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The Biodiversity Fund – another missed opportunity?

Australia’s Biodiversity Fund was announced in July 2011 as part of the “Clean Energy Future” package. We welcome the expenditure of almost a billion dollars over the next six years on biodiversity conservation…

Without monitoring and evaluation, the Biodiversity Fund will be another missed opportunity. Omega Man/Flickr

Australia’s Biodiversity Fund was announced in July 2011 as part of the “Clean Energy Future” package. We welcome the expenditure of almost a billion dollars over the next six years on biodiversity conservation. And we commend the Australian Government for committing ongoing investment to this Fund: a long-term approach to conservation funding our nation has sorely needed for a very long time.

However we have several key concerns. The Biodiversity Fund currently seems destined to repeat the myriad of mistakes that characterised the Natural Heritage Trust, and many other government environmental initiatives. The science and policy community need to work together to avoid this.

Our sincere hope is that deficiencies can be addressed and the Biodiversity Fund can take an informed and strategic approach to tackling biodiversity conservation problems in Australia.

Poorly defined and highly confused

The purpose of the Biodiversity Fund remains far from clear. To date there is limited evidence of strategic or coherent thought regarding how to best implement the Fund.

Carbon farming may be laudable, but will it protect biodiversity? Jiggs Images

The press release, fact sheet, and guidelines give an impression that the Biodiversity Fund will solve all environmental problems but focus on none in particular. Supporting documents mention everything from unique species, resilience, climate change, carbon farming, carbon storage, pollution, ecosystem function, biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Initially the Fund was to “protect Australia’s unique species from climate change impacts”. Then it changed to “support landholders to undertake projects that establish, restore, protect or manage biodiverse carbon stores”.

After reading the Biodiversity Fund guidelines, one is left wondering if it is a fund for biodiversity or a fund to protect carbon stores? If it is for both, which takes priority and who will measure the resulting change in biodiversity and carbon storing capability?

The fund’s objectives are to:

  • help maintain ecosystem function and increase ecosystem resilience to climate change.
  • increase and improve the management of biodiverse carbon stores across the country.

Given the objectives, it will be important to target ecosystems strategically. There is no evidence this will happen. Instead, the aim is to have a spread of projects across Australia, in a diversity of vegetation types, and it is mentioned frequently that activities should be in areas of “high conservation value”. It is not stated what these are.

Pay attention to the existing science

Some of the proposed initiatives are not well supported by the existing science in conservation biology, restoration science or environmental management. Our great concern is that ill-informed actions may undermine ecosystem function and even lead to accelerated biodiversity loss.

We know that misguided planting programs can actually have negative impacts on the environment. They can promote habitat for hyper-aggressive animals like the Noisy Miner, with negative impacts on other native birds. In essence, well meaning planting programs can lead to “bio-perversity”: perverse outcomes for the environment from well-intentioned environmental programs.

Monitoring helps avoid perverse outcomes, like encouraging undesirable species. marj k/Flickr

The key lesson here is that major funding programs need to understand and work with existing knowledge to determine which activities are likely to be effective.

Without monitoring, how do we know it’s working?

The Biodiversity Fund is characterised by a lack of robust monitoring, with no specified budget given to monitoring the Fund. A paucity of effective monitoring lay at the core of the caustic criticism of the Natural Heritage Trust. Several authors have argued that¹ monitoring should be 8-10% of a program budget.

It has only been through effective monitoring that it has been possible to determine what makes a good planting in temperate woodland environments and what does not make a good planting (and is therefore a waste of taxpayer’s money).

Monitoring and evaluation needs to go beyond high-level program evaluation. It must include a rigorous assessment of how effective management interventions and activities are on the ground¹.

Learn from success

The Biodiversity Fund has failed to learn from other successful Australian Government programs. The Environmental Stewardship Program is one such program. Land managers are paid to undertake strategically designed and scientifically informed conservation actions in targeted threatened ecological communities. Implementation and investment strategies are based on evidence: the biodiversity benefit of funds spent is estimated relative to the program’s objective.

The program’s design and implementation is strongly linked to conservation science. It has been supported by well-designed monitoring to quantify the effectiveness of the program. These are critical features of effective and informed program design and they need to be embraced in the Biodiversity Fund.

Stop to think and ask; don’t just spend the money

The Biodiversity Fund is not the first time the Rudd/Gillard governments have placed the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts in a ridiculous position, asking them to deliver a big initiative with no time to think through effective program delivery. The current thinking is for “policy makers” to spend a large sum of money without thinking of how to do so most effectively.

Policy makers need time to plan if the fund is to work effectively. Kalense Kid/Flickr

A lack of time to think is not restricted to policy makers either. Round 1 of the Biodiversity Fund opened on 9 December 2011 and closes on 31 January 2012. The Australian Government will spend at least $36.6 million dollars funding “land managers” in this round.

The Biodiversity Fund needs a re-think. The Australian Government should consult widely and develop an evidence-based strategic plan and implementation plan.

They need to map implementation back to objectives and a well articulated purpose. The fund needs a robust monitoring scheme. That way we will know what success should look like, we will have the capability to test effectiveness, and at a minimum we will be in a position to learn and adapt from the experience.

We implore the thinking in the Biodiversity Fund to go well beyond grants to predominately do plantings and to instead consider how we can effectively conserve biodiversity. The conservation biology community in Australia is known to be one of the best in the world and it is critical that the Australian Government harnesses the collective knowledge of that community to ensure the best return on taxpayer investment.

The current guidelines mention that “direct funding may be provided where a competitive approach would not be effective or feasible”. Perhaps this is where we can expect to see some innovative and informed thinking from the Australian Government.

Australian biodiversity is in a parlous state – as recently highlighted in the 2011 State of the Environment Report. The opportunities created by the Biodiversity Fund must not be squandered on a failure to learn.  

References

  1. Lindenmayer, D.B. and Gibbons, P. (Editors) (2011). Biodiversity Monitoring in Australia. CSIRO Publishing, Melbourne (in press).

Join the conversation

15 Comments sorted by

  1. Philip Gibbons

    Senior Lecturer at Australian National University

    It beggars belief that $36.6 million must be allocated to proposals received b/w 9 Dec and 31 Jan! Biodiversity is an area in which every small amount of available funding must be spent wisely. I am also concerned about the time and scientific advice that has been allocated to inform the selection criteria for spending the Biodiversity Fund. We should watch this space carefully as the Auditor General has assessed that the Environment Department has poor form when it comes to demonstrating the cost-effectiveness of its investments of public money.

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    1. Emma Burns

      Assistant Director, Long-Term Ecological Research Network Plot Sub-facility at Australian National University

      In reply to Philip Gibbons

      It is both alarming and saddening. Hopefully the lack of consultation is due to a lack of time more than anything else but only time will tell. The Biodiversity Fund went from concept to roll out in a very short time frame. That said, there are a number of people within the Department with restoration and scientific expertise but it seems apparent that there was not a serious effort to harness internal knowledge let alone external knowledge. But I am hopeful it will get better!

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  2. Mark Graham

    Ecologist

    Thanks for this timely article David

    As somebody who was frenetically working until yesterday afternoon on applications for the Biodiversity Fund, your observations about the program resonate deeply.

    You wrote:
    "The current guidelines mention that “direct funding may be provided where a competitive approach would not be effective or feasible”. Perhaps this is where we can expect to see some innovative and informed thinking from the Australian Government."
    My understanding is that this clause…

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    1. Emma Burns

      Assistant Director, Long-Term Ecological Research Network Plot Sub-facility at Australian National University

      In reply to Mark Graham

      Good luck with your proposal Mark. I agree that the “direct funding may be provided where a competitive approach would not be effective or feasible” part of the guidelines is to allow flexibility and this could be used to support political whim but hopefully this flexibility can be used to design and deliver more strategic and effective initiatives.

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  3. Mark Merritt

    Company Director

    Well put Emma and David.
    I wonder how much of the overall Biodiversity Fund has already been spent in this round, and if it will be offered again.

    It seems to me there is much employment and many business opportunities here for our future.

    This is the work that needs to be done, but sadly not the job that everyone wants.

    Our youth need to find heart enough to esteem this important work and take great pride in the outcomes.

    Cheers for now – Mark Merritt

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    1. Emma Burns

      Assistant Director, Long-Term Ecological Research Network Plot Sub-facility at Australian National University

      In reply to Mark Merritt

      Thanks Mark. We won't know how many funds are allocated during this 'pilot round' until applications are processed. I would assume they would be aiming to expend all the allocated budget in this financial year which is $36.6 million (because they most likely will not be allowed to roll funds over). Allocated budget then goes up pretty rapidly, so fingers crossed it gets better quickly.

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  4. Ben Carr

    Landscape Ecologist

    Thanks Emma and David for your timely commentary.
    The fundamentals of achieving a biodiversity conservation outcome do always seem to get lost in the enthusiasm of the grant giving and the political process. Demonstrated program logic, evidence that actions will lead to outcomes, return on investment and an inbuilt and comprehensive monitoring program are all essential features of any publicly funded program. One observation I have is that all too often projects are developed to access the current…

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    1. Emma Burns

      Assistant Director, Long-Term Ecological Research Network Plot Sub-facility at Australian National University

      In reply to Ben Carr

      Thanks Ben, you make some great points. It is concerning that there seems to be more 'politics/spin' and less evidence and logic in environmental public policy at the moment. From my experience in policy, longevity and a commitment to sound processes that work are extremely hard to achieve. Primarily because there is a fixation on what is 'new'.

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  5. Bernie Masters

    environmental consultant at FIA Technology Pty Ltd, B K Masters and Associates

    Since the introduction of the Caring for our Country program, all funded projects have had to meet much more demanding MERI - monitoring, evaluation, reporting and improvement - requirements. To NRM groups such as the one I'm involved with, these non-core demands are a pain but nonetheless necessary to make sure the money is as well spent as possible.
    I'm sure that projects funded under the Biodiversity Fund will have similar MERI requirements. For the authors of this article and people providing comment to ensure that the Biodiversity Fund money is spent wisely, they could set up regional MERI contracting services that NRM groups could contract to undertake the monitoring and evaluation work. Alternatively, they could offer their services to the federal government at the stage where broad policy principles are translated into detailed policy actions and goals to make sure that science is properly applied when funding requests are being assessed.

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    1. Emma Burns

      Assistant Director, Long-Term Ecological Research Network Plot Sub-facility at Australian National University

      In reply to Bernie Masters

      Thanks Bernie. I would expect that a MERI approach will be adopted for each project funded under this and future rounds. And this is great on a project by project level. However, if there is no overarching monitoring or design or strategy to 'test' then we are not in a position to understand the cumulative impacts of the investment.

      Unfortunately this time round there was no period, that I am aware of, to provide public comment on draft guidelines or assessment criteria etc or no open call for scientific expertise. However, I am hopeful this will change overtime. Especially if it is an expectation from the public and scientific/NRM community.

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    2. Tein McDonald

      journal editor, restorationist

      In reply to Emma Burns

      The Society for Ecological Restoration Australasia (SERA) - for all the reasons put forward in Lindenmayer's article and this conversation so far - submitted an application to this round of the Biodiversity Fund to develop 'principles and standards' to guide projects funded by this and other programs in future rounds. The concept is that SERA would engage consultants to work with the major practitioner organisations, agencies and researchers to draw out basic, generic principles and standards to increase potential for the projects to make a positive contribution to conserving biodiversity. Hopefully the application will be favourably received.

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  6. Judy Henderson

    Retired Chair, regional NRM organisation

    Having just recently stepped down as Chair of the NSW Northern Rivers CMA, I have a keen interest in this discussion.

    We must not forget the fantastic opportunity afforded for long-term biodiversity restoration and conservation by the Land Sector Package of the recent carbon legislation of which the Biodiversity Fund is a major beneficiary. We have all been urging for a significant injection of long-term funding for biodiversity so this opportunity is a cause for celebration.

    With respect…

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  7. Caroline Copley

    student

    The first point is that anyone who has been following the Murray-Darling debate cannot be surprised that, fancy, there is no one single goal. Thus firstly we are saving the river and its associated wetlands, and then apparently the Act should be read another way and priorities are both to restore the river system and to pay equal heed to the community, hence the Chair resigned and scientists withdrew. In fact anyone who follows any issue in Australia should not be surprised, especially Mr Wilkie…

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  8. Graeme Armstrong

    Biod Coord

    This article mirrors the concerns I found in reading and applying for funds under the Biod. Fund. These concerns cannot be addressed under the current MERI scheme which, as pointed out above, has no overarching design strategy or ability for meaningful monitoring. If there was high level strategy and monitoring it would not matter whether there was one or many funding sources contributing to biod. goals and while it is dersiable that there are 'science-based and spatially-detailed regional NRM plans' there is a gulf in capacity to understand and undertake such work between federal and state agencies, NRM groups and institutes.
    While it is laudable for SERA to want to develop guidelines for projects, which I support, surely it is preposterous for a scheme to need to fund projects relating to its own management.

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    1. Rotha Jago

      concerned citizen

      In reply to Graeme Armstrong

      The picture at the head of this article is not captioned.
      This is a shame because those white, dead tree trunks are starting to show up here in Tropical North Queensland after seven years and many thousands of dollars spent on 'saving biodiversity' by killing weeds.

      The picture does not indicate to me that there is a need for more money to be spent on Biodiversity. Too much has already been spent.

      The illusion that Biodiversity or Nature or Native Forests can be saved or in any way assisted by killing weeds or spreading any chemical or altered molecule for any purpose, is a poisonous illusion.

      CHEMICALS is the issue that no one will discuss, the elephant in the room, the silent killer on land and sea. Weeds, Pests and Diseases are symptoms. They cannot be fixed by more and more chemicals. Science and scientists have failed us all.

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