South Australia’s tattered environmental remains

16 04 2014
State budget percentage expenditures for health, education and environment

South Australia State budget percentage expenditures for health, education and environment

Yesterday I gave the second keynote address at the South Australia Natural Resource Management (NRM) Science Conference at the University of Adelaide (see also a brief synopsis of Day 1 here). Unfortunately, I’m missing today’s talks because of an acute case of man cold, but at least I can stay at home and work while sipping cups of hot tea.

Many people came up afterwards and congratulated me for “being brave enough to tell the truth”, which both encouraged and distressed me – I am encouraged by the positive feedback, but distressed by the lack of action on the part of our natural resource management leaders.

The simple truth is that South Australia’s biodiversity and ecosystems are in shambles, yet few seem to appreciate this.

So for the benefit of those who couldn’t attend, I’ve uploaded the podcast of my slideshow for general viewing here. I’ve also highlighted some key points from the talk below:

  • Australia ranks 9th worst in the world for absolute environmental degradation [1]
  • We have a legacy of deforestation, most notably in south-western Western Australia and Queensland from the mid-1970s to 2000s [2]
  • Australia has the highest modern mammal extinction rate on Earth, and declines are continuing
  • Australia has the world’s longest, contiguous human-made structure in the world – the ‘dog’ fence. It costs taxpayers millions to maintain each year and prevents dingoes from suppressing feral meso-predators (cats, foxes) that eat native wildlife
  • Australia has elected the most environmentally destructive federal government in modern history, with already a legacy of devastating anti-environmental policies implemented within only 6 months of taking office (see also great discussion on this here)
  • Most of South Australia’s forests were cleared in the 19th and early 20th Centuries [2]
  • Native forests cover only about 9 % of the State’s area [2]
  • There is < 10 % of the original forest cover in the Mount Lofty Ranges [2]
  • There is < 4 % of the original forest cover left in the Adelaide Plains [2]
  • Broad-scale clearing of vegetation was apparently stopped in 1991 with the implementation of the Native Vegetation Act; however, each year in South Australia there are between 1000 and 2000 hectares legally cleared, and over 200 hectares cleared illegally [2, 3]
  • Only about 1 % of the South Australian State Budget is allocated to the environment (including the EPA), which compares to about 20-25 % for both health and education. Nationally, it’s about 1.2 % (see figure above)
  • This is despite over 5 % of the State’s revenue depending on agriculture in the broadest definition of the term (it is 2.4 % nationally), with 56 % of the $3 billion national wine exports coming from South Australia. We also depend on $760 million annual from the seafood industry and substantial proportion of our income from tourism indirectly linked to our environment
  • Yet there is no dedicated, broad-scale research into the importance of pollinator communities on these essential sources of income, or the role of healthy coastal systems on our fisheries production
  • According to the 2013 State of the Environment South Australia report [3], the grades given to various components are:
    • native vegetation = poor
    • threatened species & communities = very poor and declining
    • soil condition = fair
    • introduced species = very poor
    • marine communities = extent and condition declining
    • pollution = decreasing
    • human population pressures = increasing
    • threatened marine species = increasing protection, but heightened threat from sea level rise and ocean acidification
  • Having reviewed the biodiversity and marine chaptersof theSOE13 report [3] myself, I can confidently say thatthere are a few problems still with it:
    • It provides misleading statements about total vegetation cover (i.e., it glosses over the devastating losses already incurred)
    • It mentions biodiversity offsets as a meaningful component to combat continued vegetation losses, when it has been clearly demonstrated [4] that biodiversity offsets do not work, because native vegetation cannot be replaced (both in terms of biodiversity and function)
    • The indicator species chosen are apparently random, not justified in terms of function or representativeness and do not provide adequate coverage of the State’s ecosystems
    • There is inadequate long-term monitoring data or capacity in South Australia, such that it is impossible to track change in environmental performance over time
    • The State has an unachievable and distracting ‘lose no species’ policy (see here for critique)
    • There is no dedicated legislation for ecosystem protection in South Australia apart from the Native Vegetation Act 1991 and the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1972. Ecosystem considerations are mere afterthoughts in otherwise non-targeted legislation
  • There are some smaller ecological function projects being done around the state (see one example I’m involved with here), but nothing that’s across agricultural and environmental sectors, and nothing of large enough scope to make a difference

In summary, the major impediments to environmental improvement in South Australia are:

  • There is a State-level disconnect between biodiversity conservation and agriculture;
  • The pastorlism industry has a strangle-hold on the NRM Boards and Biosecurity SA;
  • There are too many piecemeal cross-institutional research projects, and little big-picture leadership;
  • The national anti-environment agenda is killing state initiatives;
  • There is too much complacency and nearly no environmental leadership in Parliament

So what to do?

  • We need to arrest all native vegetation clearance immediately;
  • We need state-wide forest and soil carbon assessments;
  • We need dedicated ecosystem intactness legislation;
  • We need a representative system of long-term monitoring sites and the associated funding to support them in perpetuity;
  • We need a much better research agenda to determine the water flow regimes on wetland health and function;
  • We need broad-scale reforestation endeavours linked to the carbon assessments and markets arising;
  • We need agricultural intensification, not expansion, to limit land transformation.

There is no one left alive in South Australia that can remember the pre-European environmental baseline, so we have a jaded and myopic view of what our environment should look like. Complicate this shifting baseline syndrome with the rapidity of climate changes, and you have a confused, rudderless management outlook that will continue to degrade our ailing life-support system.


  1. Bradshaw, C. J. A., X. Giam, and N. S. Sodhi. 2010. Evaluating the relative environmental impact of countries. PLoS One 5:e10440
  2. Bradshaw, C. J. A. 2012. Little left to lose: deforestation and forest degradation in Australia since European colonization. Journal of Plant Ecology 5:109-120
  3. South Australia Environmental Protection Authority. 2013. State of the Environment South Australia. Adelaide
  4. Bekessy, S. A., B. A. Wintle, D. B. Lindenmayer, M. A. McCarthy, M. Colyvan, M. A. Burgman, and H. P. Possingham. 2010. The biodiversity bank cannot be a lending bank. Conservation Letters 3:151-158




10 responses

24 09 2018
South Australia’s broken biodiversity legislation |

[…] Vegetation Act that is supposed to restrict the clearing of existing native vegetation (of which there is precious little left), and the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1972 to legislate protected areas and species […]


14 11 2016
Steve Darden

Reblogged this on SeekerBlog.


9 02 2015
The Abbott-oir survives another day to wreak more environmental havoc |

[…] is typical in Australian politics, the environment takes a very distant back seat to the those oh-so-important societal issues like knighthoods, paid parental leave and where to […]


20 10 2014
It’s not all about cats |

[…] Neither Mr Hunt’s nor Mr Andrews‘ approaches mention anything about dingoes, nor do they challenge their government’s renewed love for habitat destruction and deforestation. Cats kill, but habitat destruction and continued bush clearing will have far more lasting and substantive effects on biodiversity than cats ever will. Addressing all causes of biodiversity loss simultaneously is an absolute necessity, and buying into the snake-oil hype will only perpetuate our horrible legacy of biodiversity loss. […]


22 07 2014
Of forests, fences and foxes: A South Australian reflection on George Monbiot’s “Feral” | Decarbonise SA

[…] particularly in the parts of Australia where most of us actually live. As Corey Bradshaw says, “the simple truth is that South Australia’s biodiversity and ecosystems are in shambles”, with only one percent of our state budget allocated to the environment, including the EPA. We may […]


6 05 2014
Australian League of Environmental Organisations |

[…] libertarian politicians. Only yesterday I was chatting to a student in the tea room about my ‘State of South Australia’s Environment‘ talk when he asked “So, what can do about it?”. Isn’t that the 1 per cent1 […]


24 04 2014
Look at the whale (while we wipe out everything else) |

[…] Australian politicians can win easy green votes while doing nothing much at all about the other, real environmental crises unfolding right beneath the noses of their constituents. And easy it is – even the most […]


21 04 2014
Dr. Nigel Miles

Thanks for the update and your persistent and qualifying education, for our knowledge. The representatives of the South Australian and Federal Governments should be shamefully exposed for their lack of responsibility.


16 04 2014

“There is no one left alive in South Australia that can remember the pre-European environmental baseline, so we have a jaded and myopic view of what our environment should look like…”

This statement is so important, yet not appreciated in many discussions of ecological issues. I remember when I was a child and I was driving with my father through the expanding outskirts of a large city. He became sullen and said that this area used to be forest. I could only say “oh, really?” and then go back to my own thoughts. He was feeling the pain of what was lost, yet to me it was the way it always was. I could not feel for something that was, to me, unchanged. To him, the deer, trees, frogs, rivers (yes, Canada does love to hate small waterways!), and the everything was missing. To me – at that age – it never was. How could I miss something that never was?

Years later I understood…but the question is how do we, as those who are charged with understanding nature, make others understand the reality and not just the current? I say education is the start – reformed ecological education. No luck of any of that in Canada or Taiwan, the two places for which I have experience in education and science.

Anyway, good thought provoking (though depressing at points) post.


16 04 2014
Graeme McLeay

Wow! That’s a heads-up to the scientific community but how can “We The People” bring about the political will when there is none in this post scientific era.


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