Landscapes matter. Landscapes reflect the living synthesis of people and place vital to local and national identity, says Wikipedia. They help define the self-image of a region; they are the dynamic backdrop to our lives.
Or, as historian Simon Schama succinctly put it: 'Landscape is where nature meets culture'.
And, of course, landscapes supply the soil, water and other services and resources essential to our lives.
In 1989, CSIRO published my report, 'Regreening Australia: The environmental, economic and social benefits of reforestation'. The report was a preliminary investigation into a large national program to 'regreen' our landscapes through massive reforestation and revegetation over a period of 10 to 20 years.
The main justification for the proposal was to combat land degradation, regarded then as Australia's most serious environmental problem. However, the report outlined other potential benefits, including mitigating and adapting to climate change; protecting biodiversity; increasing the sustainability and productivity of Australian agriculture; boosting timber resources; building environmental management expertise and innovation; creating many useful jobs; and boosting national morale.
The proposal attracted a great deal of public, political and professional interest. A parliamentary inquiry into land degradation recommended its adoption, and it influenced government policy. However, it was never implemented on the scale envisaged and necessary to realise the potential benefits.
Last year, the Board of Australia21, a non-profit, strategic research company, agreed to re-examine the topic, given almost 25 years had passed; greater recognition of the seriousness and urgency of climate change; and heightened global economic instability, making job generation potentially important to maintaining economic and social stability.
Australia21 conducted an expert roundtable at the University of Melbourne last February, attended by 27 farmers, foresters, researchers, business people, former government officials and others. The central question discussed was, 'What are the benefits of large-scale reforestation and revegetation, and how can they best be achieved?'. The report of the roundtable was released in June.
A central theme of the roundtable discussion was that, for all that had been achieved over the past few decades in managing its landscapes, Australia was failing to close the gap between the magnitude of the challenges and the scale of its responses. As a result, we are squandering our natural heritage and betraying future generations. It is an indictment of our society as a whole, and governments in particular, over many decades.
Australia needs to look at its landscapes in new ways if it is to meet the 21st Century challenges of climate change and food, water and energy security. Without a new vision for creating healthy, resilient landscapes, we will experience continuing environmental decline and degradation.
Repairing Australian landscapes and preparing them for global change, with respect to both potential benefits and impacts, requires: acknowledging climate change as a 'game changer'; moving beyond a narrow, conservation agenda; building an 'industry' to provide the necessary capacity, professionalism and expertise; stimulating more private investment through instruments such as carbon and water pricing; better integration of planning, design and implementation across national, regional and local scales, including greater devolution of governance to the local level; stronger linkages between policy, science and action; and enhancing the capacity of existing structures such as the Landcare groups and regional natural resource management organisations.
The reasons for the lack of progress are not, now, primarily to do with poor policy or lack of public funding. The reasons include cultural features such as the divide between urban and rural Australians and our growing disconnection from nature and all it provides for us (except in recreation). The threat to our landscapes concerns urban parks and suburban gardens as well as our farmlands and national parks. It poses a challenge for all Australians, including urban populations, not just those who 'work the land'.