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New South Wales State of the Environment
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SoE 2009 > Land > 5.1 Soils and land management

Chapter 5: Land

5.1 Soils and land management

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5.1 Soils and land management

The rate at which soil resources in New South Wales is degrading has generally decreased, as a result of improved land management.

On average, land management is sustainable, with most areas managed in a way that poses a low risk of degradation with respect to most soil-degrading processes. However, the situation varies across the state and with different degradation issues. Of the soils investigated, nearly one-quarter have been assessed as being managed sustainably. Half are managed in a manner that poses some risk of degradation to one or two specific soil functions. The remaining quarter of NSW soils investigated have been assessed as being at risk of degradation for multiple soil functions.

Drought and economic pressures make it difficult for some farmers to invest in new technologies which could lead to improved soil management and this may be slowing progress. Where practised, conservation farming has helped to improve soil structure and control erosion. However, the extent to which this approach results in an improvement in organic carbon remains to be quantified. Soil acidification is still a concern due to the continuation of farming practices, such as the use of fertiliser, that lead to the problem and the high costs of treating it.

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NSW indicators

Indicator and status


Information availability

Soil condition (health) index

No change


  • Gully erosion, wind erosion

No change


  • Sheet erosion, acidity, coastal acid sulfate soils, land-based salinity

No change


  • Organic carbon, soil structure



  • Inland acid sulfate soils



Land managed within capability

No change


  • Sheet erosion control, salinity/waterlogging control



  • Gully erosion control, wind erosion control, acid sulfate soils control

No change


  • Acidification control, organic carbon decline control, soil structure decline control



Notes: Terms and symbols used above are defined in About SoE 2009 at the front of the report.

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Healthy soils provide ecosystem services that are fundamental to landscape health and an essential base for the productive capacity of the land. Although soil is nominally a renewable resource, renewal rates are very slow and in human time frames soil is effectively non-renewable. Land management practices for particular land uses are more directly associated with landscape and soil health than just differences in the land uses themselves: compare, for example, the types and techniques of tillage in cropping systems and those used in irrigated farming.

Some impacts from land use, such as dryland salinity, have a time lag before changes are evident and they may continue to unfold over a number of decades. Some types of land degradation, such as soil loss from accelerated erosion, dryland and irrigation salinity, and subsoil acidity, have long-term or irreversible consequences. Other forms of degradation, such as nutrient decline and surface soil acidification, can be remediated if addressed early but at considerable cost (Lockwood et al. 2003).

Ongoing land use, climate change and other impacts often carry a high risk of further exacerbating the effects of land degradation. The complex relationships and interdependencies between modified lands and natural systems are not well understood, further complicating the challenges faced by communities, governments and industry in developing and implementing environmentally sustainable policies and programs for managing soil resources (NSW SSPWG 2008).

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Status and trends

Soils make a significant contribution to the prosperity of NSW, but this has come at a considerable cost. A significant proportion of the state is experiencing at least one form of soil degradation and many areas are facing a number of them (SCS 1989; NSW SSPWG 2008).

Improving soil health and ensuring that best-practice soil management is implemented are economically, socially and ecologically sensible objectives for NSW. Nevertheless, although there have been improvements in soil health in some areas in recent years, human-induced soil degradation continues elsewhere, remaining widespread due to historic factors and representing one of the most difficult environmental management problems facing the state (NSW SSPWG 2008).

There is a critical and ongoing need to improve our understanding of the impacts management has on the state's soils and continuously improve them to enable NSW to meet the demands placed on its terrestrial ecosystems by current and future generations. The land's capacity to meet these demands is constrained by intrinsic factors (such as soil properties, water availability and climatic variability) and extrinsic social and cultural factors (due to rural population decline). One of the key factors constraining the sustainable use of soils is the fact that soil is essentially a non-renewable resource, as its formation is an extremely slow process (NSW SSPWG 2008). A decline in farm enterprise profitability, coupled with extensive and prolonged drought, may further inhibit remediation (for example, Michele et al. 2005).

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Soil condition across NSW

Soil condition (also referred to here as soil health) affects the ability of soil to deliver essential ecosystem functions. These include decomposition, nutrient transformation, exchange and cycling, water partitioning, climate regulation, biotic and habitat provision, and provision of media for primary production and food resources.

The most recent systematic statewide assessment of NSW soil health was in 1986–87 as part of a survey on soil degradation (see EPA 1997). Since then, soil landscape mapping has determined soil distribution patterns and intrinsic soil factors, including testing of thousands of soil samples across NSW, and this data has been used in the past four NSW State of the Environment reports (EPA 1997; EPA 2000; EPA 2003; DEC 2006). Under the aegis of State Plan 2006: A new direction for NSW (NSW Government 2006), a Monitoring, Evaluation and Reporting (MER) Strategy has employed a systematic statewide mapping program to scientifically benchmark and evaluate current and future soil condition and land management. The approach of the MER Strategy has been to identify approximately 10 priority soil monitoring units (SMUs) across each catchment management region in NSW, and undertake sampling at representative monitoring sites within each SMU. Across the state less than 10% of sites were in national parks, state forests or nature reserves; these sites are commonly used as reference or control sites.

SMUs are large tracts of land that contain either a relatively homogenous soil type or a recurring pattern of soils (parent material, geomorphology and climate). They do not cover all areas in the catchment as the MER Strategy focuses on the most important, extensive and changing soils and important land uses within the catchment. This means that there may be locations where soil condition is threatened or requires intervention but which are not monitored or reported here.

Also, the soil condition results derived from these sites will generally show the cumulative impacts of decades of land management practices, while the land management results show only the practices recorded over the past five years. This means that direct comparison between soil condition and land management results should be avoided. For example, land currently in good condition is at risk of degradation if it has been poorly managed recently; in contrast, land may currently be in poor condition, despite being managed well, due to the time it takes for the damage to be undone.

Moreover, although the use of SMUs enables extrapolation from the sites to other areas, soil health and land management results at any site or set of sites is not guaranteed to be representative across the whole SMU because of the range of land holdings, tenures and uses, such as forestry compared with cropping operations. There may also be locations reportedly under pressure but where the risk of soil degradation processes is relatively low: for example, inland potential acid sulfate soils subject to regular wetting and drying are less susceptible to oxidation than soils subjected to extended inundation.

The soil condition (health) index, based on information from 124 priority SMUs, indicates an overall 'fair' to 'good' soil condition. Map 5.1 shows the soil condition for the SMUs across NSW. On average, there has been a noticeable and moderately significant decline in the condition of NSW soils relative to their condition at the time of settlement due to past farming practices. There has also been a moderate loss of soil function for ecosystem services and agricultural productivity. However, since the 1990s changed farming practices have seen stabilisation and an overall improvement in soil health.

In some parts of the state, however, condition indicators (from which the soil condition index is built) show a decline and a significant loss of soil function (Map 5.1; Figure 5.1). These areas and indicators have lower soil condition indexes, indicating 'poor' or 'very poor' condition, with a significant or profound loss of soil function and a substantial deterioration compared with the condition before settlement.

Map 5.1: Soil condition (health) index

Map 5.1

Notes: SMUs do not cover all areas in a catchment and, as they may cover different land holdings, tenures and uses, the results shown represent an average across the SMU and are therefore indicative only.
Index ratings:
Very good = No concern with soil function: either no deterioration or an improvement on reference condition
Good = Slight concern with soil function: noticeable but not significant deterioration against reference condition
Fair = Concern with loss of soil function: noticeable and significant deterioration against reference condition
Poor = Significant loss of soil function: obvious and substantial deterioration against reference condition
Very poor = Profound loss of soil function: approaching or at complete deterioration
No data = Not included for change monitoring: information available in support documents

Figure 5.1: Proportion of soil monitoring units in each soil condition indicator category

Figure 5.1

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Source: DECC data 2009

The results suggest that, on a statewide basis, a low concentration of organic carbon is the dominant issue of concern, with soil structure, sheet erosion, salinity and soil acidity also significant. Potential acid sulfate soils are of concern in some coastal and drying inland riverine areas. Regionally, different issues of concern dominate (see Table 5.1).

Table 5.1: Soil condition issues of greatest concern in each geomorphic region of NSW

Geomorphic region

Major soil-related environmental issues

Coastal areas: rugged mountainous lands of basalt, sandstone, granite and other rock types covered in dense forest, which fall away to fertile river valleys meandering among undulating grazing lands. The land and soils reflect the influence of the mountains and the sea, with rich basaltic soils, saline coastal lowlands, and leached sandy and acid soils. This zone receives the highest and most reliable rainfall in the state and has the most highly populated and urbanised areas.

Soil erosion and land instability problems from urban development and encroachment onto non-urban lands

Soil erosion and water pollution associated with clearing of native vegetation

Soil nutrient and organic carbon decline

Soil acidification

Exposure of potential acid sulfate soils and their influence on water quality and aquatic ecosystems

Erosion of coastal dunes by wind

Contamination of soils by agricultural and industrial chemicals

Urban development and recreational land use on soils of high agricultural and horticultural capability

Tablelands: mainly undulating to steep lands that are typically used for grazing and timber production. The tablelands form the watershed between coastal flowing rivers and the inland rivers of the Murray–Darling Basin.

Dryland salinity

Soil structure decline

Nutrient loss

Soil erosion and water pollution from historical clearing of native vegetation

Land-use changes in major groundwater recharge zones affecting groundwater systems

Infestation by weeds and feral animals

Naturally acid soils and soil acidification

Western slopes: mainly undulating lands extensively used for agriculture. The slopes have the highest proportion of cropping area in the state.

Dryland salinity and rising watertables

Soil structure decline, particularly in cropping lands, including loss of capacity to infiltrate and store moisture, loss of organic matter, and loss of soil biota

Soil erosion by wind and water

Historically excessive clearance of native vegetation

Naturally acid soils and soil acidification

Management of pests and weeds

Western plains: semi-arid to arid plains mainly used for rangeland grazing. Irrigation is a significant feature in pockets of this zone and this has enabled the introduction of many agricultural crops that otherwise would not grow in the area.

Wind and water erosion

Rising watertables and salinity in association with irrigation development

Cropping on lake beds in the Murray–Darling Basin

Unsustainable rangeland management Spread of pests and weeds

Stock disturbance of soil surface

Source: Derived from NSW SSPWG 2008

Soil condition indicators show soil characteristics or processes which threaten soil health (Table 5.2). The indicators used are sheet, gully and wind erosion, acidity, organic carbon, soil structure, coastal acid sulfate soils and soil salinity. Each indicator was assessed using a combination of field measurements and tests, and laboratory analysis where appropriate. For sheet and wind erosion, observations were supplemented by spatial modelling.

Table 5.2: Soil condition indicators


Degradation process

Erosion – sheet

Sheet erosion is caused by rain splash and diffuse water flows. It removes topsoil and reduces productivity, terrestrial biodiversity and ecosystem functions. Many soils have eroded severely in the past to the extent that topsoil has been completely removed. Off-site sediment and nutrient export affects water quality, aquatic ecosystem function and productivity.

Erosion – gully

Gully erosion is the erosion of topsoil and subsoil by concentrated overland water flow. It reduces land management options, water quality and terrestrial and aquatic ecosystem function through the delivery of sediment. Gully erosion is expected to be sensitive to climate change.

Erosion – wind

Wind erosion reduces air quality, land management options and terrestrial ecosystem function. Burial and deposition of nutrients can harm biodiversity. Dust deposition can significantly alter aquatic ecosystems. Wind erosion is expected to be sensitive to climate change.


Soil pH is a major indicator of soil chemical health. Acidification can reduce soil health and productivity and ecosystem function. Acidity is associated with erosion, soil structure decline and salinity.

Organic carbon

Organic carbon is a prime biological determinant of soil health. Organic carbon is sensitive to land management practices, including those which sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Soil has the largest concentration in the carbon cycle (Bolin et al. 1997).

Soil structure

Soil structure is the arrangement of soil particles and voids. It governs soil water storage and movement and gas exchange and is the prime physical determinant of soil condition. Soil structural condition is sensitive to land management practices.

Coastal acid sulfate soils

Coastal acid sulfate soils are low-lying coastal soils from previous marine environments which, when drained or exhumed, can discharge sulfuric acid. They have the potential to cause profound terrestrial and aquatic ecosystem damage.

Inland acid sulfate soils

Sulfidic sediments have often been thought of only as a coastal phenomenon but are now known to be common in inland wetlands (MDFRC 2007). One study of 81 wetlands in the Murray–Darling Basin found 17 (roughly 20%) were characterised as actually or probably containing sulfidic sediments. Although most were adjacent to the Murray River, potential acid sulfate soils were also found in wetlands in the Murrumbidgee, Lachlan and Macquarie valleys (Hall et al. 2006).

Soil salinity

Soil salinity is the accumulation of salt on or near the ground surface. It has the potential to cause profound terrestrial and aquatic ecosystem damage, including massive erosion.

Notes: The NSW Government has not systematically monitored the condition of inland potential acid sulfate soils, but has surveyed land management actions that might cause their acidification.

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Assessing land management within capability

Appropriate land management is vital for the sustainable use of soil and land resources. The physical capacity of the land to sustain a range of land uses and management practices in the long term should resist the degradation of soil, land, air and water resources (Dent & Young 1981). Failure to manage land sustainably may result in a degradation of resources, and a decline in productivity, natural ecosystem values and infrastructure.

Land management deals with practices undertaken during the course of land use. Management issues, such as the intensity of tillage prior to sowing, length of bare fallow, minimum ground cover maintained, silvicultural practices and the extent of fertiliser application, all play a large role in determining the impact of an operation on the land.

Inappropriate land management that does not consider soil properties and seasonal conditions puts soil condition at risk. Damage from unsustainable land management can substantially jeopardise the capacity of land to be productive and provide ecological services. Occasionally, damage goes beyond the point where land use cannot continue in its current form and may also include off-site degradation of aquatic ecosystems. However, changes in land use, such as reafforestation, may be possible, profitable and help with remediation.

NSW has long-established frameworks for assessing and mapping land capability, which is the physical ability of the soil to resist degradation arising from the use of the land (Emery 1986), and land suitability, the fitness of a given type of land for a specified kind of use, based on consideration of the physical, technical and socioeconomic conditions prevailing (BRS 2005).

The baseline indicators of land management within capability are sheet, gully and wind erosion, soil acidification, organic carbon decline, soil structure decline, acid sulfate soils and soil salinity. Each indicator was assessed using detailed land management information about each monitoring site derived from landholder interviews using a standard questionnaire (DECC 2008a). Additional land management information that may be incorporated includes roadside paddock assessments using LANDMAPT (Leys & Biesaga 2007), the five-yearly Australian Bureau of Statistics land management surveys, and data on land management issues over each SMU.

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Land management relative to capability

On a statewide basis, land in NSW is managed at a level which complements its physical capability to sustain a range of land uses and management practices in the long term. On average, current land management practices lead to a moderate risk of degradation. However, the level of risk varies between soil condition indicators and across catchment management regions. Mostly, where soils are continuing to degrade, they are doing so at slower rates than in the past. However, the pressures on organic carbon and soil structure are increasing across most catchment management regions, suggesting that the condition of these indicators will decline.

The risk of sheet erosion, gully erosion, wind erosion, acidity, acid sulfate soils and salinity also appears to be increasing or remaining steady over most catchment management regions, suggesting a trend of slight decline or maintenance of condition for these indicators.

Map 5.2 shows the complex pattern of management demands on soils across NSW based on information gathered across the 124 priority SMUs. Most SMUs are managed at or within capability for the eight pressures monitored, with 29 of them being managed sustainably. Map 5.2 shows these 29 SMUs, along with another 32 SMUs where one pressure needs better management, and 27 SMUs where two pressures need better management. The remaining 36 SMUs have multiple pressures needing better management.

Map 5.2: Main land degradation pressures within soil monitoring units

Map 5.2

Notes: SMUs do not cover all areas in a catchment and, as they may cover different land holdings, tenures and uses, the results shown represent an average across the SMU and are therefore indicative only.

Some parts of the state and some land degradation issues are poorly managed with respect to capability, bringing a high risk of ongoing land degradation. These areas and issues are low on the land management within capability indexes, indicating poor land management relative to capability.

Across NSW the average trend in land management within capability is steady, not noticeably improving or declining. However, the situation varies slightly across regions and between different land degradation issues (Map 5.3; Figure 5.2). In some regions there appears to be an overall move towards more sustainable land management practices, while in others there appears to be a move away. Among individual properties or across tenures there will be much greater variability in how land is being managed sustainably and within capability.

Map 5.3: Index of land management within capability

Map 5.3

Notes: SMUs do not cover all areas in a catchment and, as they may cover different land holdings, tenures and uses, the results shown represent an average across the SMU and are therefore indicative only.
Index ratings:
Very good = Managed well within capability: negligible risk of degradation and probable improvement of soil and land resources
Good = Managed within capability: very low risk of degradation to soil and land resources
Fair = Managed at capability: low risk of degradation to soil and land resources
Poor = Managed slightly beyond capability: high risk of degradation to soil and land resources
Very poor = Managed well beyond capability: very high risk of degradation to soil and land resources
No data = Not included for change monitoring: information may be available in support documents

The management of sheet erosion and salinity appears to be improving, while it seems that organic carbon decline, acidification and soil structure decline are being managed less sustainably. These results are due to a variety of reasons because:

  • land management practices, particularly cropping and grazing, are improving, although stubble burning remains an issue with impacts on soils and human health
  • some farming practices, such as the use of improved pasture species, legume-dominant pastures and the application of fertilisers, tend to create acidification while abatement (usually the application of lime) can be prohibitively expensive
  • management of salinity and waterlogging continues to improve, with actions, such as those under the NSW Salinity Strategy (DLWC 2000), likely to be assisted by a reduction in groundwater recharge due to changes in climate (DECC 2009).

Figure 5.2: Proportion of soil monitoring units in each land management index category

Figure 5.2

Download Data

Source: DECCW data 2009

Urban areas and the urban fringe

In urban environments, soils are exposed to a range of major mechanical disturbances consistent with intensive development. Major impacts, particularly with respect to water quality and pollution of water bodies, often occur off-site. These impacts appear to be adequately managed by existing planning legislation and development controls. Information, such as that contained in Managing Urban Stormwater: Soils and construction (DECC 2008b), provides guidance for government and the community in addressing the control of sediment and erosion in urban areas often required by development approval conditions (NSW SSPWG 2008).

In expanding urban fringe areas, soil issues are not well catered for as the population increases along with the infrastructure. Conflicts between land-use zoning, subdivision of land and increased building footprints, segregation of agricultural holdings and diminishing areas of often fertile soils all have the potential to reduce agricultural productivity on lands still being farmed or grazed (NSW SSPWG 2008). Urbanisation is particularly prevalent in coastal areas along the NSW coast, often at the expense of some of the state's most sustainable soils (commonly those falling within Rural Land Capability classes I, II and III).

Climate change impacts

Soils are an integral part of the Earth's climate system and, along with the oceans, are one of the largest global carbon stores. Land clearing often leads to significant emissions of carbon dioxide, not just from the burning or decomposition of cleared vegetation, but also from the ongoing oxidation of the soil's organic matter over the long term.

Likely impacts on soils and soils processes in NSW have been identified in the NSW Climate Impact Profile (DECCW in prep.). Projected changes to rainfall, temperature, evaporation and extreme weather across NSW are complex (see Climate Change 2.1), but they are likely to result in a drying, warming climate that will generally make soil management more challenging. For example, erosion potential may increase due to a decline in ground-cover vegetation in combination with harsher winds and more intense rainfall. Conversely, a drier climate may lessen the problems of land salinity and waterlogging.

Regional shifts in climate patterns may place pressure on land managers to adapt their land uses or practices. While some adaptations may potentially have a negative impact on soil health, land managers will also face pressure to maintain soil health in order to sustain the resilience of their enterprises.

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The NSW Government guides natural resource management across the state through legislation, policies, strategies and programs. The management of NSW soils involves initiatives and programs at the state and regional levels that ultimately result in the best land management practices.

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State Government responses

State Plan 2006

The goal of increasing the area of land being managed sustainably in NSW is a State Government priority. One of the most recent and significant changes to the management of soils in NSW has been the adoption of statewide natural resource management targets through State Plan 2006: A new direction for NSW (NSW Government 2006). This includes the targets under Priority E4: 'By 2015 there is an improvement in soil condition' and 'By 2015 there is an increase in the area of land that is managed within its capability'. A review of State Plan 2006 commenced in August 2009 and this may adjust some of the plan's priorities and targets.

Across the state, achieving these targets involves initiatives and programs at state and regional levels that ultimately bring about the adoption of best-practice land management. The MER Strategy has established a comprehensive program to develop indicators of soil condition and land management within capability.


Mangement of soils in NSW is covered by a broad range of legislation. The Catchment Management Authorities Act 2003 established 13 catchment management authorities (CMAs) and outlined their responsibility for natural resource management. The Soil Conservation Act 1938 provides for the conservation of soil resources, the mitigation of soil erosion and land degradation, and the conservation of water resources throughout the state.

Other Acts, which provide mechanisms for soil protection and management, include the Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997, Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979, Native Vegetation Act 2003 and Crown Lands Act 1989.

Policies and strategies

There are numerous state policies and plans that cover soil conservation and the sustainable use of soils. The State Soils Policy 1987 sets out important principles for the protection and management of NSW soils. It has recently been reviewed and is undergoing a public consultation phase. The NSW Government introduced State Environmental Planning Policy (Rural Lands) 2008 to facilitate the orderly and economic use and development of rural lands for rural and related purposes. The Government's Metropolitan Strategy: City of Cities – A plan for Sydney's future (DoP 2005) and its supporting draft subregional strategies assist the management of land-use changes on the urban fringe. Other policies, including the Total Catchment Management Policy 1987, Sustainable Agriculture Policy 1998 and the NSW Salinity Strategy 2000, also guide land management. The 1992 National Forest Policy Statement (updated in 1995) (CoA 1995) aims to ensure the sustainable use of Australian forests.

The NSW Government is developing a contemporary, long-term and integrated soils framework to extend government and community initiatives that have helped address inappropriate soil management. The NSW Soils Framework: 'Looking forward, acting now' (NSW SSPWG 2008) was prepared for and endorsed by the state's Natural Resources and Environment CEOs Cluster Group. It details existing policies and programs for soil management in NSW and how they integrate into catchment and government administration approaches. The framework suggests new directions in NSW soil management in the areas of institutional arrangements, research and development, marketing and awareness, information exchange and capacity building, funding and incentives, policy tools, regulations and natural resources management legislation in general. Following this report, a draft NSW Soils Policy is being developed.


Monitoring to assess the soils targets under Priority E4 of State Plan 2006 is continuing under CMA and Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water programs. Some CMAs are implementing SoilWatch, a community-based program to monitor soil health that aims to demonstrate the long-term benefits of managing soils appropriately. The national Caring for Our Country program (which supersedes the National Landcare Program) is providing support for projects undertaking monitoring of water erosion, wind erosion, soil acidification and soil carbon, as well as providing an incentive program to fund groups of landholders to improve soil condition.

The NSW Government has recently developed a number of soil and land assessment systems that will lead to sustainable land management. These include:

  • a system to assess the impact of various land management actions on soil condition
  • a land and soil capability assessment system, with draft mapping completed across NSW
  • a soil and landscape constraint assessment system
  • a modelling system (Tools2) to assess the impact on soils of different management options.

Soil and landscape information and advice on land management is provided through publications, maps and databases under the Landscapes and Soils Program. The NSW Soil and Land Information System has been established for soil information in NSW and is used by government, landholders, CMAs and community groups to improve planning and decision-making for land management. The NSW Natural Resource Atlas is used to access publicly available soil profile information.

Extension services that encourage sustainable land management practices by landholders are undertaken widely by Department of Industry and Investment staff throughout NSW. For example, PROfarm promotes the adoption of sustainable farming practices and provides courses in areas such as conservation farming; managing land capability, soil erosion and ground cover; soils and fertilisers; monitoring, evaluation, reporting and improvement workshops; and tactical grazing management.

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Catchment level actions

Each of the state's 13 CMAs has developed a catchment action plan (CAP) which, along with the investment programs that support CAPs, are the key tools that coordinate and drive the effort to improve natural resources across NSW. CAPs describe the approach to be adopted for addressing each of the statewide targets at the regional scale by specifying regional targets and activities. They provide a strategic framework for natural resource management in the catchment.

CMAs use a range of collaborative programs and financial incentives to drive the adoption of sustainable land management practices by landholders and the remediation of degraded agricultural lands. These include:

  • assistance to protect and treat severe gully erosion, stream-bank erosion and saline sites
  • treatment of saline discharge areas and saline hazard landscapes by increasing ground cover, plant growth and soil organic matter through such programs as those promoting active perennial pastures or revegetating key areas with woody vegetation
  • the establishment of stock containment areas, including improved stock water access and control, in grazing lands to protect soil from erosion, particularly during drought
  • providing assistance to farmers on cropping techniques and equipment to expand no-till farming
  • monitoring of soils, soil landscape mapping and land-use mapping and assessment, which are usually in association with state and federal programs such as the MER Strategy and Caring for Our Country.

CMAs also provide a range of educational and awareness services and training programs to help landholders improve soil condition and increase their knowledge and skills in sustainable land management. Activities implemented by CMAs and other state or regional organisations include soil and land extension services that promote the benefits of managing land well, such as:

  • workshops on pasture management, conservation cropping and efficient water management
  • workshops on property planning that give landholders the skills to assess their land and ensure that they use it within its capability
  • field days demonstrating the effectiveness of grazing management strategies and the benefits of land rehabilitation.

A wide range of other programs and activities is undertaken at the catchment level to help achieve sustainable land management and improved soil condition. Some recent examples include:

  • preparation or updating of best-practice management guidelines for land under cultivation for crops such as cotton, bananas, macadamias and coffee, and for dairying and irrigation
  • long-term trials by Forests NSW to compare water quality and quantity in harvested and non-harvested catchments in state forests
  • with the assistance of agencies such as the Department of Industry and Investment, guidance on local land use and management by local councils in their implementation of the Local Government Act 1993 and development of local environmental plans (LEPs)
  • development by the Department of Planning of regional strategies to guide LEP-making and identify state or regionally significant farmland.

The National Centre for Rural Greenhouse Gas Research was launched in May 2009 at the University of New England. The centre will investigate how to address the challenges that climate change presents to primary industries. Research will initially focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, sequestering carbon in soils and developing next-generation biofuels.

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National responses

Currently no national strategies or policies specifically relate to soil conservation or the sustainable use of soils in an Australian context. However, a new national soils strategy is under consideration. The National Committee on Soils and Terrain has prepared a policy discussion paper which is expected to inform the development of a National Soils Policy by the Natural Resource Policies and Programs Committee, the Natural Resource Management Standing Committee and the Natural Resource Management Ministerial Council (Campbell 2008).

NSW has an obligation to adopt key national environmental strategies when developing state-specific policy material (NSW SSPWG 2008). This includes consideration of the 1998 National Greenhouse Strategy, the 1992 National Forest Policy Statement (updated in 1995) (CoA 1995), the 1992 Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment, and the 1992 National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development (CoA 1992).

The national Landcare network provides an invaluable contribution to integrated natural resource management at a grass-roots level. There are about 4500 Landcare groups, with almost 2000 of these registered in NSW. Landcare groups are involved in land and water management issues which include weed control, revegetation, soil erosion by water, stream-bank erosion, river and estuary corridor degradation, farmland improvements and protection of the urban environment. The issues addressed by Landcare groups often promote soil conservation and the sustainable use of soils. Landcare's importance in education and community awareness of natural resource issues, including the health of soils, is nationally significant.

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Future directions

Actions aimed at improving land management and reducing land degradation can also help ameliorate or deal with changing climate. Improving land management can assist in the long-term stabilisation of atmospheric greenhouse gases, firstly by reducing the loss of soil organic matter, then by removing carbon dioxide from the air and sequestering it in the land in the form of vegetation and soil carbon. Soil carbon is linked to most facets of soil health and is beneficial for nutrient retention and availability, soil structure improvement, erosion resistance, water infiltration and retention, and drainage characteristics (NSW SSPWG 2008).

Best-practice management of soils offers many opportunities to address other environmental issues, for example:

  • soil carbon sequestration may improve soil health by encouraging the adoption of sustainable land management practices
  • improved ground-cover management may assist in combating erosion and sedimentation caused by the increased frequency and intensity of rainfall forecast for some regions of NSW as a result of climate change
  • suggesting ways to incorporate soil protection and improvement in emerging legislation to deal with climate change impacts.

Initiatives for sustainable soil management, such as comprehensive and integrated land-use systems, can help to manage and prevent soil degradation and achieve improvements in soils and their sustainable use.

Many of the benefits of good soil management, such as improved water quality, reduced sedimentation and carbon sequestration, are off-site, and deliver benefits beyond the landholder or government trading enterprises such as Forests NSW. Historically, costs such as those of environmental degradation have not been reflected in the prices obtained for products. In failing to reflect the total cost of production, markets have not developed internal incentives for improving soil management practices. Policy tools and strategies could be developed to identify and promote market-based incentives in new and emerging markets. Where market-based incentives are unable to provide a solution, incentives for improved soil management may need to be extended or new programs implemented (NSW SSPWG 2008).

There is a need to extend the consideration of land capability assessment to broader strategic planning processes and in assessing site-specific development proposals. This is currently part of natural resource management planning for native vegetation administration and plantation forestry, and initiatives by the NSW Government to protect land for primary industries. State Environmental Planning Policy (Rural Lands) 2008 provides a strategic and consistent approach to rural planning across NSW. It applies to local government areas across NSW, excluding the Sydney Metropolitan, Newcastle, Gosford, Wyong, Wollongong and Lake Macquarie areas.

The framework of LEPs and development control plans contains a broader formalisation of the controls on rural residential development, which supports and maintains prime agricultural land and enables new opportunities for intensive agricultural development.

The Department of Industry and Investment (formerly Department of Primary Industries) and the Department of Planning are working closely to investigate the options for maintenance and protection of rural land in metropolitan Sydney. This work is in accordance with the actions outlined in the Government's Metropolitan Strategy: City of Cities – A plan for Sydney's future (DoP 2005) and relevant draft subregional strategies.

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