Maria Cofinas, Colin Creighton
National Land and Water Resources Audit, 2001
ISBN 0 642 37128 8
Blowhole Valley, Tas
Photo: Murray Fagg
Managing Australia's native vegetation and natural resources and providing the information to underpin this management
Australian Native Vegetation Assessment 2001, in collaboration with Commonwealth, State and Territory agencies, has collated, from wide ranging and disparate data sets the best available information on native vegetation and compared current and estimated extent of native vegetation prior to European settlement.
It is underpinned by a standardised, Australia-wide framework developed for collating and reporting vegetation type and extent. This is, in itself, a major achievement, providing both a benchmark and an information system that will facilitate regular updates of information and assessment of change and trends in the extent of native vegetation.
Applications of the information system and the assessment will inform governments and the community about the role of native vegetation in natural resource management and biodiversity planning and have the capacity to contribute directly to initiatives such as:
- international, national, State and Territory, and regional reporting obligations (e.g. nature conservation, desertification, greenhouse and State of Environment reporting);
- vegetation-specific reporting requirements such as that required under the Australia and New Zealand Environment Conservation Council National Framework for the Management and Monitoring of Australia's Native Vegetation and State of the Environment reporting;
- the regional planning process under the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality and Natural Heritage Trust;
- developing nature conservation priorities and programs, with extent of native vegetation being the best available measure of terrestrial biodiversity and habitat; and
- benchmarking, collating data and interpreting it as the basis for monitoring and reporting change in theextent of native vegetation.
Most importantly natural resource managers at a range of levels will have access to contiguous and up to date information on Australia's native vegetation. This is essential for a range of activities including:
- developing natural resources plans and strategies across the landscape;
- setting priorities for revegetation; and
- assessing impacts of proposed clearing and other land use development activities.
Native vegetation management in Australia
A report containing information on the major Government natural resource management institutions, programs and legislation affecting the use of native vegetation in each of the Commonwealth, States and Territories jurisdictions was developed as part of the National Framework for the Management and Monitoring of Australia's Native Vegetation (1999). The report can be used as a reference tool for more detailed investigation into vegetation management in Australia and links are provided to related internet on-line information and contacts.
This report is available at www.deh.gov.au
Compendium of vegetation management in Australia-a summary of national level vegetation related initiatives
A more detailed report on national strategies has been published, a Compendium of Vegetation Management in Australia including national strategies, guidelines and initiatives that have an impact on vegetation management and monitoring and covers reporting mechanisms and international obligations in relation to native and exotic vegetation management. In addition, there are a number of strategies and principles dealing with sustainability issues that affect vegetation management.
This report is available at www.daff.gov.au
Determining the effectiveness of vegetation management programs measures and methodologies-literature review
A literature review surveyed current knowledge of the biological, physical and socio-economic processes occurring in many land, water, conservation and agricultural improvement projects so that useful indicators linking actions to final outcomes could be identified more easily. The review includes research on salinity, soil conservation, water quality, biodiversity, wood production, crop yields, infrastructure damage and carbon sequestration. It also encompasses the success or otherwise of programs directed at changing people's behaviour in relation to conservation programs and suggests areas in need of further research.
The report was initiated as part of a consultancy concerned with measures and methodologies to determine the effectiveness of vegetation management programs and was funded by Bushcare and the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation Joint Venture Agroforestry Program.
This report is available at www.rirdc.gov.au
National Vegetation Information System: supporting natural resource management
The National Vegetation Information System, by compiling data and making available information on Australia's native vegetation provides key information to support a range of natural resource management decisions and activities and a basis for native vegetation management. Some opportunities include:
- Developing an understanding of the significance of woody and herbaceous perennials in managing nutrient and sediment movement, and catchment hydrology (using National Vegetation Information System in conjunction with land use mapping data).
- Developing an understanding of the role of existing native vegetation in maintaining water balance in groundwater flow systems-essential if we are to develop integrated salinity control strategies that take the water use characteristics of the various vegetation covers, crops and soil types in a groundwater flow system into account. Intersection of the native vegetation data set with the Audit's land use, groundwater flow systems and soil property data sets provides much of the information required for this analysis-certainly within the margin of error of our understanding of salinity processes. More precise analysis would require spatial information on land use practice which is not available at this time.
- Developing an understanding of the opportunities for multi-objective landscape repair, using broadscale re-establishment of native vegetation to improve water balance and nature conservation. Using the above data in conjunction with pre-European modeled vegetation cover to estimate water use characteristics of re-vegetated landscapes and define types of vegetation required to replicate natural cover.
- Developing an integrated and catchment-based approach to management of forest resources (using National Forest Inventory data in conjunction with National Vegetation Information System and a common attribute framework).
- Developing improved understanding on the role of vegetation in landscape function, to assist natural resource and biodiversity planning and management.
- Refining the National Carbon Accounting System (using spatial coverage of native vegetation in conjunction with the Australian Greenhouse Office Landsat imagery and various allometric equations for differing vegetation types to calculate woody biomass).
There will be a range of other applications of the National Vegetation Information System at scales from Australia-wide to regional. Many of these applications are yet to be defined. Now the information set and the data that underpins it are readily available, it is expected that researchers and resource managers will develop and promote a suite of additional applications.
Native Vegetation Information: continuing to build the information base
Any information set is only useful if it is maintained and enhanced to keep pace with information technology developments and meet changing needs. Given the wide-ranging applications for up to date information on vegetation it is imperative that the National Vegetation Information System continues to be enhanced and improved.
The Audit and its Commonwealth, State and Territory government partners recognise that benefits for the National Vegetation Information System guidelines will be maximised by taking Australia-wide and comparable approaches to the collection, management and application of vegetation data. Significant resources have been provided to assist this process and the Commonwealth, States and Territories are working towards a collaborative model for future development. The long-term ideal is a distributed system where data and information resides within States and Territories as well as the Commonwealth.
Improvement requires activities on:
1. Australia-wide coordination providing institutional and collaborative arrangements for sharing methods, developing and managing initiatives and making progress on guidelines and data management activities-Environment Australia has agreed to take on this role.
2. Partnerships allowing a continued Australia-wide approach underpinned by a distributed information system-all States and Territories have agreed to continue progressing in partnership with Commonwealth agencies towards this goal.
3. Data management needs planned and secure funding for data management activities, so that data collections are routinely updated, data quality is improved and data access is enhanced-this requires action on all fronts from all partners to the initiative.
4. Information delivery needs to be timely and relevant to support management decisions-continued attention by all partners is essential so that client information needs are met.
5. Strategic investment-collecting data on key gaps and to meet vegetation and broader natural resource management priorities, as identified by users of the information products-requires action on all fronts from all partners to the initiative.
6. Stocktake and evaluation-evaluating progress, incorporating new methods of vegetation mapping and data analysis, undertaking future assessments at a maximum of five-yearly intervals based on the National Vegetation Information System 2000 baseline and ensuring relevance to broader natural resource management activities.
Rumex vesicarius, Flinders Ranges, SA
Photo: Murray Fagg
Australia wide coordination
Environment Australia and Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry - Australia are establishing a national approach to coordination of vegetation information. Environment Australia has taken on the role of coordinator of the National Vegetation Information System Stage I and its products. This coordination role will include working closely with vegetation data custodians in the States and Territories and across the Commonwealth to build on the work undertaken through the Audit. It will also include development of an operational plan to improve the functionality and benefits to thecustodians of the National Vegetation Information System and undertake obligations specified under the Australian Spatial Data Infrastructure for a national sponsor. The Audit is undertaking a hand-over of the Australian Native Vegetation Assessment 2001 to Environment Australia.
Meeting the objectives of continued Australia-wide native vegetation information management will require the following issues to be addressed:
- continued data sharing and data access across agencies at all levels of government and community, and building access to additional data sets such as the National Forest Inventory;
- review and scheduled updating of the National Vegetation Information System to ensure client-relevant products are delivered in a timely manner;
- data and information management -including attention to metadata, standards, definitions for vegetation groups and classes such as remnant vegetation-incorporating data reliability information and data archiving;
- data coordination to monitor and review vegetation data management activities and ensure that data sets are time-stamped and electronically posted by States and Territories in a timely manner and in accordance with the Australian Spatial Data Infrastructure distributed data model;
- collaboration with a broad spectrum of clients to provide native vegetation information products (including the derivation of new products to support activities such as catchment management, salinity control or landscape and biodiversity planning);
- facilitation of technical training and skills development for native vegetation data collection practitioners; and
- advocacy that scopes and promotes initiatives to build on the National Vegetation Information System and delivers through continuing investment funded from the Natural Heritage Trust.
Australian Spacial Data Infrastructure
The Australian Spatial Data Infrastructure is a national initiative led by the Australian and New Zealand Land Information Council to provide improved access to spatial data and information. The Australian Spatial Data Infrastructure aims to ensure that data users will be able to acquire consistent data sets to meet their requirements, even though the data might be collected and maintained by different authorities. The identification of a national coordinator and data custodians who rigorously manage their data holdings are primary requirements for any fundamental data set to be accredited as being Australian Spatial Data Infrastructure compliant.
Implementation of the Australian Spatial Data Infrastructure requires a solid infrastructure based on policy and administrative arrangements, technical standards and a way to make spatial data accessible to the community. The long-term aim of the Australian Spatial Data Infrastructure is to set up a distributed network of databases, managed by individual government and industry custodians.
The National Vegetation Information System provides the basis for the Australian Spatial Data Infrastructure vision of a fully distributed data system across Australia to be developed. This system has key advantages in that custodians in States and Territories maintain, update and make available their data holdings in a seamless, Australia-wide and consistent manner.
The National Vegetation Information System provides the necessary framework. Commitment from all partners is needed to put quality data management structures in place so that the system can become a reality and information products based on the National Vegetation Information System are rapidly delivered and made accessible to the community.
The fostering of close partnerships between States, Territories, the Commonwealth and other stakeholders in vegetation information will be a critical factor for the success of the National Vegetation Information System. The development and coordination of native vegetation information activities across agencies and jurisdictions requires high level guidance by a national collaborative committee on vegetation information matters.
The Commonwealth, States and Territories are currently convening such a committee, to be known as the Executive Steering Committee for Australian Vegetation Information, which will act as a collaborative, national forum for vegetation information. The development of this committee will provide the basis for collaborative and inclusive arrangements for both vegetation data providers and users. It will also provide the basis for an ongoing partnership in the delivery of information required for natural resource decision making.
As key contributors in collecting and providing vegetation information, States and Territories have key roles in vegetation information and data management. State and Territory activities may include:
- Coordination -programs are funded in such a way that all participating groups are aware of the data needs and competing priorities.
- Innovation that contributes to the refinement and review of the vegetation framework and guidelines.
- Guidelines that work across all agency data custodians within a jurisdiction to adopt and include National Vegetation Information System guidelines for all new vegetation mapping and collation activities. In some cases this will be in addition to the State system, while in others there will be a migration to the National Vegetation Information System as the core operating system for that jurisdiction.
- Information technology that improves data base systems so that a distributed system can operate Australia wide. This will ensure vegetation information is readily updated and easily transferred to or stored within the National Vegetation Information System database and made readily available at minimum cost to a range of clients within and outside the particular State or Territory.
- Training and development that supports improvement of expertise in vegetation mapping and vegetation management.
- Supporting regional activities and recognising that regional and State and Territory agencies have a need for more substantial levels of information both in terms of detail and spatial accuracy and such data sets will encompass local variations to deal with historical biases or uses of the data. Using regionally collected data and the National Vegetation Information System may improve services for regional community groups and natural resource management planning.
- Updating coverage so that arrangements are in place for regular updating of native vegetation extent data. New data sets such as the Australian Greenhouse Office Landsat coverage and State and Territory clearing registers will expedite and ensure efficiencies in these activities. Regular updating on the Australian Natural Resources Atlas will follow data updates and be facilitated through the national coordinator.
Development of native vegetation activities will be a key to vegetation information activities being undertaken across agencies. It will be overseen by a national collaborative committee on vegetation information matters-the Executive Steering Committee for Australian Vegetation Information-that will act as a collaborative, national forum for vegetation information.
Development of this committee will provide the basis for collaborative and inclusive arrangements for both vegetation data providers and users. It will also provide the basis for an ongoing partnership in the delivery of information required for natural resource decision making.
In the last decade there has been a groundswell of improving data collection programs and improvements in land management programs across Australia. Some of the vegetation mapping initiatives are highlighted.
New South Wales
Instituted a major native vegetation mapping program and a series of other programs to try to develop a better understanding of what is happening to native vegetation. The vegetation mapping program is being implemented across a number of regions using a standard set of guidelines for the collection and mapping of vegetation. The Native Vegetation Conservation Act 1997 (NSW) is the result of the New South Wales Government's native vegetation reform program.
A program of systematic surveys across the State was developed and implemented in 1971 to provide a baseline inventory of the State's flora and fauna. The program is known as the Biological Survey of South Australia, overseen by the Biological Survey Coordinating Committee, an interdepartmental State government committee.
It is estimated that at the current rate it will take more than another decade to complete surveying and mapping the vegetation for South Australia. The work is dependent on the availability of resources. Currently the vegetation survey component for the intensive zone is near complete, however, the mapping component is incomplete for large areas. No program exists to complete the work for the intensive zone. In the extensive zone, survey and mapping of the Sandy Deserts, Gawler Ranges and Nullarbor are programmed for the next five years with other areas yet to be prioritised.
In conjunction with the biological survey and vegetation mapping program, a complementary program exists to map pre-European vegetation in the intensive zone. In the next three years the south-eastern region (from the South East to Murray Mallee and Midnorth) will be complete, while the northern Mid North, Eyre and Yorke Peninsula is not programmed.
Australian Capital Territory
Future vegetation mapping and data management effort will be focused on five areas of need. It will include:
- identification of data sets that as yet have not been incorporated into the National Vegetation Information System;
- enhancement of existing vegetation data sets to address attribute and spatial deficiencies-more detailed information on the lower strata of grassy woodlands and coverage of currently unmapped areas is a priority;
- mapping of vegetation types not already addressed, including exotic vegetation and secondary grasslands;
- development of vegetation survey standards to define methodology and attributes that need to be routinely recorded, including those additional to National Vegetation Information System requirements (e.g. fire fuel loads);
- development of a vegetation database to provide a coordinated and accessible information management system; and
- development of vegetation information products that are at a scale and contain the information detail needed for local natural resource planning, management and reporting.
Distributed data and information systems-a key part of continued cooperative action
Information products derived from the National Vegetation Information System are available through the Australian Natural Resources Atlas. This provides consistent information about native vegetation in Australia at a variety of scales. While recognising the long-term benefits of a distributed system, the Audit has to date only collated existing information into a centralised database. This has facilitated validation and data checking against the guidelines and across data sets and administrative boundaries.
Centralised systems are difficult to maintain since data continue to be collected and updated by data custodians and it quickly becomes out of date. Further development of the National Vegetation Information System is being coordinated by Environment Australia and the Bureau of Rural Sciences and it is imperative that the States and Territories work closely with Commonwealth agencies to develop processes to ensure users have direct access to the most up to date data from custodians.
In a distributed system virtually all data quality control rests with the data custodians. The national coordinator's role will be to work across borders with groups of data custodians to ensure that descriptions and maps of the vegetation are consistent.
Figure 51 outlines the responsibilities of data custodians and the national coordinator. It demonstrates the need for quality assured updates from the data custodians and the progressive development of unique vegetation-type labels for each level in the information hierarchy across Australia. These labels will define an agreed list of vegetation types in Australia which can be allocated directly to new data entering the information system.
Success of this process is dependent on:
- an ongoing partnership between data custodians and the national coordinator;
- data custodians updating their original mapping using the National Vegetation Information System hierarchy; and
- development of a program of agreed public releases of national, State and Territory data and information products as continued updates on current Audit outputs.
Continued attention to information technology is essential, including:
- Upgrading system architecture in Environment Australia, the Bureau of Rural Sciences and all States and Territories, so that it keeps abreast of information technology improvements and maximises the utility and functionality of the information system.
- Maintaining the software platform by continued software development, especially for producing information products to meet client needs.
- Supporting National Vegetation Information System sites using a parallel information system in those States and Territories that have adopted the national Vegetation Information System architecture, and transfer protocols for agencies with non-National Vegetation Information System but National Vegetation Information System-compatible information system architecture.
Appendix 11 provides detail on the posssible stages in the development of a distributed system for Australia's vegetation information.
Information delivery-meeting client needs
Low open forest, Eucalyptus pauciflora, Brindabella Ranges, ACT
Photo: Murray Fagg
Only a sample of information products produced from the National Vegetation Information System has been detailed in this report. To encourage further use and application, data and information will be readily accessible from the Australian Natural Resources Atlas and the Data Library. In time, through application of the distributed system approach, all data and information will also be available through State and Territory access systems.
As management of natural resources becomes more sophisticated and we gain a more encompassing understanding of natural resource processes, our need for information changes.
A key role for all partners is to ensure products derived from the National Vegetation Information System meet client needs and emerging policy requirements. Regular review of client needs and feedback mechanisms will be important to ensure that National Vegetation Information System remains relevant and responsive.
Strategic investment-identifying and addressing priority knowledge and information gaps
Australian Native Vegetation Resources Assessment 2001 has been designed and implemented in full recognition that many issues and information needs could not be covered within available timeframes and resources.
The work has focused on setting in place a vegetation data structure for Australia and compiling the best available data into this structure. No new mapping was undertaken and not all existing mapping could be compiled. Marine, estuarine and fine-scale riparian vegetation mapping and data for the External Territories were also excluded due to limited time and resources.
Substantial progress has been made in assessing and reporting on Australian forests and woodlands through initiatives including the Regional Forest Agreements and the National Forest Inventory. Much of the Regional Forest Agreement information has been incorporated into the National Vegetation Information System. Remaining information and other inputs into the National Forest Inventory will be incorporated and made available to the public.
Australia requires high quality data and information on native vegetation type and extent across a range of vegetation types. Priorities include:
- defining native vegetation, ecological dominance and modified native vegetation;
- mapping type and extent, describing and understanding use and management for grasslands;
- collating information, undertaking further mapping of type and extent and developing revegetation priorities for Australia's riparian areas;
- mapping remnants (particularly open woodlands and small mosaic wood lots such as areas of Crown lands and roads) not incorporated in existing native vegetation mapping because they are fragmented within an agricultural landscape. Management recommendations for Australia's remnant vegetation as part of off-reserve landscape management is an imperative and provides a framework on which revegetation initiatives can be established;
- complementing the terrestrial data compilation with marine and estuarine vegetation data; and
- mapping, assessing and reporting on changes and trends in native vegetation extent, structure and floristics; weed and feral animal invasion and other attributes of condition considered a priority in vegetation management.
Open forest (Eucalyptus obliqua) in Mount Lofty National Park, SA
Photo: Murray Fagg
Stocktake and evaluation-ensuring continued client relevance
Ongoing evaluation and periodic review of progress in native vegetation information is critical. Key issues to address at that time include:
- Progress in data management: assessing progress with the National Vegetation Information System, including all aspects of data upgrading, data management, standards, data distribution and access.
- Utility of information: assessing progress made over the five-year period in the updating of the National Vegetation Information System information products to meet client needs, especially at local, regional and catchment management scales.
- Integration: assessing progress and further opportunities for links between data sets such as land use, exotic vegetation, the National Forest Inventory and the National Vegetation Information System.
- Extension: determining the extent to which the National Vegetation Information System has been used for capacity building by local, regional and catchment management groups (e.g. compilations of an Australia-wide clearing register as an additional component of the National Vegetation Information System framework to display extent and type of vegetation cleared).
- Compliance: assessing the extent to which National Vegetation Information System standards and protocols have been applied to vegetation mapping and data storage and transfer Australia wide, and if not, to determining improvements needed.
- Program impact: assessing the application of the National Vegetation Information System to support decisions made in re-establishment and management of native vegetation.
- Gap analysis: undertake an inventory of knowledge and information gaps as input to the setting of research and information collection priorities.
The Audit has identified a number of gaps in information and data coverage (see Knowledge, data and information gaps section):
- Thematic (information and knowledge) gaps including in grasslands, non-forested vegetation, definition of native and pre-European vegetation, riparian/riverine, wetlands, coastal and marine vegetation, native vegetation condition (changes in vegetation extent, structure and composition), weeds, environmental and landscape information, scale of capture in response to management requirements, site survey, links to land use/catchment/landscape issues;
- Spatial (scale and geographic coverage) gaps;
- Currency (date) of mapping;
- Vegetation classification level gaps including in the National Vegetation Information System information hierarchy and consistency in the vegetation classification; and
- Reliability of survey and mapping methods.
Information on gaps provide a comprehensive overview of the status of knowledge of Australia's vegetation. The systematic collection of this information can be used in understanding the information that exists about our native vegetation and in prioritising further work including:
- building knowledge and information gap priorities into the next Native Vegetation Assessment;
- working with the Commonwealth, States and Territories, local government, and other organisations to improve knowledge;
- promoting and using the Australian Spatial Data Directory and Australian and New Zealand Land Information Council metadata standards for identifying and documentation of existing vegetation data leading to a better knowledge of vegetation data held by custodians around Australia;
- creating links between National Vegetation Information System and research and development programs, in particular the Land and Water Australia program on native vegetation; and
- implementing the standards and protocols for the Australian Spatial Data Infrastructure for native vegetation.
Australia needs an ongoing commitment to data collection, research, extension and innovation if we are to continue to adapt and improve the way we manage and use our natural resources. These needs must be prioritised based on a range of user requirements and not all gaps in the information have the same priority or need to be filled.
Gaps can be filled through a range of initiatives that ensure compatability with the vegetation information in the National Vegetation Information System.
Establishment of priorities for the further commitment of Natural Heritage Trust funds to continue the development of the National Vegetation Information System will be based on gap analysis results.
Managing native vegetation based on condition assessment
Australia's Native Vegetation Resources Assessment 2001 provides the framework for ongoing assessments, monitoring and reporting of the status of native vegetation and its condition.
Condition is a value judgement with attributes differing widely depending on the end use of the vegetation (e.g. nature conservation, forestry production, carbon accounting, catchment water balance).
Progress and impediments
Limited progress has been made on the assessment of native vegetation condition across Australia. Condition assessment and monitoring is a developing science with continuing debate on methods and even the definition of condition. One approach suggests that vegetation condition values should consist of a matrix based on a core set of attributes with supplementary attributes to meet particular user needs, outlined in a draft framework (Environment Australia 2001).
Time and the substantial negotiations required to develop agreement on such a condition assessment process was beyond the Audit's immediate scope and resources. A review of requirements for condition information and prioritising requirements would enable the limited resources available for this activity to be better focused.
Suggested first step: a clearing register for Australia
Assessment of native vegetation condition requires a yearly inventory of clearing by vegetation type. The Australian Greenhouse Office Landsat data set will provide a good first assessment of vegetation change by providing a time series of woody vegetation loss over time. When linked with the National Vegetation Information System, information on the type of native vegetation lost and impacts can be assessed.
In some States and Territories, systems for collating finer scale information on clearing already exist (linked also to clearing permits). These more accurate information sets could replace those derived from analysis of the Australian Greenhouse Office clearing register and linked to the Native Vegetation Information System.
Work on compiling Australia-wide assessments of clearing as a first approximation for condition information can proceed immediately. Once this basic information is being routinely collated, emphasis can be given to research and development proposals for measuring attributes of condition for existing vegetation. This would include measuring the impacts of other factors that affect vegetation condition such as animal pests, climatic events, diseases, fire, grazing, insect pests, introduction of exotic biota, mining operations, plant pests, river regulation, salinisation and soil acidification.
Australia's rangelands-a special case
For Australia's rangelands, discussions on vegetation condition and associated issues (e.g. biodiversity assessment) are comparatively advanced. The Audit, with its State and Northern Territory partners, have developed the basis for a nested set of condition assessments-using the NOAA AVHRR data for Australia-wide analysis of vegetation vigour at a landscape scale, Landsat data for property and paddock scale assessment, and quadrant and photo point data for site monitoring. This system for monitoring vegetation condition can be put in place and routinely continued as part of the Australian Collaborative Rangelands Information System.
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