils and biodiversity. The list goes on – it's all been written about before, all been said before.

But what is being done about REPAIR and RESTITUTION?

In the 27 years of my life that I have lived in the N&Y region, I have travelled extensively through it, observed it, worked throughout it, documented parts of it. In general, an observation that keeps returning to my thoughts is why humans have accepted the destruction that has occurred and not make any substantial efforts to repair and restore what has been damaged and lost. Of course, some efforts have been made – but these have been miniscule and scattered, and have amounted to tokenism.

During the past 14 years (upon my return to SA), I have spent much personal time responding to various N&Y NRM Plans and reports. The most worrying aspect is that these Plans support the status quo ... they predominantly support the retention and extent of the existing farming system without deep questioning, without deep understanding, of the consequences of this system, of the continual damage that is occurring, and of the loss of biodiversity, of opportunities foregone ... and of running out of time.

It is of great concern that economic imperatives have far outweighed environmental needs and requirements as a result of pioneering activities in the long ago past, and continue to do so today.

It has been puzzling and disturbing. I have thought that there have to be compelling, but obscure, reasons why there has been resistance to landscape repair and restitution, and why there has been an ambivalence to the acceptance of an integration of farming with broad scale environmental repair. I have identified two dominant reasons.

To Conquer The Land Or Conquer The Mind

"Subdue the earth"

In “On the Margins of the Good Earth – the South Australian Wheat Frontier, 1869-1884”, D. W. Meinig honed in on a part of the puzzle. Here is what he wrote (pg. 5) ...

The Book

Meinig's book is a fascinating monograph on testing the boundary between "the desert and the sown". It is a study of a unique subject with great implications, and one that is little known in South Australia and beyond. This subject is the great South Australian experiment of shaping the landscape, the colonization and settlement of unknown interiors, of rapid expansion of industrial agriculture whose implications are still being felt today.

It has taken an American, D.W. Meinig, to open up a chapter of South Australia's history from 1869-1884 that has been little understood today in terms of natural resources management.

Recommended reading.

"The colonization of the northern wheatlands of South Australia not only occurred during the late phase of the palaeo-technic, it was a characteristic expression of that phase and could hardly have taken place prior to the development of the particular technological and economic complexes of that time. The whole world-wide movement of which this colonization was but one small part was concomitant with the mass production of iron and steel, the perfection of the railway, and the elaboration of a new array of farming machinery. These, coupled with the particular stage of European population growth and market developments, allowed such remote lands to be transformed almost immediately into specialized grain regions rather than gradually evolving through various stages of subsistence farming."

The legacy that South Australia, and indeed the N&Y region, now has harks back to those times. Here is one root of the problem – unfettered growth, massive land clearance to the extent that just 19% of native vegetation remains in the Northern & Yorke region (much of it in tiny, fragmented pockets), and the quest for wealth (almost at any expense).

What was created in the 1860's onwards, and the fundamental philosophy supporting this creation, basically endures today. Two world wars jump-started the expansion of the rural economy using a mechanism called "soldier settlements". In terms of environmental disruption, the legacy of these is all too evident.

South Australia is the driest of all Australian states. It has a small proportion of its land area devoted to agriculture (aside from pastoral activities). It is this area of land that comprises semi-arid and mallee scrubland (12%) and forest woodlands (3%). Collectively these areas yielded just 15% of the state's area for agriculture when white colonists began the conquest of the land. It is this 15% that resided in higher rainfall areas.

(Ref:   “A Land Transformed – Environmental Change in South Australia – Ed. C. Nance and D.L. Speight (1986)”, pg 30)

Let's put this in context. Consider the following map.

              Map 1  Remnant Native Vegetation of South Australia's Agricultural Districts 2009

     Ref : Berkinshaw T (2009), From Mangrove to Mallee, Greening Australia (SA), Finsbury Green, Adelaide

The main area, and main vegetation type, of interest is the mallee woodlands, which is a unique biosystem. This map should be interpreted as "vegetation not shown as a colour is vegetation cleared". The mallee in South Australia is the predominant system that has been cleared for agriculture. Today there are mostly remnants large and small scattered across the landscape, disconnected one from the other.

In the previous article “Lost Connections”, mention was made about the difficulty that early explorers experienced in moving through the dense mallee. 

Eventually, the mallee was seen to having to be conquered, and colonial governments at the time provided requirements and incentives to do so. Here was the start of massive land clearance, and of great disturbance to ecosystems. No thought was given to the consequences. The land clearance was of epic proportions. The reasons however, were wider than Meinig accredits, and C. Nance in “A Land Transformed – Environmental Change in South Australia” perhaps provides a sharper focus. Nance states (pg 204) :

"The European settlers came from Christian countries, and the Bible reinforced the notion that the natural environment should be conquered and controlled for the benefit of mankind."

Subdue the earth. And that's what happened. 

The Book Of Genesis

Nance says that the book of Genesis gave instructions and “the right (or so it was believed) to treat the land, sea, animals and plants in any way (mankind) chose". This was God directing mankind to 'have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth on the earth ... and to subdue the earth'.

Nance also says that aside from the religious and moral justification to control and develop the land, there was the desire to own land, and this was a compelling reason why Europeans emigrated to the antipodean colonies. 

Land ownership, although considered to be a measure of success and social respectability, also carried with it a responsibility to be developed. The colonial government would have impressed on the immigrants the need to clear the land of native vegetation to run cattle, sheep, and to grow cereal crops. Prosperity and wealth were sure to be the result, it was most likely thought, and the prestige of owning property cemented in the mind of the settler that they were in the land of plenty. 

Nance quotes (ibid, pg 206) from an 1843 edition of the Adelaide Observer ...

"... the early pages of our Colonial history abounded with glowing descriptions of the 'park-like' scenery ... (and) the 'thousands of acres of clear and level lands' seemed to invite the immediate introduction of the plough and ... promise a grateful return for the husbandman's toil.
The forests ... have not not altogether fallen before the 'sturdy stroke' of the woodman ... (but) the ample plains have been extensively subdivided and subjected to the most careful cultivation for miles upon miles in length and breadth."

The biblical reference to conquering the land, I think, has a reasonable degree of accuracy. Travel through rural South Australia, and through the wheat frontier, and note the abundance of abandoned churches in the landscape. They are in places you would not expect to see them, well away from settlements (or so it appears) and houses. 

Thus, what has happened to the landscape in those pioneering years, could be viewed by many rural people as their calling. This view conceivably remains intact today; the rural fabric is generally conservative and Christian. In my view 'subduing the earth' is a compelling reason why little has been done in terms of environmental restitution and revegetation today. It may not be seen by those "working the land" to be necessary. 

Why would any farmer want to forego land that could be used for agricultural production and profit? And that is the nub of the problem today. But it's a false reasoning, as we will soon discover.

The Extent Of Native Vegetation Clearance

Let's now examine three maps and make some comparisons. 

Map 1 shown above illustrates the general extent of native vegetation clearance in 2009, and Maps 2 and 3 respectively indicate vegetation clearance at 1997 and 1986.


Map 2   Native vegetation clearance of South Australia's Agricultural Districts 1997
Map adapted from

Map 3   Native vegetation clearance of South Australia's Agricultural Districts 1986
(Ref: Nance C & Speight DL (eds), (1986), "A Land Transformed - Environmental Change In South Australia", Longman Cheshire, Melbourne)

Each of the three maps is revealing in its own way. If these maps are correct, then native vegetation clearance is continuing to this day. A close examination of Map 1 and Map 3 reveals a significant decline in uncleared native vegetation between 1986 and 2009. How can this be when native vegetation clearance controls have been in place that prevented large-scale land clearance?

In “Report of the Condition of Agricultural Land in South Australia” (Department of Water, Land, and Biodiversity Conservation, December 2004), the Executive Summary states …

There are 10.2 million hectares of land used for farming in South Australia. This land has been cleared of its native vegetation and almost all of it has suffered some form of degradation as a result of farming systems that are inadequately aligned with sustainability requirements of its natural resources. Loss of productive capacity of agricultural soils results in adverse environmental, economic and social impacts, many of which are effectively irreversible.

The report also contains some graphic images of typical farming landscapes. The missing link is landscape-scale revegetation. Look at a summary list of land degradation

This same report also states in the "Revegetation" chapter that there are 15 million hectares of land in the agricultural districts. It is likely that this figure includes extensive grazing lands that fringe the cropping lands, however the figure contradicts the figure of 10.2 million hectares mentioned elsewhere in the Report. Nevertheless, it is also stated that only 3.2 million hectares (21.3%) remains under remnant native vegetation.
Does this mean that 11.8 million hectares of land have been cleared of native vegetation? 

There seems to be a consistent problem of accurately defining the actual area of "agricultural districts". The ABS mentions a figure of 50 million hectares (ABS – Agricultural State Profile, SA 2006-07 ...[email protected]/Latestproducts/), but this most likely includes grazing and pastoral land.

Whatever the true figure attributed to agriculture, the most important statistics are the area of land that has been cleared of native vegetation, the area of land that has been degraded accordingly, and the extent to which biodiversity loss is continuing as a result of land clearance. 

Responsibility and Action

Governments have generally acknowledged the scale of environmental problems that need to be confronted; these issues have been amply described in various natural resources management plans and strategies and are contained in online information. 

However, I believe there is an absence of targeted landscape-scale action in environmental restitution and ecology restoration. Read these plans and reports and you will generally find that all refer to conservation of what remains and not in a large scale to the remnants, those tiny fragments in most cases, of native vegetation. 

These plans do not extend to landscape repair, nor to very large on-ground catchment-scale action.

Targeted landscape-scale action is very much a different issue than those generally described in the sources, because what I am referring to is a system-wide change to the agricultural lands and irrigation lands of the state. 

I am referring to a new agri-economy based on landscape restitution.

Why is this needed? Because it's all about sustainability; the ability to arrest further decline of natural resources; the ability to re-establish a small part of what has been erased from the landscape so as to prevent the risk of total collapse of ecosystems (e.g. mallee ecosystems); the ability to find new connections to the spirit of place; and the capacity to withstand the worst that climate change is most likely to bring.

The scale of problems is widespread, and their roots lie in the pioneering days of agricultural settlement. Government institutions and rural communities and farmers have not been able to respond at the landscape scale, except in a very small way. 

The Landcare system is one example, National Tree Day is another, but even these have had no effect at the landscape scale. 

Similarly, organisations like Trees For Life and Greening Australia, for all their good work, have had very limited penetration at the landscape scale. If there was success then there would be far greater revegetation than just 4,000 hectares annually that is the present rate (see the discussion at What Can Be Done).

So, what am I really talking about? It is about massive revegetation and restoration of the landscape and the return of biodiversity. Without this, I believe agricultural space in South Australia will continue on an inexorable decline.

Many years have elapsed since the publication of “A Land Transformed – Environmental Change in South Australia – Ed. C. Nance and D.L. Speight (1986)”, but who today would know about it, or indeed would have read it and understood it's underlying messages? 

Who has read and understood the urgency of the messages in “Resetting of the Compass – Australia's Journey Towards Sustainability” (D Yencken & D. Wilkinson, 2000)?

Much has been written about the Australian landscape, and for the Mid North a significant amount of information has been recorded in Northern and Yorke NRM Plans. But there has been sparse evidence and scant acknowledgement for landscape change and broad-scale on-ground work.

Side Note

It was my view when living in Victoria between 1987 – 97, that irrigated agricultural properties would need to give up at least 15% of their space for revegetation just to remain viable (this was the conclusion of the Murray-Darling Basin Commission many years later).

It is my view today that dryland farms will need to convert up to 20% of their land to a native revegetation condition. There are sound economic reasons why this should occur, aside from environmental and ecological reasons.

Returning to the matter of government responsibility, in South Australia the most significant responses to native vegetation were the controls established in 1983 and the subsequent Native Vegetation Act 1991. All well and good, but no legislation has compelled the repair and restitution of landscapes ravaged by former generational activities. 

This is a very interesting point, because the Environment Protection Act and the Natural Resources Management Act both contain the mechanisms or describe the Objects that could apply to landscape-scale change. 

No government, state or federal, has been prepared to invest in large-scale restoration of damaged landscapes that would ultimately allow some semblance of biodiversity to be nurtured and become sustainable. The size of the task is very large, and is possibly beyond the comprehension of our politicians and bureaucratic planners. The task would continue for decades, but in comparison with the area of vegetation removed, it is really only a small proportion of that area. 

A disconcerting aspect is that during the recent “global financial crisis” commencing in 2008, a key plank of long-term benefits was completely overlooked. Imagine if just half of the money handed to taxpayers (i.e. the $900 gift to each taxpayer), which was in the order of $6.1 bn (i.e. half of $12.2 bn - ref Treasurer's “Fact Sheet 2009 Updated Economic and Fiscal Outlook – Household Stimulus Package”) was directed to on-farm revegetation and environmental services, what sort of long-term benefits would be obtained?

Government responses are very perplexing, and are often very disappointing indeed!


What are the critical issues that are applicable to the N&Y NRM region? The following key areas provide some scope of the enormity of the situation, the threats and opportunities, and the need for change.

  1. Greater understanding and knowledge of natural history, human history, and human agricultural development is needed, including the concomitant impacts from both Euro-Australians and indigenous people. Only by understanding the past and taking some corrective action at the landscape scale, can reconciliation with the environment and ecology occur.

  2. There is inadequate progress, and arguably a lack of progress, on examining and then implementing alternative sustainable crop systems that also support biodiversity. This issue is about transition to a sustainable rural economy. The present suite of N&Y NRM Plans, together with NRM resourcing problems in the state, merely support the existing agricultural framework. The majority of agricultural research seems to be devoted to enhancing agricultural productivity, instead of supporting rapid change to truly sustainable systems. 

There is a continual acceptance of the past destruction of the landscape and ecosystems, and an almost non-existent response to broad scale restitution.

The solution is an enormous task, and conceivably would involve allocating up to 20% of existing farm land (i.e. 3 million hectares based on the previously stated 15 million hectares of agricultural land) to achieve the following:

  • create connections between paddock island trees and connections between remnant native vegetation
  • create native vegetation buffers along all farm fence lines 
  • revegetate degraded land and abandoned land
  • cease cultivation under and near paddock trees (these should be fenced to allow micro ecosystem recovery to occur which would enhance the survivability of such trees)
  • eliminate stock access under paddock trees and remnant scrub land in the interests of understory development (stock should have shelters erected instead)
  • plant native vegetation at strategic locations within paddocks
  • revegetate all watercourses, prevent cultivation at least 20 metres from watercourse edge, repair old erosion scars, remove farm rubbish from watercourses.

Note : 
I have chosen 20% on the basis of experience and observations, but of course this proportion would need to be tested.

Now, all of these types of activities should be priorities in the N&Y NRM Plans, and all NRM Plans around the state, but they are not.

The gravity of the task should not be underestimated – it is about creating a whole new agri-economy that would have perpetual benefits. The flow-on effects would be substantial, with jobs and businesses created in site assessment and monitoring, native seed production, direct seeding, native crop products harvesting, establishment of new markets in sustainable products, higher education etc. 

There is plenty of evidence from Land and Water Australia research projects that could be applied throughout the N&Y region. The transfer of information (or lack of it) is a critical problem.

  1. There is an absence of understanding about the effects (long-term and very long-term) that vegetation removal has had on climate patterns, particularly rainfall and evaporation, in the N&Y region.


In my response in 2009 to the N&Y NRM Plan, I highlighted the lack of research in this critical area. It is of concern when there is a lack of foresight into knowledge of natural systems, including an understanding of changes that occur over a long period of time. Removal of surface tree/shrub vegetation, and replacement with seasonal exotic grass crops (i.e. cereal crops), has very likely contributed to a shift in rainfall patterns in cereal growing areas in the state, and particularly in parts of the N&Y region. It is encouraging to see that some research has been conducted in other regions of the continent, and this type of research should be applied in the N&Y region.

Refer to :  Modelling impacts of vegetation cover change on regional climate

Investigator : Dr Clive McAlpine, School of Geography, Planning and Environmental Management The University of Queensland Brisbane QLD 4072
Published by LWA July 2009

The project has provided the best available scientific evidence for revegetation to achieve more liveable Australian landscapes. It justifies ongoing management of the Australian vegetation as an important contribution to regional climate.
The opportunities for landscape scale revegetation to mitigate global climate change are also being realised. This makes the research both scientifically and politically powerful.

Although this project tended to examine the eastern part of the Australian continent, there is every reason to believe that similar research and similar outcomes would be applicable and relevant to the agricultural areas of South Australia. Widespread land clearance in the N&Y region has had an enduring impact. Much more information is needed to understand these impacts and to apply corrective strategies.

  1. There is what seems to be a significant gap between attitudes (i.e. what, why, and how people think) and environmental needs. This aspect is also a concern. The need for attitudinal change is not conveyed in any current NRM Plan, nor in the legislation, nor by government representatives and politicians. Without a change in “use” of natural resources, and a reconnection with ecology and spirit of place, long term sustainability is terminal. It has happened before when humans have over-exploited natural resources – collapse of societies has occurred, species have been made extinct, landscapes have been plundered. (A useful reference is Jared Diamond's book “Collapse”). It should not be forgotten that those who “work” the land and “use” water are merely borrowing these resources for profit. “Working the land” is an interesting term, as it evokes a subconscious mission of dominance and of extracting every bit of life out of the natural resources available. There is always interest to be paid on the natural capital, and when the latter declines, the proportion of interest rises extraordinarily.

  1. Enhanced interchange between the scientific community and the rural sector in the N&Y region on issues of major concern in terms of sustainability is needed. For example, there is inadequate discourse on real sustainable farming and alternative cropping systems, and new ways for income generation - for example payment for environmental services. New approaches are needed, and needed urgently. 

Here is an example :

Creating Markets for Environmental Goods and Services: A Mechanism Design Approach
By Gary Stoneham
Research project number DSE3 of the Social and Institutional Research Program, Land & Water Australia
Project completed June 2007

Now consider South Australian Research & Development Institute and its “About  Climate Applications” unit and the “Sustainable Systems” division. If we look at SARDI's website, it is difficult to accept that these entities are about true sustainable systems. It is a mis-use of the term "sustainable". It is clear that SARDI's primary focus is on maintaining farm and soil productivity, not sustainability in the way that is generally understood. 

SARDI is a successful organisation in translating its crop research into higher yields, and of finding ways to extract more and more production from the soil. But there are limits. Limits to resources use, limits to extraction, limits to productivity. 

There is a pervading attitude of supporting the existing agricultural framework, and this is understandable, but it should not be at the expense of a long-term sustainable outlook.

SARDI's information contains little evidence for on-ground sustainable action that encompasses environmental repair and ecological restitution. This is an attitude problem, it is a society problem.

For further evidence of this pervading attitude, go to Condition of Agricultural Land and examine the information about the many threats and natural resources decline that exist right now. It is very difficult to reconcile the focus on increasing productivity when there are deep threats to the source that brings that productivity - soil - and alarming threats to biodiversity and ecological communities.  

As stated in the No Species Loss Strategy Overview, "...we must intervene with serious planning, innovation and endeavour."

There is resistance to large-scale revegetation of the landscape. For all their good work, the efforts of community revegetation groups, Landcare groups, and individuals is not enough. I know, I'm involved in community tree planting activities, and biodiversity restoration on our own property. Landscape-scale change is needed, and this can not be delivered with the present framework which is largely based on volunteer groups. 

What will it take for organisations to realise the gravity of the problem confronting rural areas of the state, including those of the N&Y region?

Quoted earlier in “A Land Transformed – Environmental Change in South Australia – Ed. C. Nance and D.L. Speight (1986)”, Barker says (pg 28) :

"... it is necessary to ensure that the present-day progress of the human race is not at the expense of all wild plants and animals. They are a rich store of genetic material which because of their diversity and natural adaptability may be essential to our long-term survival.”

This was written in 1986. So what has happened since then? 

Today, there could hardly be a more profound reason than to restore the state's agricultural landscapes. The Northern & Yorke region is not spared from this.

The journey towards real sustainability needs to start now.

Now to Agricultural Land Condition.


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